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Gerald Carpenter: Ensemble Theatre Closing Season with ‘Looped’ About Tallulah Bankhead

Diane Louise Salinger stars as the notorious — and remarkably talented — actress Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo's poignant comedy, Looped, directed by Emmy Award-winner Glenn Jordan, which will close the Ensemble Theatre's first season in the New Vic Theater.

Tallulah Bankhead
The one and only Tallulah Bankhead, during the 30-year peak of her beauty.

The Ensemble Theatre says this of the play: "Looped takes place in the summer of 1965, when a boozed-up Ms. Bankhead needed eight hours to redub — or loop — one line of dialogue for what turned out to be her last film, the 1965 horror flick Die! Die! My Darling! [filmed in England under the title Fanatic]. Things are not easy for poor Danny Miller, who's had the good fortune to be chosen to direct that particular sound editing session."

In my extreme youth, although I knew her only as a name, a throaty radio voice and an occasional guest star on television, Bankhead was for me the personification of reckless glamour. I knew nothing of her scandalous past, her countless affairs, her long history of substance abuse ("Cocaine isn't habit-forming!" she once exclaimed. "I know, because I've been using it for years."). Role model for 10,000 drag queens, she was herself exhaustively heterosexual in her personal life. All I knew then was that she was beautiful, witty and that when she was announced, silence fell and heads turned.

She was born in Huntsville, Ala., in 1902 to a family of Democratic movers and shakers. Her mother died of blood poisoning three weeks after Tallulah was born. Her father, William Brockman Bankhead, was the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940. She was the niece of Sen. John H. Bankhead II and granddaughter of Sen. John H. Bankhead.

Her first essay into show business was at a party her aunt gave for aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. All the guests were expected to entertain. "I won the prize for the top performance, with an imitation of my kindergarten teacher," Tallulah wrote in her autobiography. "The judges? Orville and Wilbur Wright."

In the second volume of his memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling, novelist Anthony Powell tells a charming story of an encounter with the actress, sometime in the 1920s. He was with some friends in "a fairly seedy nightclub, The Blue Lantern ... [which] could claim a faintly intellectual tinge. On this occasion a party at the next table included Tallulah Bankhead, then at the height of her fame as an embodiment of the Twenties, an unusual star to appear in that place."

A man at Powell's table was in the midst of a long, loud oration about his mother's many virtues, when Bankhead suddenly leaned across Powell with her elbows on his knees, and made an obliquely satirical remark that made the bore lose his thread.

"Tallulah Bankhead levered herself off my knees," Powell recalled. "As she straightened herself, this seemed an opportunity not to be missed.

"'Will you dance?'

"She looked me up and down.

"'Do you dance well?'

"'Very badly.'

"'In that case, I will.'

"She moved with incredible lightness, holding her was like holding nothing at all, a contact with thistledown, which at the same time controlled my own steps, as she glided across the floor. The story, I'm afraid, ends there. It was not the start of a great romance. We never met again, but the impression remained of much fun and charm, as well as a very decided toughness ... ."

Looped plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with a 4 p.m. Saturday matinee July 19 and a 7 p.m. Tuesday show on July 15. Tickets range from $40 to $65, with discounts available to seniors, students and groups of 10 or more. Students and young adults, 29 and under, are $20 per ticket.

For reservations and information, call the Ensemble Theatre box office at 805.965.5400, or click here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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