“You know, you and I are gonna be singin' 'Aba Daba Honeymoon' when we're both a hundred years old!”
So said the late, great Debbie Reynolds to her duet partner and movie co-star Carleton Carpenter over 60 years ago, and while their final performance of the tune together was in 2012 (when she was 80 and he 86), she was right in that their indelible rendition of that old chestnut in the 1950 film Two Weeks with Love was prominently mentioned in every one of Debbie's adoring obituaries. That unforgettable performance only happened thanks to the ingenuity of “Carp,” who recalls duping his boss into thinking it had been his own idea.
Last Live Perf of “Aba Daba Honeymoon” at 5:21:
“That was a whole big ruse,” the 90-year-old actor recalls in a phone interview from his Warwick, New York, home. “I found that sheet music in a pile on top of a piano on the set of the movie, dug that out and thought it would be fun. I put that sheet of music back underneath the whole pile with a little corner hanging out and I waited about two and a half days until Jack Cummings, who was the producer, was on his way in. I got Deb over and I pulled this out and there was someone playing the piano there and I said, 'Don’t bother with any of the beginning stuff, just start here,' and we jabbered away. He came in and walked over to where we were singing and he said, 'You know —' it was hard to keep a straight face! — 'That would be a good number for the two of you…' And I said with the straightest face ever, 'Reallllly?' The rest is history.”
Carpenter, not a household name except in the households of true cinephiles, has nonetheless made history more than once in his 70-plus-year career, starting with the unprecedented chart success of “Aba Daba Honeymoon” and continuing with his work in early TV, spectacular runs on Broadway and Off- (he took over the lead in the original production of The Boys in the Band), his nonchalant handling of his bisexuality and, now, the publication of his detail-packed memoir, The Absolute Joy of Work: From Vermont to Broadway, Hollywood and Damn Near 'Round the World (BearManor Media, $24.95).
With typical humility, Carpenter chalks up his success to luck and pursuing an acting career with the naïveté of a kid from Vermont who showed up in Times Square 100% convinced he was right for the part — any part, some part.
He says he got his first Broadway show, Bright Boy, fresh off the bus one frigid January in 1944 at age 17. He picked up Actor's Cues for a nickel, went somewhere to grab a bite and found his calling. “They were looking for 17-to-20-year-old guys for a play and I thought, 'I’ll just go get that after lunch.' I got over there and they said it was on the top floor and when I got up there, you heard them rumble from the room and the door opened and the guy was leading somebody out the door and I was there and he said, 'You’re too old!' and took the other actor down. A guy sitting there grabbed the bottom of my heavy winter coat and said, 'They told me the same thing six months ago… and I’m still reading for the part!'”
That did it. “Off came the coat and I scrunched down behind several people and smoked three or four cigarettes and probably 35 or 40 minutes later the same guy with the slate board in his hand came over and said, 'Hey, you’re next.' I went in and read five different parts and they gave me the show and told me to go into the other room and read it, so I did. Then they told me they wanted me in the show, but they didn’t know what part, and could I come in the next morning? I left and was practically on top of Grand Central, so I picked up my bag and headed for my mother’s second cousin’s place. He asked me how I did and I said, 'I think I have a show.' He said, 'That’s nice.'”
The next morning, the casting agents asked Carpenter what part he saw himself in. “I told him the one described as a tall, lanky, blond guy who wants to be an actor. It was my first show!”
Carpenter sums up the experience with, “Dumbness happens when you don’t know any better. You just figure, 'Oh, well, I’ll just go and do that.'” And do that, he did.
His turn in Bright Boy was a great gig, opening with his character Shake (short for Shakespeare) entering a dorm room in nothing but his boxers and a towel around his neck, and stepping over the beds to get a better look at a cute girl out a window. Not only did he get a laugh with his rubberband-leg routine over the beds, he and co-star Michael Dreyfus were featured prominently in the press. Carp's legs also won him his first fan, an old man who used to phone the theater and promise Carp he'd put him through school, wink-wink.
“He kept calling backstage. All the guys would group around and say, 'Your old guy that wants to send you to college is on the phone!'” Carpenter remembers with a laugh. “One of them said, 'Well, that’s what you get for coming onstage with nothing on but your shorts and a towel around your neck when the curtain goes up!'”
He may have been helpfully green when it came to auditioning (imagine how far he wouldn't have gone if he'd had the proper amount of nerves?), but he wasn't shocked or put off that a man was making advances toward him. As described in his memoir, Carpenter had sexual run-ins and, eventually, relationships with men, though he isn't keen on being pigeonholed as a gay actor, as he often is online.
“I slept with as many women as I did men, I guess,” he asserts. Then, with a laugh, “I really didn’t keep count.” His book's honesty led one girlfriend of the actor's to warn him, “You’re gonna get letters from all of the people you’ve slept with!” If you think he's downplaying his sexual orientation, I asked him if he ever worried his dalliances with both genders would hurt his career. He said, “Never crossed my mind.”
Along with mentioning some of his male conquests (sexy Larry Kert from West Side Story, grrr) in a non-salacious way, the book also movingly, importantly captures the stillborn love of Carpenter's life, which blossomed when he was in the military, serving his country in the Navy during World War II. He struck up a tight friendship with a buddy nicknamed Costello (to Carpenter's Abbott). The men shared their days together in a way Carpenter did not understand, quite yet, was more about romantic love than just camaraderie.
“I had never had a real close friend like that in school — I went right into the Navy out of school,” he remembers. “I would meet up with him after my Sunday chores. We’d go up together and look for special stones and that kind of stuff and we’d lie on our bellies on the shoreline talking about our girlfriends at home, and all the time of course I was falling in love with him and I didn’t know that. I didn’t know.”
In a plot that rivalled any Golden Age romance, the men had the same routine together every day. “We’d have our first cigarette of the day and coffee and he'd get on the truck and go to work on the strip they were building, and I’d go off to the office. I have a terrible fear of heights, but I’d climb up the water tower every morning and I’d watch that truck with him in it go all the way along until it was out of sight. Every morning. Now why would I be doing that? Because I loved who was working on the thing. But it never really dawned on me at all.”
Carpenter's book details his later interactions with Costello, which included some very touch-and-go moments, but which continued to happen because Costello, also unable to verbalize what he was feeling, put himself in his old buddy's path every chance he got.
“I have no idea how he always knew where I was — I would move around from place to place and he’d show up all of a sudden and we’d go out and get drunk and that was it — we never… And it’s all loaded on my shoulder.” The closest they came to sealing the deal was the time Costello told Carpenter, “I’ve been back three months and I haven’t gone out with a gal — I’m turning a little queer.” Carpenter still regrets his inaction. “Why didn’t I open my mouth and say something? I never said anything! Which was so stupid of me.”
Another regret he has is far more lighthearted in nature — and it involves Cary Grant.
While performing on Broadway, the mega-star once visited Carpenter backstage unannounced and invited the cute young actor for a drink.
“I was taking my wig off and somebody knocked and there stood Cary Grant! My feet wouldn’t move. He’s saying how much he enjoyed me in the show and going on and all I could say was thank you,” Carpenter remembers. “He climbed three flights of stairs and I’m waving my wig at him. He said he would like to take me out and buy me a drink. In the meantime, I’m looking over at my rotten jeans on my dressing table and I thought, 'My God.' And I did have a date. I wanted to tell him I had a date but maybe all three of us could go out, but as soon as he heard the word 'date,' the door slowly began to close and he was gone. I’ve thought about maybe he wanted a piece of ass — he might very well have. He was a gentleman’s man as well as a ladies’ man.”
Carpenter's instincts career-wise were sharper, and his mantra was to embrace the work and eschew the glitz. That led him to a distinguished stage résumé (with highlights including touring in Hello, Dolly! opposite Mary Martin and many other A-list divas and Crazy for You on Broadway in the '90s), a turn as a mystery novelist in the '70s and '80s and appearances in films like Father of the Bride (1950); Summer Stock (1950); Fearless Fagan (1952); and his personal favorite, Sky Full of Moon (1952), which he points out playwright William Inge informed him had inspired his famous work Picnic.
Since this is Boy Culture, one of Carpenter's most amazing credits has to be that of “Miss Untouchable” in the early gay drama Some of My Best Friends Are... (1971), which co-starred Fannie Flagg, Rue McClanahan and Candy Darling.
Long Q&A with Carpenter About His Movie Career:
His diverse projects led to friendships with the hilarious lesbian character actress Patsy Kelly (who bragged to him, “Everyone's talking about how they can write their name in the snow — I can write my name and cross the T!”), Dorothy Parker and Angela Lansbury, with whom he is still great pals.
But one of his best Hollywood friends was Debbie Reynolds, with whom he kept in touch. Her death affected him deeply. “It was awful,” he says, sounding gutted. “I had over a hundred messages on my machine when I got home, and I was very sick.”
Carpenter had been in L.A. promoting his book at the time of Reynolds's passing, working from the crack of dawn until 1 in the morning. As always, it was the work that got him through his grief.
Though, as he recounts in the book, he has had more than his fair share of health setbacks, including being a cancer survivor, Carpenter works to live and lives to work, and the 15 or so years he spent compiling his exhaustively detailed autobiography resulted in an invaluable history of the media, of show biz gossip and of being queer and making no bones about it at a time when it was a far bigger deal than today.
His brief time as a model for magazines like True Detective summons up his outlook on life.
“I did a ton of those. I did two a day. You could be the mugger in one thing and the sweet-natured rube in another,” he points out. “I just loved the work, honey, that was the main thing. That was always the thing with me — I didn’t care anything about all of the glop that went with stardom.”