GOOD MORNING: The only one more private than Ray Stark was Howard Hughes. But we were privileged to know the man whose record as a human being and showman speaks for itself. Sure, his movies will be around for generations to enjoy — but more generations will enjoy a life made fuller by his generosities — especially those who benefit from the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. He invited me on most of his sets — from “Funny Girl” and “Funny Lady” to a half-dozen of his 11 with Neil Simon. We visited at home in Holmby and at his horse ranch. He was always warm, gracious, giving. But as a news source — he was tough,. He’d never allow me to credit him with any of the stories he’d give me over the years. Credit was something he never sought … So, after I saw Neil Simon, with wife Elaine Joyce, Sunday night at the gala premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s production of “La Boheme” at the Ahmanson, I asked Simon about Stark. “I loved him. I really loved him,” said Simon. “He was always there for me. It was not always easy — but I got the best from him as a producer and as a human being. He came to New York the first time I met him and he offered me (the job of scripting) ‘Funny Lady.’ I told him I couldn’t — it wasn’t up my alley. However, I quickly added, ‘But I have ‘Sunshine Boys.’ ” The rest, as they say, is showbiz history — the teaming on 11 Simon-scripted, Stark-produced movies. Simon admitted to me, “When I first met him, I didn’t like the movie bizness. That all changed with him. I remember whenever we’d go to a city on location, he’d take me into whatever museum was there. He taught me so many things about art” … Neil praised Luhrmann’s “La Boheme,” a Center Theater Group presentation, and said he has plans with longtime friend Gordon Davidson. “I may revive ‘Sweet Charity,’ ” he said, and they’re also talking about Simon’s in-progress “Waiting for Papa.” As for last year’s dramatic demise of his “Rose’s Dilemma” for the Manhattan Theater Club and the departure of Mary Tyler Moore after receiving a note from Simon delivered by Elaine Joyce, Simon said, “The problem was more with (director) Lynn Meadow than with Mary.” He added, “Mary’s very good — the play wasn’t.”
“JUST WHEN YOU THINK there’s nothing new…,” said Carl Reiner, praising Luhrmann’s production. “And I am a real opera buff,” he said, recalling his youth in the Bronx listening to the Saturday ayem Met Opera programs — on radio. But after joining the SRO Ahmanson crowd in repeated applause for the arias performed by the magnificent opening-night cast, Estelle and Carl Reiner eschewed the post-party crunch (as did the Neil Simons) — the Reiners picked up Chinese food, brought it home to enjoy with Anne (Bancroft) and Mel Brooks — to watch Mel on his latest appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as he tries to lure Larry David into co-starring in “The Producers” on B’way as Max Bialystock. (Two more appearances by Brooks to come.) Reiner is readying for the March 16 taping of the one-hour CBS special with the original “Dick Van Dyke” cast appearing as what the characters would be doing today — interspersed with footage from the original show, 1961-66! CBS’ Jack Sussman says the network is high on the special — written by Reiner, who did the original(s) 40 years ago, then financed by Danny Thomas for $47,000! … Reiner (81) is also into his 10th seg of DreamWorks’ “Father of the Pride” cartoon series, and readying to start “Ocean’s Twelve” in April … Dick Van Dyke, a regular helper at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row for 12 years, has, sans fanfare, been raising millions for a new home for the Mission; on Jan. 23 at 9:30 a.m. he will break ground for the new home. “The first shovel full will probably be full of needles,” Dick told me … Moviemakers and opera continue their love affair with the L.A.Opera’s upcoming program: “La Boheme” is a production by Herb Ross, William Friedkin directs “Ariadne auf Naxos” and Max Schell reins “Der Rosenkavalier.”
KIRK DOUGLAS WILL SAY the very first words from the stage — of the new Kirk Douglas Theater of the Center Theater Group in a celebration week that will precede the initial play in October, Gordon Davidson promised. Davidson will direct the show, still to be set. Meanwhile, as he heads into his final year(s) at CTG, he’s talking with Tony Kushner for spring ’05 at the Taper. Stephen Spinella, who starred in Kushner’s “Angels in America” at the Taper, would return to star in Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, with a Key to the Scriptures” there. Davidson just returned from N.Y. viewing Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” for a future Ahmanson stand. It moves to Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill in May.
MOVING WEST ON L.A.’S STAGES: ” ‘Kismet’ is the most lavish production Reprise has ever done,” director Arthur Allan Seidelman tells me of the show, which bows tonight at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. And this is Seidelman’s fifth Reprise show. Luther Davis, who wrote the original “Kismet” music and lyrics (with the late George Forrest) back in December 1953, wings out for the show, which boasts Tony winners Len Cariou (“Sweeney Todd”) and Anthony Crivello (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”). Seidelman will take his production of ‘Mack and Mabel” to the Goodspeed Opera House in November. And he’ll direct “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” in London. Companies now perform in Tel Aviv and Germany (two!), with others headed to Spain and Toronto. Meanwhile, the feature “Puerto Vallarta Squeeze” starring Scott Glenn and Harvey Keitel, scripted by “Six Dance Lessons’ ” Richard Alfieri and produced by Carolyn Chambers, has been picked up by Showcast Entertainment and will preem at the AFM … Add L.A. legit: Mark Kemble’s new play, “A Comfortable Truth” — about a boy and his priest — bows Saturday at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center in West Hollywood. Kemble, who also directs, says, “So many survivors of court cases involving abuse by priests are coming to the show.” Kemble, raised Catholic in Providence, R.I., says the timing of the production (he wrote it nine years ago) is “fortuitous.” He is also writing the screenplay of his Off Broadway blacklist play, “Names” … Michael Nouri (so effective on the last “Practice” seg) segues from a guestint in “The West Wing,” filming next week in D.C., to N.Y. to prep his role in the legit revival of Cole Porter’s “Can-Can,” bowing Feb. 12 at Encores! He’s starring opposite Patti LuPone and Eli Wallach, Lonny Price directing … And on the vaude circuit, Norm Crosby tells me he is receiving “standing ovulations” appearing in “The Florida Follies” in Fort Lauderdale, and has been asked to stay over an added three weeks. Florence Henderson femcees the show … Ginny and Bob Newhart celebrated their 44th wedding anni in the banquet room of Matteo’s. Newhart again heads out on the road. He loves the personal showbiz, sez, “I can’t imagine not doing it — it’s still great.”