When I interviewed these three showbiz veterans in 1971 for The New York Times during the tryout of a new Stephen Sondheim musical, I had a feeling they were on their way to getting the best reviews of their respective careers. That’s because I was privileged to see “Follies” in its formative stage and already knew the show--and its trio of stars--were great, great, great. --GUY FLATLEY

A bevy of slightly battered beauties holds a reunion, bringing along their hang-ups and husbands. It’s been thirty years since these ex-Follies girls have seen one another, so there’s a lot of catching up to be done. A lot of remember-the-time’s and a lot of my-God-look-what’s-become-of-hers.

The traumatic get-together takes place in a new musical called “Follies,’ tonight at the Winter Garden. Customers anticipating a trip down “No, No, Nanette” lane should be advised that “Follies” is set in 1971, the songs have been written by Stephen Sondheim and the drama staged by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett – the same three iconoclasts who were behind the carbolic “Company.”

But since the show does deal with nostalgia, it seems appropriate to ask the three well-seasoned stars who are making their Broadway debuts in “Follies” – Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins and Yvonne De Carlo – to steal a few minutes from their tryout chores and reminisce about their heydays.

Nostalgia?” shrugs Alexis Smith, not bothering to conceal her disdain. The former movie queen is now 49, but there are those who still feel the urge to whistle and say “Hubba, hubba, hubba” when they see her.

She’s as statuesque as ever, with reddish blonde hair, and those deep green eyes that once cut Errol Flynn, Ronnie Reagan and even Bogey down to size. Now, just before midnight, sitting across from her in the dusky light of the hotel cocktail lounge, you have the dizzy sensation that you have floated back to the forties. You have a dizzy sensation, not Alexis.

“I’m totally disinterested in nostalgia,” she says. “When my friends call and tell me one of my old movies is on TV, I don’t look at it. Those films weren’t very good at the time, and they haven’t improved with age.”

But if she had to recall the high point of her life, what would it be?

“Well now,” says Alexis, the soul of short-term patience, “everyone has a series of high points in his life, doesn’t he? Some of my high points might not be considered high points by somebody else. In the final analysis, what’s most important is my personal life. So my relationship with Craig has been a continuous series of high points.”

Craig is actor Craig Stevens, her husband – the only one she’s ever had. They’ve been married since 1944, have frequently co-starred in plays on the road, and, even now, Craig is upstairs in the hotel room, waiting for Alexis.

Does Alexis ever feel bitter about her nine years as a contract player at Warner Brothers? Playing the icy clotheshorse while the real plums went to Davis and Crawford and Lupino and Wyman.

“What a peculiar question! There are so many more interesting things to think about than whether Jane Wyman or Ida Lupino got the roles I should have gotten.”

Like what?

“Like pollution and traveling to the moon and …”

The war?

“Yes, the war.”

Perhaps you might make a comparison between World War II and the Vietnam War?

“I’m shocked!” she says, and she looks it. “We consider ourselves an advanced civilization and yet you can sit there and ask me to compare two wars!”

Well, some Americans feel that World War II was justified but there is no moral justification for the Vietnam War.

“I don’t find any war justifiable. At this stage, we should realize that human beings cannot settle differences that way. We can get to the moon, but we can’t get along with each other. It’s a terrible comment on our times that so many people are so frightened of other people. I’m looking for an apartment in New York now, and everyone keeps warning me, ‘You mustn’t get one without a doorman, and you mustn’t walk to work – it’s much too dangerous.’

" But I feel that if I can talk to somebody and say, ‘Hey, this is ridiculous – don’t mug me,’ I won’t get mugged. I suppose that’s unrealistic of me, though. The mugger might be on God knows what drug. Or maybe he’s mugging just for kicks, just to get his jollies. Such sad people, really sad.”

Alexis expects to be living with the sad people of Fun City for quite a spell, since “Follies” stands a good chance of becoming a hit. But if it flops, she won’t feel crushed. “I haven’t pursued a career seriously for ages, and I’m not pursuing one seriously now,” she says, preparing to leave the cocktail lounge. It’s late, and this is Craig’s last night in Boston. “I do like to act, but I don’t like all the things that go with it. Like autographs. And interviews.”

Alexis Smith smiles a beautifully apologetic smile and makes an elegant exit.

Dorothy Collins? Did she say her name was Dorothy Collins? Can that face – so full and carefully made up – be the face that launched over a million cartons of Lucky Strikes? It’s an appealing face, all right, but what happened to those pale cheeks, that precious smile, that high-neck blouse, and that sweet little-girl voice that cooed “They tried to tell us we’re too young, too young to really be in love” for 17 consecutive Saturdays on Lucky Strike’s “Your Hit Parade?”

What happened is that darlin’ little Dorothy got sacked from “Your Hit Parade” way back in 1957, divorced the program’s conductor, Raymond Scott, eight years later, set about raising her two daughters, sang in summer stock, married handsome singer Ron Holgate four years ago, had another daughter, moved to New Jersey, and now, at 44, is playing the neurotic blow-torch blonde who wants to run off with Alexis Smith’s husband in “Follies.”

For Dorothy, the present is the high point of her life, but she is not so reluctant as Alexis Smith to probe the past. Her career got under way when she turned 13 and was discovered by orchestra leader Raymond Scott in Chicago.
“Raymond always had girl singers with his orchestra,” Dorothy says, digging into a bowl of cream of wheat before the morning’s rehearsal.

“Then one day he got the idea that it would be nice to take a singer with a good personality and to keep her that way. So my mother and I moved to New York, and Raymond supervised my study. I think I really did the whole thing for my mother; she had always wanted to be a performer and she was so impressed by the fact that I had the nerve to get up in front of people and sing. Raymond made me practice eight hours a day. He’d have me sing something like ‘The Man I Love’ and at the same time he’d sit at the piano and play all sorts of dissonant things. I learned to keep on pitch that way, no matter what. Today, when Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim praise the way I sing, they’re really praising Raymond. But, at the time, I felt I was ready for the booby hatch.

“I was never permitted to date, and when I began singing with the orchestra on tour, mother and I were not allowed to sit next to the musicians on the bus. You see, Raymond didn’t want my personality to change, and he was afraid the musicians’ language might rub off on me. Even today, people are reluctant to tell off color stories when I’m around, and that upsets me. I don’t use those words myself, because that just isn’t me. But I don’t have to be that protected.

“People are funny. My trademark on ‘Your Hit Parade’ was a high-neck blouse. So, naturally, the rumor got around that I had scars on my neck. I even got a letter from one man asking if it were true that I had a battleship tattooed on my chest. I wrote back, saying ‘No, it isn’t a battleship – it’s a canoe.’ Finally, the American Tobacco Company asked me to wear an off-the-shoulder dress one week. I wore it, and don’t you know that people said, ‘What a great make-up job they’ve done, covering up her scars that way!’”

If Dorothy had emotional scars resulting from her unhappy marriage to Scott, they don’t show. Being a romantic at heart, she had a crush on her brilliant teacher from the very first, but it was a long time before Scott considered her as anything more than a pupil. Eventually, he got Dorothy’s message and they were married in 1952, two years after Dorothy became a regular on “Your Hit Parade.”

“The mistake was mine,” Dorothy says. “I mistook Raymond’s love for his creation as his love for me.”

Scott, of course, was considerably older than Dorothy; her second husband, on the other hand, is 10 years younger than she. “But Ron doesn’t look young,” Dorothy says, laughing. “He knew my age right away, but when I heard how young he was, I just couldn’t believe it. And, by that time, I was already in love with him.

“Believe me, it’s wonderful being in ‘Follies,’ but that’s just the icing on the cake. It’s Ron who has brought such great joy into my life. I just can’t tell you! It took me all these years to find out what it’s like to be a woman.”

For a brief second, Dorothy Collins blushes.

When she made her supersplash in an exotic horse opera called “Salome Where She Danced” back in 1945, Yvonne De Carlo was modestly billed as the most beautiful woman in the world. Today, kids know her as Lily Munster, the bizarre heroine of “The Munsters,” an unsubtle series which is now re-running on television.

Slouched in her seat, watching Dorothy Collins rehearse a number, Yvonne at 48 still looks a lot more like Salome than Lily. Her hair is brown and long – about the same length it was during the forties – and she’s wearing pants, a black leather jacket and dark glasses.

Much has happened to Yvonne between Salome and Lily, not all of it good. There were movie disasters by the dozen, and there was personal tragedy. Several years ago her husband, a stuntman named Robert Morgan, lost a leg while working in “How the West Was Won.”

“We decided to sue for gross negligence,” Yvonne says in a low voice. “And it was gross negligence. But the case kept getting thrown out of court, on some technicality or other. Just recently the last appeal was turned down. They didn’t give Robert one-eighth the attention someone like Charlie Manson gets. Ronald Reagan and other friends of ours know all about this, and they’re irate. But there’s nothing they can do. I really don’t want to talk about it.”

One thing Yvonne does want to talk about are her days as a starlet. “I was on cloud nine all the time. After I made my hit in ‘Salome,’ Universal sent me to New York so I could learn to be a proper movie star. I lived at the Sherry-Netherlands for two months and I went to the John Robert Powers school. They taught me things like how to walk off a New York curb and how to enter a room in a manner befitting a big-time movie star. They also tried to teach me how to eat. I was so nervous that when I started to lift my soup spoon to my mouth, my hand shook so much that I had to put the spoon down again. I couldn’t eat soup for a whole year after that.”

But being a movie star in those days was good clean fun, and so were most of the movies. Has Yvonne detected any change? “You can say my answer to that is rolling my eye balls and an open mouth,” she says, removing her dark glasses and illustrating her own answer with an astonishing amount of oomph.

“I took my two teenage sons to see ‘Little Fauss and Big Halsy,’ because they dig motorcycles. And they were stuck with this girl coming up on the screen and baring her chest. And I was stuck with her, too. It’s odd – even though sex is accented so much, the male stars don’t really have sex appeal. Like Dustin Hoffman – how can anyone say he’s sexy?

“We had dinner with Duke Wayne and his wife recently,” she says, putting her dark glasses on again. “
He’s really worried about the picture industry and how much harm it’s done. And he isn’t just making casual conversation, either. Duke is very concerned.”

Yvonne makes it clear that she shares more than one of Duke Wayne’s concerns. Vietnam, for example. “I have two boys and I don’t want to see them lose their lives in Vietnam. But I know there must be a bloody good reason for what’s going on over there. My boys believe in the war, that it’s the right thing. They figured it out on their own.”

It would seem to follow that Yvonne is not overly fond of Jane Fonda and her antiwar shows for G.I.’s. In fact, the very mention of her name causes Yvonne to stick out her tongue and make an unladylike noise. “I’d love it if they kicked her off the base,” she says. “They can let Donald Sutherland stay if he wants, but they ought to give Fonda the boot. I could tell you a lot of things about her that most people don’t know.”

Like her political heroes, Yvonne is all in favor of law and order, although she will admit that it is sometimes a temptation to take the law in her own hands. “You know what I’d like? I’d like to be invisible so I could take my Luger and shoot all these people who go around shooting cops. In California, they’re getting shot all the time. A policeman is standing on the freeway giving somebody a ticket, and – bang! – somebody else drives by and shoots him down.”

Yvonne’s Luger is part of a sizeable collection of guns and knives. “Why shouldn’t I collect them? Lots of people do. Shooting happens to be the only thing I ever learned to do quickly. You ought to see me trying to learn a new dance routine – it’s pitiful! But I could always shoot. I’m sure that if I chewed tobacco, I could hit the spittoon every time.”

Despite her Hollywood fame, Yvonne does not have one of the leading roles in “Follies.” Like Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins, she is starred in the show, but unlike them, she is billed below the title. Actually, the part that Yvonne first auditioned for was the larger one that Alexis Smith finally landed. “That really wasn’t my kind of woman; it wasn’t somebody I could identify with. You know, a brittle, society-type dame.”

Does that mean that Yvonne has something in common with the luxury-loving movie star she now plays? “Not really. She has this 26-year-old boy friend and says that next year she’ll have somebody else. Well, that’s not me. It could be me, but it’s not." [Editor's Note: De Carlo, who eventually divorced Robert Morgan, listed 22 former lovers in her 1987 "Yvonne: An Autobiography." They included Howard Hughes, Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor, Billy Wilder and Aly Khan.]

How are her nerves now, with Broadway bearing down on her?

“I’m from Hollywood,” says Yvonne De Carlo, tilting her dark glasses and winking in a way that would have reduced Rod Cameron to jelly. “I’m too dumb to be nervous about New York.”