Monday, June 28, 2010

Prideful Husbandry

I spent the weekend in Durham, NC, attending the wedding of one of my closest friends. I may write a detailed report later, I'll have to decide if such a thing would annoy my friend. Deborah, though one of my dearest comrades, is only mentioned in these pages in connection with her work as an actress. Hard to believe (for a performer who is often in the public eye), but she guards her privacy voraciously, and would be furious with me if I were to post candid pictures of her wedding, or even write a play-by-play account of the event.

But another wedding caught my eye this weekend. It was no coincidence that its announcement took place during the final week of National Gay Pride. Actually, the entire month of June is designated for Gay Pride, and during that period, parades and festivals commemorating the Stonewall Riots are held throughout the country. I wrote a bit about those riots here ; I have often mentioned the event as the birth of the modern gay civil rights movement. The actual anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is today, June 28th, though the 27th is often commemorated as well (the police raid which ignited all the fuss took place around 1 AM, the morning of the 28th and the night of the 27th). Nobody cares much about that actual date these days, since there is so much Pride Partying going on all month long.

It was only a few years after the riots began to be commemorated with annual celebrations that some smart homo decided it was financially stupid to hold each and every Pride celebration on the same weekend. In case you didn't know, homosexuals have all this disposable income (the unemployment check in my hand is proof), and are very willing to spend it celebrating their own Pride. So, years ago, organizers across the country discovered that, if they scheduled their individual Gay Pride Festivals on different weekends, gays would likely attend more than one. Thus, the big parades in San Fransisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are all held on different weekends. The celebrations in New York and Philadelphia never coincide, and those in DC and Baltimore are always scheduled separately as well.

I recognized this phenomenon when I lived in L.A., but was pretty surprised when I got to Columbia, SC to attend grad school. The two years I spent there, the Gay Pride festival was held in April (and this year, their celebration happens in early September!). Clearly, there are a lot of queens out there who will travel from city to city to show their pride over and over and over again.

Which brings me back to the very special marriage announcement I caught in the Washington Post on Sunday. After being together over 60 years, Henry Schalizki and Bob Davis took advantage of the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in DC, and became husband & husband. These two stylish gents have been on the radar of all theatre types in this area for decades; they attend more opening nights than the critics, and have been so supportive of the local theatre scene that they received an honorary Helen Hayes Award in 2008. I was in the audience that night, and can verify that the crowd rose into an immediate standing ovation when they took the stage to accept the commendation.

Do you think these guys were meant for each other? Get a load of this story. They met in Providence in 1942, striking up a conversation in a hotel bar, so taken with each other that they ignored Boris Karloff, who was also in the room. Three years later, Davis was appearing in a USO production of Room Service being presented on a military base in Hawaii, and was spotted by Schalizki, who was in the audience. They missed a connection there, and three more years passed. In 1948, they wound up in the same bar in Baltimore, and they've been together ever since.

Of course, they could not publicly acknowledge their relationship for many decades. They were well-liked and popular, and the fact that they were "confirmed bachelors who lived together" did not stop them from becoming two highly visible, highly sought-after members of DC society. The tacit acceptance of their relationship did not extend to the law, however, so in 1990, Henry legally adopted Bob, who was a year older than he. In this roundabout way, they hoped to get legal protections afforded traditional families, including inheritance tax breaks and the right to make medical decisions for each other.

That adoption was voided a few weeks before the couple took their vows on June 20th, exactly 62 years (to the hour!) after they had begun their relationship in that Baltimore bar in 1948.

I doubt those drag queens, hustlers, and homeless homos who started the riot at the Stonewall Inn 41 years ago could ever have imagined that one day, they might have the right to marry. And even as Don't Ask, Don't Tell is being gradually rolled back, Henry Schalizki and Bob Davis, who both served their country in WWII, have two decorative urns waiting in their penthouse overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. When the time comes, their remains will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

How's that for feeling proud?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Dance Party: An Out and Proud Song & Dance

This week's Dance Party coincides with the 41st anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which I wrote a bit about last year, and the year before. I return to the subject over and over because of its importance. This weekend is official Gay Pride Weekend in New York, where those riots occurred, and where it is commonly acknowledged the modern movement for gay civil rights began.

In honor of Pride weekend, I'd like to celebrate one of our big success stories. Neil Patrick Harris came out publicly several years ago, and has seen no decline in his career. In fact, the opposite happened, and he is now lovingly accepted as a big ol' 'mo who can effectively portray a womanizing straighty (take THAT, Newsweek!)

Harris was discovered at a drama camp in New Mexico, by playwright Mark Madoff, who placed him in his film Clara's Heart, opposite Whoopie Goldberg. He snagged a Golden Globe nomination for this film debut. It was only a year or so later that he landed the title role in Doogie Houser, MD, a TV series centering on a teen-aged doctor (I never saw the show, so cannot vouch for its quality, but it ran 4 seasons, and was created by Stephen Bochco and David Kelley, so it must have had some redeeming features).

Our Neil didn't seem to have a problem graduating to adult roles, as so many child actors have, perhaps because he took the stage route. He appeared in the Second National Tour of Rent, which might seem a demotion for a former television star, but it turned into a shrewd career move. The tour visited Los Angeles and San Diego, and he was plucked to play Romeo at the Old Globe. A few years later, he appeared as Tobias in a San Francisco concert production of Sweeney Todd, opposite Patti Lupone and George Hearn. He warbled "Not While I'm Around" in several concert stagings of Sondheim's classic during this period, with such notables as Christine Baranski, Kelsey Grammer, Audra McDonald, Melissa Manchester, Ken Howard, Davis Gaines, and Judy Kaye in various roles.

Harris has appeared on Broadway in Assassins and as the Emcee in Cabaret (a survey of all the gents who played the Emcee in the most recent, long-running revival of Cabaret reveals that the grosses during Neil's tenure surpassed those of Alan Cumming, John Stamos, and everybody else who played the part). He has become our modern version of the classic song-and-dance man, and displayed his talents on three prominent awards shows in the past year.

Neil's hosting duties on the Tony Awards in 2009 were capped with this closing number, written as the show itself was progressing, and featuring details of the events of the night. This is somebody who can truly think on his feet, as he delivers this showstopper without rehearsal, and with the lyrics having been written only minutes before:

Neil's triumph at the Tonys lead to his hosting the Emmy Awards a few months later. He again delivered a terrific performance, including this opening number:

To complete his trifecta, Harris performed the opening number at the most recent Oscars, go here if you want to take a peak.
Harris would be winning Emmy awards for these appearances on the various award shows, if the TV Academy had not eliminated the "Best Individual Performance in a Variety or Musical Program" category in 2009.

Neil lives in West Hollywood with his long-time partner, not that that's anybody's business. He acknowledged his sexual orientation several years ago, with this classy statement:

"...I am happy to dispel any rumors or misconceptions and am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest and feel most fortunate to be working with wonderful people in the business I love."

If all the homosexual actors in Hollywood treated their orientations with such nonchalant respect and openness, Gay Pride Weekends would lose their importance. That would be a good thing.

Neil Patrick Harris will be directing a concert staging of Rent at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. He turned 37 last week.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Theatre Droppings: Men In Disguise

Last weekend was unbearably, swelteringly, HOT in DC. I swear if I ever become a man of means, I will buy myself a summer getaway in Maine, on a high cliff overlooking the ocean, like the Collinwood estate in Dark Shadows. I may even walk the beach on gray days like Joan Bennett.

That day is not very likely any time soon, so, to fight the heat in DC this weekend, I went where I am most comfortable: The Theater.

Over at Studio, they are reviving (and re-imagining) a notorious flop called Legends! (note the exclamation point; it's that kind of show). I have never seen this play, hardly anyone has, though it has a wild reputation among theatre folks. The original production back in the mid-80s was a high-profile disaster starring Mary Martin and Carol Channing, which toured the country, trying to make it to Broadway (it never did).

The story of that tour is hilariously and harrowingly told by the playwright James Kirkwood in his memoir, Diary of a Mad Playwright. After seeing Studio's production of Legends! on Saturday, I pulled the book off the shelf and read it again (it's a quick and fascinating read for anyone in the theatre).

As I said, over at Studio, they've done some re-imagining. According to Kirkwood's book, when director extraordinaire Mike Nichols was first approached to direct the original, he suggested that the two central roles be played by drag queens. Nichols did not end up directing the play, and Kirkwood refused that idea outright anyway. Now that the playwright is dead, his estate gave permission for John Epperson to tinker with the play, and to allow Nichols's suggestion to become a reality. At Studio, the roles originally played by Carol Channing and Mary Martin are being played by men in drag. You probably won't be surprised to learn that it works pretty darn well that way, considering that Channing and Martin are often the targets of drag queens.

I had a great time at this show, whose star is a gent of whom I am unfamiliar, James Lecesne. He is an actor and writer of note (he penned the Oscar winning short film, Trevor, which coincidentally starred a college chum of mine), and he tears up the stage in the Channing role. The Martin role is being played here by the adaptor, John Epperson, who is better known as Lypsinka. In fact, he is SO well-known as Lypsinka that he is co-billed as "a.k.a Lypsinka." Well, whatever, he's pretty funny in his role as well, though I have a hunch (in fact, I know, having just finished Kirkwood's book) the playwright meant the cat fight which is the climax of the first act to be quite rough-and-tumble, with the glamorous ladies snatching each others' wigs off. With men playing the roles, the wig-snatching was not feasible, so the sequence came off pretty tame. This particular scene of the play fell flat for me. It really doesn't work unless the two actors go for broke.

But I had a good time overall, and this piece may have a future among theatre troops who are attracted to plays in which men play women (Irma Vep and the Tuna plays, for example). There were several other actors in the play, including Tom Story, whom I have seen many times on local stages. Here, he is playing the sleazy producer who tries to get his two legends to star in his play. According to James Kirkwood's memoir, the gent who played this role in the original stole the thing. That actor was a young Gary Beach, who went on to create the role of Lumiere (the candlestick) in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast, and later won the Tony as Roger deBris in The Producers.

Have I wandered off-topic? Must be the heat.

On Sunday, the heat was even more unbearable, so I chose to drop into a matinee in probably the worst ventilated theatre in town. I knew that going in, as I worked at Church Street Theatre myself, though it was in December, so the lack of adequate air conditioning wasn't a problem. On Sunday, the almost-full audience was sweating up a storm at the matinee. Though Church Street Theatre is named after the street upon which it sits, it really does look like a church which has been gutted on the inside and built into a proscenium theatre (by someone who did not know what they were doing).

The ceiling over the audience is extremely high and difficult to cool. The theatre itself is very difficult to perform in, as there is no access to the stage except through the house. There are two tiny dressing rooms tucked underneath the audience , and when there is a large cast performing, the remainder of the actors dress downstairs in the boiler room. Welcome to Live Theatre!

Anyway, the Keegan Theatre has taken charge of Church Street full-time. They are a primarily non-Equity company, but are employing two Equity actors in their current production of A Man of No Importance, both of whom shine. By the wildest coincidence, they are both friends of mine, or at least colleagues. For quite a few years, Buzz Mauro and Deb Gottisman hired me to teach movement to their teen students during the summer training program they created, The Theatre Lab. I haven't done so in a long while, and meanwhile, their organization has expanded, and even has its own building downtown. These two are go-getters, actors who created their own work. Gotta love that.

In A Man of No Importance, Buzz takes the leading role of an Irish bus conductor who runs an amateur theater group. Deb plays the supporting role of one of the amateur actors; she swipes every scene in which she carries focus. As for the piece itself, it has been a favorite of mine since I ran across it years ago. Its premiere production was at Lincoln Center; I saw a scaled-down production in Annapolis several years ago (it was that production which made me fall in love with the piece). While watching Keegan's version, I began to notice some small flaws in the structure, flaws I had not noticed before. Our hero, Alfie, hides a secret, you see, but we get no hint of it until well into Act One. In the meantime, we get several solo numbers from various supporting characters, and a lot of time is spent with the amateur theater group. I enjoyed all those moments, but I bet civilians in the crowd may tire of seeing so much stage time devoted to this troop trying to put on a play.

It's when Alfie's big secret is revealed that the meat of the play begins. Buzz fits this role perfectly, and finely underplays his tortured soul. When he's in charge of the score, the music is terrific. I found some of the other solos, and group numbers for that matter, to be strangely muted. Perhaps the fact that the live band is situated far above and behind the action left me with that impression. John Robert Keena, who plays the galoot who is the object of our hero's affection, does a swell job with his big solo in act one, (I could have done without all the cris-crossing of the ensemble members behind him, but that's a directorial choice. The song is called "The Streets of Dublin," so they were going for a semblance of a buzzing metropolis. I'm probably the only one who finds that kind of thing distracting...ah, well.)

I love this show, and confess that A Man of No Importance is on my
wish list of roles to play before I get It's a large-scale musical, and it's pretty unusual that two local theatre companies have tackled it in recent years. Chances are fading that I'll ever get to play that man in the mirror...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


It's time to clean out the old obituary file. Here are some folks whose deaths in recent weeks crossed my radar, for one reason or another.

On the heels of the death of the oldest surviving Ziegfeld Girl came this news a few weeks ago. Surely you heard, right?

Christine Johnson (Smith)


She was born in Kentucky, and studied voice in Nashville before heading to New York in the late 30s. Her contralto voice was heard on NBC and CBS, back when opera stylings were popular on radio. Glad those days are gone. She sang Bess in Porgy and Bess under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, in what I guess was a very early illustration of colorblind casting. In 1943, she won an audition contest with the Metropolitan Opera, sharing first place with Patrice Munsel. Don't know who Patrice Munsel is? Never mind, I'll cover her when she dies.

Christine's greatest claim to fame came in 1945, when she was cast as Nettie Fowler in the original production of Carousel:

Though it was the third female lead, she was the first to sing "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and she introduced what became an enduring anthem of optimism and hope, "You'll Never Walk Alone." For that song alone, Rogers and Hammerstein can be forgiven for writing "This Was A Real Nice Clambake," another of Christine's numbers in the show.

Time magazine, in 1999, named Carousel the greatest musical of the 20th century, a claim I would vigorously debate, but that's another posting. Christine won a Tony nomination for introducing those classic Carousel numbers. After leaving the show, she essentially retired from the biz, moving back to Kentucky with her husband. She gave voice lessons to Florence Henderson, but I choose not to hold that against her. She died June 9th at the age of 98.

I bet you heard all about this guy's death, too:

Tony Peluso


He was a Grammy-winning producer for Motown records, working with Michael Jackson, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, and The Temptations. On other labels, he produced and/or arranged for Kenny Loggins, Seals and Croft, Boys II Men, Ricky Martin, and contributed to the soundtrack to Brokeback Mountain. But his greatest, most lasting fame may have come at the beginning of his career, when, at age 21, he joined Richard and Karen Carpenter as their lead guitarist (why they trusted him is a mystery: he had just spent time on the bubble-gum pop recordings of Bobby Sherman. ick). A year later, he provided a guitar solo in the middle of what many believe to be the Carpenters' most artistic release, "Goodbye to Love." That riff is considered by some to be the finest guitar solo on any recording of the 70s or 80s.

Peluso died a few weeks ago at the age of 60.

Here's another music type who recently played his last tune:

Hank Jones


He spent a lengthy career as a jazz pianist, usually remaining in the background as a sideman. He worked with Benny Goodman and accompanied Ella Fitzgerald for years, he recorded with Charlie Parker, and was a studio musician for CBS for decades. He won the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys a year later. But he is on my radar as the musical director, and onstage pianist, for the longest running musical revue in Broadway history, Ain't Misbehavin'.

See him peeking around the stars above? Oh, and he is in the history books for one more appearance. Remember that grainy black-and-white clip of sexpot Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to JFK in 1962? It happened at Madison Square Garden, and though it's hard to tell through Monroe's off key, breathy performance ("Happy Birthday, Mr. President..."), she had an accompanist: it was Hank Jones. He died earlier this month at the age of 91.

This guy died back in April, but I'm still having nightmares. I can't really blame him, but I can try:

Eddie Carroll


He had a bit of a career as an actor, appearing on Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, One Day at a Time, Fantasy Island, Life With Lucy, Love American Style, Maude, and Alice. He was a long-time Jack Benny impersonator, and in one unusual bit of stunt casting, appeared in a production of The Odd Couple, as Jack Benny portraying Felix Unger. He was born and raised in Canada, and, after a bout with polio, came to Hollywood as part of an NBC talent program, bringing along his best friend from high school, Robert Goulet (whatever happened to him?). He worked for several years with the Armed Forces Radio and Television network, and soon formed a production company with Jamie Farr, who would later go on to fame in the TV series MASH. In the early 70s, he was a regular player on The Don Knotts Show, a variety series no one seems to remember.
But in 1973, Carroll met the personality which would provide a lifetime of work:

He inherited the voice of Jiminy Cricket from Cliff Edwards, who originated the voice in Pinocchio. Carroll voiced Jiminy in commercials, video games, theme park rides, and everywhere else that the Disney folk needed to hear Jiminy Cricket. He holds the record for voicing a Disney character for the longest period of time.

I've previously written about my dislike of the movie Pinocchio, and though Eddie Carroll had nothing to do with that film, he still must take responsibility for continuing to give life to the perky character from the film which gave me nightmares as a kid. That poor boy, Pinocchio, was turning into a donkey before our eyes, and what did his best pal and protector Jiminy Cricket do? He was busy winning an Oscar for his signature song, "When You Wish Upon A Star."
Carroll died from a brain tumor at the age of 76. I'm not necessarily claiming that was retribution for my nightmares, but...

Speaking of nightmare-inducing images, how about this guy? His recent death ignited discussion of how low-budget independent films of the late 60s changed the way movies were made.

Dennis Hopper


He had a fairly traditional career in his early years, with some stage work at La Jolla Playhouse, and some small but featured roles in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, both starring one of his role models, James Dean. But his combative personality, mixed with an ongoing addiction problem, spelled trouble. Working with director Henry Hathaway in the 60s, he deliberately ruined 87 takes due to a dispute over a single line reading; word of his obstinacy spread through Hollywood, and he was unable to secure a leading film role for the rest of the decade. That is, until his drug buddy Peter Fonda suggested they write a film together, and star in it as well. The result, Easy Rider, was filmed on a shoestring but grossed millions, and George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdonovich, and Francis Ford Coppola all point to Easy Rider as the explosion which opened the doors for their careers.

Hopper directed Easy Rider, but was unable to parlay that success into a sustained film directing career (though he won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay). He continued to abuse drugs and alcohol, and cause trouble on any set on which he worked. His private life was a mess as well; he married 5 times, including an 8-day marriage to "Mama" Michelle Phillips (he later claimed, "Seven of those days were pretty good. The 8th day was the bad one.").

Hopper hit rock bottom in the early 80s, and was institutionalized for a while in a psychiatric ward . He rebounded a bit once he gave up drugs and booze, winning an Oscar nomination for his role in Hoosiers, and appearing in a string of films, usually playing a creepy villain. He became an ardent and shrewd art collector, and his private collection is said to be highly valuable. Hopper was in the middle of another nasty divorce when he died last month after a battle with prostate cancer.

Hopper's film performances, particularly in his later life, were primarily psychotics and weirdos, and I found his work to be downright hammy. Which brings me to this next guy:

Jimmy Dean


Dean had a substantial singing and acting career before forming the sausage company which bears his name. He was well-known for several variety shows in the 1950s, and he even hosted the CBS Morning Show for a time. He gave Roy Clark his start in the business, hiring him as a guitarist, then firing the bum for always being late. In 1961, he provided a huge cross-over smash, "Big Bad John," which hit #1 on the Billboard Pop Chart and won the Grammy. He continued a lively recording career throughout the 60s, made frequent appearances on television, and was a major headliner in Vegas. His acting roles included a stint on Daniel Boone on television, and a role in the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever.

He remained in the public eye for decades, as the commercial spokesman for Jimmy Dean Sausage, and continued making those commercials even after selling his company to Sara Lee. Ultimately, the corporate parent determined Dean was too old to sell breakfast meats, and he faded from view. His reputation was tarnished a bit in 1991, when the National Inquirer broke the news that he was a drunk and a wifebeater. He divorced his victim, quit drinking, and married his biographer. He has spent his retirement living in Richmond, VA, where he became a noted wildlife conservationist. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February of this year, only a few months before his death at the age of 81.

Here are a couple of inventors whose passing attracted my attention.

If you have ever been frustrated because you cannot remember your banking PIN , you may have this guy to blame:

John Shepherd-Barron


Back in the 60s, this Scotsman became frustrated by being locked out of his bank, and took a cue from the candy machine. He set about inventing a way to access his money from any bank, any time of day, any where in the world. The first ATM was installed in London in 1967, and required a check be put into the machine's drawer before a 10-pound note was dispensed (plastic bank cards had yet to be invented. How about that? The ATM is actually older than the credit card!). Our hero also set the standard for the 4-digit PIN when his wife told him 6 digits were too many to remember. The inventor of the Automated Teller Machine died last month at the age of 84.

This guy had a direct influence on countless gatherings I hosted in Los Angeles in the 80s:

Chris Haney


He was a Canadian who purchased a Scrabble game for his best friend, but groused about the game's high price. Along with Scott Abbott, he determined to invent his own board game and make a mint. They took advantage of the large number of Baby Boomers who were college graduates, and came up with a game in which obscure knowledge would be key. Investors were sceptical; they didn't think anyone would pony up $29.99 for a game which made the player feel stupid. Haney and Abbott persisted, writing the game's original 6000 questions themselves, and named their invention Trivial Pursuit.

The game's success was phenomenal, and spawned a series of more specialized editions, including Silver Screen and Sports. By the time Hasbro bought the rights to the game in 2008, for a whopping 80 million dollars, Trivial Pursuit had sold 100 million copies in 33 different countries, all for a game whose format was invented in 45 minutes (though it took the boys 2 years to write the questions). Chris Haney died May 31 at the age of 59.