Greetings from an altitude of 36,900 feet.
No, I'm not in the "press seats" I got for The 39 Steps (yes, I'm still holding a grudge), I'm on a flight home from Utah. I came out to Ogden for the Utah Theater Association convention, which is for all the high school theatre students in Utah. I know that sounds like it's for five to six people, but turns out Utah is a state that invests very heavily in theatre. There were 1,600 students there! I did my show (DECONSTRUCTING: The Good, The Bad and the Headache-y) as the kick-off for the weekend, and it went great. Unfortunately, kick-off also meant 9 AM! And, I was only able to tech it that morning…at 7:30 AM! I was there with Andrea McArdle, and she said she hadn't had to perform that early since the "Milliken Breakfast Show" (that was a show that was put together for business conventions in the 1970's that paid a crazy amount of money).
Andrea is so fun to be with because she has so many amazing references from the seventies. We were talking about old talk shows, and she said that Johnny Carson would never speak to you before you did the show. That was how he kept his interviews on the show so spontaneous. However, Merv Griffin would come into her dressing room prior to taping, and they'd have an amazing conversation …and then have nothing to talk about on camera.
Standing backstage before I kicked off the weekend, I got the worst headache. The stage manager told me that Utah is in the Rocky Mountains, so the elevation can give you a headache. Paul Castree was with me also, and he said when he did the Bye Bye Birdie tour in the nineties starring Tommy Tune, they performed in Denver and there was oxygen off stage. I didn't know if it was because Colorado has a high elevation or because Tommy Tune always does. Regardless, it was so much fun doing the show because the kids were so responsive. Then I did some workshops with them and had a great time. I told one of them to stop being in the habit of automatically saying, "Hi, I'm ____ and I'll be singing ____". My friend Scott Kanoff is a director in Austin, TX. One day he was auditioning some students and a teenaged boy came in. Scott saw from his picture that his name was Johnny Fabry (as Ann Landers columns used to say, Not His Real Name). Scott was like, "Hi, Johnny. How are you?" and they chatted for a while. Scott finally said, "Well, Johnny, are you ready to sing?" Johnny nodded, took a breath and said stood center and said, "Hi, my name is Johnny…". What's happening!?!? Stop saying the name Johnny repeatedly unless you're in this video with me and Jack Plotnick. (http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/?s=Johnny&submit=Search)
Last week, I interviewed TV legend Rip Taylor at the Chatterbox! When he was a kid, he went from foster home to foster home. His life was changed when he went to a movie, and the theatre had a piano-playing contest…and he won by playing "The Habanera." He remembers being onstage and loving the feeling of the light on him. Rip said that the light made him feel safe and that nothing could hurt him. That's what drove Rip towards show business. Many years later he was on "The Red Skelton Show," and when he left his dressing he ran into Red Skelton for the first time, and started crying. Red asked if he was okay and Rip said, "I'm meeting Red Skelton." Red said, "I really am, aren't I?" Then he looked at Rip, and purely by coincidence said, "Keep looking into that light!" Rip wound up in the army, and while he was on the ship going overseas, he entertained the troops by lip-synching to Mario Lanza (it was called record pantomime). Because he was a hit, he got into special services and wound up entertaining the troops overseas instead of fighting. He then spent a few years in Tokyo (!) performing, and when he came back to the U.S., he found an agent…in the Yellow Pages! Would that it were so easy now. I can't even use the Yellow Pages to find something simple. Everything I look for always has another name. For doctors see physicians, for restaurants see eatery, for a headache read the Yellow Pages. Anyhoo, his agent got him a gig in Atlantic City doing record pantomime between acts in a strip joint. Since he was not officially in show business, the first thing he decided was that he had to change his name. So Charlie Taylor became…Pearson Thall. What the-?!?!?! Why was he pretending to be a WASP in a smoking jacket? Regardless, he was doing fine until one night the record player broke and he had to come up with jokes. He now started doing shtick between records by literally buying jokes at the local magic store and using them at night. That's when he changed his name to Rip. He started to explain that it had something to do with the fact that his last name, Taylor, is like tailor and that something ripped needs a tailor and tailors keep people in stitches and halfway through his explanation he waved his hand at the Chatterbox audience and said, "Figure it out, I got a show to do."
Atlantic City led to a gig in the Catskills and after he was there a while, he found out that a scout from the "Ed Sullivan Show" was coming to see him. Uh-oh! What if he bombed that night? He made an announcement in the dining room to all the patrons that he could get a gig on the "Sullivan Show" if they came to his performance that night and laughed up a storm. And, to sweeten the deal, he'd buy them all champagne. The scout showed up, Rip walked out onstage and before he opened his mouth, the audience was "laughing" up a storm. He finally shut them up so he could actually tell his jokes and got asked to be on the Sullivan show! Turns out, "The Ed Sullivan Show" would film an afternoon performance and a night performance, and then they'd air whichever performance was better. Rip was great in the afternoon but when he came back that night, he noticed Ed had perhaps had a bit of a liquid lunch, as we say. Sullivan stood in front of the camera and started to introduce him…but forgot his name. Rip was panicking backstage and (for some reason not fully explained to me) ripped out a nose hair! This brought tears to his eyes and he ran out onstage and said, through tears, "I'm Rip Taylor" to which Ed Sullivan covered up by replying, "Of course you are." Rip did the same act he had done that afternoon but kept up the tears. The audience loved it. Suddenly, he became known as the "Crying Comedian." His weeping made anything funnier. He demonstrated it for us. He told us a funny joke ("I bought a suit today with two pair of pants. I burnt a hole in the coat!") and then told it again while crying. Sixty percent increase of funniness! He was on "The Ed Sullivan Show" many times, and eventually Eleanor Powell asked him to do an act with her in Las Vegas. He was supposed to perform there for four weeks, and at this point it's been 32 years. He worked with the Kingston Trio, Frankie Laine, Judy Garland etc… I asked him what Milton Berle was like, and he said, "He was nice…in the end." Ouch. But he's still friends with Phyllis Diller whose series he did…and turns out, they both listen to my radio show! I hope I make Phyllis laugh while she's holding a long, cigarette holder.
Rip said Sammy Davis Jr. was a great guy. Sammy would have all of his lyrics on a teleprompter screen on the foot of the stage. Rip was opening for him, and while Sammy was backstage, he decided to play a prank on Rip and made the teleprompter play a porno movie! Rip started laughing, the band started laughing and the audience sat…confused and staring. Rip said that Sammy was in the wings singing "That's some b*tch, dying tonight!"
The other signature he became known for also happened by accident. He was on "The Merv Griffin Show," and he had jokes written out on cards. He started to bomb, so he ripped up his jokes, threw them in the air and walked off the set, toppling over some of it as he did. The next day Merv called, and Rip offered to pay for the damages. Turns out, Merv asked him back because he thought it was hilarious, and that started Rip's signature of throwing confetti into the air.
Rip's first Broadway show was Sugar Babies, where he replaced Mickey Rooney. He feels that Broadway is the hardest job to get but the easiest one to do. He said it took him forever to get to Broadway, but once he was there, he loved doing eight shows a week for a theatre audience as opposed to trying to get laughs out of Las Vegas crowds who were sitting and drinking because they lost thousands of dollars that day. Of course, in this economy, Broadway audiences are also sitting and drinking because they lost thousands of dollars that day. He thought Ann Miller was incredibly funny…without knowing it. One day he told her, "We can't do the show Tuesday…it's Passover!" and she said, "I never do game shows." What the-? Hmm…maybe he should have said Pesach?
Rip was cast in the Robert Redford/Demi Moore film "Indecent Proposal," playing Demi Moore's boss. The very first day of filming he walked into her trailer and said, "Hi, Demi! (pronouncing it Deh-mi). She said, "It's Demi (pronounced d'mi)". He paused..then pointed to himself and said, "It's D'Rip!" She loved it! Rip was in New York because he was performing his new one-man show (It Ain't All Confetti) at the Apap Convention where all the regional theatres come to town to pick their season. Hopefully, you'll soon see Rip in a theatre near you! After the show, I had him sign the new leather Chatterbox autograph book James got me for a Hanukkah present and Rip signed it, "Keep looking into that light."
Here's what's coming up: A few months ago, I got a call from my pal Carl Andress (currently the director of the new Charles Busch play, The Third Story). He asked me if I'd be interested in being the conductor for a benefit he was doing for the NFFR, which stands for the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction. That's an organization that helps children with facial deformities get the surgery they need. I said yes immediately, and Carl began to describe the kind of benefit they wanted. He said they wanted it to be a big, fat event, but it needed to be very unique and not the typical kind of "stand and sing" benefit. And, finally, he said that the last time they did it, they used a full orchestra. That did it. I asked him if he thought my show, Seth's Broadway 101, is what they were looking for. He had seen it when I did it as an Actors Fund benefit Off-Broadway. Carl thought it was a great idea and set up a meeting between and the head of the organization, a woman with the amazing name of Fiorenza. I met her and the benefit committee at Fiorenza's lovely apartment near Central Park and showed them an eight-minute highlight reel I had of the show. One member of the group was a Broadway fanatic and another didn't know anything about Broadway. Turns out, they both loved it (maybe Obama should talk to me about reaching across the aisle), and they agreed that it should be this year's fundraiser. So, my friends, on Monday, March 9, Seth's Broadway 101 is coming to Broadway!!! That's right, it's going to be in the beautiful New Amsterdam Theatre, where Mary Poppins is playing. I just had my fabulous music contractor, Charlie Gordon, book a delicious 25-member orchestra, and I have booked all of my singing/dancing ensemble and most of my stars. I am so excited to do this show again!!! I keep expanding it, and I'm loving all the new stuff.
Speaking of expanding, when I got to Utah they gave me an amazing box of chocolates as a greeting and within two days it was 80 percent gone (The remaining 20 percent had a fruit filling…gross). What have I been thinking over the last 12 months? Why have I been on a year-long binge? How am I going to pull off my big dance number on March 9 with only a month to lose those delicious Utah chocolates, the Rosie cruise buffets, my Thanksgiving all-day eating, a full holiday week in deep-fried loving Texas and the Cinnabon I'm planning on getting when the plane lands at JFK. Hmm…how many calories do you burn while typing? What's that? You say whatever I've lost while typing this has been added twofold by the free Delta Airlines box of cookies I'm eating right now? Well, as Angela Lansbury sang in Dear World, "I Don't Want To Know." I'll just have to let out my costume (jeans and a blazer) a little. On a related note: Do Levis come with a stretch waist? Well, they should. Anyhoo, I have a little clip from last years show on my website (http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/). If you like what 'ya see, go to http://nffr.org/upcoming.php and get tickets ASAP! Peace out!
(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethrudetsky.com.)