Getting Dishy with Judy Graubart

Posted: February 24, 2013 in Broadway, Cabaret, Comedy, Culture, Entertainment, Film, Music, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

graubart(Note: this piece was originally published in my monthly publication, CaB Magazine, on October 1st, 1992. It recently resurfaced on the Internet and I thought it was appropriate to post here for posterity).

Comic actress Judy Graubart still laughs about being married to Bob Dishy. “It only took us twenty years to do it!” being that the two began their relationship when both were members of Second City over twenty-five years ago. Now, six years later, the two are enjoying happiness both from each other’s company and the arrival of their son, Sam. Graubart, however, has much else to be happy about.

Growing up in Chicago as a rabbi’s daughter, Graubart began her initial performance path in after-school improvisational classes and programs from age five. “It was great for me,” she says over coffee at City Bakery. “I was an overweight kid and extremely nearsighted, and being insecure about all of that, so being involved in these little acting groups just pulled me out of that. It allowed me to think I was funny, and…I just loved being a part of dramatic activities.”

She honed her skills further at sleepaway camps following the death of Rabbi Graubart when Judy was eight, but didn’t get serious about performing until her attendance at the University of Chicago. “I did some productions in college, which were fine,” she says, “but my real break came because of a boyfriend I had, who was good friends with David Steinberg, and he was with Second City at the time. And so I began working as sort of the everything-girl at the club itself. I was a bouncer, I did my share of cocktail waitressing with my share of spills and no tips until finally I really knew the show, and they needed someone to be “the woman” one night; Second City was generally five or six guys and one or two women. So I stepped in and became the Man Who Came To Dinner. I just stayed. And before I was done with school, Second City did a United States tour through the Theater Guild, so I guess the rest is theater history. I’d been planning to be a French teacher, since my major was Romance Languages, but I wound up doing all of this instead. And I love doing improvisation. It’s not easy to do well; I think the ability to improvise successfully is there if actors are willing to relax and use it, but it can be hard to do a scene with somebody if they aren’t skilled in it. There were guys I had to work with who would just butcher what we were doing, and then I remember working with someone like Peter Boyle, who was TERRIFIC. I kept think that working with Peter was like talking with someone from your hometown; someone with whom you just speak a common language.”

The tour ended in New York, and Graubart transplanted herself here along with other members of the company. And distinguished company it was; Robert Klein and Fred Willard were in the company with Judy back in the Windy City, along with the aforementioned Steinberg, and the tour also featured Avery Schreiber and Jack Burns. Following other club dates with members of the company and Second City’s Broadway presentation in the early 60s, Graubart landed an audition and a job at Upstairs-at-the-Downstairs. “I had no money at the time, and I still owe Rod Warren for a sweater he loaned me some cash for,” she laughs. She stayed at the club for a year-and-a-half. “It was unusual for me at the beginning; you know, Second City was revues and this was revues, but Second City was improvised and these shows were scripted. What’s funniest to me is that I don’t remember doing the shows as much as I remember hanging out with Madeline Kahn and Janie Sell, and Dixie Carter and Lily Tomlin, hiding in the kitchen from the AGVA man, and going to the movies between shows, and having fried-egg sandwiches at the Warwick drugstore counter. It was a great time.”

Several plays and commercials continued to put bread and butter on Graubart’s table for a time, she was even a commercial spokeswoman for Cheer detergent. “I got so much mileage out of that,” she tells me. “It was just a bunch of spots of this character seeing how white she could get her clothes with Cheer. And it wasn’t just in the States; I’d gone to Germany to do some spots in German. Actually, it was about that time that Second City went to do a show in London, so I felt pretty international. I did some traveling around that time, France, and Israel. I thought I should cleanse my little Jewish soul after working for Cheer in Munich,” she laughs again. “Do you know, when I was having our son in 1986, I was trying to do some of those hokey Lamaze exercises, where they ask you to recite a mantra. Well, somewhere from the depths of my memory came the Cheer commercial I’d done in German. I started reciting “Cheer, it will get your clothes white as a ghost,” in German.”

Graubart managed to keep the bill collectors from the door and satisfy her artistic self, including the television version of Paul Sills’s “Story Theater,” shot in Canada with a cast of such Second City alums as Richard Libertini, Melinda Dillon, Dick Shawn and Valerie Harper, and then one day came the opportunity to audition for the new children’s educational program “The Electric Company,” produced by the Children’s Television Workshop. She landed the job and would stay with the show for its full seven-year run through 1978, creating characters that would delight children all over the country. “It was such a wonderful feeling to land a show as a regular, a show that was doing some good instead of just being a sitcom or something.” Again she was in illustrious company; Bill Cosby was a regular for the first two seasons, Rita Moreno would be with the show for some time, and other cast members included Todd Graff, Skip Hinnant, Luis Avalos, Hattie Winston, Lee Chamberlin, Melanie Henderson, June Angela, Gregg Burge, Irene Cara, and then-virtually-unknown Morgan Freeman. “It was marvelous that they welded together this group of different ethnic types and different energy levels. I guess I was the low-energy person in the family, except when I was doing a character like Jennifer of the Jungle, swinging on the vine and doing my “Oyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy” yell.”

And she still tries to see fellow cast members when she can. “I run into Skip and Lee and Hattie all the time, and my husband Bob is going into a film being written by Todd Graff (“Used People”). Luis is hard to track down, because every time I’m on the Coast I try to call him and there are a zillion Luis Avalos-es in Southern California, but one day I’ll hit the right one. And as for Morgan, it’s been fantastic watching him achieve what he’s achieved. It’s a pity that he seems to have a sore spot about doing the show, but I think he’s just so lovable. I remember we used to have these workshops, sketch development workshops, where we had to do a lot of improv-inspired exercises which I was used to, having done all of that stuff with Second City. And I remember Morgan just not having any of it; just going “I’ve worked this hard as an actor to get here, just so I could play children’s games with a bunch of adults?” And the other thing I remember is that Morgan and I used to have crossword-puzzle races. It was great. We were a family, really; we spent a lot of time together off-camera.”

Following her stint, she co-starred with Alan Arkin in the cult-comedy/sci-fi film “Simon.” “A great experience and a very funny film, but way ahead of its time,” Graubart tells me. “If it’s finding an audience now on Comedy Central, that’s terrific. I had a ball making the film.” Other than the odd commercial and voice-over, Graubart has spent the last few years concentrating on being Mrs. Bob Dishy and the mother of six-year-old Sam. Is there ever conflict between the couple, being that Dishy is a slightly more recognizable name than his wife? “I don’t think so,” she muses. “Truthfully, I’d have to think about it…no, I don’t think there is. Although he always told me there was,” she laughs. “I’m always so happy when Bob lands a project that there really isn’t room to feel anything else about it. But there’ve been times when projects would pop up that he’d initiate, or I’d initiate, and I’d want to do them with him, and he’d just look at me and say, “Judy, we are NOT the Lunts!” Which, like any good Jewish girl, would send me to bed for a week, but…no, seriously, we don’t compete. We’re actors seeking work, and there’s a tremendous support system there.”

Now that Sam is firmly ensconced in school, Graubart is actively beginning to seek work again. In fact, a very promising project is lurking around the corner even as you read this. “There’s a series of children’s books out now, called “The Magic Schoolbus,”which star a character named Mrs. Frizzle. She’s a schoolteacher who wears kind of funny clothes and weird shoes; her shoes are sculpted like animals, elephants with trunks and such. They’re wonderful books, and they’ve been gaining popularity. Anyway, they’re trying to develop a tape to go with the books, and as we speak, it looks like I’m Mrs. Frizzle. I don’t know that anything’s going to come of it because I never count chickens, but we’ve recorded it, and it’s probably in the mixing process now, and…we’ll see. Actually,” she continues, “I was telling Sam’s teacher that I was going to be Mrs. Frizzle, and she looked at me really sadly. She said, “But you CAN’T be Mrs. Frizzle! I’M Mrs. Frizzle! Look at my shoes!!” Poor thing, I hope she’s not too depressed. Anyway, I promised myself that no matter what happens, by the end of the year I was going to start looking for work seriously again, so keep an eye out.”

We promise. In any case, whether she’s Judy Graubart, Mrs. Dishy, Sam’s mother or Mrs. Frizzle, she is a consummate delight…and as one of the performers New York has missed so much in recent years, it’ll be nice to see her become the apple of the city’s eye again.

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Comments
  1. Nora (Lishness) Fraser says:

    I was the script girl on Story Theater we shot in Canada. I loved Judy Graubart because she read all my typos as they were written. I thought that was funny. And I played flute with her boyfriend, Bob Dishy. They made a cute couple!

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