Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

stadlenLewis J. Stadlen is one of those legendary entertainers of Broadway, film, television and the international cultural sphere, whom it is simply impossible to forget for his over four decades delighting audiences of all ages. It may well be possible that most remember him for the first season of the sitcom “Benson,” in which he co-starred alongside Robert Guillaume, James Noble and Inga Swenson, but those truly in the know will equally remember his sensational work as Groucho in the 1970 cult Broadway musical hit Minnie’s Boys, with star Shelley Winters and fellow Marx Brothers Danny Fortus, Irwin Pearl and Alvin Kupperman. Later, he would portray Groucho again in a critically-acclaimed national stage tour, and fall into the hearts and minds of legions of fans. Before, after, in the meantime and in between, he would create the part of Ben Silverman in the original company of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, receive a Tony nomination for being Pangloss in the 1974 production of Candide, portray Lupinski in Mel Brooks’ 1982 celluloid remake of the classic film To Be Or Not to Be, play a featured role in Neil Simon’s The New Odd Couple in 1985 (which starred Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, along with Stadlen and budding newcomer Tony Shalhoub as the male Latino love interests from upstairs), and find himself at this writing back on Broadway in Douglas Carter Beane’s play The Nance at the Lyceum, with Nathan Lane. Stadlen may not have picked up a heavily-deserved and unfairly-ignored Tony nomination in the process, but he remains one of the finest thespians of the last forty-plus years; the son of renowned voice-over artist Allen Swift always seems to roll with the punches regardless of the trappings of awards and tinsel. He’s even published a memoir, Acting Foolish, available at Amazon. And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more thrilled that he took time out of his schedule to grant us an interview.

ANDREW MARTIN: If your father hadn’t been Allen Swift, do you think you would have followed a career path into acting regardless? And what was it like having him as a dad? Can you discuss your childhood?

LEWIS J. STADLEN: There is, of course no way to know.  It was my mother who discovered a theater camp, Gray Gables Theatrical Workshop, in Kitchawan, New York, for me to attend when I was fourteen. She sensed I had a creative bent. It was the first time that I felt self-confident about anything. I made my acting debut as Petrovin the artist, in a remarkable teenage production of Anastasia (Marta Heflin played the title role). My chief motivation, which continues to this day, was that girls took a greater interest in me. I attended the camp for two summers, and my social life revolved around a Saturday dance class during the school year that was attended by many of the campers at the wonderfully-atmospheric rehearsal studio, Variety Arts, across the street from the Forty-Sixth Street Theater. The Gray Gables Choreographer, Joe Vilane, who to this day is the best choreographer I have worked with apart from Agnes DeMille, taught the class. So because of that experience, I glimpsed the possibility of leading a useful life. That said:  I was extremely insecure about everything, and without my father’s unending knowledge and support, and the future rejection I was to later experience in the “real” grown up world, I’m certain my early enthusiasm would have been nipped in the bud. He was instrumental in every way in helping me to navigate the minefields of an exceptionally cruel and capricious business. He was instrumental in my ability to land my first job, which was the first national company of Fiddler On The Roof when I was nineteen. By that time, I had had the good fortune of NOT being invited back to the Neighborhood Playhouse, owing to the presence of one of the all time sadistic- bastards Sanford Meisner, who was probably responsible for destroying the confidence of thousands of talented, but all-too-trusting and self-critical souls. It was the first major rejection I experienced and with the help of my father, I was able to overcome it and by chance fall into the nurturing embrace of the great Stella Adler, who actually taught me the fundamentals of my craft which I use to this very day.  As I review a career that is into it’s forty-seventh year,  I realize I’ve mostly learned my survival skills from my actor-father, while my over all sense of choice and sense of esthetics have been gleamed from my college-professor mother, Vivienne Schwartz.  I would not have survived in my profession without either of their support.

AM: What are your thoughts about Minnie’s Boys, both the fact that you were so young to make your Broadway debut and also playing Groucho? (We’ll come back to the Groucho factor later). And was it surprising that even though the show retains a cult status, it really didn’t run very long? Also, what was it like to work with Shelley Winters?

LJS: Well, cult status is highly subjective. It’s rarely revived because the libretto is terrible, and as absurd as the creative experience turned out to be, I can only be grateful for what turned out to be my entree into the theatrical community.  I no longer had to introduce myself. (Be careful what you wish for.)  There were many reasons why Minnie’s Boys failed.  Shelley Winters was a disaster, but mostly, the story was thought to be in the same vein as Gypsy. But Gypsy was not about Gypsy Rose Lee’s attainment of fame as much as it was the story of her ambitious stage mother. Rose was a very human monster, and the show’s conflict had to do with the effects her behavior had on her children. Minnie’s Boys was about a show business family, devoid of any conflict. Everyone loved Minnie, and it was hardly a mystery as to whether the Marx Brothers would eventually overcome the obstacles before them and become a success. The original director and choreographer were two of the most inept individuals I have encountered in my forty-six years in Show Business; the choreographer is, ironically, a member of the Theater Hall Of Fame, which is a credit to her political abilities and certainly not her talent. Shelley Winters, a terrific film actress, was completely over her head in a musical comedy. You will observe that in most of her film performances she is usually murdered by her leading men, be it drowned, choked, stabbed, run over by a bus, etc. She was one of those performers who had the ability to throw her weight around, thinking only of herself, but in this case she did not possess the requisite skills to selfishly get what she wanted and wound up thoroughly subverting herself and the entire project. She was actually fired in previews, but her contract was such that the producer’s could not afford to pay her off for a year and hire another star performer. One being Kaye Ballard, who I performed with in a subsequent production at Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera in 1972. She was wonderful, but the role had already been cast in stone due to Shelley’s many deficiencies. As for the show running for some eighty performances in previews and another eighty after we opened, everyone wanted to bend over backwards to make it a success with the exception of the critics. It just wasn’t good enough, even though it possessed a mostly-winning score and had some excellent performances.  As they say, “The fish stinks from the head down.” That said, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, and Danny Fortus (Harpo), Irwin Pearl (Chico) and Alvin Kupperman (Zeppo) remained friends from that day on.

AM: What were your thoughts on being cast to create the role of Ben in The Sunshine Boys? Was anything particularly intimidating (be it creating a role in a play by Neil Simon, working with Jack Albertson or Sam Levene, etc)?

LJS: It was very intimidating being cast in The Sunshine Boys. For the first few days of rehearsal, I was certain I’d be fired. I was a twenty-five year old actor with limited acting chops.  The person who most intimidated me was our director Alan Arkin, who I more than admired. A strange, brilliantly talented man whom I felt I rubbed the wrong way.  Neil Simon, who I got to know a great deal better during the next three decades, was at the top of his form in 1972.  (I have since done three more of his plays from scratch.)  A brilliant artist and craftsman, who I’ve come to realize always brought an operatic element to the productions of all his plays. He suffered not only from fear of failure, but also from success anxiety. A combustible combination. Jack Albertson was a wonderful actor, and it was a pleasure to perform with him. His Willie Clark is still the best performance in that role. But, the person who had the most lasting influence was the GREAT Sam Levene, who to this day I consider one of my foremost mentors, although he would probably cringe at that description. Besides being a great actor, he was incapable of dissembling in an industry that encourages an interactive fraudulence that erodes your soul. He taught me much about onstage comportment, consistency of performance and how to survive in life with your sense of integrity and self-worth intact. For a time, I felt I was actually turning into Sam Levene, who did have a propensity for falling on his own sword. Hopefully, I have taken all that was true in the man and learned to suffer not quite as much.

AM: What was it like to do Candide, and how did you feel about the Tony nomination?

LJS: Candide was, unfortunately, an unhappy experience. I did not get on with Hal Prince, and I don’t care to elaborate as to the reasons why. Let me take some responsibilities for my own actions; I was only twenty-seven at the time, and felt I had to be the spokesman for everyone’s discontent as well as my own. Perhaps I hadn’t quite perfected the good Sam Levene within myself. Based on some very legitimate contractual grievances with Mister Prince, I made the naive mistake of taking him on as a peer, and was crushed in the exchange. At this stage of my short career I believed that doing a Broadway show a year was my birthright, which proved to be a ridiculous assessment. That I could not enjoy the experience is unfortunate, since I have been told by many people that the production itself, and my performance in it, was one of their most enjoyable  theatergoing experiences. As for my Tony nomination, the cast was done no favors by Mister Prince, who would not allow any of the Tony voters to come to individual performances.  Instead he scheduled a ninth, a Sunday evening performance for all the voters to sit in judgement.  We were all nervous and exhausted and, as it turned out, Candide won a flock of Tony Awards, but none for the actors who were nominated from the show. It was par for the course of how the cast was presented, as if we were street urchins turned magically-professional by Hal Prince’s brilliant direction. (He DID win the Tony that year). The experience was instructive in many ways; I lost to the great Christopher Plummer, who probably shouldn’t have won for his performance in the musical Cyrano, but to lose to an actor of such brilliance was an honor in its own right.

AM: We all know that you took a little break from Broadway to play the featured role of Taylor in the first season of the sitcom “Benson.” First of all, what was your experience of that? Secondly, what led to your separation from the show, and was it very harsh? Similarly, did you know that Rene Auberjonois would be replacing Taylor with his own character of Clayton? How did that feel?

LJS: “Benson” was the epiphany needed to figure out what I wanted from my profession. My dear Stella Adler had posed a question to our acting class years before, whether our priority was to become an ACTOR or a STAR? I thought the question daft. Obviously, a star would get the opportunity to play the best parts. Why wouldn’t one aspire to stardom? “Benson” allowed me to fully appreciate the distinction. It was a thoroughly loathsome experience. Even when one is engaged in a poorly conceived theatrical endeavor, there is some flicker of idealism that one might be creating something of worth. Commercial television is about selling beer and cornflakes; the entertainment exists to serve the product. Everybody in charge of bringing “Benson” into the public sphere lied about everything. Our two crass producer’s were thrilled that the show wasn’t in the top ten in the Nielsen ratings because we had “no place to go but down.” Every week we were told to go out and beat the pants off of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” I didn’t sign my contract until the fifth show, I hated the character I played, and was petrified I’d be typecast as the same sniveling asshole who was only around to be the butt of the joke. Apparently, Rene Auberjonois had no such concern. He was only hired to replace me after I had screamed my way off the show. I remember one of the producers telling me that they would let me out at the end of the season as long as I didn’t expect to get paid in return.  He simply couldn’t conceive that I wanted no part of his money.  Several months later, I was performing a one-nighter of my two person Groucho show in Mansfield, Ohio. A rather slow young man, who was running the spotlight, approached me at a Ham & Egg just before the performance. “Do you mean to tell me that you would rather be here in Mansfield than in Hollywood doing Benson?” In a flash,I recognized the significance of his question. “YES!” was my immediate reply. And if you notice, I don’t even list my television credits in my Playbill bios. Ever.

AM: In 1982, you were more or less rediscovered by the public by your portrayal of Dr. Gruber in The Verdict. Can you describe that experience?

LJS: It was a terrific experience. Sidney Lumet was a great director and it was an honor to work with Paul Newman, and be a part of the same project as James Mason, Charlotte Rampling and Jack Warden. We rehearsed the film for two weeks at 890 Broadway, as if it were a play. We’d run through the screenplay twice a day. In my scene with Paul Newman, I had ninety percent of the dialogue. It would be a three-minute tracking shot when we filmed it up in Boston, but for the process of rehearsing, Sidney had us walking around the rehearsal studio with me taking the lead and Paul trying to catch up. Because I was in awe of Paul, I’d slow up so I could be face-to-face while we conversed. Sidney kept telling me that he wanted Paul to chase after me because I was a big-shot doctor and his character was a down-in-the-heels lawyer, a drunk. But I kept slowing up due to my respect for Paul, until Sidney took me aside and said, “Listen, you’re fucking a twenty-two-year-old intern across the river in Cambridge. You’ve got three hours to get to her apartment, and then back to Boston before your next operation.” From that moment on,   I walked very fast. Giving an actor an “active” motivation is the mark of a great director.

AM: In 1983, the public at large once again got to enjoy your gift of comedy when you portrayed Lupinski in To Be Or Not To Be. What was it like to work with Mel Brooks and company? Were there any standout moments? In particular, what was it like to do the Shylock monologue?

LJS: It was very difficult. Mel Brooks can be a delightful, always hilarious man when he is feeling secure about a project’s prospect for success. In the case of To Be Or Not To Be, he knew he was competing with the original film, which in my estimation is a comic masterpiece. The director of the original, Ernst Lubitsch, was a genius, and Jack Benny and Carole Lombard were brilliant in their respective roles. Because Mel was afraid, and rightfully so, to be compared to Lubitsch and Benny, he pretended that we was not the director of the film. (He was.)  Instead, he gave the directing credit to the film’s choreographer, Alan Johnson.  This created a dysfunctional working relationship that was very hard on the actors. Mel was especially hard on my interpretation of the Shylock speech, which was a work-in-progress until we finally shot it, seven weeks into the shoot.  A large part of being a good director is instilling an actor with confidence, and Mel did the opposite. In retrospect, I realize that Mel was as petrified of performing Shakespeare as I was.  The night before the scene was to be shot,  I smoked a little grass and came to the conclusion that Lupinski’s motivation had to do with kicking ass for the Jews. But the next day, what I didn’t realize, was that the shot before had me rushing out of the theater men’s room straight at Mel, who was dressed as Hitler, while surrounded by several big, strong, blond body guards in SS uniforms who grabbed me by my arms and hurt me. Suddenly, I wasn’t just emoting Shakespeare’s prose, I was fighting for my life. It was a terrific acting lesson. It’s never about the words; it’s about the subtext you create underneath. Mel was more then pleased, thank God, because you don’t want to get on his bad side! Essentially, with the exception of my rendering of that speech, I was too young for the part. Felix Bressart, who was in the original, was much better. As was everything else in the original film. There was to be plenty more Mel Brooks in my life, but two decades later.

AM: It’s absolutely amazing to think that when the The New Odd Couple came to Broadway in ’85 at the Broadhurst, with an all-female cast featuring Rita Moreno, Sally Struthers, Marilyn Cooper and Jenny O’Hara among others, you played one of the Latino love interests along with Tony Shalhoub, who was making his Broadway debut at the time. What was that situation like in general, first of all with the ladies as the leads and secondly to be working with Shalhoub?

LJS: It turned out to be a turning point. I was thirty-seven, and in a depression over what to do with the rest of my life. I think it’s becoming clearer after the re-telling of these experiences that an actor’s life is not a walk in the park. It’s a roller coaster ride complicated by the need to re-invent yourself every decade, as you morph from flavor of the month,to being a character actor who now appears too young for the roles he might be considered right for. If you’re lucky. The original roles of the Costazuela Brothers (the male re-imagining of the Pigeon Sisters), was written for two middle-aged bald Hispanic actors, and I wasn’t bald, Hispanic or middle-aged. The only reason I was asked to audition for the part was, because as desperate as I was to find work, I had invited the show’s casting director to a Mets game the night before. Having nothing to offer me, she threw me a bone and scheduled an audition the next day for a role I wasn’t remotely right for. That afternoon I found myself in a room with about twenty middle-aged, bald Hispanic actors wondering what the hell I was doing there. I even expressed that sentiment aloud to the actors in the room. One of my many complaints that I voiced at the time was that Raul Julia, who spoke with a decided Spanish accent, seemed to be immune from type. He had recently been cast in Noel Coward’s comedy-drama Design For Living, playing an Englishman with a decided Spanish inflection. Seconds before I was to go into audition for the director,  Danny Simon (Neil Simon’s older brother), I decided that if Raul Julia could play Noel Coward,  I could play Raul Julia. So that’s what I did. It was a wicked take-off , and it proved hilarious to the powers that be. The next day, I was asked to audition for Neil and I turned the audition down as a waste of time. Some poor bastard had already been cast in the role of the other brother, and there was no way I could appear to be his brother. I received a conference call between the producer Manny Azenberg and Danny Simon that morning, begging me to come down to the Alvin Theater and audition for Neil. The moment I auditioned with the  bald, Hispanic actor cast in the other role, I knew I was going to get the part, and that the other actor was screwed. (I never found out what happened to him. He must have been bought out). Neil came down the aisle of the theater, and asked me if I was “fucking nuts” for turning down the audition. When I mentioned the plethora of bald jokes, he told me he would rewrite the part. I was astonished that I had gotten the role, and saddened that it had come off the back of the other actor. But…that’s show business!  The moment I walked out of the stage door of the Alvin (which has since been renamed the Neil Simon), a pigeon shit all over my new suit. A woman passing by assured me it was a sign of good luck and I told her I hoped so. After I was cast in the role of Manolo, Tony Shalhoub came in and blew them away as Jesus. It was his first high-profile role, in what has turned out to be an elegant career. Neil Simon rewrote the roles so that the two of us were sexually appealing, and the build up to our characters was so artfully written, that the moment we appeared in the doorway midway through the second act, carrying roses and boxes of candy, the audience was in hysterics. We had great chemistry together. Unfortunately, I got a bit distracted by falling in love with Rita Moreno.  But that’s a story for a different time.

AM: How did you come to play Groucho later Off-Broadway and on tour? Was it as a direct result of Minnie’s Boys, or were you just sort of “that Groucho guy?”

LJS: I didn’t play Groucho Off-Broadway. After Minnie’s Boys, I was offered all the plays and sitcoms that had a Groucho character. While Groucho was alive, I was the only actor he allowed to play him. I was super-sensitive about being typecast as his imitator, and tried everything in my power to choose roles as far away from that image as possible. In the 1970s, during a serious lull in my career, I put together a two-character play which I produced, Groucho, which I co-wrote with Denny Martin Flinn, who directed. We performed it for four weeks at the Ford’s Theater in Washington, and three weeks at the Tower in Houston, and were courted by several Broadway producers who wanted to bring it to Broadway. I refused for reasons I listed above, preferring  to play one-nighters and split weeks all over the country for three months a year, from 1979 to 1982.  I loved playing Groucho Marx, and the show we wrote was funny and literate, but I was happy to do it out of the New York public eye.

AM: You had a relatively-small but absolutely-memorable role on “The Sopranos.” What was that experience like?

LJS: My time on “The Sopranos” was very nice.  It was a show I actually watched religiously.  James Gandolfini was a remarkably generous actor to work with. The shooting schedule was more like a movie than a TV show; everyone involved seemed aware that this was the greatest gig of their lives. They actually wrote a segment about my character that I couldn’t do because it was the first week I was performing as Max Bialystock on Broadway in The Producers. They just renamed the character and got another actor.

AM: So many people, myself included, feel a regrettable loss from the cancellation of “Smash,” in which you’ve had a recurring role. Can you possibly share what the experience has been like, and why you think it’s hasn’t been able to hang on?

LJS: I watched the first twenty minutes of the first episode I was in and turned it off. I thought it was pretty bad. They wanted me to return for a fourth episode, but I turned them down. When you’re a recurring character, your time is not your own. You’re at their disposal at all times, and I don’t choose to live my life that way. Also, to be perfectly honest, I have memorized books of dialogue in my time, but for some reason I have a hell of time keeping disposable dialogue in my head. When you’re doing a recurring role, you’re usually the last person to be put on camera.  Instead of knowing what you’re doing and why, you’re trying to remember the verb that connects the sentence. I am in the fortunate position of not having to take every job that comes down the pike, which is mostly due to my three unions and their generous pension plans. Tell that to those asshole Republican governors from Wisconsin, Ohio and beyond.

AM: How are things going with The Nance?

LJS: I love doing The Nance. It’s a wonderfully ambitious piece. Nathan is his usual brilliant self.  Jack O’Brien is a terrific director. The cast is made up of kind and accomplished actors. The Lyceum is my favorite theater that I’ve played on Broadway. That said, it’s exhausting. I used to poo-pooh actors who complained about doing eight performances a week. That I’m jumping around out there like a teenager out there–I can almost see their point.

AM: Finally and honestly, Lewis, where do you see yourself ten years from now?

LJS: That’s a good question. I’ll be seventy-six.  Hopefully, I’ll be dining at the Edison coffee shop between a matinee and evening performance of a new play. Along with my old friends (and I MEAN old), Chip Zien, Mark Blum and Lee Wilkof (in their respective shows). With my ten-year-old grandson and Mary Macleod at my side.

Well, hopefully most of us will also all be around to meet them there for a good ol’ Edison corned beef on rye and a coffee. Until then, we’ll all continue to enjoy Lewis J. Stadlen on and off stages and screens, and wish him continued great good luck.

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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.

The Three Degrees.
(From left, Helen Scott, Freddie Pool, Valerie Holiday)

One of the most wondrous things about growing up in a showbiz family is that from a very early age you find yourself attending concerts. If you’re even luckier, those concerts encompass a wide range of styles and tastes.

The very first I ever attended were Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. My recently departed cousin Barry Finclair was one of their violinists, so he always got us great seats. But the first solo concert I ever saw was PDQ Bach, when we were visiting relatives in Poughkeepsie. I was maybe seven at the time, I hated it and I fell asleep midway through. In retrospect, I so wish I hadn’t, because Peter Schickele is a genius.

Aside from all the Broadway shows I ever saw and have seen, not to mention thousands of cabaret acts, concerts are my favorite things to attend. The first one I really remember clearly was Carly Simon, at Hofstra in 1980. This was before she caught stage fright, right around the same time when “Vengeance” was a big hit. I want to say it was a good show, but it really wasn’t. She did all the big hits, like “Anticipation” and “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” and “Legend In Your Own Time” and “Nobody Does it Better,” not to mention “You’re So Vain,” but she was also trying to transition into harder rock and it was a study in fruitlessness. But I love that I got to see her.

Then in ’82, Mom took me to an Elly Stone concert at the Bottom Line, may it rest in peace. THIS was a big deal. I don’t expect half of you reading this to know who Elly is or remotely care, but she’s kind of a legend; she was the star of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” and was basically considered the new American Piaf in her day. My mom was such a fan that Elly was and still is considered a goddess in our house (I’m friends with Elly now, all these years later, and she thinks that’s hilarious). But that was the night I fell in love with concertgoing. We actually sat through the second show, and it was also the night I became acquainted with the wonderful work of Kitty Hendrix, who sang backup for Elly and also became a friend of mine. Plus, who wouldn’t want to be thirteen years old and taken to see a show at the Bottom Line?

A year after that I had a chance to see Pete Seeger in concert, which really gave me my love of folk music. He was doing a very informal show in Westchester as a benefit for the Clearwater Project, with which he’s fiercely committed to clean up the Hudson River. As a special treat, he invited Arlo Guthrie to come up on stage and join him to duet on “Guantanamera.” To call it glorious would be an understatement. Which is why, when I was in college in 1986, I took an elective seminar called “The American Folk Tradition,” hosted by Mary Travers. Every week she would have a guest from the folk music world come and do an interview for about forty minutes, and then they’d do a mini-concert for the rest of the hour, sometimes joined by Mary and sometimes not. Because of that, I got to see such artists as Odetta, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Buskin & Batteau, and the New York Choral Society. The best was on the last day of the seminar, when she had Peter Yarrow as her guest. After the interview, they got up together and sang “Lemon Tree” and “500 Miles,” and then Peter said, “Mary, that was fun, but I keep feeling like there was something missing.” Then we heard a guitar strum from the back of the house, we all turned around, of course it was Paul Stookey, and we all went wild. He strolled down the aisle, playing and singing “The Wedding Song” and joined them on stage, and they gave us a blissful concert for the next hour. It was other-worldly.

That same year, David Bowie played at the Garden with his “Spiders from Mars” tour, and they just happened to add a second date. So my friend Jessica, who is a major Bowie fan, called me and said, “Look, they’ve added a second date and I have no money. If you can get us two tickets I’ll be your friend forever.” Now, I am not the biggest Bowie fan on earth by a longshot, but I knew what a great show he puts on plus I’d never seen a show at the Garden, and I had the cash so I got us the tickets. Whether I’m a fan of his or not, I cried my eyes out when he sang “Jean Genie.” It was THAT good.

That was the same year that the Monkees (minus Michael Nesmith) embarked on their “Pleasant Valley Sunday” tour, and it was coming to Pier 86 (when they still did concerts there).  So my friend Sandy begged me to get tickets for her and myself. I had a mad crush on Peter Tork, so I didn’t exactly need a lot of persuasion. We attended together, and they were amazing, but best of all was that for their opening acts they had Herman’s Hermits featuring  Peter Noone, as well as Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, and The Grass Roots, with whom I’ve had a lifelong love affair (and they sang EVERYthing, “Sooner or Later,” “Live for Today,” “Midnight Confessions,” “The River Is Wide,” you name it).

Right around that same time and through the late 80s, I caught three shows at the Bottom Line that absolutely changed my life for their greatness. The first was Phoebe Snow (again with friend Jessica). The second was Laura Nyro (with a boyfriend whose name I can’t remember) and the third was Janis Ian (alone, but we were all united as one in her genius).  I had a ticket to see Joan Armatrading three weeks later, but that afternoon I caught a vicious flu and had to give the ticket to a friend.

In 1990, my life was to rearrange when I was offered a job as a cabaret reviewer and features contributor for a magazine called Night & Day. My very first assignment was to review a Peggy Lee concert at The Ballroom. And I’d not been a huge fan of Peggy Lee until then, but this was an assignment, after all.  So I spent days figuring out what to wear, what to do with my hair, even what pen to bring with me to take notes. Miss Lee walked out onto that stage with a nine-piece band and knocked my socks off;  it was the sweetest trial by fire anyone could ever experience at twenty-one years of age, to be shown into the Ballroom, guided to the best seat in the house, encouraged to order anything I’d like to eat or drink for free, watch Peggy Lee for an hour, go home and write about it, and then GET PAID!

As if that wasn’t enough, four days later they sent me to the Beacon to review a major concert experience called “Heartstrings.” They rented me a limo, and my cherished friend Kim and I got all gussied up and attended the show and the party afterwards at Citicorp Market. It had a core cast and a script of which the theme was a fable about AIDS infiltrating humanity, and I was afforded the opportunity to discover some really fantastic musical theater performers (including a sensational vocalist named Mary Beth Purdy, who brought the house down when she sang “Come Rain or Come Shine” and has also become a friend of mine since then) but even more than this, it was hosted by Christopher Reeve (darling man, who I got to meet that night and may he rest in peace) and Marlo Thomas, and included such delicious moments as Tommy Tune dancing to “Kicking the Clouds Away” with a chorus of beautiful girls and Barbara Cook knocking all of us on our asses by singing “Love Don’t Need a Reason” by Peter Allen.

The next ten years were spent with attending a LOT of cabaret and jazz shows, two highlights of which were Dr. Hook at the Village Gate and Chaka Khan at the Blue Note (and she is so short you can’t believe it). Then came 2001, when sort-of-ex-husband and I met (long story, we were together and then apart and together again and then apart and now we’re sort of…I’m not sure), and I’m thrilled to say that he LOVES concerts. The first was Jane Olivor at Westbury, about seven weeks after we met because we’re both major fans, and we subsequently attended four more of hers at different venues. (As most of you know, Jane and I eventually worked together on a project and she did me dirt, so I refuse to ever see a concert of hers again. Whenever the lunatic does one). But we attended a whole big bunch of them together. The memorable standouts are of course Cher (in her first Farewell Tour, hee hee) at the Garden, Bette Midler in the “Kiss My Brass” tour (also at the Garden, on the memorable night she was flying off stage on the carousel horse to end the first act and it got stuck in mid-air), Linda Eder at Carnegie Hall (to which we brought his parents, who bitched about my getting such crappy seats), and Il Divo at Radio City.

And then there was the night, in 2002, when he said to me, “Let’s catch a concert at Jones Beach this summer. Look up who’s playing. You pick the artist.” So I looked it up, and there happened to be a Three Dog Night concert, and I worship Three Dog Night. But the problem with a Three Dog Night show is that there’s never a guarantee that Chuck Negron will be in shape to go on, and if he’s not in shape to go on, they cancel altogether and don’t give refunds. So I figured we shouldn’t chance it. I said, “Styx?” He said no. I said, “Supertramp?” He said no. I said, “Pat Benatar?” He said, “Certainly not. I hate her.” (So much for me picking the artist, and I should have known then that the marriage was in trouble). So then I said, “How about Hall & Oates, with Todd Rundgren as an opening act?” THAT idea he  liked. So we got tickets. And they put on a GREAT show; they sang every hit except “Private Eyes.” The downside was Rundgren, who had cocaine running down his face from the moment he came out to sing “Hello, It’s Me.”

Now, I also have this friend named Jennifer. Our birthdays are two days apart, so we can never forget. And she always goes out of her way to get me something incredible as a gift. That’s my Lovey. (I call her Lovey and she calls me Bunny. Don’t ask, it’s a friend thing). Anyhow, in ’07 she called me and said, “So what am I getting you this year?” You should also know if you don’t already that I collect giraffe statuettes. Fifty-eight and counting, to be precise. So I said, “A crystal giraffe from Swarovski.” She said, “No giraffes. I’ve given you enough giraffes.” So I said, “A set of All-Clad cookware. My friend Susan Scudder says you have to be married for forty years before you earn a set of All-Clad.” She said, “I’m not buying pots. What do you want more than anything that you can’t afford?” I said, “Get me a ticket to the Streisand show this autumn at the Garden.” She said, “But that’s October. I want you to enjoy it on your birthday.” I said, “You’re asking me, I’m telling you. I’ll wait three months to enjoy it if it means I can see Streisand.” So she got me a ticket, and the show was on a Monday night (the 9th, if I recall, John Lennon’s birthday). As I was dressing to go to the show, she called  me and said, “I know how much you’re looking forward to tonight and I hate to ask this, but they’ve added a second show for Wednesday and if you can possibly wait, I can get you upgraded to a Skybox in one of the Club Suites for that night.” So I waited the two nights. And it was the best thing I ever did. I saw Streisand from the best seat in the house.

Much more recently and as many of you know, I’ve been taking a lot of road trips with dear childhood friend George. Mostly New England but also Long Island. Anyway, all of a sudden after one of our trips this summer he offered me a ticket to go with him to the Beacon and see the Dukes of September, which is Boz Scaggs, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, and Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers. Would YOU say no? So of course we went, and it was absolutely magical.

The reason I bring all of this to light is because last night, Scott Barbarino (my cherished publisher at NiteLifeExchange.com) invited me to come see The Three Degrees do their show at Iridium. This will probably be their last time in New York; they’re hitting the road in a few days to do concerts in Japan again. For those of you unfamiliar with The Three Degrees (and shame on you if you are), they’re the female vocal trio who scored a huge hit in 1974 with the song “When Will I See You Again?” The current group is not comprised of the original members, which started in Philly in ’63, but they are three fabulously-talented women named Valerie Holiday, Helen Scott and Freddie Pool. And their energy is mesmerizing. It was literally one of the greatest concerts I have ever seen. Of course they sang that hit, but also “Dirty Ol’ Man,” “Shake Your Groove Thing,” “Maybe,” and did an incredible tribute to their fellow artists from Philadelphia (The O’Jays, McFadden & Whitehead, The Trammps, etc).

In closing, it was a trip to the  moon on gossamer wings. And I can’t wait to go see another concert. Soon.

About seven years ago, a dear friend of mine and I sat at a little bar on Ninth Avenue in the West 40s one night, knocking back a few and having some laughs, when he suddenly said to me, “You know you’re my favorite journalist of all time, right? Well, when the time comes, I want you to write my obituary.” I said, “Oh, honey, STOP!! Don’t be morbid!! And anyway, you’re gonna bury us all!!” He said, “No, no, I won’t. People might remember who I am, maybe for a little while, but I want you to promise me that you’ll write my obituary when the time comes.” So I said, “Fine. Should I ask if you have a title for this little opus I’m supposed to write?” He said, “Yes. I want you to call it Requiem for a Paperweight.” And we laughed and ordered another round and smoked a few more cigarettes as usual, and I figured that was the end of it. But it wasn’t. He died this morning. And writing this article may well be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, but I’m keeping the title as per his wishes.

The world has lost a wonderful gentleman named Ron Palillo. Most people probably know him best as the iconic character Arnold Horshack from the megahit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter on ABC for four seasons. Yes, he of the signature gravelly laugh, dorky clothes, comical Brooklyn accent and explanation of his moniker (“I’ll have you know that Horshack is a very old and RESPECTED name. It means, ‘The cattle are dying.'”) Whether he was joining a religious cult, becoming a figure not unlike Peter Finch in the movie Network or merely hanging out with his fellow Sweathogs, Horshack was to the 1970s what Urkel was to the 80s or Screech was to the 90s, in pop-culture parlance. And millions will never forget him or the joy he brought to the cultural landscape.

But I don’t want to talk about Horshack right now. I want to talk about Ron, the man I was blessed to know so well for over twenty years, and the joy he gave me personally as a friend.

In 1990 I got my first job in journalism, writing reviews and features for a now-defunct magazine called Night & Day. One feature of which I was particularly proud was an interview with my dear friend Shirley Stoler, which gave me great pleasure to write. So a few days after it was published, I was hanging out at Don’t Tell Mama on Restaurant Row having a drink at the bar when all of a sudden this guy came over and started staring at me. A little bit short, not a bad body and really luminescent skin. He looked an awful lot like Ron Palillo, but something was different; maybe he’d had his nose bobbed or something. So I smiled at him. He said, “Do you happen to be Andrew Martin?” I said yes, I was. “Oh, I love your writing so much! I was just reading your interview with Shirley Stoler the other day and I absolutely adore her. My name’s Ron Palillo.” I nearly spit my drink out of my nose. “I THOUGHT that was you!! HI!! Oh, I’m so pleased to meet you!! HUGE fan!! So you’re visiting New York, then?” By this point his lover Joey came over and joined us, Ron made introductions and explained that no, he and Joe were living in New York now, they’d just moved back and gotten a place in Chelsea. By three or four drinks later, the three of us were already great friends. They literally poured me into a cab to take me home to Queens after I gave them my phone number and they gave me theirs, and we all promised to see each other soon. Now, everybody knows how it works in entertainment circles in New York; you always promise you’ll see each other again and nine times out of ten you don’t. But this, I learned, is why nobody should have ever underestimated Ron Palillo.

About three weeks later, on a Friday night, I took my buddy Jim Loftus to see someone’s cabaret act at Rose’s Turn on Grove Street (I have absolutely no recollection whose cabaret act it was, so I apologize to whomever they are and I hope I gave you a nice review). We went downstairs after the show to sit by the piano and hear my friend Peter Gloo play and my other friend Elaine Brier sing, when all of a sudden Ron and Joe walked in. As soon as they saw me, they made a beeline for us. “Andrew! Why haven’t you called? You promised!! Never mind, it’s nice to see you now. May we join?” Of course I said yes and introduced them to Jim. Who, once they were seated, said, “Am I dreaming this? Did you honestly just introduce me to Arnold Horshack and now he’s sitting here with us?” I assured him it wasn’t a dream. We all got lit as lords and had a wonderful evening.

So, for at least the next year and longer, I kept in touch with them (I was never quite as friendly with Joe as I was with Ron, but Joe was always very happy to see me wherever it was). In due time, Night & Day Magazine folded, I was then moved over to the New York Native newspaper and then I parted company with them also, and after a few months away from it all except for occasional freelancing at magazines like Details and Lear’s, I started my own magazine, CaB. So I asked Ron if he might possibly be so gracious as to grant me an interview. Believe me, he needed no bidding; he was delighted to know that I’d be writing about him, and invited me to swing by the apartment he and Joe were subletting in Chelsea. It was really a little nothing of a building, a very innocuous brownstone,  and then I got to their apartment and nearly died. It was the most luxurious duplex I have ever seen, and I’ve been to some pretty luxurious duplexes in my day. I said, “You and Joe actually LIVE here? This isn’t a movie set or something?” He said, “Andrew, it’s called being on a hit show for several seasons.”

Then we did the interview. He spoke of growing up in Connecticut and how lonely he was most of the time as a kid, how much he wanted to be a star, how his gravelly laugh as Horshack was actually his father’s death rattle as he lay dying of cancer, how frustrated he’d always been after Kotter because nobody would take him seriously as an actor, and all kinds of other things nobody else could have possibly known about him. Then he showed me his drawings; he’d begun working as an illustrator for children’s books (one in particular, The Red Wings of Christmas, had been written by his dear friend Wesley Eure, who was best known as the star of the Sid/Marty Krofft series “Land of the Lost” and also as the longtime lover of Richard Chamberlain). He also spoke with desperate passion about his best friend, actress Debralee Scott, whom he loved more than life itself. It was an amazing interview and frankly left me more than a bit dazed.

For the next decade, Ron and I continued to have an absolute blast. He and Joe and I had mutual friends in the form of a couple, two wonderful guys named Woody Leatherwood and Larry Scheraldi, who threw the most wonderful parties imaginable at their apartment on West 39th. (By this point, Ron and Joe had taken a new apartment on 49th Street). I recall one night in particular when Ron and I and our other friend Tommy Femia decided to play “The Movie Game” This is where the first person names a movie, the second person names someone who was in that movie, the third person names another movie that person was in, and it just goes around and around until someone can neither name a person or a movie that goes with the subject. The whole point is to be as obscure as possible so you stump the next person. Ron really thought he was gonna get Tommy (the world’s best Judy Garland impersonator) out of the game when, after I named Vigil of the Night as the movie and Ron volunteered the name of Rita Page, Tommy looked at both of us and in his best Garland voice said, “She played my mother in Little Nellie Kelly.” Ron’s jaw dropped to the floor and he said, “That’s it. I’m out of the game. I give up.” It was adorable.

Then, in ’02, my ex-husband and I had four friends from out of town staying with us for Gay Pride Week, and one night after we took everybody to see the Empire State Building, we went to the same bar I mentioned in the first paragraph, on Ninth Avenue between 45th and 46th. We were all having a ball, then I got up to go to the bar and get another drink, and who should be standing at the jukebox but Ron. I said, “Oh, no you’re NOT, Ron Palillo!!” He turned around, saw me, came over and gave me a huge hug hello and then joined our table. The guys were absolutely beside themselves that “Andrew knows Arnold Horshack!!”

Ron was an absolute and understandable mess the day Debralee Scott died in 2005. It wasn’t hard to comprehend why; they were as close as brother and sister, and she and he and Joe were always constantly in each others lives. But I’d never seen him so upset and distraught. Hence, the night he insisted on meeting me for drinks at that bar. And also hence why he decided that I should write his obituary.

One of the very last times I spoke to him by phone was after he appeared in the opening number of the TVLand Awards. He said, “I hate that they trotted me out as HIM one more time, but I made a little cash and got to see some old friends. If Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson from “Little House on the Prairie”)  hadn’t been there I never would have gotten through it. Hey, do you know her?” I said that I most certainly did. He said, “Isn’t she the best? One of the funniest women on earth, and a brilliant actress, outrageously intelligent and the warmest creature you could imagine,” and he just sang her praises for well over a half hour.

Ron and Joe moved to the Palm Beach area a couple of years ago, and while Ron wasn’t particularly happy about it, he was certainly proud of their home. Our very last conversation was a couple of months ago, in Facebook Chat. He was extremely worried that he might have had cancer from all the smoking, he said he’d developed a cough that sounded a lot like his father’s, but that he’d begun seeing a respiratory therapist and that so far was so good. Then this morning, Joe came downstairs, saw Ron clutching his chest, called an ambulance and they set off for the ER, where he died shortly after arriving.

And so here we are tonight. Ron is gone and my heart is aching. But it’s not aching for myself. It’s aching for Joe. It’s aching for his siblings. It’s aching for all the social misfits out there like I was, who knew that in Arnold Horshack we had a friend for life. It’s aching for those people who were ever lucky enough to know him. And by now I’ve lost enough friends to also know that it’s not about all the things we didn’t get to do or having the chance to say a final goodbye, but all the things we DID get to do and all the chances we had to say a hello.

Thus, all there is left to say is one last hello. Rest in peace, my wonderful Paperweight. I love you.

Adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, both legitimate versions for children’s theater/school plays and humorous adult parodies, have been a staple of American theater for decades. A notable example of same was A Yellow Brick Road Runs Through It at the Grove Street Playhouse in the mid-90s, starring Paul Lucas and the late Julie Kurnitz, directed by Joseph Weiss with musical direction by Joel Maisano. Enter the Haberdasher Theatre Company, an ambitious and merry band of Off-Off-Broadway entertainers, who have now brought their own adaptation of the play to the Drilling Company Theater, 236 West 78th Street, and the result is a nonstop chucklefest which simply must return to the New York stage after it closes on June 30th.

This version was initially adapted by Jeanette Jaquish for children’s theater before playwright/director Hollie Elizabeth Klem adapted it further for an adult audience, and the result couldn’t be more sensational. This time around, Auntie Em is a tough cookie from Queens who had to sell the house and move to a farm with orphaned niece Dorothy and her dog Toto. After the dog has been threatened to be destroyed by evil neighbor Almira Gully, the child decides to run away to New York City, pup in tow. It’s only after a chance meeting with slimy vacuum salesman Professor Osland that he convinces her to return home, at which point, of course, she and the house are subsequently swept up in the tornado that brings her to Oz. As expected, the house smashes the Wicked Witch of the East; what’s not expected is that instead of Munchkinland, Dorothy is informed by Glinda that she’s landed in NoHo Village. The story continues much in the same way as the beloved story, but with a few delectable twists; we learn of the deep sibling rivalry between the two wicked witches, Glinda carries a long pink shotgun rather than a magic wand, the band of Flying Monkeys are a ghetto crew, and the greeters at the gate of Oz Castle could be a hairdresser’s convention in the Castro. It all combines to an uproarious two hours that speaks volumes of the Haberdasher Theatre Company’s potential, especially under Klem’s directorial helm.

Performance-wise, there’s not a weak one to be had. An obvious measure of any parody of The Wizard of Oz are strong performances, and they are here in abundance. Tami Soligan is perfection as Dorothy, vulnerable and lost in wonder but possessing an inherent bravery. Jeff Foley as the Scarecrow is so adorable you just want to put him in your pocket and take him home, and Brian Ogston makes the wise choice of playing the Tinman with a bit of an edge even sharper than his axe. One wouldn’t think that casting a woman as the Lion would be prudent, but Nicole J. Lippey gives it her all and comes up swinging at every turn.  Matt Giroveanu absolutely sparkles in the dual roles of Professor Osland and the Wizard, and likewise Christen Madrazo as both Auntie Em and Glinda. And the four members of the ensemble each have a chance for more than one standout moment; they are Melody Cheng, Joseph Dale Harris, Jennifer Michaels (who is particularly delicious as both the mean Apple Tree and the Gatekeeper besides the Wicked Witch of the East) and Nick Panagakos. But the standout performance of the evening is the talented (and blindingly beautiful) Taylor Zito as both Almira Gully and the Wicked Witch of the West; this gal is electric in the role right up until her final exit after melting (with a hilarious action that has to be seen to be believed). Overall, this cast is simply breathtaking.

The technical side of this production is equally top-shelf. Although it would be nice if the show had a higher budget for sets, designer Link Salas has created a beautiful forest. Michael A. Megliola’s lighting is absolutely divine as is the prop design by Keri Taylor, and Adam Weir on sound design and stage management proves impeccable in both capacities. As for the costume and makeup design of Katie Grammes, the only appropriate adjective would be ‘outstanding.’ And Quincy Ellis provides admirable fight choreography.

In an ideal world, Haberdasher’s production of The Wizard of Oz would at the very least make a permanent move to a higher-profile house that would enable them to achieve the following they so deeply deserve. Alas, this is not to be. If perhaps there’s a wizard out there who can grant them that wish, the Off-Off-Broadway community would emerge as undoubtedly richer.

When one thinks of the great celebrity impersonators of the last sixty years, many names spring to mind. As far as the males, there’s of course Rich Little, David Frye, Fred Travalena, Charlie Callas, George Kirby, Jim Meskiman, and more. Among the women, there’s Marilyn Michaels, Louise DuArt, Christine Pedi, Klea Blackhurst, Suzanne Blakeslee, Tracey Berg, Chloe Webb, Jane Horrocks, Hynden Walch and so many others. And as far as those who cross over from male-to-female impressions, there’s Craig Russell, Charles Pierce, Tommy Femia, Brian Murphy, Steven Brinberg, Jim Bailey, Kenny Sacha, Jamie Beaman, Rick Skye and a plethora too numerous to list. Not to mention the triumph Rainie Cole scored with Always Patsy ClineRita McKenzie’s Call Me Ethel, Totie starring Nancy Timpanaro, Julie Sheppard as Judy Garland and the entire catalogs of Michele LaFong, Alison Briner or Angela LaGreca. But a new and extremely-stellar talent has joined their legendary ranks, and if her first full-length cabaret act I Hear Voices, which will play its final show (for now) at the Duplex (61 Christopher Street) on Tuesday the 12th at 7 PM is any indication, the genre has a brand-new and rightfully-deserving star on its hands. Her name is Carly Sakolove, and to call her a genius simply doesn’t sum up what this lady has got to give. If this were 1962, she’d be a superstar beyond words. But she must become one regardless; she’s THAT good.

Directed by the ever-excellent Bill Russell (a Tony nominee for his work on Side Show, and previously-renowned for his collaboration with Frank Kelly on the Off-Broadway mega-hit Pageant), the evening is basically a therapy session spent between Sakolove and her therapist explaining that she doesn’t merely HEAR voices, but that then they speak through her. The voices in question, however, happen to be those of the greatest divas of our time from Broadway and beyond, including Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Elaine Stritch, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and Julie Andrews. Now, to those who either do impressions or are a fan of impressionists, some of them may seem indeed slightly run-of-the-mill. Sakolove, however, has more than a few tricks up her sleeve; she also provides faultless sound-a-likes, either spoken or sung, by Idina Menzel, Dame Judi Dench, Jennifer Coolidge, Susan Sarandon, Heather Hedley, Alice Ripley and Jane Lynch. As if none of THAT was enough, as evidenced when she released her Some People and Send in the Clowns clips within the last season to viral effect on YouTube, it became clear that she can record her brilliant pastiches in one take without a breath from voice to voice, a feat never accomplished by a similar artist. Hence, this is a young lady very possibly headed for extreme greatness within the genre. One is left to wonder what she might next add to her act: Betty Buckley? Barbara Cook? Madeline Kahn? Angela Lansbury? Audra McDonald? Whatever they may be, Sakolove has established herself once and for all as a true wonder of the nightlife universe with her otherwordly talents.

In addition, one must make mention of the splendiferous accompaniment of musical director Dan Micciche. His prowess on the keys is only matched by his phenomenal abilities to display the lady perfectly, and keep up with her numerous personas as they unfold throughout the evening.

Needless to say, I Hear Voices, and of course Carly Sakolove, stand to emerge as one of the greatest finds in the last several decades of cabaret and beyond. For those wishing to catch her final show at the Duplex this Tuesday before she is most certainly whisked away to greater stardom, do not hesitate to call 212-255-5438. In all truth, this is neither a cabaret act nor a concert. It is as much a happening event as seeing Midler herself at the Baths in ’71. Seats are goin’ fast, folks!

(UPDATE: Due to popular demand, Sakolove has extended her show for two additional nights at the Duplex, Thursday, June 21st at 9:30 PM, and Friday, June 29th at 7 PM)

The dual phenomena of “spoken-word” and “slam poetry” have infiltrated modern culture like a requisite epidemic. Harkening back splendidly to the days of beatnik nightlife, when throngs would gather in darkened coffeehouses to hear poetry delivered by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and applaud with finger-snapping, the art form has received a miraculous re-awakening ever since Thaddeus Rutkowski began reviving it at such venues as Jackie 60 in the early 1990s, whenceupon it was taken up by all manner of poets both amateur and professional who began plying their cornucopia of wares throughout New York and the globe. One of the most stellar of the slam poets to emerge in the last ten years is most certainly a gentleman by the unusual name of Taylor Mali. A New York City WASP by birth and a schoolteacher by profession, the last calendar year has seen him emerge as viral on YouTube and other Internet broadcast media because of his poem What Teachers Make,” which has garnered nearly four million hits on one website alone. The one-man show Teacher! Teacher! would soon follow thereafter, and win a major comedy prize. A follow-up, entitled “The The Impotence of Proofreading,” has been equally successful. Since that time, he has published several books, created the New Teacher Project (later renamed Quest for 1,000 Teachers), recorded a number of CDs and also loaned his voice to narrating various projects, and for a time became the president of Poetry Slam, Inc. Though fame and tireless work have taken him throughout the world as both educator and performer, he mercifully found the time to grant an interview to The Andrew Martin Report. And we couldn’t feel more honored or privileged to have been so thusly indulged.

ANDREW MARTIN: Can you describe your upbringing as a New York City WASP? You seem to have a long lineage that goes back several centuries. Conversely, what was your own school experience like as a student? Where did you attend from K-12, and where did you go to college? Even more conversely, was there any one teacher in particular who inspired you to become a teacher and later an advocate for education?

TAYLOR MALI: My WASP upbringing was pretty standard stuff, really. We named our houses, named our cars, and ONLY named our dogs after local bodies of water. Everyone had a trust fund and was told never to talk about it with anyone. I attended The Collegiate School, established by the Dutch in 1628, just about 30 years before my earliest ancestor was born on the island. Another branch of the family that would one day combine to produce me had already been living in the country for almost one hundred years, having landed in Salem sometime in the 1500s. I went to Bowdoin College in Maine. Then Oxford University for a summer of drama school. Then eventually Kansas State University for an MA in English Lit/Creative Writing. It was there that I discovered my passion for teaching. So there was no single teacher that did it. Rather, the love was born of exigency.

AM: How long had you been teaching before you decided to immerse yourself in the spoken-word art form? Did the two automatically go hand in hand?

TM: The spoken word came first by about three years. I performed a poem at Oxford as part of a talent show among the actors, and it went over REALLY well. That was summer 1987, and I credit that with being my first spoken word piece. Three years later, at a poetry reading in San Francisco, I performed another piece (that would go on to become the poem “I Could Be a Poet”), and it solidified my understanding that performing a poem well was just as important as writing it well. That fall I left for Kansas, unaware that the first National Poetry Slam was coming to the SF Bay Area. Had I stayed in the Bay Area, I probably would have discovered the poetry slam a few years earlier than I did, but the craft I learned at KSU might have taken we much longer to develop. But to answer your question more directly, teaching and poetry go hand in hand because they are both about instruction and delight.

AM: Was it ever difficult, or even surreal, to have to balance being a teacher on one hand with being a spoken-word artist on the other?

TM: No, never. I treated one as a kind of performance, and the other as a kind of lesson.

AM Was “What Teachers Make” actually inspired by a real event? If not, what inspired it? Likewise “Proofreading.”

TM: There really was an incident with a lawyer at a New Year’s Eve Party (in 1997) that was the triggering subject of “What Teachers Make.” I’m sure he didn’t phrase his question that way (“Be honest, what do you make?”); that was me using poetic license. But more importantly, even if the lawyer HAD asked the question that way, I am not witty or brave enough to have been able to answer his question in any form similar to what became the poem “What Teachers Make.” The poem is totally what I WISH I had said. “Proofreading” came from repeated attempts by my computer to correct the spelling of my name; I tell people that my spell checker suggested Taylor Mali might have been a botched attempt on my part to spell “Toilet Malice,” but I think I made that up.

AM: Was it ever surprising when “Teachers” began to go so viral so quickly?

TM: Yes. Every bit of attention that my work has received has been surprising to me.

AM: What is the New Teacher Project exactly, and what has it accomplished?

TM: I’ve had to change the name of the project because there already is a great non-profit called “The New Teacher Project,” founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997. Their executive director called me to say their lawyers recommended sending me a cease & desist letter, but she said no way because they are all fans of mine! Anyway, my Quest for 1,000 Teachers was a goal I gave myself in 2000, which started quite informally: I would help convince a thousand people to become teachers through the way I talk about the profession. Gradually, I got more serious about how I kept track of the teachers on my list, and then I promised to cut off twelve inches of my hair when I reached my goal. Everything came together for the publication of  my book “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World,” and early in April I approved that thousandth teacher and cut my hair live onstage.

AM: Did you particularly enjoy the process of writing your books? Was there anything you disliked about the process? I ask the same question about the CDs you’ve recorded.

TM: Only the writing of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” felt like writing a book because it’s the only one where I really had to hit the chair every day and turn out pages whether I wanted to or not. My two other books and all of my CDs are collections of poetry, and so were produced/compiled more episodically.

AM: Tell us about Poetry Slam Inc. and your experience of being their president.

TM: I was the first president after Marc Smith, the founder of the poetry slam and PSI’s “president for life.” You could argue that I was the perfect person to succeed Marc, but my tenure was marked by what is considered the WORST National Poetry Slam ever! That was a bad year for me, 2004; my wife died, and I’d just rather forget it all.

AM: We all know that Teacher! Teacher! won a solo prize at the Comedy Arts Festival in ’01. Are there any plans to bring it back?

TM: There should be, shouldn’t there? No. But it’s high time I wrote another solo show.

AM: You’ve also won at least one award for narrating The Great Fire. How does providing voice work for those projects you’ve not personally created differ from work on those you have?

TM: It’s so much easier to just swoop in and be The Voice. But it’s harder in that you have to internalize the syntactical rhythms of the author and make them your own. I like reading aloud (especially to a beautiful woman, curled up on my chest, smiling).

AM: Where do you see yourself five years from now, and what frontiers would you still like to conquer?

TM: I’ll still be doing what I’m doing, traversing the globe teaching poetry. But I’ll be better at it, and I might be based somewhere else. I’d like to teach online poetry classes using some sort of video Skype PAID conference call type service that probably already exists.

Wherever life may take him next, Taylor Mali is sure to go down in performance history as a force of nature made of lightning. Anyone unfamiliar must acquaint themselves with his work. After all, those who can, do. Those who can’t, well…