Archive for the ‘Webisodes’ Category

Bobby Banas (left) in "Let's Make Love, alongside Marilyn Monroe

Bobby Banas (left) in “Let’s Make Love, alongside Marilyn Monroe

A certain clip on YouTube recently went extremely viral on the Internet, showing a sextette of dancers in 1964 on Judy Garland’s weekly CBS Sunday night program engaging in an energetic routine to the novelty song “The Nitty Gritty,” as voiced by Shirley Ellis (also well-known for her recording of “The Name Game”). Featured front and center was a young male dancer, whose dark hair and black button eyes made him an immediate standout, aside from his impeccable rhythm and the fact that he was tearing into it like his last meal. His name turns out to be Bobby Banas, and besides how brilliant he was in that particular performance, before and after that he’d already made featured appearances in such films as West Side Story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and as one of the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins, besides being known as the boy who kissed Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love and a plethora of television appearances, which included a famous episode of Get Smart! He’d also made his first initial click in Peter Pan on Broadway with Mary Martin and the subsequent television version on NBC. Banas later became a much-desired choreographer as well as dance teacher in the Los Angeles area, and counted numerous notable names among his students. He’s mostly retired now from the world of terpsichore, but occupies his time as a Rosarian (an expert on rose blossoms). And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more thrilled that the gentleman, now in his very early eighties, found the time to grant us an interview.

ANDREW MARTIN: When you were growing up, did you always know you wanted to be a dancer? Or was it simply that you started in dance classes in any way reluctantly and eventually people came to see that you had a genuine talent for it? Where did the passion for it really begin?

BOBBY BANAS:  I must say that I didn’t know I wanted to be a dancer at that time. It wasn’t until 1941, when the war broke out. Both my parents decided to take jobs, and since they were both from Pennsylvania, my dad became a Military Chief Inspector for the steel mills in McKeesport while mom became a propeller inspector for Curtis Wright in Erie. They were wondering about what was to become of my sister and I, of course. Well, it so happened that our grandmother, dad’s mother, was widowed and lived on a small farm in Windber. Dad thought he could help his mother financially and that it would be a great place for us to grow up, and he and mom visited twice a month. And there was a dancing school in town. So on one of dad’s visits, he went to look it over and to see if Sis and I could take dance lessons. Well, that was the beginning. The teacher’s name was Agnes Shontz, and she taught just about everything; ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics and ballroom. I guess she thought Sis and I would be a miniature version of Fred and Ginger. So Sis wore a beautiful pink gown, and I a black tuxedo, and we danced to Strauss waltzes at parties, weddings and recitals. It was fun. And as we got better at it, she taught us some lifts and spins. At the same time, my grandmother was a heavy churchgoer and she was Russian Orthodox, so we were obliged to go. I eventually became an altar boy for four years and thought of priesthood. But on Saturday evenings, the church had social gatherings at the church hall, and I was blown away when all of a sudden the music would get loud with accordions and violins and balalaikas. The crowd would start to chant when a couple of dancers headed for the room, flip-flopping, knee-spinning, jump-splits and coffee-grinders. I started jumping up and down and couldn’t stand still, because I wanted to join in. It seemed like every clan in Russia was there doing a ritual dance. When the last group finished, everyone in the room grabbed a partner and it was polka time. One Sunday on our way to church, as my Sis and I were walking through town, I heard this unbelievable sound of voices and hand-clapping. I stopped, and it was a storefront with painted windows, so you couldn’t see inside. Once again it was though I was struck by lightning. Here were these voices intoning, “Bless me, O Lord, Hallelujah!” in an infectious pounding rhythm, and my body responded as though someone had taken control of my limbs. I started to dance spontaneously. My sister was saying “Robert, we’re going to be late for church!” and I barely heard her. But I turned and reluctantly headed in her direction.

AM: I understand that your first real dance job on Broadway was in the chorus of Peter Pan at quite a young age. What was that experience like and what were the standout moments? Conversely, how did it differ from doing the television version later?

BB: Well, first you have to understand what led up to that. After the war ended, Dad headed to LA to search for a brother of his. He didn’t have luck tracking him down, but he fell in love with the weather and sent for all of us. Sis and I started dance lessons again, but she became interested in boys and completely lost interest in dance. I continued on, got a scholarship with the Michael Panaieff ballet school and also a scholarship to Hollywood Professional School. I was going to continue theater and dance at UCLA when I graduated, but I attended an audition for Carousel at the LA Civic Light Opera and got cast as Enoch Snow Jr. Then Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Plain and Fancy, and then Peter Pan. Which went to Broadway, and I loved being on Broadway. We played at the Winter Garden for six months, and then Mary Martin got tired, so we closed and did the TV version. But it could only be shown once, as NBC couldn’t get the rights to re-broadcast it at the time. They did eventually, though, and it still gets shown, which makes me happy.

AM: You did so many films as a dancer at the beginning of your career for which you were uncredited. Do you resent that at all? Or was it just sort of, “all in a day’s work?”

BB:  Well, I started in film and television in the 1950s, where first I did a lot of rock’n’roll movies for the producer Sam Katzman. As far as TV, I did Danny Kaye’s show, Dinah Shore’s show, Milton Berle’s show,  “Hollywood Palace,” and “Hullabaloo” later, and then even later I was on a special with Lindsay Wagner and a bunch of others. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I worked all the time. And yes, it was unfortunate to sometimes not be credited. But I will say, Steven Spielberg always went out of his way to credit everybody. I was in both “Hook” and “Always,” and he was very generous about giving credit. At the time I was starting out, getting credit didn’t really matter to me. All I wanted to do was dance. But looking back on it now? Sure, I should have been credited. We all deserved it.  

AM: Can you describe what the experience was like of making West Side Story? How did you feel when it won the Oscar that year?

BB: West Side Story was a big boost to the cast members. Having worked with Jerome Robbins twice before, in both Peter Pan and the film version of The King and I, I felt confident that I had a good chance of getting the job.  But when I saw a lot of unfamiliar faces at the casting call, I figured he’d brought all of his Broadway cast members and this was a publicity stunt. After getting five auditions and getting picked with some other local guys, I was proven wrong about that. Up until the awards came out, I thought it was just another musical. Boy, was I wrong. All the doors started to open when you said you’d been in West Side Story. I was getting jobs right and left, and that’s when I started to choreograph and teach.

AM:  What was it like to work with Marilyn Monroe on Let’s Make Love, and did her death have a profound effect on you?

BB: Working with Marilyn Monroe was a dream. But to be choreographed to kiss her, at the end of the dance number…oh, I thought my heart would explode. What was so funny was, during the end of the dance number, she grabbed me and Alex by the hair before she was to swing around one of the poles. Well, I had a lot of pomade in my hair, and after grabbing it she flew around the pole and lost her balance. She turned to the director and said, “I think someone has too much grease in his hair.” OOPS! So they sent me to makeup to wash my hair. I returned, and the number began again. Now the end was approaching, and I was supposed to kiss her, so I hit her lips with mine but slid across her face. So I turned to the director and said in a low voice, “I think someone has too much grease on her face.” To which they both laughed. Of course it was sad to learn of her death. I felt the same when I learned about Natalie Wood. Both had unusual circumstances and questionable facts about the truth.

AM: Can you describe what the process was like of making Mary Poppins?

BB: Mary Poppins was a delight to work on. All of us sweeps were hired on a higher rate for the stunt-like dancing we were to be doing. DeeDee Woods and Marc Breaux were so nice to everyone, it was more like a family and made everyone feel at ease. I also worked with DeeDee on Li’l Abner and she was a gem there also. It was a lot of fun, with a lot of very energetic dancing originally choreographed by Michael Kidd.

AM: Do you have any one film performance of yours that you’d consider your very favorite of all?

BB: I guess I’d have to say working with Marilyn Monroe. I became the envy of all the other male dancers because of the kiss. but it was a great experience to work with Jack Cole, who gave me a lot of strength and posture to better my dance technique.

AM: Is it at all surprising that the clip of “The Nitty Gritty” from the Judy Garland show has gone so viral recently? What do you remember most about doing that show? And was that your choreography?

BB: I can’t BELIEVE what has happened with the “Nitty Gritty” clip. Several years ago a friend said he had a copy that he found somewhere. He gave me one, I looked at it and put it away. I didn’t think it was anything to get that excited about, and that was that. Then I guess someone else found a copy, and posted it on YouTube. Then someone else posted it on Facebook and the sh*t hit the fan. I was getting e-mail and calls, and questions about who was which dancer besides me, and all types of remarks wanting to know what type of dance it was. Yes, it was my choreography and my own interpretation of the song. Peter Gennaro was the choreographer for Garland,  but he had to go to New York that week for some reason and his assistant didn’t have any idea what to do with the tune, so the director asked me to come up with a dance and that was the result.

AM: I’m told that when you were teaching, one of your students (who adores you) was my pal Tracy Nelson. What other notable students have you had, and what do or did you enjoy most about teaching?

BB: I just started to teach and I enjoyed it so much. I started the Bob Banas Musical Dance Company, with young kids and older ones. We performed at City of Hope, the World Martial Arts Competition at the Sports Arena,  Rug Concerts, the Hollywood Press Club, the opening of shopping centers, and so many other venues. I’ve done lectures at different universities, I taught at the Dick Grove School of Music, and I’ve done a lot of work with disabled children. Some other students I’ve had were Cher, Barbara Hershey, Susan Clark, John Travolta, BarBara Luna, Charmian Carr and Bruce Lee, to name a few. Teaching is like giving back, helping and encouraging those who wanted the thrill of performing on stage with music and lights before a live audience. Some had the talent to pursue further, but for some reason had other dreams. But they took with them the great experience of having done it. And there were a few that went on to become professionals.    

AM: Obviously the world of theater-dance had lost a lot of wonderful people in the last thirty years. Who of your contemporaries do you miss the most? And who do you still treasure most as friends?

BB:  It’s so hard to name those dancers I worshiped most. I always thought Gene Kelly was great, but never had the chance to work with him. I did get to work with Bob Fosse and loved his work, Jack Cole had a great style, and I loved studying ballet with Michael Panaieff.

AM: What is an average day like for the Bobby Banas of today?

BB:  Well, I’m a professional Rosarian now, taking care of people’s roses. One of my clients is Debbie Reynolds, with whom I’ve been privileged to work on the movies Say One for Me and How the West Was Won besides The Unskinable Molly Brown. Usually I’m up at 5 AM to start with a client in Malibu, then off to Westwood, Beverly Hills and Studio City. My busiest time is just after New Year’s, when I get to prune all the roses back and prepare them for dormancy. Then in spring I get to revive them and prepare for the first bloom. I’m always at a nursery buying supplies, and checking out the new rose additions for the coming year.

AM: What advice would you offer to the average young man of today, no matter how talented or not, who wanted to try to make it as a dancer?

BB: To become a dancer today, I must say, is totally different from when I started out. Hip-hop and acrobatic tumbling seems to dominate the dance scene now.  The show “Glee” kind of represents the old style along with some hip-hop, but they add vocals to make everybody a triple threat. It does represent Broadway and in musicals in film and television, but in my day I had to study ballet, tap, ballroom, primitive, modern, acting and jazz. Now, it seems, if you can throw a back-handspring or a few coffee-grinders, you can call yourself a specialty dancer. Granted, any precision group dancing can be as effective as well as someone who spins on his head. Break dancing and hip-hop qualify as effective, of course. But I’d rather see West Side Story, Carousel, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Mary Poppins.

And who wouldn’t? Bobby Banas is a national treasure. Please check out his rich legacy of dancing on film.

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By now, The Andrew Martin Report has become so firmly established with profiling “cyber-lebrities” (those folks who have immersed themselves in self-broadcasting on YouTube and video blogs to viral results) that it seems almost unthinkable that there could be any left for us to explore. But indeed, there is a new and wholeheartedly brilliant and talented one. Identifying himself only as “Matt from Doomsday Diaries,” this cute-as-a-button bundle of energy hails from a town in New Jersey, attended NYU, and now resides in the Los Angeles area in pursuit of his future. He got the idea to begin posting one video per day until December 21st, 2012, when the Mayans predicted the world will come to an end. And his vids quickly received a small-but-strong and very-loyal following. However, it was one video in particular, released on February 26th of this year, that quickly garnered more attention than any of Matt’s previous efforts; it was in fact a tribute to all of the winners of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Here, in full flood, is all of Matt’s energy, talent, charisma and sheer fabulousness combined (not to mention flawless impressions of some of the greatest character actresses of the last eighty years), and its been no surprise why the clip has received nearly forty thousand hits in less than two months, with the numbers continuing to growing by leaps and bounds. Though extremely private about his personal details, Matt was gracious to offer us an interview.
ANDREW MARTIN: Where did this whole “Doomsday Diaries” idea come from? Do you really think the universe is about to call it quits, and if so, why?
MATT: Ya know, I’m not a hundred percent positive that the world will end on December 21st, 2012.  I don’t think anyone is.  For all we know, the Mayan Indians could have completely miscalculated their findings.  Or maybe they wanted to see us future civilians squirm, so they tricked us all into thinking we were done for.  Or maybe their hands just got tired from making all those damn calendars and didn’t feel like making any more.  Who knows?  All I know is that the calendar ends.  So if this does mean that we are all gonna be blown to smithereens in a few months, I figured that people would want to not feel so alone in the final year.  After all, when you know there are only three-hundred-sixty-six days (it’s leap year!) left of your life, you could spend them feeling a little downtrodden, discouraged, and defeated.  I figured that our final years on Earth would be much more pleasant and comforting if we all felt like we were in this together.  When I count down to the end of the world with my viewers, it’s like a big party!  It’s like counting down to New Year’s!  It makes the idea of Doomsday seem much more exciting.
AM: What gave you the idea to begin posting on YouTube, either Doomsday-based or not?
MATT: I knew that YouTube would be the best way to reach a lot of people.  I wanted to appeal to spread the countdown to the masses.  As you can tell, I have a whole lot to say, and I wanted everyone to hear.  After all, since the world is ending, I figured I had nothing to lose.  So, I decided to whip out the big guns and really put myself out there!
AM: Let’s specifically talk about the Best Supporting Actresses video. What attracts you to these women in particular?
MATT: Well, I’ve always loved supporting performances.  I would always watch movies/television shows/plays and be drawn to the “other” characters.  The leading roles were snoozefests.  I liked the crazy people who would come in and steal the show!  Everyone loves someone who can steal the show, especially when it’s a woman who steals the show. Plus, the leading actress roles tend to be a little more beautiful and/or glamorous.  The supporting actress roles tend to be a little more weird and/or cray cray.  I’ll take cray cray over glamorous any day!
AM: Have you always had a gift for doing impressions, female or otherwise? Where did that begin? Have you had any other aspirations for a career in performance?
MATT: Well, my brother did always use to get a kick out of dressing me up as various characters and making me perform for the whole family.  He would decorate me with various things he would find around the house: wigs, boots, dresses, hats, make-up, our mother’s bras, etc.  I was pretty much his very own walking and talking My Size Barbie.  I first learned I was pretty good at impressions when I was a wee little lad with an obsession with the Spice Girls.  I would re-enact their songs, interviews, and brilliant performances in the movie Spice World, and everyone was floored that such a little boy could distinguish between each of the girls’ specific dialects and vocal inflections.  It just came naturally, I guess.  And, now that the world is ending, I figured I might as well show everyone what I got.
AM: What accounts for your fascination with the Oscars?
MATT: Well, I’ve always loved movies and entertainment.  But that’s just a given.  And I’ve always been very entertained by awards shows.  The reason why is gonna sound like a crazy, confusing, obsessive-compulsive quality, so bear with me.  I’ve always loved the idea of categorizing things.  I love thinking things like, “OK, in this year, this happened.  Which makes it different from this other year, in which this happened.”  I love the idea that the “essence” of one year of movies can feel so different from the “essence” of another.  I like seeing how different movies and performances resonate with people differently in different eras of time. Plus, when people win Oscars, you see all of their dreams come true on live television.  It’s fun watching the reactions, especially when they are crazy.  Any piece of live TV where Melissa Leo can drop the F-Bomb and then steal Kirk Douglas’s cane in a moment where she is receiving a highly prestigious and “serious” award is always tops in my book!  I live for those live moments of craziness, and I love me some nice, teary, snotty, messy acceptance speeches.
AM: Provided the earth isn’t going to face Doomsday in 2012 as predicted, where do you see yourself five years from now?
MATT: Hmmm…let’s see. If we are all alive five years from now, I might just be sitting at my computer watching my old videos like they were home movies.  That’ll be hours and hours of footage by that point.  Twenty-five years from now, I’ll be showing them to my kids.  And fifty-five years from now, I’ll be showing them to my grandkids.  It’ll be nice to be able to say “Hey, Kids!  Look at how your grandpop wasted an ENTIRE year of his life!”  I hope YouTube will still be around by then.
AM: What advice could you give to others who’d like to express themselves through self-broadcasting?
MATT: Talk about/do what you LOVE. Don’t change anything so that people will “relate” to it. Just do what you do and someone who naturally relates to it will find it and love it. I had no idea that anyone else in the world cared about Best Supporting Actresses, but, apparently…they do! And try to keep your video/broadcasting short and to the point. People nowadays have short attention spans. I mean, it’s understandable. They have a lot they have to do before the world ends in eight months! Also, poop and/or fart jokes are always funny. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that they aren’t. Throw a few into your video/broadcasting, and you’ll get a like from me.
Well, he gets a like from us, without a doubt. Please feel free to join Matt’s YouTube channel if you like what you see. And considering the sort of future this Bright Young Thing has ahead of himself, it’s your luck to catch him at the ground-floor level. After all, seven months from now we could all be blown to smithereens, so there’s no time like the present.

It’s interesting to think that as recently as ten years ago, the word “viral” had the same connotation as a death sentence. Today, of course, in the age of the YouTube phenomenon and Webseries springing up like carpets of mushrooms, the adjective has become cherished by those who choose to spend their time producing video displays; in modern parlance, it denotes attention by tens of thousands on the Internet. One such clip, which was filmed in March of 2011 and enigmatically titled “An Example of the Prolonged Effects of Exposure to Musical Theater,” somehow has managed in the last two weeks to reach officially viral status, going from a few hundred hits to nearly one hundred thousand in the space of a few days. It features a downright adorable young gentleman in a hoodie, lip-synching his way through snippets of no less than ninety songs from sixty-seven Broadway musicals in the space of five-and-a-half minutes. More than this, though, is the brilliance with which this clip was edited and pieced together, and his obvious gift for comedy and facial expression. Thousands were suddenly talking about it on social networking sites and theater-chat message boards, and while the clip has its detractors, fans of musical theater far and wide have embraced it. The big question that emerged, however, was “Who IS this guy??”

Well, it transpires that his name is Kevin Harris. He’s a twenty-four-year-old graphic-design student currently living in Seattle after growing up in Richland, WA. And he graciously granted The Andrew Martin Report a most intelligent and insightful interview.

ANDREW MARTIN: What draws you to theater music/musical theater?

KEVIN HARRIS: I grew up watching classic movie musicals like The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie, but I never really understood that they were originally stage shows. I guess I was always a little bit of a performer. I enjoyed being goofy and making people laugh, but most of my interest was in drawing. When I was in elementary school I participated in some small plays, but didn’t do anything else until my sophomore year of high school. My sister kept trying to get me to audition for shows, but I never thought I would be very good at it. I finally gave in and auditioned for Bye Bye Birdie, and ended up being cast. Ever since that first show, I was hooked and practically lived in the school auditorium until I graduated. I also participated in my school’s musical theatre class. My teacher, Lynn Morin, introduced me to the music of Sondheim, Schwartz, Kander and Ebb and all the other greats. It was because of that class that I really started to delve into the wonderful world that is musical theatre. Sadly, I have not been on stage in about three years. As for right now, I’m just studying away in school.

AM: Was making faces and being comical something you’ve always done? Were you the class clown? Did you ever have any aspirations to go into comedy (standup, sketch, improv, etc) as opposed to theater? Do you have any particular inspirations or heroes in comedy?

KH: I think I’ve always had a knack for contorting my face. I remember when I was very young, my mom would ask me to do my silly faces and she would crack up at her crazy little boy. People may say differently, but I don’t really think I was the class clown in school when I was growing up. I did joke around a lot when I was with my friends, though. Now that I am older and in college, I am definitely more vocal and will crack jokes in class, and banter with my professors. I guess you could say being in theatre made me a bit more comfortable with “performing” around people I don’t know. When it comes to performing, I have always been drawn to live theatre. I have been told that I should try standup, but I’m not really interested in it. I’m not so much about telling jokes as much as I am about creating characters. Sketch comedy and improv do interest me, but I haven’t had much opportunity to do either. I have been wanting to write a one-man show for a while, so I could have the chance to play multiple characters. I have about four plays I have been brainstorming over the years that would involve the actors playing multiple parts, and could include some improv as well, but who knows if I will ever finish them? I love a lot of the old comic greats like Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and Danny Kaye. But I would have to say that my absolute favorites are Paul Lynde and Jack Lemmon. Paul’s snarky, campy style, and Jack’s reactions and mannerisms, have really stuck with me. I also admire Tracey Ullman and Carol Burnett. They are so amazing at transforming themselves into different characters. I love that!

AM: Where did you get the idea to start doing these videos? What was your first? How many have you done so far? Which one(s) is/are your favorite?

KH: When I first got my laptop, I decided to play around with Photo Booth one night. My friend had shown me some videos she had made, and I decided I wanted to try doing something too, just for fun. I was going through my iTunes, and decided to try lip-synching to some of my favorite songs. I posted it on Facebook and my friends seemed to enjoy it, so I decided to make some more. The first one I did is called “iTunes Craziness and Such” (and that is pretty much what it is!) and I have done ten lip-synching videos since then. I would have to say my favorite is the first Broadway one. Musicals give me a chance to act and tell a story a lot more than normal everyday songs do.

AM: Have you taken particular inspiration from others who do these kinds of videos? I’m thinking specifically of Gary Brolsma, aka NumaNumaGuy, or what Seth Rudetsky does in his “Deconstructions.”

KH: I really enjoy Mirandasings, Kid History, Liam Kyle Sullivan, SororityDORKS and yes, of course, Seth Rudetsky.

AM: What’s the process behind doing one of your lip-synch medleys towards a YouTube broadcast? Do you first decide what music to use and then what facial expressions/physical actions go with it, or does it all sort of come together at the same time? Do you have a specific order in mind for which songs will play? Is the editing process ever frustrating?

KH: When it comes to just a regular video, I go through my iTunes and pick a few songs that I think would be fun to “sing”. Sometimes I know what part of the song I want to record, and other times I just do the entire song and then pick one part of it during editing. I don’t really have much of an idea of how I will act during a song beforehand, and I just jump right in! As for a themed video, I usually have an idea of which songs and parts I want to do before I start. Once I pick some of the songs, I look for ways to lead into other ones with the same word or topic so as to tie everything together. When everything is recorded, I start the hardest part, which is synching the video with the original song so the sound is of good quality. This usually takes a long time and can be a little frustrating to get it matched up just right. Then I start fitting all the clips together like a puzzle. I arrange it, watch it, rearrange it, watch it again and so on until it feels just right. I know that if I start laughing, then it’s good.

AM: Are you particularly surprised that the Broadway video has gone so viral in such a short amount of time?

KH: VERY surprised! I woke up one morning and had over sixty e-mails saying people were commenting on the video, and subscribing to my channel. I made it so long ago, and just for fun, that I never thought it would get noticed. It still surprises me how much people seem to enjoy it.

AM: Obviously you’ve become a topic of conversation on some of the theater-oriented chat boards that exist online. What do you think of some of the feedback you’ve gotten, whether positive or negative?

KH: People have been very kind and supportive. They really seem to relate to my love of musical theater, which makes me very happy. Some really amazing things have happened because of this, namely getting e-mails from Marc Shaiman and Jim Caruso. Finding out that people you respect and admire all of a sudden know who you are, is crazy! Some people have been rude with their comments, but I just think it’s funny that they feel the need to say those sorts of things. I’ve also had some marriage proposals, which is pretty darn silly. I would have to say my favorite feedback are ones where people say they were having a horrible day and then watched my videos, and they were able to smile and forget their troubles for a little while. If my videos are able to help people laugh and be happy, then I am doing my job.

AM: Aside from your lip-synch medleys, there’s also the very funny short film where you play the artist. Do you hope to be doing anything else like that as well in the near future?

KH: That was so much fun! My friend Ashley Wasson was making a film for class, and had the idea to do an interview with an artist. We pretty much just improvised the entire thing on the spot. I love creating eccentric, weird characters and just letting them loose! So, yes, I would LOVE to do more videos like that. Very soon, I hope!

AM: Do you plan to do a sequel or second volume to the Broadway video? Or any of the other videos, like your Glee medley? Whether you do or not, do you have anything else in the immediate works?

KH: I made a second Broadway one not too long ago. I have been considering doing a third and people seem to be all for that, so that will most likely happen at some point. I am currently working on another Disney video and am having a lot of fun thinking up things for that. I’m also considering maybe doing some vlogs, and I have an idea for a Broadway-themed video series.

AM: Those who watch the video get a sense that you’re probably endlessly joking, and somewhat hyper and high-energy (in a good way). Is that accurate? What can you tell us about yourself that might surprise us?

KH: According to my friends, that is a very accurate description. Like I’ve mentioned before, I love to make people laugh and try to help them forget their troubles for a little while. I’ve found that being hyper and high-energy seems to do the trick. Even though people don’t believe me when I tell them this, I am actually very shy. I know it seems hard to believe, but it’s true. I get really nervous when it comes to meeting new people, or being in a room with a bunch of folks I don’t know. I also hate watching my videos with other people, because I get so embarrassed. But I’ve found that if I am really crazy and goofy when meeting people, it makes it a lot easier to break the ice and start up a conversation. I think I have become friends with a lot of people I know because I made them laugh right off the bat.

AM: Do you want to find a way to turn this into something lucrative? If so, what’s your vision for that?

KH: I never really considered my videos anything more than fun, little ways to release my desire to perform on stage. If anybody thinks it could become lucrative, let me know! But if I could choose anything to come out of all this, it would be to have more characters that I could eventually perform on stage.

AM: Do you have any advice to offer to others who want to make similar videos for broadcast?

KH: I would say just have fun, and stick with things that bring you joy. I have learned from experience that if you enjoy something, you will be led to other folks who also enjoy it. I would also say don’t try to copy other people just because they may have found success in what they have done. Be inspired by them, but be sure to put yourself into what you create. You will enjoy it so much more if you do.

It’s a sure bet, therefore, that a hungry worldwide audience will continue to enjoy the work of Kevin Harris for ages to come. If you’re still unfamiliar, watch his work and be ready to laugh!!

Courage Campaign Flash Mob Protesting Michele Bachmann, September 16th, 2011, Los Angeles

Just like flagpole-sitting in the 1920s or marathon dancing in the 1930s, cultural fads will usually enter a stage where they appear to be everywhere, but like many phenomena will fade away and only be remembered as a historical blip. The latest cultural fad which seems to have been popping up within the last two seasons is that of the “flash mob,” in which a large group of people appear at a location as if from nowhere, usually breaking out into song and dance, sometimes for purposes of political protest but also for entertainment. Improv Everywhere became one of the first-known creators of the flash-mob phenomena, when they staged a spontaneous musical that burst forth at the food court in Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills Mall in early 2008 which went viral after placement on YouTube, and since that time they’ve staged both musical and non-musical flash mobs in cities all over the world (a notable one was when Grand Central Station froze in place, and the reconstruction of a scene from Star Wars on a New York City subway).

Since that time, the “flash mob” craze has extended itself to political causes, such as a spontaneous musical event to boycott Target stores for their support of anti-gay political candidates, and earlier this week on September 16th in Los Angeles, when a flash mob from Courage Campaign protested Michele Bachmann’s support of gay reparative therapies (among her other disturbances) by executing a high-energy group routine to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” There was also one to remind everybody of the importance of the holiday spirit, set once again in a food court. The beauty of it seems to be the surprise element; even Oprah was the recipient of a major flash mob scene when she hosted a Black-Eyed Peas concert on her 24th Season Kickoff, in which the outdoor crowd broke out into a choreographed routine with perceived spontaneity during the song “I Gotta Feeling,” to Winfrey’s visible delight and amazement. This was, without a doubt, the modern flash mob’s highest moment of visibility since the craze began.

But is it just a craze? Has it been around longer than we realize and is only just getting recognition as such because communication is so much more heightened? And will this really go the way of flagpole-sitting and marathon dancing and just disappear as a thing of the past? Or is it possible that it will continue on and on as long as there are participants and an audience?

Devoted "Flash-Mobster" Amada Anderson

Amada Anderson has been a devoted “flash mobster” since 2009. A critically-acclaimed and highly-visible actress, singer, poet and performance artist on the current Off-Off-Broadway scene in downtown New York, she fell backwards into the movement. “I’m not normally a ‘dancer’ dancer, I just like to dance,” she explains, “and that January I ordered a DVD that showed me how to dance ‘Thriller’ in the comfort of my own home. I then learned that in addition to learning this dance, it was part of a worldwide event called Thrill the World that started in ’08. Mobs from other countries were organizing to be part of it, with everybody dancing to the song at the exact same time all over the globe. And I wanted to be part of that; I figured I’d get a group of people together and register it as an event in New York and host it in a park somewhere. Then, that June, Michael Jackson died.  It was very sad to find out that this huge awesome tribute, which he actually knew about and watched from his helicopter in LA the first time, was going to be even bigger and better and he wouldn’t get to witness it. I found out online that there were other people who had the same passion about it that I did, and through the online MJ Community, I reached out to the leaders of the Halloween Parade people who teach ‘Thriller’ to the crowd every year. We decided to join forces and promote Thrill The World NYC with a combination of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’ all over mid-town. So I created this flash mob event; I basically used my networking skills and charismatic charm to get others to join me. After we danced, we all celebrated at Webster Hall, and it was just a lot of fun.”

What does Anderson consider the most important requirements for someone wanting to begin “flash mobbing,” and how to get started? “I personally feel that it’s just like going swimming,” she says. “You have to sometimes just jump in, to get over the cold-water syndrome. Or even doing karaoke for that matter. If you’re shy, it’s OK, but after you realize that everyone is dancing the same movements you are and backing you up, it feels really freeing. If someone wants to try a flash mob-like feeling, I suggest joining the mailing list of Improv Everywhere. I’ve personally volunteered more than once with them, and it’s a lot of fun. And you’re with hundreds, if not thousands, of participants just in New York City alone. Since my first time, I teach ‘Thriller’ every weekend and I’m always looking for people to join me to help promote Thrill The World NYC, which this year will take place on October 29th at 10 AM at IS52  in Inwood and 10pm on the Boardwalk at Coney Island. You can check here for a schedule of classes, and the entire thing is a benefit for my favorite charity, The Pajama Program.”

Which begs the question, are there any downsides to “flash mobbing,” either as organizer or participant and whether it’s for politics or strictly entertainment? “It’s funny you ask that, ” Anderson responds, “but yes. In New York you have to have a sound permit to blare music, or have large numbers of people just show up somewhere and do something. But when I have my flash mobs, which happens every Saturday at 1pm before my ‘Thriller’ Class, I always advise people that our idea is to promote the event and entertain. So what happens is we show up, get into costume, I bring my boombox already cued up to dance the short version of ‘Thriller,’ and then I tell them to look for cops. If we see them, we don’t go dance in front of them; in fact, we will find another spot to dance altogether if I don’t have  the sound permit. But I tell them that if a cop does come over and ask us to stop, we STOP, hand them a flyer, and move on.  But it’s usually is over very quickly, in three minutes or less, and people really get entertained and motivated or inspired. I’ve had people follow me all the way to class because they were so excited to learn the dance. Again, it’s fun!”

Cultural phenomenon? Unquestionably. Momentary craze? Anyone’s guess. But as long as even one person out there is coming up with new and inventive ideas for the flash mob that can easily be executed, it’s a fair guess that fans of the movement will very happily continue tuning in to watch the fun and enjoy what they see. Ditto those who love to participate and organize. (Note to self: the local mall does have a food court with pretty good acoustics…)

Entertainment personality Helena Joyce-Wright is one of those performers who come along every so often, so revered by their peers as to be considered legendary and yet still sorely lacking the name recognition they so rightfully deserve. After making a tremendous Broadway debut in Amen Corner over twenty-five years ago, years of starring in national tours and regional companies both musical and dramatic have followed ever since, as well as numerous appearances as Billie Holiday on stages far and wide, but other than a more-than-memorable experience understudying Leslie Uggams in Jerry’s Girls, true stardom has managed to elude the lady. That, however, may finally be about to change; on the evening of Sunday, August 28th at 7 PM, Wright brings her long-awaited one-woman opus, All The Parts I Every Wanted To Sing But Couldn’t ‘Cause I ‘Wuz’ Black, to the Abingdon Theatre, 312 West 36th Street as part of Works-In-Progress Productions. Directed by Dwight R.B. Cook with musical direction by Andrew Smithson and choreography by Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, the show proves rather to be one part Ntozake Shange at her most dramatic, one part Elaine Stritch at her most liberated, and never anything less than the most singularly-unique package she could possibly offer. (Tickets are available by calling 212-868-2055). While the show waits for a longer theatrical run which is most certainly in its future, Wright will continue to champion the mega-hit Web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, developed by and starring Issa Rae and hoping for a jump to full presentation on cable television, in which she’s creating the recurring role of J’s Mother. With so much going on, it’s a joy for The Andrew Martin Report to grab a quick interview with Wright just a few days away from what could well be the second chance of a lifetime.
ANDREW MARTIN:  I understand that you come from a rather large family, and that talent runs through the bloodline. When was the first time you realized that your family had special abilities for the stage and other forms of entertainment?
HELENA-JOYCE WRIGHT: I actually come from a rather small family. Interestingly, I had seven great-aunts, all of whom married, but only one, my grandmother, had any children. The others traveled with their husbands and sorta spoiled me rotten…except of course for my grandmother. My mother was considered ‘prolific’ because she had four children. As for the stage, that is, it would seem, in my blood (much to my mother’s horror). My aunt, Robin Braxton, is part of theatre royalty as part of the early members of Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). Watching them as a child seared things into my consciousness, like, all things are possible. They took a play from a church basement to a Tony Award, and I got to see this process.  I started out as a dance student but I was never encouraged to do ‘fluff stuff,’ because I had gotten so much attention for my academics, and specifically, writing. My mom was devastated when I turned down a full scholarship to Harvard in journalism to study musical theatre instead, but the joke is, she had only put me in ballet because she knew I’d be tall and worried about my posture and decorum. I was a ‘closet singer,’ and had to go all the way to California to ‘come out,” if you will.
AM: What was your first time on a stage, what was it like, and did you know right then and there that this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
HJW: This is what’s strange. My elementary school was doing the play Peter Pan, and I went to audition for Tinkerbell. My music teacher, Ms. Guillermo (who I’ve been trying to find for so many years), broke the news to me that Tinkerbell was only a follow spot. I was crushed, but she asked me to sing anyway. I did, I sang “Moon River,” and she cast me as Peter Pan. It was great, and I got to fly around the auditorium! But then I didn’t go back on stage, except dance recitals, until I left home for college.
AM: I know that you switched colleges in a rather drastic change of events. Please explain that, and the remainder of your college life until graduation.
HJW: It was indeed! I was sort of a hot property, having won some writing awards, etc. I was heavily recruited coming out of high school, and I had committed to going to Harvard, after my visits to a number of other schools. But I changed my mind at the eleventh hour, and went to Howard instead. No sooner was I there than I was transferring; my mom said all I really wanted to be was a professional student. I ended up studying musical theatre under John Blankenship and John Houseman at USC, and did my graduate studies at University of Houston, where Ntozake Shange and Loretta Devine both loomed large, and which is also where I met and fell in love with Billy Stritch. Oh, and besides all this,  I actually graduated with honors from Spelman College.
AM: What ultimately brought you to New York, and what were your earliest jobs, both on the stage and off?
HJW: I was very fortunate. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis saw me in a production of their play Purlie Victorious, and ended up bringing to New York to co-star with them in Zora Is My Name. That was where I met Woodie King, Jr. And Philip Rose, the man who would be my lifelong friend, mentor, protector and fan. I miss him more than I can say. But, I still had to take LOTS of offstage jobs to pay for my decision to study theatre; it was not something supported by my mom. She just did not ever want to see me struggle.
AM: What were the events leading up to you being cast in Amen Corner? Was your Broadway debut everything you thought it would be? Why or why not?
HJW: No, it was not. With the exception of Chuck Cooper, it took a while for the cast and I to warm up to each other. I was this new kid, who was sort of the teacher’s pet. They didn’t know where I came from or how I got here, and I hadn’t ‘proven’ myself. Of course, my own arrogance didn’t help. I remember thinking, “Now what?” once it was over, because it came too easy and I didn’t have a full appreciation of what it was. Of course now, with a thirty-year perspective, it all makes perfect sense. If had not done that show then and gone through the experience, I wouldn’t possibly be able to do what I’m doing now. This time I am fully present, and grateful for a second chance. I really take a lot of comfort in knowing that if God didn’t want it to happen, I would be in a wheelchair unable to sing, so that takes a lot of the pressure off me!
AM: What were some of your favorite jobs in between Amen Corner and Jerry’s Girls?
HJW: I enjoyed working with Rosetta LeNoire at AMAS; that stands out. I also learned that I was a pretty good teacher. A little unorthodox, but some of my former students are on Facebook and I love them to life! Most of the jobs actually came after Jerry’s Girls, because I was wiped out during that tour. It was pretty devastating.
AM: Tell us about the night you went on for Uggams.
HJW: Well, you’ll have to come to the play to hear that story, but I’ll excerpt you a bit . Can you say, ‘caught with your drawers down?’ Oh my. I had been partying all night, staggered back to the hotel at 3am  in the Nob Hill section of San Fran, and I get “the” call!  Ms. Uggams’ mom had passed, and I was on!  Oh, no. Oh, no! PANIC!  I never had one understudy rehearsal, because neither Leslie nor Carol every missed a show. It was all very crazy; my understudy was preparing to go on for me, while I was preparing to go on for Leslie. There was lots to maneuver, tons of blocking, and musical numbers up the wah-zoo,  and then there was that entrance from waaaaay at the top of the glass staircase, which I had to walk down as though it wasn’t two stories high, in a Bob Mackie original and three-inch heels, all the while singing and emoting and never letting them see me sweat!
AM: Tell us the circumstances of trying to be a working mother.
HJW: That proved impossible. Especially after losing his father. HORROR! My son demanded my attention, and while you can divorce all the husbands you want, those same rules DO NOT apply to children! For a while, I was artistic director of a LORT house in California; I loved the job, and knew I had the vision to make things happen, but it was a struggle because when I got there, the theatre was already in complete disrepair and I was viewed as an outsider, so there was a lot of pushback. People thought the theatre had money, which it did not. I financed most things personally (not a good formula), and the very month I learned my little theatre had been awarded one of the top grants, two million dollars sustaining, I also learned that my mother’s cancer had returned and I had to make a decision. All this plus trying to raise my son and be a great mom. So it was a no-brainer. But of course, I would have liked to see what I would have produced if given the resources. There are some pretty incredible things floating around in this head of mine. And I’m sure God will give me another chance to make them happen. And it’s not just about me, I dream about blessing other people in a major way, all the time. I think of ideas for shows, like some people think of, whatever they think of. I get ideas like The Maestros and Their Muses, sorta just what the title implies. And The Big Bounceback, a show about three or four resurrected ‘Dark Divas’ converging to do their own Follies of sorts. And one of my very favorites is inspired by my relationship with Andre DeShields, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with him about it yet. But I think he’s going to love it.
AM: What about your close brush with starring in the original cast of The Lion King?
HJW: Again, you have to see the show to hear my take in detail. Suffice it to say that in the end, that beat saying, “No matter what I ever accomplish in theatre, Tony Awards notwithstanding, to my son I will always be that woman who turned down the chance to be Rafiki in The Lion King.” My spin was different. “A monkey?? Why in the world would they think I would be perfect for a MONKEY??”  Sad, but true. And, I’ve been trying to be seen again by them ever since.
AM: In the show, you also touch briefly on being a cancer survivor. Besides those things you discuss, what do you not talk about in the show that you think is important to share about the experience?
HJW: I had such a struggle coming into an understanding of certain things. I really thirst for answers and knowledge and I searched everywhere from Ashram to Islam. I just kept looking and looking and looking, I knew there was something more, but I couldn’t figure it out. And I completely rejected the whole notion of my family worshiping someone with blond hair and blue eyes. That made absolutely no sense to me. I never just accepted things at face value; I always looked deeper. I wanted answers! You would think that someone who loves so many abstract forms of art wouldn’t have such an impossible time believing in something like God, but I was stumped during that time. I used to make some of the craziest demands like, “If you’re real. just put an HJ in the sky.” I mean stuff straight out King Herod’s song. I really don’t want to get on a soapbox, because that’s not my style, but I have to say that after the cancer, losing my mom, husband, brother and dad, I was sad, sad, sad and angry, angry, angry at Him, and right about then He made Himself very clear, and I was very grateful. It was like finding that one friggin’ missing piece to the puzzle and really everything started to make sense, even the cancer, why I had it and why I don’t now. I still don’t understand stuff like Heaven. Or, how will I see my mom and dad, how exactly does it work, will they look the same, will they just be spirits, and will that scare me? Again, I like exact answers, and I like details. But in my relationship with God after all that happened, He delights in my humor and I delight in His.
AM: How did you come to get involved with Issa Rae and Awkward Black Girl?
HJW: Oh, here we go. Basically, almost two years ago, when I first began putting together Amen Corner: The Musical, Issa was here working in New York at New Federal, where I was calling and harassing Woodie King, my mentor who I mentioned earlier. Issa was a sweetheart who helped me, sight unseen, to not only navigate Woodie and budgets, but she was also giving me Facebook pointers. I asked so many ridiculous questions back then (not to be confused with the ridiculous questions I ask now) that it’s a wonder she speaks to me at all. But we’ve just had a connection ever since. When ABG was introduced, I got so excited and started advocating, because the show is so good; I wanted to make sure my few little networks knew about it . Which elicited the response from the producers of my show, “We wish you would network your OWN show like that!” Somewhere in all this, I was having really bad withdrawals because the show only airs once a month, and I was reduced to watching outtakes and then her other series, Fly Guys. Anyway, I woke up one night with the character of her mother in my mind. Not being a screenwriter, I hesitated sending it to her, but I finally did and she loved it, and we started talking about my playing her mom. When my showdate was pushed back, I had to turn down the commercial I was going to Los Angeles to do, which of course affected her plans to introduce the ABG Mom character. At the same time, things started to really blow up for ABG (a hundred thousand hits for Episode Six), along with all the other great things that are happening with it; Dennis Dortch directed the last episode, they surpassed their Kickstarter goal, Issa’s been signed by Tina Fey’s agent, etc. I’ve watched with an incredible and overhwelming sense of pride and excitement, and it’s just a vicarious thrill watching this all unfold. So the long and short is, I adore her and have from the start. The only downside is that now I have to find someone to answer all my silly Facebook questions.
AM: Can we talk about your recent experience with the MetroStar competition at the Metropolitan Room and why you entered, as well as your thoughts on the outcome?
HJW: What a trip! Andrew, I never thought of myself as a singer, I’m a musical theatre character. I’ve always found comfort hiding behind a character. Although, playing Billie Holiday forced me out of that. Anyway, I was tickled pink (or purple) for the chance to compete; I love being taken seriously in that very particular market. It was very validating. And the week I really thought I sucked and left thinking I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, one of the judges told me later that I nailed it. The next week when I thought, “Hey, I did OK,” considering the abrupt departure of my musical director due to a personal crisis, that same judge, Sherry Eaker, asked me, “What happened?” I liked her instantly. Anyway, if I had it to do again, I would have taken the advice of the accompanist who said he was terrified to sight-read Sondheim and gone with a simple Billie Holiday number. But I thought he did a great job.
AM: What are your personal hopes for ‘Cause I Wuz Black after it plays on the 28th?
HJW: That this show will get picked up, that it hits a pulse, gets developed, moves to Broadway, and everyone’s hard work and belief in me and this project will be rewarded with a sweep at the Tonys, and I am finally able to hire the people that I want and fire the ones I don’t. Tee hee! Then I can produce other stuff in the Works-In-Progress Productions arsenal.
AM: If you could have had it all to do over again, what would you have done with your life?
HJW: I would have handled my losses differently. I really wasn’t at my best at fifty percent, and my son deserved better. It was the best I had, but it wasn’t enough. So I guess I wouldn’t have stayed stuck so long. And I was engaged three times to three wonderful men, but I had horrific commitment issues. It would’ve have been good to work some of that out BEFORE I got married, but I think I’ll be a better wife the next time. After all, I hear the third time’s a charm.
AM: What is the one philosophy of life you’d like to share?
HJW: Actually, I have two. The first is, never argue with an idiot, because he’ll only bring you down to size and beat you with experience. The other is, I am the miracle I had been waiting for.
A miracle most assuredly. Whether or not All The Parts I Every Wanted To Sing But Couldn’t ‘Cause I ‘Wuz’ Black becomes a life-changing event for Helena-Joyce Wright and the fans so eager to crowd the Abingdon on the evening of the 28th remains to be seen, but it doesn’t even matter in the grand scheme; her life has already changed for the better more times than most would ever have been blessed. The rest is merely sweet and blissful icing on the cake of life.

Chris (left) and Jeff

Every once in awhile, the Internet gives rise to a brand-new star or company, one whose video clips go viral in a mere matter of seconds. So it goes with the duo referring to themselves as PunchyPlayers, whose impeccable parodies of the greatest female and male stars of today are matched only by their flawless and, one will daresay, genius ability to bring their vocal impressions to life through side-splitting animations generated by computer. The two will only disclose themselves as Chris and Jeff, and this reporter was fortunate enough to reach them via e-mail from their home in Texas recently, on the heels of their side-splitting new video featuring Julia Child and Julie Andrews in a cooking segment, which is displayed below alongside other previous clips.

Chris hails from New Orleans, and Jeff is a Texas native, and while the latter is still a proud card-carrying member of Equity and pays his union dues faithfully after five years of living in New York City, the former’s only true exposure to a life in the theatre was a brief period spent designing scenery for theatrical productions. And neither had the slightest idea that anything like PunchyPlayers would happen. “When I was in school,” Jeff tells me, “I got a lot of laughs because I could sound like some of the teachers. But I’ve never done impressions onstage.” He adds, “PunchyPlayers grew out of our collective sense of humor. We laugh a lot together about pop culture and performers we like, especially the stars of older Hollywood. We talk back to the TV a lot, and we invent dialogue. We also play ‘What If?’ a lot, such as ‘What If Lucille Ball Played Mary Poppins?” and that kind of thing. Eventually, I recorded some of them on audio. But it’s Chris who said he that could turn the audios into videos. I suppose you could say this is a private thing that went very public.”

Chris adds, “Long before Jeff and I started making our videos together, I mentioned to him that he and I should work on something together. I knew his wonderful talent, and felt that our combined abilities could produce something fun. One day we were on the subject of Cream of Wheat (which I love to eat, and he doesn’t), and he said he knew the old theme song and he sang it to me. Later on he sang it as Judy Garland which just floored me. I died laughing. Then I urged him to make a recording of it, since I knew it would make a wonderful skit, to which I could put some visuals.”

How exactly do the videos come together? “Well,” Jeff chuckles, “I do the recording and Chris does the animation.The audio comes first. It’s almost like improv when I record them. I don’t know what Chris will do with it visually, so the finished product always surprises me, and makes me laugh. A good example are the little Mary Poppins hats he puts on the screen testers in the recent video with the screen tests. I had no idea they would be so funny. Chris’s part takes much longer, of course, but is certainly worth the wait.”

Chris quickly counters, “One of the reasons that Jeff and I make a good team is that we have strengths in different areas, and we both share a similar sense of humor. We do collaborate on much of it, and laugh A LOT. On building the visuals, I usually have a general idea and theme at the start,” he continues, “but most of the specifics and details happen as I get to that particular section. Sometimes they surprise me.”

What is the ultimate goal of PunchyPlayers, and what do they hope to accomplish? Chris replies, “We’re huge fans of the celebrities we parody. It’s our way of paying tribute. I feel that the goal is to share the affection we have for our subjects with those who appreciate them as well, and hopefully bring some laughs. Another large part of my drive to do these projects is to share more of Jeff’s talents and humor with everyone. He keeps me and all of his friends in stitches. I wanted to have a vehicle to share that with more people. PunchyPlayers is a way for me to do that, and to share my passion for showcasing these icons through my abilities as well.”

Jeff chimes in, “Originally the goal was just to entertain ourselves. I would say to Chris, ‘Nobody will get this but us.’ Boy, was I wrong! But,” he continues, “I don’t think there is a master plan except to entertain. But it would be wonderful to get paid someday to do these things. One thing we do accomplish is to celebrate these personalities and not slam them.”

Have the two ever considered using other celebrity impersonators and voice-over artists? “At this point,” Chris replies, “we’re keeping PunchyPlayers ‘in-house,’ so to speak. But we are open to other possibilities for projects in the future.” Jeff adds, “We finally employed Chris for some voices in the Poppins video, but at this point it will stay between us. It’s such a personal collaboration. But we do listen to friend’s ideas. One of our videos, called Audrey Airlines, was inspired by a friend mentioning Audrey being at an airport.” And what’s their favorite collaboration so far? “My answer,” Jeff says, “was Judy’s Cream of Wheat until we posted the Poppins one. The public has certainly liked Cream of Wheat. But we are a ‘you either get it or you don’t’ proposition; we hope the others out there in the world who know the work of these stars will share in our humor and affection for them.”

Finally, what advice would they give to those who wish to have a similar success as PunchyPlayers? “My advice would be to go with what you are passionate about,” says Chris. “Invest time in whatever is in your heart, and means the most to you. Experiment and play. That is what we’ve done, and it’s brought us lots of joy. And it’s an honor that others find joy in it as well.”

Jeff concludes, “If you are a performer, looking for an outlet, this is a way to perform and have a day job, too. If someone is creating parody, don’t forget to celebrate the subject. For me, it is less about trying to sound exactly like any of these people…or poking fun at them. We are really trying to share our admiration and love for these stars of a bygone era.”

Share the love they do, in copious amounts. Keep an eye on PunchyPlayers on YouTube and elsewhere, just for the mere joy of saying you knew them when. Because Chris and Jeff are, without question, going places.

Note: This article was copied in part from a previous interview the author provided to the website NiteLifeExchange while still employed therein, and is signatoried thusly.  Since his termination from same, he retains the legal right to reprint, according to legal guidelines.

Danny Cohen

In this modern age of the Webseries and broadcasting oneself, only a mere handful really rise to the top and gain a quickly-growing following with seemingly no fanfare (these include Jack in a Box and Submissions Only). To this group must be added FastFilms, a series of short black-and-white movies released with a speedy vocal synchronization that are grabbing YouTube viewers right and left. The brainchild of creator and star Danny Cohen, an openly-gay and devoutly-Jewish standup comedian of some renown, who copped a 2010 MAC Award besides other honors throughout his impressive career, usually find the gentleman as a textbook sad-sack thrust into hilarious situations, most often at the mercy of others, be they a woman who leaves him at the altar, a car full of Mafioso, a pimp out for blood, a mean boss at a bakery, and, of course, his cloying and hateful mother. In point of fact, Cohen emerges as rather a Buster Keaton for the new age. A core group of standup comedians and actors round out the cast and in guest appearances, including Shecky Beagleman, Jodie Wasserman, Danny McWilliams, Gary Michaels, Yamaneika Saunders, Kelley Lynn, Ted Alexandro and Marion Grodin, and all appear to be having the best time imaginable in the process. At least two new FastFilms are already in the can although as yet unreleased, namely The Funeral and Mafia Two (a sequel to The Mafia One) and are scheduled for a premiere at Planet Hollywood in Midtown at a mid-May date TBA. And this humble writer couldn’t be more honored to get the buzz.

Shecky Beagleman

The first and most obvious question is, how did the whole idea of FastFilms come about? “It was right before I got fired from my waiting job,” Cohen tells me, “which was a first firing for me. I had never been fired in my life, and I was very upset with the way things went down at work. While collecting unemployment, I decided I was going to take advantage of this free time to learn everything I could about iMovie. I had discovered how to speed up videos, and I started making little thirty-second videos and speeding them up. And I loved it! I thought these fast videos would be great in scenarios in which I was always beaten up or abused. So it all started from there,” he finishes.

Is there a specific process to the scriptwriting? “Well, no,” Cohen says, “because the

Yamaneika Saunders

first four FastFilms weren’t scripted. That was Sakaroosi, Please Don’t Take My Baby, Is Danny There? and The Artist. But by the time I shot The Artist, my casts were growing and I realized I would have to script these FastFilms in order to have a more organized shoot. So now, I write the scripts and then send them out to the cast and crew. The stories come very easily to me; I write them in an hour or so and dwell on them in order to fine tune them. And I like to write in noisy places, places were there are people. To be honest, I generally write at Starbucks.”

And Cohen explains that casting is never a particularly difficult issue. “Most of the cast members are my friends, comedians and actors I already knew. A few were acquaintances, and a couple I brought on because of their FastFilm enthusiasm. I really like to work with people who love the work. Because if they love FastFilms, then I know they’ll bring it to the shoot.” It’s at this point that other members of the company speak up, first and foremost Shecky Beagleman, who often plays Danny’s clutch-purse-wielding tornado of a mother. “I was a FastFilms fan already,” she says, “so when Danny asked me to be his mother in Once You Go Black, I was very excited.” Yamaneika Saunders agrees. “I ran into Danny at a show at ‘Eastville’ Comedy Club a year or two ago. He was on the show after I had already gone on, and I remember watching him and saying, ‘He reminds me of my aunt Cheryl. I like him.’ He was incredible funny, but there was a kindred spirit there as well. Flash forward about six months after that; I was watching a FastFilm that had two of my favorite comics in it (Jodie Wasserman

Ted Alexandro

and Greer Barnes) and I was overjoyed that Danny was involved. A few days after that, I got a call to be a part of their next project!” And Ted Alexandro concludes, “I was aware of Danny’s FastFilms because I’d seen a few of them on Facebook, and loved them. I love Danny, and I’ve known him for basically my whole comedy career. So I was excited to be part of his creations. Danny is such a funny guy, with a unique sensibility. I was willing to do whatever he asked.”

One of the supposed difficulties of shooting a project like FastFilms is making sure that the actors keep to a slow rhythm and a low vocal pitch while shooting. “I always have to slow down my actors and remind them to keep it that way, especially right before we shoot,” Cohen says. “We’ll rehearse two or three times, and then we shoot two or three times. And since I like to shoot in one continuous shot without cutting, the actors have to remember to speak slowly from beginning to end. Also, my girls usually have to speak in a lower register, or otherwise they sound too mousy, and it’s hard to understand them.” This, however, isn’t a problem for everybody. Saunders explains, “I’ve studied acting since I was a child; I was a member of the Workshop Theater in South Carolina, and I graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the

Kelley Lynn

Arts. I am used to having to adjust my voice. It’s a part of the job to be able to transition. I’m also fortunate that I was a singer in a gospel choir that only had a few members, so I would have to switch between soprano and tenor all the time.” Alexandro adds, “It’s definitely something I had to adjust to and keep in mind throughout. It’s not difficult, but it’s different. So you have to be mindful of what will play well when it’s sped up.”

Actor-cinematographers Shauna Lane and Eddie Marini, besides photography director Brian Friedman, are the team behind which Cohen’s cinematic vision is most often brought to life with FastFilms. “When I asked Shauna if she would like to be my camera girl, she loved the idea,” Cohen tells me. “I’ve known Shauna for years, and we get along great. She’s just so easy to work with, and she’s always available for me. I couldn’t have done all of this without her; she’s been a hero for FastFilms. When I wanted Shauna to play certain parts on screen, Eddie Marini (he

Gary Michaels

plays one of the boxers in The Janitor) fills in as my video guy, and has also shot two videos, namely Clown and Sisters.” But several members of the company are the first to defend the fact that it’s Cohen and only Cohen who could possibly make this happen in so brilliant and expedient an artistic manner. “Danny is a great director, he really is,” Beagleman says. “I am in awe of him every time I watch him work. First of all, he writes the scripts. Second, he stars in them. Third, he directs them. And not necessarily in that order. I don’t know how he does it. He’s so calm and focused, I can’t even remember my two lines half the time, and he’s acting, remembering his and everybody else’s lines. Then he’s telling everybody where to go (literally), plus he’s directing Shauna Lane or Eddie Marini on camera! He knows exactly what he wants to capture, and he’s very thorough. He always goes the the location beforehand, so he can get a clear idea of the shots he wants. Oh, and he also is very specific about everybody’s hair, makeup and wardrobe. If people don’t have what he needs in the shoot, like a 1960s platinum blonde

Marion Grodin

bouffant wig (and who wouldn’t have that? You’d be surprised!), he goes out and gets it, baby! He’s not foolin’ around!” She continues, “So, yeah, I love watching that man throw down, because he really does. But he does it in a very calm, yet frenetic, way, which only Danny Cohen can. When you’re in a FastFilm, you are a very integral part of the ensemble environment that Danny creates. No matter how how much camera time you might have, Danny makes sure everybody gets their moment. It’s so much fun. It’s controlled chaos, and his scenarios are nuts. Everybody wants to be in a FastFilm, and that’s a testament to Mr. Cohen. If he were a rotten bastard and his films stunk, or if he never bathed but yet his films were still passable, I don’t think they would be as popular as they were in the earlier part of the decade.” Saunders adds, “What I love about Danny and Fast Films, is that Danny is Fast Films. He takes control, he writes, he directs, he develops. He makes the production very comfortable and fun, and he is always open to letting the actors

Danny McWilliams

run with their instinct, but also very committed to his vision for the film. He is an amazing talent, person, and friend. And,” she adds, “its fun just being around other comics and trying to one up each other. I love when Marion Grodin is on the project, because she is always interjecting and being very ‘Method Acting’ with the films. And you’re looking at her like, ‘Marion, come the hell on.’ But she is always on point and super-hysterical. I love Jodie, because she’s ultra-relaxed and cool, and we can talk between takes about anything and then get right back in there and work. I love everyone, the entire cast! It’s just fun! Its so much fun, and you don’t mind. I love Shecky, and her wigs, and what she is doing and how she always has a different character. Of course, Danny, I love him and watching him switch hats from actor to director. It’s always a good time, and its amazing how many people love and want to be a part of projects with Danny; it shows what an amazing person he is.”

Jodie Wasserman

Does the cast have any particular aspirations for where they’d like FastFilms to be five years from now? Alexandro replies, “I would like for FastFilms to be legendary. I want whatever Danny wants for FastFilms. They are all precious little gems.” Saunders says with a chuckle, “In five years, the only Fast I want to be associated with when it comes to films is Fast and Furious VII. In all seriousness, though, I would like to see Danny to have a lot of success with FastFilms, I would love to see it go as far and beyond Danny’s wildest imaginations. And I hope that I’m so busy with my own career that I’m not available when it calls me!” Beagleman finishes, “I would really like to see, and I know FastFilms should and will, get produced on a larger scale. They would be great as “bumpers” as lead-ins and outs for television shows. Also, corporations should pick up on them and have Danny write, act in and direct FastFilms for product promos, or anything along that line. I think they should evolve into the next step for Danny in his writing, directing, acting and stand-up comedy career. As long as I’m still in them beating the hell out of him with my clutch purse,” she finishes with a grin.

But it’s Cohen himself who offers the clearest prophecy and ambition for FastFilms, of course.”Now that I shot The Funeral, I have completed twenty FastFilms that run between two and four minutes long, I want to sell them as a Web series. To a Website, or to find some sort of home for them. I have hundreds of storylines in my head.”

Whatever the future may hold, Danny Cohen and the FastFilms company have carved themselves a place as an online presence rarely achieved; they’ve brought art back to comedy and comedy back to art. This writer is certain that we all await their next offerings amidst succulent anticipation.