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Archive for April, 2016

Hollywood History With Bruce Vilanch By Nick Hardcastle

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

SBS
Loud and proud: Bruce Vilanch’s Hollywood history
By Nick Hardcastle
April 18, 2016

lisy7064

Upon meeting a legendary Hollywood personality it’s only fitting that we meet in a legendary Hollywood establishment. Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard. Since 1919, stars from Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin to Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall have been sipping martinis in its old worn leather booths or throwing back scotch in its infamous back room – a watering hole for some of the finest writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Raymond Chandler. I arrive and Bruce Vilanch greets me as ‘Nick Hardcore’.

A regular here, Vilanch is instantly recognisable wearing his signature bright coloured glasses and a t-shirt with a cartoon image of Liam Neeson and the slogan ‘Carpe Liam’.

He has had a long and colorful history in show business and Hollywood. A six time Emmy winner, Bruce has also won a number of awards for his support of LGBTQI and HIV/AIDS charities.

He has written for the Oscars for 23 years as well as the Tonys, Emmys and Grammys. He has contributed to many Broadway shows including Peter Allen’s first, Up in One, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical. He is currently penning a new show based on the music of Petula Clark. He has been a long time gag writer for Bette Midler, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as having worked with the late and great Elizabeth Taylor, Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. Whether he set out to be or not, Bruce Vilanch has been a pioneering gay voice in the entertainment business.

A New Jersey native, Vilanch spent five years in Chicago where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and occasionally did stand-up comedy. There he met Bette Midler in the mid ‘70s. He thought that she was “funny and should talk more on stage” so he wrote some new material for the rising star and they’ve been working together ever since.

When he relocated to Los Angeles, his first gig was on a late night show called Midnight Special in 1978. There were many people who had appeared on TV before Bruce Vilanch who were gay of course, as well as gay characters in shows like All in the Family and even Australia’s Number 96, but you would be hard pressed to find an openly gay man who discussed his experiences on air before Vilanch did.

“I was completely open from the word go. It was very novel because it was one o’clock in the morning. But being openly gay on TV hadn’t become my schtick yet. I just never denied anything.”

“I was completely open from the word go. It was very novel but because it was one o’clock in the morning. But being openly gay on TV hadn’t become my schtick yet. I just never denied anything.”

Considering the cultural climate at the time, it was a bold move. In 1976 Elton John announced that he was bisexual in Rolling Stone and he was immediately removed from the playlists of many the major radio stations. “Those regional stations were where you broke records. So if some minister comes in to the local radio station in Kansas city and says you can’t play that cock sucker Elton John’s records anymore – you’d better believe he’s getting dropped off the playlist! Elton’s career was pretty much over there for a while – you can understand why it might have just been easier to say nothing.”

“So there was a lot at stake. Although no one ever told me that I couldn’t be out on TV. What they all did say was that I need to be sure. ‘Is this what you want to be known as? Because there are consequences – there will be no working with children and no big money endorsement deals and there certainly won’t be leading man parts because you can’t kiss the girl.’ But I got to be myself.”

At this point our conversation takes a slight deviation into ‘little people porn’ and ‘feeders’ but I assure him that the details are entirely off the record. I order another martini.

Vilanch’s mainstream profile rocketed when he became a regular panelist on the long-running game show ‘Hollywood Squares’ from 1998 – 2002, with his old friend and client Whoopi Goldberg. He says that this was the only time that he ever came under pressure about his sexuality on television.

“And that was only because I was graphic. I had to really fight to get some of my lines across,” he explained.

Producers would insist that there were other ways to get the laughs, and that Bruce should ‘go easy on the gay’.

“But this was coming from the same people who would say to Whoopi, ‘Go easy on the black. You don’t have to be so street’. The notes were always back-to-back. They never said to Gilbert [Gottfried] not to be so Jewish.”

At this time, Vilanch was becoming somewhat of a gay icon and it put him in a position to be able to counsel other LGBTQI people in the media. “I tell other famous people who come out that you really have no idea the affect you are having on young people who are unsure or conflicted – it gives them hope.”

He recalls a young man telling him that he used to watch Hollywood Squares with his grandmother and would be inspired, thinking, “Look at him – he’s so unafraid.”

Vilanch cites Ellen DeGeneres as another great example of that fearlessness in spite of the potential consequences. “When Ellen came out on her sitcom she was very courageous, but she was very smart. She said once she came out that they should cancel because now they would have to go in to storylines that the audience probably won’t like.

“The network thought the numbers were great, but sure enough the southern states cancelled the show and because she wasn’t being seen on the same amount of stations the numbers dropped and the show got cancelled. It took a while for Ellen to really come back from that.”

“I tell other famous people who come out that you really have no idea the affect you are having on young people who are unsure or conflicted – it gives them hope.”

But the landscape was starting to change, albeit, slowly. Will and Grace in particular became a huge hit. According to GLAAD, (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), a US non-governmental media monitoring organisation, by the time the show had aired its final season in 2006 almost 2 per cent of regular characters on prime time broadcast TV were gay. While it was certainly not a fair representation of the population, it was a sign of positive change.

Now in 2016 more than 4 per cent of regular characters on prime time are identified as LGBTQI. Guest characters and LGBTQI personalities in non-scripted television are also starting to be represented in more significant numbers. In the last year alone the number of regular LGBTQI characters counted on cable increased from 64 to 84, while recurring characters increased from 41 to 58. In 2015 for the first time, GLAAD counted LGBTQI characters on original series that premiered on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix and found 43 series regulars and 16 recurring queer characters across 23 series.

In 2016, Vilanch says that it’s much more difficult to say if someone’s sexuality really affects their media career as much as it did in previous decades, as each case is individual. “There’s still no leading man action hero who has come out and said he’s gay. We’ve had a few pro sports people but no huge major figures. When that happens maybe things will really change because we’ll finally have an example where the audience will have to believe whether say, James Bond is still James Bond when the actor playing him is openly gay. Can they buy him shagging Pussy Galore when they know he wants Balls a Plenty? That hasn’t been demonstrated yet.

“We have people like Neil Patrick Harris, Lance Bass and Melissa Etheridge and Portia de Rossi, who are big stars doing great things – but it’s unlikely you’ll see them as action heroes.”

At this point Vilanch accidentally spills come creamy salad dressing right on Liam Neeson’s cartoon face on his t-shirt. Make of that what you will.

As talent, humour and fame can be powerful aphrodisiacs for some people, I finally ask Vilanch if he thinks that being on TV has increased his sex appeal.

“I was only ever a lust object for creepy people– chubby chasers,” he replies.

When I insist that humor is the sexiest quality in any person, he cuts to the chase, “I would love to say it’s the case… but I find that they’ll laugh with you, but they’ll go home and fuck someone else. But humour sustains in a way that physical beauty doesn’t… at least I still have my card to play. ‘Snap!’”

Chilina Kennedy and More Set for Bruce Vilanch’s ‘A Sign of the Times’ Reading Prior to Goodspeed Production

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Theatermania
Chilina Kennedy and More Set for A Sign of the Times Reading Prior to Goodspeed Production
Bethany Rickwald • Connecticut • Apr 20, 2016

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Casting has been announced for a private industry reading of Bruce Vilanch’s A Sign of the Times musical, which will have a production at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatrefrom July 29-September 4. The reading will take place April 28-29.

Set in 1965, the plot of A Sign of the Times is described as follows: “The pulse of a changing era lures Cindy from Middle America to the swirl of Manhattan. Unexpected friends, lovers, careers, and conflicts are all a subway ride away in a pop-fueled new musical featuring songs made famous by Petula Clark and other hit makers of the day.” The show’s songs include “I Know a Place,” “The Shoop Shoop Song,” “If I Can Dream,” and more.

The cast of the staged presentation will feature Chilina Kennedy (Beautiful — The Carole King Musical) as Cindy, Ryan Silverman (Side Show) as Brian, Bryan Fenkart (Memphis) as Dennis, Marrick Smith (Fun Home) as Matt, and Crystal Lucas-Perry as Tanya.

The performing company also includes Alet Taylor, Lori Ann Ferreri, Lauren Nicole Chapman, Melessie Clark, Lindsay Moore, David Jennings, Dave Schoonover, Keven Quillon, Drew Franklin, and Jeff Kuhr.

The cast of the Goodspeed production will be announced shortly.

Bruce Vilanch To Perform At The 32nd Annual Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (STAGE)

Saturday, April 9th, 2016

Playbill
20 Artists Currently Set for Sondheim No. 5 Concert in Beverly Hills
BY ANDREW GANS
APR 08, 2016

4-27-2013 3-49-54 AM

 

The 32nd annual Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (STAGE), which is entitled Sondheim No. 5, will be presented June 18 at 2 PM and 8 PM at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Currently scheduled to perform are Susan Anton, Barrett Foa, Loretta Devine, Allison Janney, Andrea Marcovicci, Cortes Alexander, Alexandra Billings, Mary Jo Catlett, James Clark, Carole Cook, Davis Gaines, Jason Graae, Alvin Ing, Branden James, Jean Louisa Kelly, Vicki Lewis, MaryJo Mundy, Madison Claire Parks, Bruce Vilanch and Lisa Vroman.

David Galligan directs with Michael Orland as music director.

Begun in 1984, STAGE is the longest-running annual HIV/AIDS fundraiser in the world. To date, STAGE has raised more than $5 million for HIV/AIDS organizations in the Southland. Funds raised through S.T.A.G.E. support a variety of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) programs, including its Vance North Necessities of Life Program food pantries; freestanding and mobile dental clinics; in-home health care ; housing assistance; HIV prevention and testing efforts; and a range of other services on which thousands of Angelenos affected by HIV/AIDS depend.

For ticket information visit Stagela.com.

Pee-wee Finally Gets His Man in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Slate
Pee-wee Finally Gets His Man in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday
By Paul H. Johnson
March 17, 2016

peeweebigholiday

This post contains spoilers for Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.

In the charming Netflix revival Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Joe Manganiello roars into Pee-wee’s hometown of Fairville on a motorcycle and sweeps Pee-wee off his feet. The pair quickly hit it off over their shared love of Root Beer Barrel candy and tree houses. When Manganiello, playing himself, finds out Pee-wee has never left his small town, he beseeches him to come to Manhattan to attend his birthday party. Pee-wee agrees, but on the way he has some of his trademark wacky adventures. He is kidnapped by a band of butch bank robbers; he tours a snake farm where he is kidnapped by a crazy farmer and nearly forced into marriage (to a woman!); and he gets a makeover by a gaggle of fabulous hairdressers led by Darryl Stephens, the onetime star of the gay-focused Logo network’s sadly departed series Noah’s Arc. And that’s all before he arrives in Manhattan, where he falls into a well when he’s supposed to be at the big birthday party. Luckily, the strapping Manganiello, despondent over Pee-wee’s absence, eventually arrives to rescue our hero.

This is all to say: Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is clearly fan service—if you weren’t already enamored with the goofy, bowtied, breakfast-loving manchild, this won’t help; but if you were, the Netflix update is catnip. Indeed, given the sweetly flirtatious dynamic between Manganiello and Pee-wee, it’s tempting to argue in particular that the movie is a kind of wish fulfillment for fans who grew up with the character and his barely coded queer persona. All of that queerness is basically explicit this time around. But for many decades-long fans, this one included, Pee-wee never had a “gay subtext.” For everyone but the willfully ignorant, it was always just text.

Pee-wee Herman, the character, always trafficked in the language of a certain kind of queer comedy. His jokes often had the same style of innuendo made popular by the likes of Paul Lynde and Bruce Vilanch. As the center square on the game show Hollywood Squares in the 1970s, Lynde was once asked “You’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?” to which he answered: “Humble.” In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Manganiello is dumbfounded that Pee-wee has never heard of him and asks if he has seen Manganiello’s hit movie Magic Mike, to which Pee-wee responds: “You would think so, but no.” Then, as now, anyone paying attention needs no explanation.

But Pee-wee’s comedy is more than just sly gay suggestion. His persona actively celebrates camp, particularly the kind of camp that elevates the language and style of the 1950s, when gay love was addressed evasively, if at all. While Pee-wee might seem childlike and sexless, his affection for Manganiello can only be called a crush. Pee-wee dreams of jousting with Manganiello using rainbow colored lances, and they exchange friendship bands at the end of the movie while squeezed together in Manganiello’s treehouse. This is what love looks like in Pee-wee’s delicate, but deliberate, mode. And that’s what love looked like to many gay kids like me. We didn’t have any idea what sex was, but we clearly knew we wanted to share a treehouse with that hunky special someone.

Paul Reubens developed Pee-wee while a regular at the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles in 1970s. The character debuted on The Dating Game in 1979 (he was chosen over two other bachelors), and Reubens soon started a popular midnight weekly show at the Groundlings called the “Pee-wee Herman show,” where he worked with Phil Hartman, Lynne Stewart, John Paragon, Edi McClurg, and John Moody. That show was decidedly adult, even if Pee-wee’s character appeared to be guileless. Pee-wee regularly appeared on the early seasons of Late Night with David Letterman, where he’d bring a box of props containing toys he’d picked up at some flea market, and he’d vamp in front of public service videos from the 1950s.

Of course, Reuben’s biggest moment came in 1985 with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, directed by a then largely unknown Tim Burton. In Big Adventure, Pee-wee goes on a quest to find his stolen bicycle, a vintage 1950s-era DX Schwinn Straightbar. Fans still lovingly recreate the iconic scene where Pee-wee dances to the song “Tequila” at a biker bar.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse arrived in 1986 as a children’s show, but it was so packed with queer signifiers that it became appointment viewing for many gay men. There was Tito the lifeguard, who rarely if ever saw the need to wear a shirt. Lawrence Fishburne played Cowboy Curtis, Pee-wee’s best friend, who confessed to sleeping in the nude and having “big feet.” And there was the time Pee-wee married a fruit salad, about which very little needs to be said.

Then there was the spectacle that was Pee-wee’s 1988 Christmas special. Not only do gay icons k.d. lang, Little Richard, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cher, and Dinah Shore make cameos, but Grace Jones, sporting a metallic brassiere, pops out of a box to sing a funky rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” Oh, and crew of hunky workers construct an addition to the playhouse made out of fruitcake.

In other words, the only way a viewer could not see Pee-wee’s Playhouse as “gay” was to actively ignore the pink signifiers littering its set. Compared to Pee-wee’s full legacy, Manganiello’s tree house and the rainbow stick fighting are the least of it. And what’s more, the thin veil of coyness that did exist is essential to Reubens’ creation: It’s not that Pee-wee is in the closet, it’s that he’s riffing on time where stealth queer wit and suggestive glances were the ultimate subversion. The character is a living artifact, a very funny and slightly sad celebration of another era.

Pee-wee Herman, of course, suffered a swift and brutal fall in 1991, when Reubens was arrested outside an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Fla., accused of indecent exposure. It was a crime for which he was almost certainly innocent. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that while Reubens pled no contest to the charges, his lawyers disclosed a security video to the prosecution showing “that Reubens was in the lobby when detective William Walters allegedly saw the actor masturbating in the theater.” But the damage was done. CBS canceled reruns of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Disney and MGM yanked a film where Pee-wee explained how voiceovers are made, and Toys ‘R’ Us removed Pee-wee products from its stores. As a children’s icon, Pee-wee was dead.

Luckily for Pee-wee (and now Netflix), his original fans have grown up, and the affection for him remained. And if anything, his sideways glance has become more indelible. Particularly for gay men who were children in the ‘80s, having Reuben’s subversive queer character vamp on Saturday morning TV was a gift, even if we couldn’t have articulated exactly what we were watching at the time. I had no idea who Grace Jones was, but I loved every second she chewed the scenery. I thought every time that Pee-wee mentioned fruit or fruitcake was hilarious, not knowing that it was all an inside joke. We lost Pee-wee to the madness of the ‘90s cultural wars sex panic (let’s pause for a moment over the absurdity of arresting someone for masturbating inside an adult theater), and the resulting “creepy” taint for audiences less familiar with his original image has been persistent, if unfair. So Pee-wee’s streaming recuperation is well-deserved. Seeing him camp around in 2016 gave me a kind of closure, for Pee-wee finally, in his own way, grows up and meets the root beer barrel candy-loving man of his dreams.

Paul H. Johnson is an attorney and former newspaper reporter for the Record (Bergen County, N.J.)