HO! HO! HO! Adventures In the Santa Trade

Some of what follows appeared here ten years ago. Hoping it stands up to a re-reading and amuses first timers.)  

As a struggling actor back in the day, I drove a cab, tended bar…the usual. In December, I did well playing Santa Claus at corporate and home parties. The most rewarding Santa jobs, however, were not for pay:

After Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the United States Senate from New York in 1964, he announced that in memory of his brother, the President who had been slain the year before, he would host Christmas parties for New York City school children. I phoned his office to volunteer as Santa. Several days later they called me back to accept my offer. (I learned later they had vetted me with the FBI, the NYPD and Actors Equity.)

The first event was at a school in upper Manhattan. (Succeeding ones were in the other boroughs.) Arriving, I was met by a stern fellow with a squiggly ear wire who rifled through my suitcase before directing me to the faculty lounge. “The other acts are already there,” he said.

The “other acts” were Sammy Davis, Jr. and Soupy Sales! We drank coffee and plotted an act until it was time to go into the auditorium packed with kids. An aide introduced Senator-elect Kennedy, who introduced Soupy, who introduced Sammy, who introduced Santa Claus, who, um, got the biggest ovation.

Sammy sat on my lap and gave me his Christmas wish for success in his then-running Broadway musical “Golden Boy.” (It ran over a year.)  Soupy asked for a network TV show. (Couldn’t help him there.) Then we did our act: a dance contest. Soupy did his “mouse” shuffle, Sammy tapped up a storm, and I managed an awkward twist (it was 1964). Just as my pillow slipped they let Santa win.

Then it was RFK’s turn.  His wish was for the youngsters to stay in school and graduate. “I want these boys and girls to grow up,” he said, “to teach in this school and design and build new schools where their children will become educated and prosper.” There was passion in his voice.

Soupy and Sammy and I repeated our act in other schools over the next several days, and RFK gave essentially the same message to a few thousand other kids. What I remember most is the power he had over the young audiences. Here he was ‘lecturing’ them in a sense – and there wasn’t a peep. Ah well…an epilogue is unnecessary. Bobby Kennedy sat on my lap and told those kids straight. He never would have conned them.


From 1981 to 1988 I played jolly St. Nick at parties hosted by Dave Winfield. The Yankees right-fielder’s Foundation distributed toys and turkeys to less-privileged New York and New Jersey families. (I had met Dave when my son and I drove him from a Baltimore hotel to Memorial Stadium after he missed the team bus, but that’s another story.)

Over the years, we hosted folks at the Hackensack Hospital family center, at a social club in Fort Lee, and at an Armory in the Bronx. People lined up around entire city blocks – not just to pick up food and gifts, but to shake the hand of a generous future Baseball Hall of Famer.

For a baseball fan like this Santa, joining Dave Winfield on the holiday circuit was like getting a present myself!


A Soupy Sales followup…

On New Year’s Eve, 1999, 35 years after the RFK parties, Soupy Sales was booked into the Count Basie Theatre for two shows as part of Red Bank, NJ’s “First Night” festivities. I planned on greeting him between shows.

Red Bank Mayor Ed McKenna introduced Soupy, who shuffled to the microphone and began a rambling, barely intelligible monologue of mostly coarse jokes from a half-remembered Catskills routine – hardly suitable material.

I hustled backstage, where Soupy’s wife Trudy was explaining to the irate Stage Manager that Soupy was having a reaction to medication he had taken earlier in the day.  I asked the Stage Manager to let me try to steer Soupy back to some appropriate material. “You got two minutes,” he said, and I joined Soupy on stage.

Aware that he was bombing, Soupy welcomed the company. I led us into a career-highlight discussion, including his throwing pies in faces, Frank Sinatra’s among them. We finished with Soupy’s signature Mouse dance and exited to less than thunderous applause from the diehard fans who remained.

“No second show,” the SM decreed. [No pay was implied.] But what if the second show could be more organized…and clean? He relented, and Soupy, Trudy and I retired to his dressing room to write an act in 20 minutes.

We re-created some of Soupy’s routines, including asking kids to send him their parents’ “green paper with presidents’ pictures,” which had earned Soupy a 30-day TV suspension. We did White Fang and Pooky sketches (if you know, you know), recycled some Henny Youngman one-liners, and segued into Soupy answering questions from the audience. Then everyone danced and sang The Mouse:

“Hey, do the mouse, yeah; Hey, do it all around your house, yeah.  Don’t be afraid that you can’t do it; there is really nothing to it.  Just follow me and I’ll get you through it;  Have no fear when Soupy’s here.”

           Offstage, Trudy gave me a hug and whisked Soupy into the waiting car. I was left wishing I had had a pie to take in the face. (Soupy died in 2009 at 73.)


One more Santa story:

The Broadway play  “Marathon ’33” opened on December 22, 1963. Produced by Actors Studio and written and directed by June Havoc (with Lee Strasberg), the play was about Ms. Havoc’s survival in a Depression-era dance marathon after she escaped her Baby June persona (cue “Gypsy” first act curtain). Julie Harris earned one of her ten Best Actress Tony Award nominations in the role of June.

Despite John Chapman’s NY Daily News rave (“I urge you to see…Julie Harris’s finest performance …”), “Marathon ‘33” ran just 48 performances. (Cast member Doris Roberts opined years later that the realistic play had been decades ahead of its time, but that’s also another story.) I appeared in the original company as one of a trio of shady characters who were extorting the marathon management.

On December 23 I suggested to stage manager Martin Fried that I surprise Ms. Harris during her solo curtain call the next night, Christmas Eve, with a visit from Santa Claus.  Marty told me he’d think it over and to bring in the costume. The next day he gave it the nod. After the performance, I quick-changed and entered as Julie’s applause was ebbing. She looked up, startled, as the applause ramped back up.

I sat on a chair and Julie perched on my lap. After some banter, during which she avowed that she had been a good girl all year, we exited into the wings. “What a delightful surprise,” she said. “Thank you, dear.”

That could be the whole story, but it’s not:

A few days later, Marty overheard me telling someone about it. He beckoned me to the side. “You really think I’d let you surprise the Premiere Actress of the American Stage during her curtain call? It could cost me my job…and surely yours.” He had run the idea by Julie, who had agreed after determining who it would be. (You’d get that in if it were your story.)

Backstage at “Marathon’33” in 1964; signed at “Belle of Amherst” in 2001. [Photo: Paul Barry]

What a pleasure it was to learn, when we talked backstage at “The Belle of Amherst” years later in Newark, that she remembered the incident and I was able to reciprocate with “Thank you, dear.”

I may not remember what I had for dinner yesterday, but these memories? Crystal clear.



Father and Daughter DeVito in “I Need That”

I became an ardent fan of playwright Theresa Rebeck in 2007 with “Mauritius,” her Broadway debut. About a disputed inheritance of that British colony’s rare and extremely valuable 1847 postage stamps, the intriguing play’s surprise ending is exhilarating. (Bobby Cannavale and Alison Pill’s charismatic pairing didn’t hurt the production.) My admiration peaked in 2018 with her “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” about The Divine Sarah playing The Melancholy Dane in 1899. (Janet McTeer’s Bernhard was indeed divine.)

Now comes “I Need That,” Ms. Rebeck’s latest Broadway venture, courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company. Neither exhilarating nor divine, “I Need That” is about Sam (Danny DeVito) a three-year widowed man whose house is over-flowing with an excess of ‘stuff’ that would dismay even George Carlin. It is “not a hoarder’s space, but only a few steps away from it.” (Alexander Dodge’s set, decorated by prop supervisor Kathy Fabian, makes the point.)

Ray Anthony Thomas, Danny DeVito and Lucy DeVito  [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Despite the efforts of his daughter Amelia (Lucy DeVito, Danny’s actual daughter) and his friend Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas) to de-clutter him, Sam is content with things as they are. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” he declares, hardly originally. And of course, while it appears to be a messy jumble, Sam knows what and where everything is, including a 67-year-old bottle cap, a long-ago ‘found’ diamond engagement ring, and a gifted guitar, which all figure in the flimsy plot.

DeVito pére, convincing enough as the irascible collector, is hampered by the script’s dearth of humor. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel might have tried to interject some variety of character and comedy, but “I Need That” is essentially a one-joke hour-and-a-half. A solo segment where Sam voices all the players of the board game Sorry goes on way too long – even if you know the game.

DeVito fille’s Amelia flits in and out of the piece with variations on clean-up-this-mess, but oddly enough, the two do not register as father and daughter until the curtain call. Mr. Thomas coasts through the functional best-friend role, giving Sam someone to banter with between Amelia’s visits. A few lines about institutional racism are shoehorned into their exchanges, and guilty secrets are revealed, but little of it has to do with the basic questions: Will Sam clean up his digs? Will he venture outside? Will he follow Amelia to Nebraska? If those issues seem pressing to you, then “I Need That” might be the play for you. For me, Danny DeVito’s Jersey Mike’s commercials are more fun.

Through Saturday, December 30 at American Airlines Theatre, 227West 42ndStreet NYC. Show schedule and tickets: www.roundaboutthheatre.org


A member of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I had an extra ticket to the screening of Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” in September 2022. Scanning the standby line, I offered the ticket to a young woman whom I assumed was a student and alone. Skeptical at first, she asked to see the ticket before accepting my invitation.

Once seated, I asked if she was a student. She replied that no, she was an actress. On stage? “No,” she said, “I do movies.” I asked what I might have seen her in. “Do you watch the Marvel series on Disney-plus?” she asked. Nope, said I. Then I thought she said, “I’m in ‘Ms. Marvel’.”  I asked what role she played. “No,” she replied, realizing I had mis-heard: “I am Ms. Marvel. We’re filming a feature soon for release next year.”

And so the feature film “The Marvels” opened last weekend around the country. The Marvel franchise’s 33rd feature stars Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau, and, reprising her role as Ms. Marvel, Iman Vellani, my super-hero movie date. One critic noted that Iman “steals the show.” I’m not surprised.



Patrick Page Mines Shakespeare’s Dark Side: “All the Devils Are Here”

Most actors will tell you they would rather play the villain than the hero. The bad guys are often more complex, sometimes amusingly so, and they dominate their scenes. The appeal may be inborn. My friend’s twelve-year-old granddaughter coveted the role of Captain Hook in her middle school’s “Peter Pan.” (She was cast as a Pirate, which still beats being one of the Lost Boys.) In “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain,” created and performed by Patrick Page, the actor explains and enacts sequences from Shakespeare’s stable of nefarious characters.

Dubbed by Playbill ‘The Villain of Broadway,’ based on his turns in “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark” as Green Goblin, “Hadestown” (Hades), “The Lion King” (Scar) and others, Page is no stranger to the dark side. At the Shakespeare Theater Company in D. C. alone, he has played Iago, Claudius and Macbeth.  Qualified to guide us through a clutch of Shakespeare’s baddies? I guess so!

Patrick Page in “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain” [Photos: Julieta Cervantes]

Despite “All the Devils…” sub-title, Shakespeare did not literally invent the villain, but as Page illustrates in his mesmerizing solo show, The Bard re-imagined theatrical villainy, humanizing what had been two-dimensional portrayals (masks indicating Gluttony or Greed, for example).

Identifying Shakespeare’s villains in the order of their creation, from Richard III’s debut in “Henry VI: Part III,” written in 1591, to Prospero in “The Tempest” (1611), Page illuminates the motivations for the evil doings of those two and of an inglorious handful in between. Richard III, Page explains, was born to be bad and knew it (“…counting myself but bad till be best”), while Prospero, bringing forbidden dark magic into play, exemplifies the common theme of revenge. Smoothly directed by Simon Godwin, the segments unfold with apparent ease.

“Hamlet” is the supreme “revenge tragedy,” wherein Claudius, acknowledging his fratricide, seeks absolution in a prayerful speech that Page recites to chilling effect: “O, my offense is rank…a brother’s murder.”

Iago, the very personification of villainy, gets his moment in a gripping segment with Page voicing both him and the duped Othello in the “…jealousy is the green-eyed monster” scene. The excerpt highlights Page’s sonorous vocal dexterity, about which anyone who saw Page in “Spider-Man” or “Hadestown” needs no reminders.

Prospero, Malvolio and Shylock are not your standard issue villains (not a cold-blooded murder among them), but Page exposes their dark sides and motivations: Prospero’s revenge for having been set adrift with his toddler daughter in a leaking boat; Shylock facing down pervasive antisemitism; and Malvolio’s absurd vision of his own grandeur. (Page’s reading of Malvolio’s forged love letter has never been funnier.)

Brief as it is or, more accurately, compact, “All the Devils” has much to offer students, teachers, and fans of Shakespeare. My professor at UPenn said that Shakespeare “knew everything about everything.” Based on Shylock’s excerpted “…if you wrong us [Jews], shall we not revenge?” and Page’s checklist of the traits of a psychopathic chief executive, referring to Richard and, obliquely, to our orange-haired one, Shakespeare indeed knew everything – four hundred years in advance!

Through January 7 at DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street, NYC. Schedule info and tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com

A personal note: This is my first posted review since last February, when I was diagnosed with lymphoma. After stints in hospital and a re-hab facility and a series of chemotherapy infusions, I am once again able to attend theater – and to write about it. What the future holds is unknown (except perhaps to Shakespeare), but meanwhile, it is good to be back.



Hey, What’s New? “Colin Quinn: Small Talk”

There is some practical insight in “Colin Quinn: Small Talk,” the actor/comic/writer’s solo standup gig at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village. Who knew, for example, that the key word in a successful small talk exchange is ‘yes,’ and that people who nod yes earn $40,000 more than people who shake no.

Quinn’s background includes writing for and appearing on SNL (1995-2000) and anchoring that show’s Weekend Update. Since then, he has become an off-Broadway stalwart, showcasing self-written and performed commentaries that range from zeroing in on a particular topic (the U.S. Constitution) to limitless fantasy (the history of the entire world). “Small Talk,” his eighth such outing, falls somewhere between.

Colin Quinn [Photos: Monique Carboni]

In the tradition of Jerry Seinfeld, who directed two of his previous pieces (including “Long Story Short,” on Broadway in 2010), Quinn has the intuition to spin ordinary topics and situations into comic gold – to make something out of, if not nothing, very little. Built around the ubiquity of tossed-off interactions that he likens to the horn-blowing of passing ships merely acknowledging each other, “Small Talk” makes hay out of instantly understood shorthand, opening at my performance with “Tuesday night in New York, right?”

But the exchange of ice-breaking small talk, he says, is a dying art, with young people no longer schooled in the form. Between dependence on smart phones and earbuds, “small talk is down 87 percent.” (In my apartment building, at least half of the ride-sharers are on their phones, eliminating the minor pleasures of remarks about the weather or the new lobby furniture.)

Somewhat ironically, Quinn’s monologue is most interesting in the half where he digresses from the title topic. A riff on iPhones points out that while Bill Gates developed an educational and work tool (turn off the computer when you leave the office), Seve Jobs put one in everyone’s pocket, to figure out on their own. Why not give everyone a helicopter pilot license on the same basis? On the ubiquity of McDonald’s: two hundred years from now the Golden Arches will be perceived as having been symbols of our religion; in fact, he suggests, maybe the pyramids were the Egyptians’ fast food joints. (Not exactly a knee-slapper, but representative of the overall content.)

However bright and incisive he may be, Quinn does not help himself by his presentation.  Delivered in what we’ll call Rapid-Speak, “Small Talk,” noted in press releases and other sources as running 70 minutes, ran an hour flat on my Tuesday night. That he might have cut some material does not mitigate the fact that he talks – small or other – too damn fast. Combined with holding a cordless microphone right at his lips, a portion of his material is indistinct, a lament shared by my companion and another random attendee. Gaffes like that are why objective-eyed directors are so important to solo shows. Here, James Fauvell (and sound designer Margaret Montagna) fail both performer and audience in not alerting Quinn to simple adjustments. (I do not recall the same problem with his Seinfeld-directed pieces.)

Notwithstanding that flaw, the man gets a warm reception, even very casually dressed in jeans and untucked shirt, like, he points out, a twelve-year-old boy. Why not, Colin; that’s the audience dress code too.

Through February 11 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, NYC. For Mon-Sat performance schedule and tickets ($49-$59): www.colinquinnshow.com  


Set Sail Aboard Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore”

Most full-scale musical shows run several weeks of previews before submitting to critical evaluation; some even longer, with mixed results (cue “Spiderman”). The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” opened cold last week and hit its stride in about ten minutes. The venerable company, founded in 1974 by Albert Bergeret, who still directs and conducts (including this one), maintains a performance-ready repertory of the thirteen surviving Savoy Operas created by the namesake team. (A couple more were never published.) While some of the more familiar titles dominate the roster, all thirteen are intermittently staged in NYC and on tour.

True to their founding mission of “giving vitality to the…legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan through performance and education,” NYGASP is recognized as the Gold Standard of Gilbert & Sullivan production companies, exemplified by the company’s widely acclaimed US and Canadian tours as well as their lauded appearances at G & S Festivals in England.

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players aboard the “H.M.S. Pinafore” [Photos: Danny Bristoll]

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“The Journey of Jazz” Is a Syncopated Pleasure Trip

It is an unusual opening number for an orchestral jazz concert/revue: a strikingly evocative solo rendition of the legendary Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”  Even more unusual, the wonderful pianist, Dalton Ridenhour, who has been channeling Joplin since age nine, is not the nominal ‘star’ of the proceedings. That status belongs to identical-twin musician-brothers Peter and Will Anderson, who conceived, directed and are producers of “The Journey of Jazz,” running through December 11 at 59E59 Theater A.

Will Anderson on clarinet and Peter Anderson, saxophone [Photos:Geri Reichgut]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway