Archive » September 20, 2007
By Erin Graffy De Garcia
It could be the water or perhaps just an unexpected planetary alignment, but for some cosmic reason two of the most talented comic performers of the last half of the twentieth century – John Cleese and Carol Burnett – now reside in Montecito. Even more cosmically significant is that the duo is set to perform a one-night-only public event together on Saturday November 10.
Burnett and Cleese have agreed to co-star in a reading of A.J. Gurney’s popular “Love Letters” at the Lobero. Although neither Cleese nor Burnett will be called upon to exhibit their finely honed comic timing – he as Yale-educated Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (a name that sounds suspiciously like one of the English twits Cleese played on various episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus), and she as Melissa Gardner (Burnett has done the role half a dozen times – with co-stars Leslie Nielson, Tony Roberts, Charlton Heston, Tom Selleck, Brian Denehy, and Cliff Robertson; Cleese never has) – each comic giant has such a distinctive voice that their mere inflections are likely to elicit titters of joy and laughter from a receptive audience during this very special evening event.
The November 10 production of Love Letters will be a benefit for Girls Inc., an organization usually known for its luncheon extravaganzas (featuring everybody from Oprah Winfrey to Nobel Prize Winners to Assistant Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlet). But event chair Margo Baker Barbakow and her committee discussed the possibility of doing something different, like a night event… and voila, the play’s the thing. Ted Weiant is set to direct.
For those unfamiliar with “Love Letters,” Cleese and Burnett will portray two people, born to wealth, who establish a lifelong correspondence with each other as children, then in college, through marriage (to others), war, careers, affairs, and death. It is those letters to each other that form the entirety of the play, as each reacts to various circumstances and events in the other’s life through their written correspondence.
Erin Graffy and I managed to snag interview with both actors recently; first, here is Erin’s account of her conversation with Carol Burnett:
An American Icon
by Erin Graffy de Garcia
It’s easy to see why Carol Burnett is one of America’s most beloved talents. If a national scrapbook held snapshots of her famous moments, they are our favorite memories – belting out “Shy” for Broadway’s hit Once Upon a Mattress, sashaying down the antebellum staircase inside Tara as Scarlett O’Hara – with curtain rods coming out of her shoulders –, the “Tarzan” yell, arguing with Mama in another famously dysfunctional moment as Eunice, singing with Beverly Sills or Julie Andrews, and other equally memorable vignettes.
Comedienne. Singer. Entertainer, Actress. If she has to narrow it down to provide the “handle” by which she could be known, Carol quickly says “Musical comedy performer.”
For the uninitiated, that may only mean an actress who can sing. But Broadway aficionados recognize that the genre represents a multi-talented triple threat. You have to know how to deliver it all - sing, act, dance, move. But it’s gestalt art – the sum is greater than the parts. You are the ultimate performer in that you must be competent as a technician but sufficiently adaptable in the nuances to deliver the moment … the comic timing, the deadpan look that is as good as a clever rejoinder, the right beat and timing of space to provide believable seriousness in a poignant moment.
And this is why we love Carol Burnett, the consummate musical comedy performer.
The Narrow Path to Broadway
Her road to the Great White Way began in her sophomore year at UCLA at a time when there was no musical theatre department (!) Related courses were offered under the Opera division. Young Carol had already made a name for herself as a campus talent in several musical theatre productions, including singing “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls.
“ I was working on several scenes for one class, when our professor suggested that the students showcase our work as the entertainment for an upcoming bon voyage dinner party. He said he would grade us on our nine scenes through our performance.“
After she performed, Carol was at the buffet table (“loading up on hors d’oeuvres to take back to my grandmother”), when a gentleman and his wife approached young Carol and asked her about her life career plans.
“I want to work in theatre,” declared Carol, “and I am saving up to go to New York!”
The man said he would lend her the money to go to New York, and told her to be in his office at 9 am in a week. To play it safe, she called first, and found he was already expecting her call. The benefactor (a businessman in construction) said he would lend her $1000 on three conditions
1) She had to pay it back in five years with no interest;
2) She had to help out others (pass it on);
3) She could never reveal his name.
It was like a fairy tale. Carol lived with her grandmother in a one-room apartment with a pull-down wall bed in Hollywood for $30 a month rent, while attending UCLA on scholarships. “I had to get my grandmother’s permission to go,” explained Carol, “ and to let her know this was legit.” Although her grandmother thought the money could be utilized in more practical ways, Carol had to hold to the donor’s stipulation that the loan be used to go to New York.
New York, New York
Once in the Big Apple, Carol found a boarding house for actors ($18 a week for room and board), sponsored by a group of lady patrons. The young actresses soon found they were frustrated by the catch-22 of needing an agent to audition for shows, but needing to be seen first in performance before they could be signed on.
So enterprising Burnett addressed the problem by producing her own musical comedy revue to feature herself and her other performing friends.
“We invited every agent we knew…sent all the agents a penny postcard and challenged them to come see us. I put on my own show, wrote it and produced it. And it worked…four of the girls got agents, including me.”
This led to other roles and ultimately to the starring role of Princess Winifred in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959, for which she received a Tony nominee as best leading actress.
From Broadway to Broadcast
Within ten years, Carol had moved through stage, (Broadway, club, summer stock), to small screen (Gary Moore and Ed Sullivan, CBS specials) to her own “Carol Burnett Show) – the longest-running musical comedy variety show in television history. And her record likely will stay, as Carol admits that this kind of show could never be produced in today’s circumstances.
“We had a full week to prepare for the shows, “ she recalls. “We’d start Mondays to learn music, lines, and blocking. Tuesdays we would rehearse scenes and dance. Costume fittings took place on Wednesdays and then in the afternoons were the run-throughs and notes. Final blocking and orchestra notes took place on Thursday.”
On Fridays it was curtain up, and on with the show!
This medium may have been television but the format held the essentials of musical comedy and Carol was at her best incorporating scenes, songs, comedy skits and musical numbers staged for a live audience.
I queried Carol for her own happiest or saddest moments.
“All the best moments we had on the show were something with Tim Conway – you never knew what he would come up with. He would do the rehearsals as written, of course. But if he later told the crew he wanted to be on a ‘head-to-toe ‘shot – the cast were on guard that he was going to do something physical and something very funny.”
Saddest moment? “Eunice getting gonged on the Gong Show….the scene and the show just faded to black….”
Life On The Stage
I asked Carol what was the best advice she has received as an actress. ”First of all,” Carol began thoughtfully “You should never ’look hungry’ when auditioning.”
“Secondly, to never take rejection personally in theatre. You might have all the right individual talents – but you may not fit the type that they have in mind. It’s not personal ….a personal rejection of your talents. The director may simply have another type or ‘look’ in mind.”
But following that, Carol relates, “Don’t ever be afraid of making a commitment – even if it is wrong. When Henry Winkler was auditioning for ‘the Fonz’ – they had envisioned a tall dumb blond surfer dude. Henry was committed to another interpretation and went with it anyway – full board – completely the opposite of what they had in mind – leather jacket and all. But when he finished, he had stolen the show and the part was his.”
The Man With The Silly Walk
by James Buckley
My first public exposure to John Cleese, as it was for most Americans, was with his various characters on the long-running PBS U.S. television showings of BBC’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Cleese, along with Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones – Cambridge Footlights alumns all, and American-born Terry Gilliam, had created a TV presence in England in 1969; the show began airing in the U.S. in 1974 and has been running in one way or another ever since.
As a Python, Cleese has been everything from the Minister of Silly Walks, purchaser of a dead parrot, Upper-Class Twit of the Year, arrogant and clueless news announcer …”And now, for something completely different”…, arrogant and clueless TV talk show host, arrogant and pompous bureaucrats of various stripes, an arrogant and clueless Aussie military officer, and has represented many other bizarre inhabitants of what loosely could have been called the British Empire, circa late 1960s, early ‘70s.
The team’s films are classics: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “The Life of Brian,” “The Meaning of Life” spring to mind.
In the mid ‘70s, Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth created the hilarious “Fawlty Towers” for BBC television, in which Cleese plays arrogant and clueless resort hotel owner Basil Fawlty.
Cleese has gone on to star in and write “A Fish Called Wanda,” and has appeared regularly on U.S. television in sitcoms such as “Cheers,” “Third Rock from the Sun,” and “Will and Grace,” as well as commercials, the latest one as golf-course designer Ian McAllister for Titleist golf balls (Cleese does not play golf because as he said during our telephone conversation, “that would involve going to a golf course.”)
During our conversation, Mr. Cleese suggested that “it would be great if you could mention the site www.johncleesepodcast.com, so we have.
The Existential Comic
Firstly, the story of his having been expelled from a boy’s school for painting footsteps from a statue of an apparently exalted alumnus of the school, to indicate he’d gotten off his pedestal to use a nearby toilet, he says, “is completely untrue, all rubbish.”
Upon noticing that he was a little “out of shape” we asked if he’d be doing anything extra to get in shape – like calisthenics – to ready himself for his performance in “Love Letters,” Cleese promised that he’d “try not to drink a great deal the previous night, but that’s as far as I will go in that direction.”
Much of Cleese’s humor springs from a philosophical bent, and we wondered if that reference to a deeper quest into understanding the human condition is what makes him so achingly funny.
“I think that is true some of the time,” he answered, adding, “But, I’ve always been interested in why we’re here and whether it is a pointless existence, as most of the scientists tell us.”
Has he come to a conclusion about the meaning of life?
“Nope (laughs). It’s pretty hard to find evidence, but I just hope the scientists aren’t right. I suspect there’s a lot going on that scientists don’t take into account, because I believe a lot of scientific theories are held with the same kind of passionate and partly irrational emotions as a lot of religious views are held. People become very emotionally attached to what they believe.”
I noted that at least one entertainer who lived here left Montecito a few years back; one of the reasons he gave was that he couldn’t put up with the pressure of donating his time to fundraisers, and moved closer to where the business was – Los Angeles. Had he felt any of that kind of pressure since moving here?
“That’s interesting,” he said. “Well, I like doing [fundraisers],” Cleese continued, “because there are several things here that give me so much pleasure that I really feel good about doing things for them. It can back up a bit,” he admitted. “I was just checking this morning, and I think I’ve got something like nine non-profit occasions coming up in the next three months. Three in the UK and the rest are all here – the Zoofari Ball, an event at the Natural History Museum, Girls Inc., Mind and Supermind – I’ll be interviewing Rick Tarnis at the Lobero Monday, November fifth, something for Esalen in Big Sur, something for Pacifica, UCSB – but I don’t have any problems saying ‘no,’ and if you say ‘no’ nicely, I’ve never had any problem with people not accepting it gracefully. Next year I’ll take a bit of time off because they do rather pile up. The other thing is, if you’re always appearing [people get bored].”
Since moving here, Cleese has emceed showings of “Life of Brian,” “A Fish Called Wanda.” We he do so again?
“Yes,” he answered. “That’s fairly easy to do; if you do a little introduction and then watch the movie with the audience and then do questions and answers afterwards, people always enjoy it. And, you can provide three hours entertainment (including the Q & A and intro), people are very happy to pay a decent number of dollars for that for a non-profit.”
How does he deal with the expectation of his always having something funny or clever to say?
“When I very first came into show business in the ‘sixties,” he recounts, “there seemed to be some expectation that I was going to be funny all the time. There are some performers that I know [he named a couple “off the record”], and I don’t know that they can have a comfortable conversation with somebody they don’t know without trying to be funny, but I don’t find that pressure at all. People just come up and chat very nicely. They may expect me to say something slightly humorous, but I’ve done enough interviews that people know that I’m not funny most of the time.”
When asked how it came about that he agreed to do the Girls Inc event, he quipped, “Oh well, I’ve been hen-pecked all my life, so when you get a gang of hens together, you better say ‘yes’ pretty quick.”
Ticket levels for the Saturday November 10 Girls Inc. presentation of “Love Letters” (performance begins at 7:30 pm) are: Madly in Love ($1,000). This patron ticket includes stage-front seating, private reception in the Lobero Courtyard with Ms Burnett and Mr. Cleese following the performance, and printed recognition in the program. Totally Smitten ($500) includes priority seating and recognition in program. Hopeless Romantic ($250) recognition in program, and Sweetheart ($125).
For more info call Girls Inc. 805-963-4757, ext. 16, or visit www.girlsincsb.org
Thanks to Montecito jewelers Silverhorn, primary sponsor of the upcoming Saturday November 10 John Cleese-Carol Burnett reading of A.J. Gurney’s “Love Letters” at the Lobero, all money raised that evening will go directly to Girls Inc. Silverhorn has underwritten the cost of the production and both Mr. Cleese and Ms Burnett are donating their time.
Silverhorn, co-owned by husband-and-wife team Carole and Michael Ridding, has been a Coast Village presence for the past twenty-five years, ever since the couple moved to Montecito from Canada and opened their small shop at 1155 Coast Village Road in back of what was then a clothing store.
“Over the years, we’ve expanded several times, but always on Coast Village Road,” Carole says. They have taken over the entire building at 1155 Coast Village Road, and operate a small outlet at Four Seasons Biltmore; at one time Silverhorn had a London operation.
Silverhorn is the presenting sponsor for the Girls Inc. production of “Love Letters.” When asked what that entailed, Ms Ridding explains that Silverhorn “put up the funds that defray the cost of putting on the event.” Because of that, every dollar raised in ticket sales and otherwise, will go directly to Girls Inc.
“It’s truly a perfect fit,” says Carole of the pairing of Silverhorn and Girls Inc. “We’ve been involved with Girls Inc for over seventeen years and we’re huge fans of both John Cleese and Carol Burnett. And, we’re really honored to be presenting this important fundraiser,” she continues. “The organization that inspires young girls in Santa Barbara to lead more independent, fulfilling, and successful lives is something that’s close to my heart.”
Silverhorn has won “many design awards” from the American Gem Trade Association; their designs were featured in the new Museum of Art in Shanghai last summer; the same exhibit is now on display at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, and a Silverhorn pendant graced the cover of Gemological Institute of America quarterly.
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