The Lady in Red

A very special show is on its way to the Granada. It’s called PAZZAZZ and it was written by longtime Montecito resident Milt Larsen and two-time Academy Award winning songwriter Richard M. Sherman.

PAZZAZZ is something the two men have worked on and off with for nearly fifty years. It’s the story of Joe Weber and Lou Fields of Weber & Fields, one of the biggest acts in the country from the late 1890s to the early part of the twentieth century. They owned and operated the Weber & Fields Music Hall on 14th Street, near Broadway, which featured “burlesques” of the shows made popular in the more traditional Broadway theaters uptown. Some of the biggest names in show business – Lillian Russell, George M. Cohan, and many others – performed there. That they agreed to appear in the Weber & Fields productions was a source of friction that PAZZAZZ is centered upon.

“The [Broadway] syndicate hated Weber & Fields because they were able to get these great stars working for them for fun,” Milt explains during a short interview at his new home overlooking Santa Barbara Harbor.

The musical revolves around a young George M. Cohan before he became “King of Broadway,” Weber and Fields, and a ruthless but bumbling syndicate that attempts to foil their achievements.

Although PAZZAZZ is based upon real events, don’t believe the show is anything other than a rip-roaring musical comedy spectacular, complete with dancing, singing, top-rate performers, extravagant dresses, gowns, outfits, costumes, sets, and inspired silliness, because that is exactly what it is, or at least promises to be; I haven’t seen any of it yet.

Performing lead roles are Dale Kristien as Lillian Russell. Dale – who really does have the voice of an angel – was Christine in “Phantom Of The Opera” for nearly five years, appearing on Broadway and in Los Angeles with co-star Michael Crawford. Joey D’Auria performs as Joe Weber; he played Bozo the Clown for 17 years on WGN-TV in Chicago after the original Bozo – Bob Bell – retired. Joey has focused on voice-over work lately, including work on the “Curious George” movie, and opposite Debbie Reynolds for a cartoon scheduled for the Olympics. Other stars include Adam Wylie as George M. Cohan, Joshua Finkel, Alan Rachins, Juliet Fischer, Amy Gillette, and others.

Richard M. Sherman is one-half of the Sherman Brothers songwriting team; his brother Robert being the other half. Their credits include Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, It’s A Small World (After All), Jungle Book, and a number of other hugely successful, recognizable songs and shows. The Shermans’ first musical output featured top-forty AM radio and record hits such as “You’re Sixteen” (“You’re Beautiful, And You’re Mine” – recorded first by Johnny Burnett and later by Ringo Starr, among others), “Let’s Get Together” (sung by Hayley Mills in “The Parent Trap”), and “Tall Paul” (“He’s My All,” sung by mouseketeer Annette Funicello).

In 1960, the Shermans signed on to an exclusive 10-year contract with Walt Disney, going on to win two Oscars, nine Oscar nominations, and three Grammy awards. They count 24 Gold and Platinum albums between them and have been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Among some of the more memorable Sherman tunes are “That’s What Friends Are For,” Oscar winner “Chim, Chim, Cheree,” “A Spoonful Of Sugar,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but one can’t really quantify the prodigious output of these two talented men.

Milt Larsen was a television and stage writer, producer, performer, and creator of The Magic Castle in Hollywood. He also owned and operated The Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica, wrote for television’s Truth or Consequences, hosted by Bob Barker, for eighteen years, and he and his wife, Arlene, continue to produce It’s Magic! throughout the West, and which has played at the Lobero regularly over the years.

Both Milt Larsen and Richard Sherman have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and are literally across the street from each other. “He’s in front of Hooters and I’m in front of the new wax museum,” Milt observes wryly.

PAZZAZZ features a cast of 28, with some 150 costumes, mostly made by award-winning costume designer Arlene Larsen – “Murder She Wrote,” “The Sonny & Cher Show,” “Laugh-in,” as well as theater and film. All Arlene's hand-made designs are currently hanging in the couple’s living room, dining room, bedroom, den, and garage; the entire Larsen home is filled with costumes. Arlene began working on the outfits nearly three years ago. “Once I finished one, I put the pieces together, put it in the garment bag and stored it in the garage,” she laughs.

About six months ago, however, she got serious when they got a theater date at the Granada. Rather than rent an office or warehouse for the way Arlene works – she sometimes awakens at 3 am and begins to work on a costume – having the costumes created at home made sense to her.

Arlene and her team, consisting mainly of Mary Lynn Snow and Britt Nelson have designed and coordinated all the costumes. Eliane Alexandre on Coast Village Road has styled and made many of the wigs.

The show opens Friday June 20, and continues for only two more performances – three in all – Saturday, June 21, and Sunday the 22nd. A big “star-studded” evening is planned for the Saturday night performance and will include a purple carpet klieg lit gala replete with stilt walkers, an organ grinder playing music from the show. Milt compares PAZZAZZ to Olsen & Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin,” which ran for three years from 1938 to 1941. (If you want to get an idea of the energy of that show, look up “Hellzapoppin Swing Dance” on YouTube and watch the five-minute take from the 1941 film version of the show.)

PAZZAZZ ticket prices: Friday & Sunday $85/$65/$45; Saturday Gala is $150 (there are only 150 of these available; price includes VIP seating and reception in the McCune Founders Room)/$90/$75/$45. To learn more go to For tickets call the Granada

With Andy at the Indy

Jim and Helen Buckley and a group of a dozen or so Santa Barbarans and Montecito residents traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana over the Memorial Day weekend to attend the Indy 500 with the Granatellis: Andy, Dolly, Vince, and Laurie. Among those that went were Tab Hunter, his longtime partner Allan Glasser, and Michael Towbes (without Anne). Montecito Journal is planning a big six-page spread on the trip in its October glossy issue (we’ll be talking more about that twice-a-year glossy special soon).

A highlight of the trip was two turns around the Indy 500 Speedway’s two-and-a-half-mile oval at speeds approaching 185 mph in a two-seats-in-tandem Formula One racing car with racecar legend Mario Andretti at the wheel.

You will read all about it in October (or at least I hope you will), but here’s what you should know should you ever be invited by Mr. Granatelli to join him: Go.

Andy has attended every Indy 500 race for the past 63 years; he knows Indianapolis. Not only does he know Indianapolis, he owns Indianapolis. Andy Granatelli is the “G-Word” there. Although Indianapolis is officially in the bible belt, when faced with a choice between God and Granatelli, I do believe most residents of that fine city would defer to Andy. Maybe they already have.

Upon landing at the Indianapolis Airport, our small group was ushered outside to a waiting van and two police escort squad cars, one in front and one in the rear. Once ensconced, our party took off – in the best racing sense of the phrase. Lights flashing, we sped through intersections, red lights, Stop signs, and any other merely human impediment. I sat in the rear cruiser and when I asked the officer if he could turn on his siren, he complied with a variety of them, from constant drone, to the European high-decibel-low-decibel wail.

The Speedway Motel is directly across from the track. Andy says the only way one could get a reservation there over the Memorial Day Weekend would be if someone died. I believe him.

At and around the track, whenever we departed to visit the pits, Gasoline Alley, one of any number of race and auto museums (all of which featured Andy and Vince Granatelli prominently), we traveled in two 10-passenger vans with a big “Granatelli” writ large across the front of the windshield. The Granatellis had carte blanche to go wherever they wanted to go, and all of the hundreds of jump-suited Speedway employees at the various gates, entrances, passageways, back doors, restricted areas, fences, and barriers set up to direct traffic away from sensitive areas, knew immediately to allow the Granatelli caravan total access. The barriers opened as magically and as surely as the Red Sea parted for Moses and his group. We drove around the entire 2 ½-mile Indy track in both vans, at will.

Nobody does that, except the Granatellis.

And the food. Piles of it. Mounds of it. All good to great, and mostly, surprisingly, ethnic. A Jewish deli, an Italian restaurant, a Greek eatery, a barbecue joint and the best – the best – fried chicken on planet Earth. All I could think to ask was, ‘This is middle America?’

Indianapolis, it turns out, is the America of my (and probably your) childhood. On Race Day, before the iconic “Gentlemen, and ladies (there were three female drives this year, as there were last year), start your engines” was sounded, a fleet of red, white, and blue Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks rolled around the track, carrying a small clump of either U.S. military airmen, soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guard and national guardsmen in their beds. After that, squads of military men and women in uniform marched behind Old Glory. As each contingent of uniformed marchers approached, the crowd stood up to salute and cheer them. An invocation by a pastor caused heads to bow in thanks. Then “God Bless America” was sung, followed by the Star Spangled Banner, the entire crowd of 355,000 standing, hands on hearts, hats across chests, men and women in military garb saluting. As the national anthem finished two F-18s and an F-16 flew over the track, low. When asked “How low,” during the race one of the pilots, who’d been invited to our suite after his flyover, could only answer quietly, “pretty low.” We’re guessing 100 feet. Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again In Indiana” as thousands of red, white, and blue balloons were released.

Now, this is America, the good land, the land that we love – left, right, front, rear, north, south, east, west, and most of all in the middle.

And in the middle of all that was Andy Granatelli, who rode around the track in a pace car with Tab Hunter and photographer Priscilla Summerhill, waving at the crowd and being cheered all the way. The only ones to receive a louder applause were the Congressional Medal of Honor winners as they were introduced.

More to come, in October.

Dean Turns 75

It was Dean Mars’ 75th birthday celebration, held at the Santa Barbara Yacht Club and hosted by his wife, Melinda Mars. More than 100 attended the party, honoring perhaps Montecito’s favorite artist, sculptor, writer, and television filmmaker.

A jolly good time was most certainly had by all; Dean was the perfect guest and Melinda was the doting hostess as both moved from table to table, joining all the invitees at one time or another.

Still, upon closer inspection, there is absolutely no proof that Dean is actually 75 years old and unless he comes up with a certified birth certificate, nobody was, or is, prepared to believe it.

JoAnn And Roger, Together At Last

Among those attending Dean Mars’ 75th were Roger Blackwell, a former jock in high school (football, baseball) and JoAnn Mermis a cheerleader; both attended high school in Great Bend, Kansas, graduating in 1963. She married her high-school sweetheart, Joe Mermis, he signed a pro contract and joined the L.A. Dodgers organization directly out of high school. He played centerfield in Florida and Idaho and says he “had some great coaches: Maury Wills teaching me how to steal bases, Duke Snyder helped me as batting coach, and I got the experience of being with the 1963 World Series Dodgers. It was a great experience.”

Roger was injured, however, after two years in the minors and went on to a career as a school counselor, recently retiring.

It was now 2007; Roger was living in New Hampshire wondering what to do with the rest of his life. “I was thinking about who in my life that I would like to make a renewal with and JoAnn’s name came up and so I looked her up on the Internet. The first JoAnn I got was the wrong one, but the second one was her. We made contact, started calling each other, and e-mailing.”

He visited in September, again in November, and once more in January of this year; Roger stayed with JoAnn’s mother, Josephine, while JoAnn went to India, so he’s been here since February. When asked about the rumors that he and JoAnn might be getting married, Roger answered, “There’s a strong possibility,” and admitted if that were to happen, he’d be moving here.