STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Ernie the Moocher, co-creator of a musical that has enjoyed more than 700 productions internationally… Who’da thunk?
Okay, it wasn’t really Ernie the Moocher of “Guys on Ice,” the super-popular Wisconsin musical. It was one of the guys playing him.
James Valcq played the role in an asterisk – * – situation. He planned to collaborate on a musical with Fred Alley, co-creator of “Guys on Ice,” and Alley would be appearing in a run of the Wisconsin-hit show. The two had the creation of “The Spitfire Grill” high on their mind, and their plan would require James Valcq to step in the role.
“Ernie was a means to an end, and everybody knew it. I had been a child actor and an actor into college. Up to the time I moved to New York, I was appearing in a show. From the minute I stepped off the plane to get to New York, I had no intention of acting again. Not then or really ever. It wasn’t something I was really thinking about.
“But Fred and I were about to start work on ‘The Spitfire Grill.’ And I say ‘about to start work’ because we had gotten a lot of verbal agreements, but we were smart, and we weren’t going to start writing until everything was signed, sealed and delivered. So we were waiting for the rights to the property to become ours, and it could be any time during 1999.
“I was not the first Ernie. I was the third. Chris Irwin was the original Ernie the Moocher… We knew that these rights could come through at any time, and Fred and I really wanted to hit the ground running. We wanted to be together, and we wanted to get going because we had a lot of great ideas and we wanted to let them all out.
“And it was a long run of ‘Guys on Ice.’ It started in the town hall in Ephraim, and then there was a run at a theater in Green Bay and then it was running at the Milwaukee Rep for the holidays. It was a three-month contract that started in September. It was a really good contract…
“I had a certain skill set and could pull it off. I don’t think it was my shining hour in the theater. They could have had a much more characteristic Ernie on the CD. But I did do it for that time, and I introduced the accordion as a possible Ernie instrument, so there’s that.
“But it really was a means to an end. It was so Fred and I could be together. And lo and behold, on a very late October evening when there was a ring around the moon outside of the town hall in Ephraim, we got a call that the paperwork was being drawn up and we were about to get the rights. So it did happen during that time, and it was kind of perfect.”
How did “The Spitfire Grill” musical come to be? Where is the kernel?
“I saw the film. I didn’t see it when it was in the theaters. It wasn’t in theaters in New York for very long, but I did remember reading a pretty extensive review of it in the New Yorker magazine.
“The movie is from 1996. It wasn’t too long after that that Fred and I had been actively speaking of doing a follow up (collaboration after ‘The Passage,’ and I remember reading that review. And then Bob (Boles, co-artistic director with him at Third Avenue Playhouse) belongs to the Screen Actors Guild. This was the days before DVDs and other convenient ways of distributing films for award consideration or for whatever reason. We would have SAG screenings in New York all the time. I didn’t go too often. I’m not a big fan of the movies. I prefer live theater. But Bob went to a movie and came back and told me about it. And it was ‘The Spitfire Grill.’ I said, ‘Oh, I know exactly what movie you’re talking about. I remember reading about that.’ And I thought it sounded like it might make a good musical. And Bob said, ‘Well, I just saw it, and I thought it would, too. There’s a SAG screening of it next week.’ I said, ‘Okay, we’re going.’
So we went. And these are in very small rooms. You can see who’s there. And Stephen Schwartz (‘Wicked,’ ‘Godspell,’ ‘Pippin,’ etc.) was there. And I thought, ‘Oh, great. He has the same idea I do. And who’s Stephen Schwartz? He’ll get the rights, and I won’t.’ Well, I don’t know if he ever pursued that. I doubt it. Because with Stephen Schwartz, I’m sure he would have gotten the rights. But he did happen to be at the screening when I saw it.
“As I’m watching this movie I’m thinking, ‘Well, there are elements of it that are very cinematic, very filmic that I don’t know exactly how that would work on stage.’ But it wasn’t about the details, it was about the way the movie felt and what it had to say and the themes in it. And I knew it would speak to Fred and that they were things that he had written about already, some of the themes, and others that we talked about that we wanted to write about – all here in the story that needed some reconsideration to how to make it work on stage – or how best to tell it on stage. But I just had a very wonderful property.
“So how did I get it to Fred? I was doing ‘Chicago’ at the time. And Joel Grey is an Academy Award winner, and he was playing Amos at the time. I guess I was talking to him about it, and he said, ‘Oh, I have a video cassette of that from academy considerations. Would you like it?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, Joel, please.’
“So I get the video tape from Joel Grey and send it to Fred. Well, Fred loved it. We just had to figure out how to get in touch with Lee David Zlotoff, who wrote and directed the film. There was Internet at the time, but it wasn’t like now. It wasn’t the information highway that it is now, sort of an information footbridge. They didn’t have Google to find somebody.
“Bob took me to the library, and there’s a thing called Film Guide. There’s a Players Guide for New York, and there’s Film Guide for L.A. – big, thick book, like three phone books put together. So you go in this book and you might be able to find somebody. Well, lo and behold, there was Lee David Zlotoff’s office address and telephone number.
“I was too chicken to call him, so I wrote him a letter and was very embarrassed to sort of sheepishly say, ‘Oh, I have an Off-Broadway credit, “Zombies from Beyond”,’ That doesn’t exactly bode well a person should write for ‘The Spitfire Grill.’ But that was the credit I had, so, you know, you go with what you’ve got. With your strength, right? So that was it at the time. And then you just wait and wonder if anything will come of it.
“Two weeks later, the phone rang. He called me. He called me and apologized for taking two weeks and said he was out of town doing something else and wanted to be back in his office and really talk to me about it. He put me at ease about ‘Zombies from the Beyond’ because he said, ‘My claim to fame is creating the television series “McGyver”,’ which he was proud of in the same way I’m proud of ‘Zombies from the Beyond,’ but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s all there is to you as a creative person. That’s just one thing that you happen to have done that’s made a mark for some reason. So he certainly thought it was a great idea and he would love to give us the go-ahead.
“But he said, ‘Right now, if you were to keep pursuing the rights…” and he told about being hired by some kind of outfit of Catholic priests to create this film, but their hold on the property was very limited and it was soon to run out. He said, ‘My advice to you is to wait until that happens because then you just have to deal with me, and I already want this to happen and want you to do it.’ And I said, ‘Great, that sounds wonderful.’
“And it sounded all very fast with Hollywood, and this was before the big boom of doing big Broadway musicals out of films. Now theatrical rights are not easy to come by. But at least it’s something that’s taken seriously when somebody goes and inquires because they see a large amount of money coming in. I don’t see us as the vanguard of that movement. I see us more as at the end of, you know, the musical ‘Carnival’ was based on a non-musical film – more something like that. But the circumstance was, it wasn’t particularly interesting to studios at that time to hear that somebody might want to make a musical of it.
“Even so, there were still legal things that had to be taken care of – and it wasn’t quite so neat. That’s where the whole ‘Guys on Ice’ part of it came in because we really thought by that point we’d be hard at work writing. But we didn’t have the rights yet. So, yeah, even though Lee had the rights to grant, there’s other loopholes. So it took a while. But we did eventually get them.”
Where’s the chicken and where’s the egg at that point?
“We already spotted where we thought songs would go in the story and what situations should be musicalized. Most of them held throughout. Some didn’t.
“We started making a stab at writing some of the songs. The next big thing that happened is we had five songs, a nice little clutch of songs that were for different characters, and we had a real sense of what kind of piece this was going to be. We thought we should put together a demo recording and start shopping it around even though we weren’t terribly far along in our writing process.
“Fred plays the guitar and I play piano and I had a friend who came in and played cello and friends with beautiful voices and Fred with his beautiful voice. And we made this demo of these five songs from the show. And it turned out pretty good.
“I gave one to my friend, Tom Ford, who I knew from Milwaukee. He was at the PTTP (advanced theater program) which was at UWM at that time. He was friends with Penny Fuller, a Tony Award-winning Broadway actress. She was in ‘Applause.’ She played Eve Harrington among many, many things. And Tom gave it to Penny because he told her about me, and she said, ‘Oh, I’d really like to hear his music.’ And she loved the recording. And Penny is good friends with David Saint, who is the artistic director at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey (singing) ‘Forty-five minutes from Broadway.’ And she knew that David had just lost an option on a musical that he was planning on producing in his next season at George Street. And she thought, ‘Oh, why don’t I give him this little freebie of “The Spitfire Grill”? Maybe he’ll like that.’
“So then I get his call out of the blue from David Saint. He said, ‘I do have a spot in my season, and it seems like something I’d really love to produce but I can’t wait to hear the rest of the score.’ And I said, ‘Neither can I. It hasn’t been written yet.’
“So David and I met. I went out to New Brunswick and had lunch across the street from the theater, and he showed me the space. We actually talked very little about the piece. We just got to know each other, and by the end of our meeting it was clear we had agreed that George Street would produce the show, David would direct it.
“And this was without even specifically talking about the piece, which may seem reckless, but it wasn’t reckless. It seemed more prudent and more important at the time to get to know each other as people and do we speak the same language? do the same things move us? – like that. There weren’t the kind of specifics that we could have gotten into about the show anyway because we had five songs and part of Act I plotted out book-wise. And that was about it.
“It was a wonderful meeting of the minds and hearts on that piece. And boy, if ever a show had a charmed existence, everything just fell into place at the exact right time from getting the rights on that October night to meeting with David and having him agree to do it the season neigh upon us.
“So he did a quick workshop of it in the summer, and then it opened in George Street in November of 2000. One night after a performance at George Street – as I said, 45 minutes to New York – five minutes after I got home, 11 o’clock at night, my phone rang. ‘Hello, James, Ira Weitzman, I’m a producer of musical theater at Lincoln Center Theater and Playwrights Horizons.’ I said, ‘Yes, I know who you are,’ and he said, ‘I just saw your musical, “The Spitfire Grill” at George Street Playhouse tonight.’
“He let me know that he wanted to do it at Playwrights Horizons. I think between the time that both of us got home and that he called me he called Tim Sanford at Playwrights Horizons, the artistic director there, to let him know about the show and obviously had short-order convinced him that this was Playwrights Horizons material. It was very thrilling, very thrilling.
“Another phone call that happened was for the Richard Rodgers Award. This was something that happened after George Street. Fred and I applied for the award before George Street, and we still hadn’t written the entire show. We sent everything we had up to that point to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Richard Rodgers production award. Then, after the George Street run, we had put together a new recording that included everything, except the stuff we hadn’t finished yet, and I called the American Academy of Arts and Letters and said who I was and that I know the deadline is past and we’ve already done our submission but we have additional material and, ‘It would just be a more complete experience for you.’ The woman said, ‘Would you hold on, please?’ She comes back a moment later and says, ‘No, that won’t be necessary.’ I said, ‘I’d love to send it it.’ She said, ‘No, it really won’t be necessary, thank you.’ Click. She hung up. (Laughs).
“About a week and a half after that, Fred and I sort of simultaneously got a phone call from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Well, they had already decided the winner, and it was us. So they didn’t need to hear the additional stuff because we already won. That’s why they didn’t want to hear it.
“And Fred and I called each other on the phone immediately after that, and we were both doing the happy dance holding our phones and dancing around our apartments.
“That’s also one of the things that Playwrights Horizons was sort of concerned about – being able to actually afford putting the show up. But winning the Rodgers Production Award was at the time a $250,000 grant to a theater who will produce a full production of your show. So that kicked it over the edge, and then it was definitely a done deal with Playwrights Horizons, that the show was going to go up as the opening show of the 2001-2002 theatrical season.
“Fred and I worked in New York, and we worked in Baileys Harbor, on a farm off of Door County Highway F on Triangle Road. We didn’t work in New York in the summer because Fred would be performing in the park (Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek). But everything but the summer. I would come up here for several weeks and stay with Fred on Triangle Road, and he would come to New York and stay at our apartment, which was on 157th and Riverside Drive at that time.”
What was it about the two creatively that was sympatico?
“I don’t really know if I can answer that question. I do know this. When Fred would hand me the right lyric, I’d put it in the music rack on the piano and sit down and doodle, and it was like the song was writing itself. I would barely think. I would just look at the words, play and hum, and it was like magic. It would appear, often in something very close to the form it would ultimately take in the show. And that happened most often with lryics that Fred wrote. What I would really know if I got a new lyric from Fred and I put it on the music rack of the piano and nothing came out at first, it stunk – the music – I thought, ‘Well, this lyric must not be really right, either, because it’s so easy when it is right.’
“We were kindred spirits. We were really creative soul mates. I know that’s a little crunch granola and not very specific, but making art – pardon the pretension – is not specific, and it’s not a science – however it would be called an art.
“Who’s to say what the formula is. I just know there have been collaborators who haven’t been good friends. I never collaborated with somebody who I didn’t sort of adore ever and don’t think I could. I certainly am not interested in trying. Life’s too short, and you’d spend entirely too much time with a person who you don’t get along with.
“Sometimes writing with Fred was a very long version of that meeting I told you with David Saint. Fred and I would walk around Triangle Road for hours and just talk. We were working on the show, so our talk was usually generated by some specific problem in the show we were trying to solve or a character or a motivation we were trying to get a bead on. And we would end up talking about some aspect of human nature for hours. I personally can’t imagine doing that or having that kind of exchange with somebody who wasn’t a dear friend. And I think that was a big part of it, that we just got along. I’m not saying we were like that in every respect. We were very different people. But as far as fundamental things that we thought were important in life and as a person, we either believed together or – this is very important – I learned from him (very emotional) because he knew it, and I didn’t. But he was one of those people who makes everybody around him a better person.”
How did the relationship go at the theater?
“(So many times some people” try to manipulate or maneuver so many aspects of a piece – how it looks, how it sounds, who’s in it, how it plays – and there was none of that. We were all on the same page. Again, one of those wonderful, fortuitous circumstances.
“Fred called it the de-flavoritizer when too many people get their hands on a thing and try to pull the Playdoh this way and that and you sort of lose sight of what your piece is. But how lucky we were that it wasn’t that.
“It’s not just that David said everything we wrote was golden and let’s do it, but he was always guiding us to find our best expression – our best expression, not his. He’s a really selfless director. Marvelous – and knows how to direct a piece that’s never been seen before, and that is a real different kind of a skill than directing a piece that’s already been staged, which is a great skill, too, but it’s a whole other thing. It was a marvelous process.
“Every cast through the workshops and for that production for George Street were wonderful. And the designers – oh my God, they were Tony and – I keep saying all this stuff or dropping names or reputations, but I was amazed as anybody that they were Tony and Oscar-winner designers who were working on our little piece. Fred and I were in heaven. (Emotional again.) It was just amazing.”
How many productions to this point?
“More than 700. The translations are German, Japanese, Korean and Dutch – and heard in five languages altogether.”
First thoughts now on “The Spitfire Grill?”
“Great work. That’s what Fred called it. Without knowing it would be our last, he said, ‘I really think this is our great work.’ When I heard him say that, I remember thinking, ‘Well, I really hope it isn’t, it’s just our first and I hope they’ll get better.’ But I’m so glad he said that.
“He had complete satisfaction in our output in that show with what we were saying, how we were expressing ourselves. Not that I had too many doubts, but I have to say knowing that he was so satisfied with it helps me to feel that it had to be enough but maybe it is enough, that we were able to say that. And now these many years and lo these many languages, my goodness.”
First thoughts on “Boxcar,” Northern Sky Theater production, written with Laurie Flanigan Hegge, book and lyrics.
“My dad. I wrote that one for my dad. I love trains, but I got the love from my dad. I’ll never love them nearly as much as he did. There’s an incident in the show that’s based on him – the kid throwing a stick at the hobos and the hobo giving the stick back carved in something beautiful. That actually happened to my dad during the Depression with a hobo.”
First thoughts on “La La Lucille,” Third Avenue Playhouse production he created.
“Labor of love. Light on the labor, heavy on the love. It took about two years to put all that together, but when your day job and your tedium work is putting together notes that George Gershwin wrote 100 years ago, that’s a really good day job.”
First thoughts on “Velvet Gentleman,” Third Avenue Playhouse production he created.
“I’m very glad I did it. Like so many things, it was born of necessity. Like how ‘The Spitfire Grill’ got chosen. I’m not comparing the pieces at all, but they had a slot in a season, and we filled it. We had a slot in our season and had no idea what to do.
“We’d done several one-person shows at our theater. I never wanted to do one. After I saw the first one, I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ After I saw the second one, I was like, ‘Can anybody do that? Get up there and hold the stage for an evening with no acting partner?’ And they the third one we did, and then I directed one and it didn’t seem like such a lonely proposition anymore. I don’t want to say it’s a stunt, but it’s a sort of a test of strength, of metal – it’s a feat, not a stunt. And I did kind of want to see if I could do it, and I thought I had a really good idea, which was to sort of present a collage of Eric Satie’s output, which included, sketches, drawings, calligraphy, music and lots and lots of writing, some of which was intended to be spoken, some of which wasn’t.
“He wasn’t a theatermaker (see below), but he was more than just a musician and a composer. He was a compleat – p-l-e-a-t – kind of artist in a way. And, I don’t know, such a whacky goon with a big vocabulary. (Laughing). So I could tell he was a kindred spirit.” (Laughing robustly).
First thoughts on “Guys on Ice” (performer, including on CD), American Folklore Theatre production (pre-Northern Sky Theater), Fred Alley, book and lyrics, James Kaplan, music; conceived and researched by Fred Alley and Frederick “Doc” Heide.
(Laughs). “Gosh, we just had this reunion, and I feel I’m part of a quirky, obscure corner of Wisconsin history that I was part of that show for a little while. But I think I’m more associated with it than I warrant because I’m on that CD. If I wasn’t on that, I might be another George Lazenby (of 007 movies) Ernie, and people don’t recall that I had actually done it. But I’m tickled that I’m a part of that sort of illustrious history. Doug Mancheski (of the original cast and of Third Avenue Playhouse plays) and I got to know each other then, and we’ve been good friends ever since then. That’s a wonderful addition to my life that started because of that show.”
First thoughts on “The Passage,” American Folklore Theatre production, a collaboration of James Valcq and Fred Alley.
“You never forget your first time – me and Fred writing together. And that was about finding our voice together, and I think we found it quickly.”
First thoughts on Reimagine TAP, the $3.6-million renovation project for Third Avenue Playhouse.
“It’s an investment in the future of the arts in Door County, and I don’t mean that to sound lofty. I just think it is. It’s so not about Bob and me. We’re the ones initiating it and in the short term we’ll certainly benefit from an improved facility, but I think the big picture is that after a series of band aids which were done by all best intentions by our predecessors, who did whatever they could afford, that Bob and I are very fortunate that we have supporters who can see the building on to the next step.”
“I’ve got to tell you this. One of those Door Shakespeare summers, I was coming out of the Y after swimming my laps, and a person came up to me in the parking lot and said, ‘Are you an actor?’ And I was going to say, ‘No’ (in a dismissive voice), but I guess it was how I was employed at Door Shakespeare, so I had to say, ‘Why, yes, I am’ with great surprise. I guess I don’t think of myself as actor, musician, director, composer, conductor, designer, producer – any one of those things. I know in New York, I think I said my primary occupation on Broadway was as a musician – but I never thought of myself as a musician. I guess I coined a word or maybe I heard it somewhere – a theatrician. That’s what I thought I was, a theatrician. People of our generation will call it a Renaissance man, I guess.
“We work with a lot of young people at our theater as interns, and we get a lot of them from Lawrence University, which has a marvelous theater program. The young people who come out of that program call themselves theatermakers, and I love that. I’m a theatermaker. Do you act? Yes. Can you stage manage? Yes. Do you ever designed props? Yes.
“They all learn everything and get really good training in many areas. They’re all-rounders. I don’t think that makes you jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Everybody has some things that they do better than others, but a theatermaker is a really good theater credit.”