A Fabulous Piece on Mister V

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By Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune arts reporter
December 14 2003

CINCINNATI — “I wonder what the good people of Procter & Gamble would think of all this,” screeched the rotund, 56-year-old Bruce Vilanch, best known for sticking funny words in the mouths of celebrities, but currently touring the nation as a housewife in pantyhose, a girdle and a dress.

That shrewd if absurd reference to a prominent local corporation made a hitherto moribund Ohio audience at the first national tour of “Hairspray” shriek with pleasure. And with a grin on his ample chops and his feminized face aimed straight out front, Vilanch went straight for his self-penned, Tuesday-night kill.

“Maybe we can all go to Skyline Chili afterwards for a three-way,” Vilanch gurgled, probably as professionally happy in that absurdly trivial moment as he has ever been in his whole weird life.

Even though plenty of people don’t recognize his name, Vilanch has toiled mightily for Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams. His lines and routines have dominated the Academy Awards and Emmys for years. And he wrote most of what came out of Bette Midler’s quivering mouth on the penultimate “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” inarguably one of American television’s finest hours.

But just like his unusual but similarly unsatisfying early Chicago journalistic work that provided his backdoor showbiz entree, writing for illustrious others has not given this ambitious, complex and bizarrely stage-struck man enough personal satisfaction. In 1999, a fawning documentary movie by Andrew J. Kuehn called “Get Bruce,” Vilanch’s mother, a sometime performer and party planner from New Jersey, makes an outspoken appearance.

“Bruce had this job at the Chicago Tribune with a byline and a column and everything,” she said to the camera. “He liked the work. But it was going no place fast.”

“I don’t have that insane need to be playing the palace,” insisted Vilanch in the film, “because I’ve written everyone else’s act.”

You only have to look at his face to know that’s a baldfaced lie.

After graduating in theater and journalism from Ohio State University, Vilanch landed a job at Chicago Today, an afternoon paper owned by Tribune Co., in June 1970. Aiming to stem what would prove to be a fatal decline in the fortunes of afternoon newspapers, the Tribune sought young staffers who could reach youthful readers. The new hire wrote his own company bio.

“Bruce Vilanch is a nice Jewish boy, 23 years of age,” it begins, before referencing an ill-fated marriage to Lana Turner and noting the writer was “a student at the Ted Mack Camp, where he held the distinction of being the only child who could not simultaneously play the harmonica and the zither.”

When Chicago Today folded in 1974, there was some question whether Vilanch would be hired at the staid Tribune. For one thing, he was flamboyantly gay (in an era when out gay men weren’t seen much in newsrooms), with an outre appearance favoring weird T-shirts. For another, he was working both sides of the street, writing entertainment reviews by day and pursuing his own showbiz stand-up career in Chicago clubs at night. “I had a terrific conflict of interest,” Vilanch said over lunch in Cincinnati, “which was never discussed.”

Different times

But while such moonlighting wouldn’t pass ethical muster today, those were different times. Vilanch was hired.

“Bruce wasn’t necessarily a great journalist, but he was a very good writer,” said Jeff Lyon, then one of Vilanch’s fellow scribes at Chicago Today and now an editor on the Tribune magazine. “Pretty much all of Bruce’s stories managed to prominently feature himself.”

Indeed they did. Postage-stamp head shots aside, the bodies of most Tribune writers rarely appear in the paper since most of the paper’s stories that are worth illustrating are about subjects other than the writer. Not so with Vilanch–who practiced his own brand of performance journalism.

Two bulging Tribune photo files show Vilanch strutting through O’Hare airport in a suit of armor; Vilanch meeting with the editor of the Guinness Book of Records after gaining an entry for walking sideways from Tribune Tower to the Drake Hotel; Vilanch on a tightrope at the circus; Vilanch hanging kids from a rafter at Camp Chi, somewhere in Wisconsin, as if the boys were happy hunks of meat (Vilanch dutifully reported this was a game called “butcher’s shop”); Vilanch eating 20 doughnuts in 15 minutes; Vilanch “interviewing” Lassie; Vilanch disguising himself as an X-rated movie hopeful.

There is even Vilanch strung with baubles in the guise of a human Christmas tree, lights and all. But most notable of all is a Vilanch mini-series called “Mr. Mommy.” Reflecting the sensibility (or lack thereof) of a gender-troubled era, this involved Vilanch donning an apron and offering (as the paper described the contest) to become the “magical man who will step in for some lucky housewife for a week or so and do all her chores.” In 1971, the incongruous notion of a large, bearded man performing a variety of household tasks qualified as uproarious newspaper humor. Vilanch obliged, filing embedded reports from the kitchen.

Meanwhile, Vilanch was writing reviews of the acts at now-dead toddlin’-town venues such as Mr. Kelly’s and The Playboy Club (which is where he first met fellow comedian Crystal, who has said he likes to hang around with reviewers and “give them gifts.”). In 1974, Vilanch wrote a review of Midler’s Mr. Kelly’s show (notable if only because one of Midler’s breasts became loose from her costume and she decided to flash the audience). The next day, Midler called Vilanch and hired him.

“She said she thought my story was funny,” Vilanch said.

“Everybody knew what Bruce had going,” Lyon said of the bizarre mixing of worlds. “But then a lot of people back then had other stuff going.”

Vilanch also had his comedy shows going — which featured a lot of self-deprecating gags with his own homosexuality as the butt — not that they ever were taken that seriously. “The obese, bewhiskered, fey and lovable feature writer,” wrote Tribune columnist Will Leonard in 1978, “is known to his colleagues of the press as Broom-Hilda.”

Bigger than Chicago

Before long, Broom-Hilda had decided that he was bigger than Chicago audiences could appreciate, and needed a shot at the big time. He initially went west to write for The Manhattan Transfer, but he didn’t immediately quit his day job, taking a leave of absence. He quickly decided he wasn’t coming back.

Once in L.A., Vilanch landed gigs writing TV variety — an art that had survived just long enough to help him out. He did “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour” and then, incongruously enough, “Donny & Marie.” By 1978, when Vilanch returned to Chicago for a visit on Midler’s arm, Irv Kupcinet already was describing Vilanch as one of the best and highest-paid writers in TV.

“I had to make the Osmonds hip,” Vilanch said. “Imagine.”

Before long, he’d landed gigs as the go-to guy for anyone needing a few funny words for, say, Elizabeth Taylor’s 65th birthday party. Vilanch was better-informed and savvier than most other writers and adept at seamlessly matching gag with star persona.

“I’d like to present you,” Vilanch had Goldberg say to Taylor. “With something no one else would dare to give you. Your first Social Security check.”

The honoree roared with laughter. The gag was edgy but not too edgy. Vilanch had hit the mark.

There have been some spectacular Vilanch-driven disasters — including an off-color gag about Sharon “Basic Instinct” Stone at the Oscars and the appearance of Ted Danson in blackface at the Friar’s Club. But, still, many celebrities — from Roseanne Barr on up — wouldn’t do a benefit without calling discreetly on Vilanch, an insider’s insider, to make them hip and funny. In return, they’ve made him rich.

“Bruce’s great skill” said Mary Knoblauch, who recently retired as the Tribune’s writing coach and worked with Vilanch at the paper, “was that he was able to retain all of his journalistic sensibilities and then apply them to comedy writing.”

Yet ironically enough, Vilanch’s career still was mainly about chronicling the achievements of others. Writing for, say, Nathan Lane, and the game played to leave the impression that Lane wrote all that funny stuff himself, just as the State of the Union is regarded as a presidential creation. “People buy the whole package,” Vilanch said, without adding what fools that must make the general populace.

In the spotlight

And thus Vilanch began his third act, which featured himself in the spotlight as a performer. Shortly after starting to work with Midler, Vilanch had run into the composer Marc Shaiman, another Midler collaborator and the creator (with Vilanch) of many of Crystal’s famous musical Oscar parodies.

In 2001, Shaiman had been tapped to write the music for “Hairspray,” a potential Broadway musical based on the John Waters movie of the same name about a fat girl named Tracy Turnblad who gets her beau and integrates Baltimore. When “Hairspray” (which starred the gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein in the drag role of Mrs. Turnblad) tried out in Seattle in 2001, Vilanch showed up to watch a show that would go on to win eight Tony Awards.

“There was a `hmm’ moment right then,” Shaiman recalled. “Very few people can play that role. You have to be at ease playing a mother as well as a woman. You have to be in touch with your feminine side without making fun of it. Bruce could do that.”

Since Vilanch already had parlayed a writing gig on the rehashed Hollywood Squares into a regular spot inside one of the squares, his hinterland recognition factor had risen to the point where the “Hairspray” producers also thought his name might sell tickets as matron Turnblad.

And thus once “Hairspray” turned into a hit, Vilanch got a call for the tour. He showed up for his audition in his trademark beard. He was told to shave.

When he opened in Baltimore last September, Vilanch got some tough notices. Following a distinctively acerbic star such as Fierstein is a rough assignment and Vilanch widely was perceived as too bland.

“I hadn’t put enough of my own personality into the part,” Vilanch said. “I was too busy figuring out the show.”

By Boston, the reviews improved. And in Cincinnati, not all of the character’s Fierstein-massaged lines looked like the right match for Vilanch. But he’d written some of his own. And one certainly didn’t get the sense he was doing an impression.

Since the writing field is notorious for preferring younger writers, perhaps the ever-savvy Vilanch is making a smart later-in-life play for career security. Following Fierstein into “Hairspray” is not the sina qua non of Vilanch’s theatrical ambitions. He wants his own Broadway show, badly.

“I am in talks on projects,” he said, running his fingers through his hair. “They just are not set yet.”

For now, he’s writing Midler’s current arena tour (which began in Chicago Wednesday) by day, and then channeling his inner woman by night. He professes not to be worried about what might be penned about him by any writer for the Tribune.

“I know exactly how seriously to take such people,” he said. “Since I was one of them myself.”