Another Great Interview With Bruce Vilanch

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Lunch with Bruce Vilanch of ‘Hairspray’
February 29, 2004
Debra Pickett
Chicago Tribune

Bruce Vilanch, in town to star in the national touring production of “Hairspray,” has all kinds of road warrior stories about life on tour.

There was the massive blackout in New York when he was there in August for rehearsals. Then Hurricane Isabel hit Baltimore, where the show opened.

And, when we sit down at Bob Chinn’s Crabhouse, on La Salle Street and the Chicago River, on a frigid late January afternoon, he is anticipating some serious weather at his next stop: Minneapolis.

“Because it’s just not cold enough here,” he jokes, letting some L.A. slip into his usually East Coast-accented speech.

In a bright pink “Hairspray” T-shirt and perfectly matched pink-framed glasses, Vilanch is hard to miss. Even without the bushy beard that was his trademark when he gained national attention as a Hollywood Square — he had to shave it off in order to more convincingly carry off his role as Edna Turnblad — he cuts far too striking a figure to be less than famous.

Even his road warrior stories have been sprinkled with a huge dose of fabulousness.

“I had a very glamorous blackout,” he says, recalling his August adventures in New York. He was in the middle of a rehearsal when the lights went out and, as fate and the recent trend toward stunt-casting would have it, “Hugh Jackman was actually rehearsing in the same building.”

Vilanch’s driver was waiting for him outside, so, despite massive traffic tie-ups and a flood of displaced subway riders filling the streets, he gave Jackman a lift and then took Vilanch back to his hotel.

“The first people I bumped into were Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, who were also staying there and also doing shows on Broadway. They were waiting to see if their shows were going to happen, since everything was being canceled. We talked for a minute, and then the owner of the restaurant in the hotel came out and said that since all the food was going to spoil, he was going to barbecue. So we were on the terrace of the hotel, barbecuing, and David Duchovny, who was shooting ‘Sex and the City,’ showed up. So we sat there on the terrace, drinking and hanging out…. It was better than Oscar night.”

Vilanch, who has made a living writing jokes, one-liners and award show patter for most of Hollywood’s A-list, got his start in Chicago as an entertainment reporter for the Tribune-owned Chicago Today. Since he moved to Los Angeles in 1975, he’s been back to Chicago a few times to visit friends, but starring in the show — part of the “Broadway in Chicago” series — is the first opportunity he’s had to spend a serious amount of time here. He’s been checking out his old haunts.

“I lived in Pipers Alley,” he says, “which was very funky and hippie. Before that, it was funky and beatnik. Now it’s neither funky nor hippie. My old apartment building is, like, a mall. It’s a Walgreens. There are six movie theaters where there used to be one art house. Well, art-slash-porno house.”

It’s just not the same anymore.

“I went by,” he says, shaking his head. “And there are little pockets of things that are the same. The coming of Treasure Island was a big deal in Old Town, where there hadn’t been any supermarkets. You had to take the bus to the Jewel. Then they opened this huge supermarket, and that was pretty much the beginning of the end of Old Town.”

Now, he adds, “all the little Victorian buildings I used to hang out in are 60-story condos named El Greco.”

Happily munching on a buttery garlic roll, drinking a Coke and waiting for his stir-fried shrimp to arrive, Vilanch is full of stories about his time here. He used to hold court at a Rush Street club called Punchinello’s, doing a cabaret-act-cum-social-commentary that used to start each night around midnight, when the actors would arrive after their shows.

“I was never really a stand-up,” he says. “I guess I was more of a sit-down comic.”

He never considered himself a “real” performer, he says, since he didn’t seem to need the stage in quite the same way that most actors did. Still, he was too much of a natural ham to hide behind his written words. Throughout his writing life, he managed to keep himself in one-man shows and opening acts and, most famously, a just-off-center game show square. Knowing who he was became a kind of Hollywood in-joke.

Now, he is a bona fide stage star and is getting a taste of the kind of audience appreciation he used to make possible for others.

“I love it,” he says, mimicking the standing ovations he gets as a matter of course. “And I guess I do need it now.”

Vilanch credits Bette Midler with giving him his start as the world’s least-invisible ghostwriter. He went to see Midler, then just making a name for herself on Broadway, starring in “Fiddler on the Roof,” when she performed in a Chicago nightclub, and wrote an article about the saucy young diva.

“She liked the story, and she called me and said, ‘That was a very funny story.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re funny. You should talk more on stage.’ She said, ‘You got any lines?’ And we started doing jokes,” he says, not quite aware of how odd this sounds to non-Hollywood ears.

As he talks about writing for Midler, and a host of other stars from Donny Osmond to Matthew Perry, I start to wonder if anyone on television is actually, unassistedly funny.

As a Tribune writer, Vilanch gave Midler’s Chicago shows a uniquely local flavor. “The Standard Oil building had been the tallest building in town,” he remembers. “And then they had just opened the John Hancock building. Standard Oil they called ‘Big Stan’ and the Hancock was called ‘Big John’ so she’d say, ‘Let’s just hope they don’t name a building after [Richard J.] Daley.'”

When Vilanch retells his own jokes, he always attributes them to the celebrity for whom he wrote them. It’s like he wants to quote himself — but not exactly.

He also manages to make it clear that he’s the one responsible for putting all the local color in Midler’s many national appearances, but also makes it sound like it was nothing.

“At the time I was the TV critic for Chicago Today,” he says, scratching his ample belly as he leans back in his chair. “And we would go on junkets all the time. This was before Watergate and ethics and conflicts of interest and all that stuff was invented. So I had all these friends from the junkets — TV critics from all over the country. I could call them up and ask them what was going on in their city that we could make fun of. Of course, now you can just jump on the Internet.”

He lets the thought hang there for a minute, a veteran writer’s indictment of the lazy next generation. Then he changes his mind.

“Thank God all that human contact stuff’s gone by the boards, huh?” he adds, playing his audience — me — perfectly.