We Got Bruce!

A Fabulous Interview With Mister V

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Mister D: I’ll probably get int trouble for this, but this article/interview by by JONATHAN ABARBANEL from the Windy City Times is so good and one of the best I’ve seen on him…well, it should be on his unofficial site…it’s just a fan site, so what kind of competition am I, dammit…so check out there website, too:-)

Call it elf-like or leprechaun-like; the bearded and bespectacled visage of Bruce Vilanch is familiar to millions through his witty and campy presence as a regular on TV’s Hollywood Squares. However, his real clout in show biz derives from his brilliant comedy writing (four Emmy Awards) for the likes of Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal. As a thoroughly out Hollywood heavyweight, Vilanch has lent his presence to a wide variety of humanitarian causes—GLBT related and beyond—as emcee and/or celebrity performer at scores of benefits and special events.

Few know that Vilanch spent five years in Chicago as an entertainment writer for the Chicago Today (the Tribune’s afternoon newspaper) and for the Tribune when the Chicago Today folded. Covering Chicago’s swank nightclubs—London House, Mr. Kelly’s, the Empire Room—for the newspaper, Vilanch met the rising stars who soon launched him on his comedy career in earnest. Even then, his bearded face, thick mop of hair and signature t-shirts made him a presence on the local entertainment scene.

Vilanch is back in Chicago for his longest visit in decades, starring as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, playing at the Ford Center for the Arts/Oriental Theatre through Feb. 15. Vilanch grew up in a showbiz family and performed in The Boys in the Band in London’s West End in the late 1960s. While there, he was one of a handful of people who attended the funeral of scandalous gay playwright Joe Orton. I recently interviewed Vilanch for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.

Jonathan Abarbanel: We first met about 30 years ago when we were both young, struggling Chicago journalists—

Bruce Vilanch: In kindergarten I think …

JA: — and now you’re an award-winning writer and TV star whose iconic presence is instantly recognizable, and I’m still a struggling young Chicago journalist. How do you explain that?

BV: Amazing, isn’t it? Especially the young part. That’s all I’m really interested in. The struggling part I understand.

JA: You lived here 1970-1975 in the pre-computer era when we still pounded out copy on a typewriter.

BV: On a typewriter with carbon paper. Magic paper we used to call it, and we’d make several copies. We didn’t have cubicles. Kafka hadn’t taken over yet. We had a great open space, we yelled at each other. People would actually say “Hold Page One!”

JA: You covered clubs, theater, films, and you were the wild and crazy guy. They had you do a lot of stunt stories.

BV: They were trying to sell newspapers, and make them entertaining. And there I was, a figure of entertainment. I was a housewife in Blue Island for a week. They had me breaking Guiness Book of World Records. The first thing you have to do is find a record that hasn’t been set yet. I tried to set a record eating donuts. I tried baking the world’s largest pizza. I tried riding in a suit of armor, that record is 225 miles. But they never mentioned that you had to be on a horse, so I took a plane. I flew to Grand Rapids, which was 226 miles, but I couldn’t get through the metal detector. Eventually I noticed there was a record for walking, and a record for walking backwards, but no record for walking sideways. So I walked sideways from the Tribune Tower to the Water Tower, and it was a fast track, so I made good time. It was very well covered. There were several traffic accidents of people watching Fat Boy walk sideways down Michigan Avenue.

JA: You started doing your own comedy here. I remember you performing late nights at Punchinellos, right down from Mr. Kelly’s nightclub on Rush Street.

BV: Right. Punchinello’s was this little dungeon on Rush Street, it’s gone now. It was the kind of place that people in shows would go afterwards. And I would go around midnight and review the events of the day, and sing a few stupid, little songs and carry on, and break in material. I was writing for Bette Midler at the time, and I was writing for five or six other people whom I’d met when they came to Chicago. In those days we didn’t know about conflict of interest. We used to go on junkets that the TV networks paid for.

JA: Do nightclubs like that exist any more outside Las Vegas?

BV: No. Branson, Missouri, but why would you want to do that to yourself? Stars became so big that they could fill hockey rinks, and get paid a lot of money for doing one show. Why would someone want to come into a club and entertain 200 people a night for 16 shows a week when you could have 12,000 people at the United Arena, and do one night and walk away rich!

JA: Why did you finally leave Chicago, and why did you go to LA rather than New York?

BV: I was writing a lot of television. It started with Bette and then branched out to other people, and I was flying away a lot of weekends to do TV shows. One of the acts that Bette started was Manhattan Transfer, actually the brother of her dresser started it, and we put together their live show, and they got a television series from CBS. So I took a leave of absence and went out to LA to write for them for the summer, and I stayed because I had an agent and I had a job and I knew a lot of people. I could have gone to New York; I was offered the original Saturday Night Live. I went out and I met all of them, and it was kind-of scary because it was really druggy, and they really didn’t like women, and they really didn’t like gay people, they were not a happy crew, and I just didn’t want to be part of it. To be in New York is a challenge enough, but to be miserable in New York is a bad movie! So I said, I’ll go to California where you can be miserable and have a tan.

JA: You write what is called Special Material: night clubs and concert acts, awards shows, comedy routines, Hollywood Squares one-liners. But where are your full-length films, TV series, plays? I know you wrote an unsuccessful Broadway musical in the 1970s.

BV: I wrote a big, flop Broadway musical in 1978 called Platinum, and vowed that I would not return to Broadway unless I had a lot money behind me. The only way you can do theater is if you’re heavily financed, because if it’s not a success out of the box everyone cuts and runs, so you have to go in over funded. I’ve never found the idea and the producers who have meshed and have wanted to do that. I’ve done a lot of television pilots that haven’t gotten picked up. I wind up coming in for what they call punch-up, where you come in on Thursday (before taping on Friday) and you throw jokes at the script. I’ve done a lot of that for television sitcoms, and I’ve done a lot of that for movies.

JA: Let’s dish about Hairspray. Did the producers come to you? Or did you go to them and ask to take a crack at Edna?

BV: They came to me. Friends of mine had written it, Marc Shaiman (music) and Scott Whitman (lyrics). Scott had directed my one-man show and Marc and I had done all the Billly Crystal Oscar medlies. So, I went to Seattle to watch the try-out, and it was a smash out of the box, and Harvey Fierstein (the original Edna) was brilliant and irreplaceable. About six months later a man from William Morris called and asked if I’d like to replace Harvey, the irreplaceable one. I said, well, I can’t imagine doing that, and he said I could go on tour, but I’d have to audition and I’d probably have to shave. Well, I picked myself up off the floor—I’d had a beard for 32 years! I’d always said that if a really good role comes along I might shave for it, but there really wasn’t very much call for my type.

So I auditioned twice and I got it. I really wanted to do it, it’s fun. It’s like being handed a second act. I went to a vocal guy to make sure I could do the show. It’s not a heavy singing show for Edna. The Producers—which is a big, bawdy role I always thought I could do—is a lot of singing and dancing. Nathan Lane is a good friend, and I’ve written for him for years. I asked him if he thought I ever could do Max Bialystock. And he said, “You would die. You would physically die, you would drop dead! You have to lose 100 pounds first.”

JA: Any musical is physically taxing. There’s a rumor that you’ve gone on a strict diet and exercise regimen for Edna.

BV: Who would spread such a thing? That’s a ridiculous rumor! She imposes her own (regimen). You work very hard onstage and you lose weight. I’m moving around a lot, and also I’m carrying around a 35lb. fat suit on top of my own God-given fat suit, so I have no center of gravity. I’m also in high heels and high wigs and worst of all, pantyhose. Which few people realize were invented by a Nazi scientist in the last days of the war as a way to get back at everybody.

Tracy Turnblad (played by Carly Jibson) and I both are padded, because they want us both to be really rotund. Edna is just like a great big Macy’s Parade balloon combination dreidel. So she has an artificial figure with huge boobs, so that’s not me. I’m much more sylph-like in real life, but the jowls are me. When I shaved I realized I had all these Hitchcokian jowls I never knew I had.

JA: Not many people know that you have a fair amount of acting under your belt already. You played an evil king in what may be one of the worst fantasy films ever made. Tell us about that.

BV: The Ice Pirates. Angelica Houston was in it. She got Prizzi’s Honor off of this movie. Wherever she goes people mention Ice Pirates and so she’s finally given up. She says you can’t kill it with a stick, it won’t go away. It was 1983. Robert Urich, Angelica, John Carradine. A wonderful group of people who’ve never been able to live it down.

JA: What about your work in London in the 1960s?

BV: I was a tiny child. There was that incident with the Prince of Wales so we can’t really discuss it. I got him started early.

JA: That’s a good segue to asking about your work for AIDS-related and GLBT causes. I remember that 30 years ago you were out, and you were out there. It seems you’ve always been comfortable with who you are.

BV: I always was. Of course, I was lucky because I was in the kind of career where it was OK. I could be a character, I could be flamboyant. I had grown up in theater, and then the kind of journalism I was mispracticing was all show-business related and I could do all that stuff, because I was a personality, a character. So it wasn’t hard. It would be difficult for someone who’s a numbers-cruncher or a clerk to be out, but it was never that difficult for me. It was just part of my fabric.

JA: What do you make of the gay TV/film phenom?

BV: I think it’s wonderful. For gay people it’s all about visibility. Classically, we compare the gay-rights struggle with the Black civil-rights struggle, and at the beginning people like Jesse Jackson would say there’s no comparison because you can’t hide being Black, but you can hide being gay. As if that’s acceptable, as if that’s a good way to live a life. But he changed his tune after a few years as he met more gay people.

And the reason he could meet more gay people is that more people came out. The more people are visible, the more people who are not gay begin to realize that gay people are human beings like everybody else. While the Queer Eyes are one kind of gay person, there are a whole lot of other kinds of gay people who want to be parents, who want to join the military, who want to get married. Three things that straight people have been running away from for the last 40 years. I don’t know anybody straight who wants to be in the army, who wants to get married, who wants to have children. I know hundreds of hair dressers who are dying to do all of that.

I think that’s reflected in what you see on TV. Besides that, it’s a great conflict to write when somebody’s gay. Not so much their own realization but how it affects all the people around them. That’s a great personal conflict, and drama is all about conflict, and comedy is all about conflict, so I think it’s something writers have seized on because it’s very rich.