Quest Mag Talks to Bruce Vilanch

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Quest Magazine Volume 17 Issue 2
Quest Arts & Entertainment Features
On Our Cover: Michael Johnston Talks to Bruce Vilanch

Quest: Bruce, I hear you’re coming to Milwaukee for PrideFest, 2010 – will this be your first visit to the Cream City?

Bruce Vilanch: No, I love Milwaukee! Haven’t been since working with (Wisconsin native) Amy Pietz of “Caroline in the City” in an Arts Education Benefit a few years ago. But I’ve done Milwaukee plenty of times, every time with Bette Midler, love staying at the Pfister, and the Safe House, is it still there? (Yes) And for a while I lived in Chicago, so I came up, loved the Brat Stop! I still have a t-shirt from there.

Q.: So you enjoy the Midwest?

B.V.: Currently, I live in Hollywood, but besides Chicago, I lived in Columbus, OH, and graduated from Ohio State University, by way of Patterson, N.J. Spent a lot of time in Lake Geneva at the old Playboy Club – what is it now? (The Abbey Resort and AVANI Spa). We would break in acts at the Club, before taking them onto Vegas. I was there, throughout the years, with Kaye Ballard, Dyan Cannon, Sally Struthers if you can imagine that? It was great it was HUGE! The only other Playboy Club of the same comparison was in Great Gorge, N.J., very close to New York City. What fun!

Q.: Of all the varied success you have earned and enjoyed, as an actor, writer, and comedian what are you most proud of?

B.V.: I’ve been lucky, working with/for Bette Midler for 40 years, and she is only 32! 21 Academy Awards shows, the “Hollywood Squares” thing. The more obscure things, things that had a personal touch, meant a lot to me, or the effect on the world, or no effect on the world, for that matter. My activism during the AIDS epidemic, no government assistance, we were scared, raised lots of money and awareness, helped people, educated many, some really great fund raisers. We put AIDS on the map, forced society to face it, head on. From there look at all the political movements that have come. Before AIDS we were all scattered – it unified us and look at what we accomplished. Now, we’re working on the Right to get married. It isn’t going to happen over night, how long did it take people to accept unions of people from different races and religions?
Q.: As a follow up with “Hollywood Squares”, isn’t that what made you a household name, what was it like being the hippest Square of all time?

B.V.: Well indirectly Whoopi Goldberg was responsible for that. Whoopi is fearless! She is extreme she is who she is! Whoopi had rights to the show, and she wanted me to emcee. But the producers didn’t know if the world was quite ready for that, so they put me on as a panelist. I got to sit to the right of her to hopefully rein her in. No one does that!

Q.: You have written for everybody! Who is your favorite personality to bring to life? Is there a “Special Formula” you utilize?

B.V.: No formula, I compare writing an act or monologue to designing a gown. Some are a-line, some are mermaid, purple, … a custom design. What are they selling? Songs? Music? Who are they? Any characters? Dedicated to who they are. You look at their strengths, weaknesses – and make it happen! If they have no persona, it can be hard. You can be the hottest, hunkiest box office star but if there is no hook… That is why the Oscar’s are so challenging – how do you write for a George Clooney or a Johnny Depp? You want to do what the entertainer wants, needs, but also make it entertaining. With the Academy Awards at least you have a crop of new movies to choose from. The Emmy’s can be harder because in some cases you have the same shows year after year.
Q.: Bruce you referenced characters in the previous answer. When I think of entertainers with great characters, I think of Lily Tomlin, any insight into her?
By the by, she is amazing on FX’s “Damages” airing on Mondays.

B.V.: Lily is brilliant! And fun! There is nothing she can’t do! I have DVR’d the show but haven’t had time to watch it – busy on this year’s Academy Awards show.

Q.: How do you get into the heads of the people you write for?

B.V.: I don’t. I do my homework, I watch everything: flicks, talk shows – which really shows more than you even realize, I meet with them, and then I marry them to what they have to do. You got to remember there is a team of people writing, it is global, and it’s just not me. Writers assigned to every aspect of the project. Then they pick, edit, hone, and work on it before it is accepted.

Q.: Was your keen wit and sense of humor developing, as you did, growing up? Kind of like a defense mechanism?

B.V.: All kids do – It’s a chance to run ahead, a start, disarm them! Especially if you don’t have the conventional skills – good at sports, Straight A, beautiful. If you’re not one of the boys, or one of the girls for that matter… The comic in you starts to keep you sane, that’s why I think a lot of comedians are not happy. I was on “The View” and Joy Behar challenged me on this, so I say most.
Q.: When did you discover you were gay?

B.V.: I kind of always knew I was gay, or at least bisexual. Today, I believe that bisexuals just haven’t made the choice. You have to choose. In college I had girlfriends, and relationships with women… You choose where your heart goes. I loved the intimacy of women. But you’ve got be true to yourself!

Q.: What about all the rumors in Hollywood, and the entertainment world about so-so being gay or bi?

B.V.: There is the “official version” and then the “truth”. Notice how they Out someone if they are attractive, hot, and desirable? It’s never the Drew Careys, Jimmy Kimmels, or some fat guy with glasses! People write blogs, people read blogs, catch something on the Internet, but where is the proof?

Q.: I don’t know how many of our Readers realize this, but you were responsible for the dance club hit and gay anthem – “Where is my Man”. What was it like working with Santa’s favorite baby, Miss Eartha Kitt?

B.V.: Quite fabulous! I miss her! She was great! I was working on “Can’t Stop the Music” and Jacques Morali had this song that needed words and I wrote the lyrics. (“Where is my Man”) Eartha loved it! I did the demo ALA Eartha; after she heard me doing her, she told me she would kill me if I did her act! I got to work with her, personalized the lines, it went from the review “Crazy Horse”, all through France, Europe, and finally the U.S. We couldn’t get airplay. No radio wanted to play – Eartha! She was yesterday. Well in those days we had 12 inchers and turntables and she would tour discos and bring the house down! It never fit in as a set in her club act, because of the music itself so her combo(s) couldn’t play it.She ended up doing a whole album of disco – “I Love Men”, which had a couple of hits. We remained friendly from then on. In fact, when I was in “Hairspray” on Broadway, she would come in from her home in Connecticut to get her hair done by my hairdresser who was doing my wigs, providing us the opportunity catch up.

Q.: Is there any aspect of Show Business you haven’t tried, and eager to?

B.V. I was a child actor – all theater and some print ads. Thank God it wasn’t TV or the movies or I’d be in rehab! I did “Hairspray” for two years on Broadway and toured with it. The audience embraced Edna, no flack whatsoever. There is nothing like a live audience. Right now the Oasis on the Sea has about 1,400 passengers on this luxury liner and they offer a 90-minute review of “Hairspray” – the same version that plays Las Vegas. The show is open to all on the cruise; recently someone took it in and couldn’t understand why a man played Edna, no clue! I love it all and whatever I am doing at that moment.

Q.: When did you know, you made it?

B.V.: I guess when I was writing for Bob Hope. It was back in the 70’s, Carter was in office, there was an energy crisis, and talk of rationing gas. Here I am at Bob Hope’s house writing material for him! He liked what I came up with and then went to a file and pulled out these old, yellowed, recipe cards. In there were jokes about gas rationing from World War II. Talk about a ghostwriter competing against writers that were ghost! Working with Debbie Reynolds was great too! Getting to know her, and her daughter Carrie Fisher, who I am a great friend with. One evening Debbie took me to dinner – and I snuck out and called my mother, Hennie, and let her know, whom I was dining with. My mother always makes me laugh, and she is still here, and still so funny.

Q.: With all these great anecdotes and all these wonderful people you’ve known and worked with – there has to be an autobiography in the making, is there?

B.V.: Yes and no, I am writing a book, it is my life – but kind of like a David Sedaris take on it. Including stories of both fact and fiction.

Q.: What makes Bruce Vilanch laugh?

B.V.: Farts, farting – I know it is lowbrow humor but it breaks me up every time. Failed seriousness – and you can’t pull it off, think Richard Nixon! Having someone undone – A wealthy society matron walks down the street, slips and falls on a banana peel – hysterical, a golf ball to the nuts, “America’s Funniest Videos”. There is a line in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” where Jane Russell’s character Dorothy confronts the stuffy Lady (Norma Varden) Beekman, over Dorothy’s friend Lorelei Lee allegedly stealing the good Lady’s tiara – – Lady Beekman “You’ll find I mean business!” Dorothy Shaw “Oh really? Then why are you wearing that hat?”

Well dear Readers, my hat is off to Bruce Vilanch make sure to make him welcome as he comes to the 2010 PrideFest celebration Saturday, June12! I can’t wait!

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