The Naked Truth: An interview with Bruce Kimmel
Craig: Welcome Bruce Kimmel. Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) - tell us a little about where you came from and how you got into "the biz". In other words - who the heck are ya?
Bruce: This sounds like one of MY fershluganah interviews.
Craig: They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…
Bruce: Well. I come from Los Angeles, California, where I have basically lived all my life. I was always a little performer, whether it was doing death scenes at parties as a small child, or putting on shows for the neighborhood, or for family and friends. It's funny, because the story of when I truly got bitten by the performing bug is what I'm in the midst of writing about in the novel I'm working on (the third part of a trilogy about a young boy growing up in Los Angeles, California), so I shan't give away anything else, suffice to say that I got bitten and bitten badly. I took drama in high school but didn't get to do any comedies or musicals because my teacher was SERIOUS. We only did SERIOUS plays like The Crucible and The Glass Menagerie. All I wanted to do was sing and be funny.
Craig: You've pretty much been involved with every medium there is…Can you share with us your experiences in television and film? Where and what might have we seen you in?
Bruce: Well, back in 1969 I moved to New York because I loved theater and because I thought with my looks that I would never ever work in television or film. So, I spent a year there doing absolutely nothing, could not get arrested (and I TRIED!) - I did one show in summer stock, Stop the World in Lake Swananoa, New Jersey. So, at the beginning of 1970 I moved back to LA with my then wife who was pregnant with my then and now daughter. At some point I went back to Los Angeles City College and did a show as an alumnus - Jimmy Shine it was. I got seen by an actress who was then in a TV series, and she loved me in the play and she introduced me to her agent, who signed me, and then she introduced me to a casting director named Shelly Ellison (now Rachelle Farberman) who worked for Columbia Television. Next thing you know I was testing for the lead in a TV series. I'd never been in front of a camera in my life, and I was petrified. I didn't get the part, but it was very close. A month later I got my first guest shot on a show called The Young Lawyers (more drama - when was I going to get to be funny?). From there, I got a co-starring role in a pilot for CBS called Young Love (a spin-off of The Doris Day Show) with Michael Burns and Meredith Baxter (pre Birney, and her first professional job). After that, I never stopped working - I did many Partridge Family shows (always playing some would-be suitor of Susan Dey), and all the usual stuff - Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Alice, MASH, quite a few pilots, none of which sold, and a ton of commercials - for example, did you know that I played Young Mr. Whipple in a Charmin commercial (and yes, Virginia, I got to say, "Please, don't squeeze the Charmin.") I did a CBS series called Dinah Shore and Her New Best Friends - we were a summer replacement show for Carol Burnett in 1975. It was possibly the worst variety show in the history of television, but I had fun, and my friend Diana Canova was also a regular as was Leland Palmer. I wrote, directed and acted in The First Nudie Musical, which was a low-budget independent film that got picked up by Paramount. I think I'm in The Apple Dumpling Gang briefly and, you know, all that kind of stuff. I wrote and directed another film called The Creature Wasn't Nice (sort of a musical version of Alien), in which I appeared with Cindy Williams, Leslie Nielsen, Gerrit Graham and Patrick MacNee. And lots of other guest shots and stuff, including a stint on the Playboy cable show, Playboy on the Air, as their intrepid sex news reporter (Hef LOVED Nudie Musical, it's one of his favorite movies and it has been shown more times at the mansion than any other film of its vintage). Whew, that was so long I fell asleep twice while I was saying it.
Craig: Wow, with all those roles, that whole Kevin Bacon game just got easier! So how did you then get involved in the recording industry? How did Bay Cities Records get created and how did you wind up at Varese?
Bruce: You want to know EVERYTHING!
Craig: Of course! Hold nothing back…
Bruce: I got really burned out in the movie and TV world - I'd worked for fourteen years straight and I had every opportunity to go to the next level only it never seemed to happen. I finally said, "Someone is trying to tell you something." By the late eighties, I was pretty much just writing film scripts which weren't selling and I was fairly miserable. A couple of friends and I started up Bay Cities Records because I was offered a library of American classical music recordings. Bay Cities was really well loved - we eventually did show music reissues (we were the first to put the B'way cast albums of Funny Thing, Chicago, Golden Boy and Woman of the Year on CD) and we branched out into soundtracks as well. But, we never could get beyond our independent and not-very-good distribution. It was always an uphill battle getting them to pay us. I felt the company couldn't go where I wanted it to go (original recordings) and I was very frustrated about it. We'd done a handful of recordings that were original and that were the first albums I'd produced - a David Shire album, the show The Anastasia Affaire, a Joanie Sommers album, stuff like that. I had planned Liz Callaway's first album, Unsung Sondheim, and Michelle Nicastro's Toonful album as Bay Cities releases, but it became apparent that we would never be able to afford to do them. Around that time, Chris Kuchler, the head of Varese Sarabande, called me. He was not so thrilled that Bay Cities was into soundtracks, and he began to woo me, and he finally asked me to close down Bay Cities and come to Varese. Now, I'd helped start Varese, I got them into soundtracks (their very first soundtrack release was Nudie Musical), so it really was like family. Chris gave me carte blanche to start my own division, a show music division, and to do whatever I wanted within certain budget constraints. So, I said yes, and we shut down Bay Cities. We did Liz's album, Unsung Sondheim and Toonful, all in the first three months. And then, I just barreled on from there - the first year I did nineteen albums and I kept that pace for the entire time. At the beginning, we had the field to ourselves - no one was doing much show music recording back in 1993. After two years of our releases, everyone was back into it. It was sheer heaven getting to record shows, and doing my own concept albums and also working with the most amazing singers ever.
Craig: Ok…so after Varese - then what?
Bruce: Well, in late 1999, Varese decided it didn't want to do any more Broadway albums. This came as quite a shock to me, since I was led to believe I could be there just as long as I wanted to be. It was very sudden and I was naturally not so happy about it. But, I began to formulate a plan to start up my own label. I thought that if I could tap into the Internet potential and couple that with brick and mortar sales, that that would make the difference between winners and losers, album-wise. So, I created this template for a label which would have an amazing website that people could come to all the time, a label would have a real personality (mine), and that would do albums that would be exclusively available on the net for a period of time (with bonus tracks on those copies only) before they went to the stores. I was originally going to start the label in conjunction with what was then theatre.com. We had deal memos and everything, then they got bought by The Broadway Television Network, and the new people didn't want to do the label. Needless to say, they're all out of business now. So, I discussed the label with an acquaintance of mine whose husband was very wealthy. I had many conversations, we did up a business plan and we decided to go ahead. That label was Fynsworth Alley (so named after the name I posted under on the Internet for many years), which, of course, was my brainchild and my idea, although you'd be hard pressed to figure that out now. The story did not end happily because I did not protect myself legally, and one should always protect oneself legally because frankly people can seem like they're your best friend and ally when, in fact, that is the furthest thing from the truth. Someday I will tell the whole sordid story - suffice it to say, it was unpleasant and difficult to have one's baby taken away, but that's the way it is sometimes, and you just move on.
Craig: Indeed. You've worked with so many people during your recording career. Can you share with us some stories of your favorite artists, recordings, etc?
Bruce: I am blessed to work with such people! I mean, I can't single out anyone because everyone is different and every experience is different and in one way or another I have cherished them all. I adore the Lost in Boston and Unsung Musicals series, and I'm very fond of a few albums which didn't do all that well, like Unsung Irving Berlin and Prime Time Musicals. I also think that the Peter Pan and Cinderella compilations are amongst my faves. Of the cast albums, I'm partial to The King and I, Play On!, and the revival albums of Whorehouse and Bells are Ringing. The funniest laugh-out-loud vocal ever was Dame Edna's Losing My Mind - I mean, we were all on the floor, including the Dame herself.
I've also really enjoyed working with the legends I've had the pleasure of recording - Stritch, Dorothy Loudon, Lauren Bacall, etc. I mean, there's just nothing better than walking into a studio and working with the likes of Liz Callaway, Brent Barrett, the late and wonderful Laurie Beechman, Sally Mayes and on and on and on. It's the best.
Craig: Ok, now I'll turn the tables on that last question. Are there any albums or artists that were - how do I say this - ummm challenging?
Bruce: Yes. Oh, do you want me to name names? That would be unseemly. I will only say that of all the singers I've done solo albums with, only one was a bit unpleasant in the recording stage, and only one was unpleasant in the post-production stage. And one well-known star and legend of one of the Broadway cast albums I did was a piece of work - a true legend, yes, but one of the most unpleasant people I've ever had the displeasure of working with.
Craig: You've done a lot of compilation type albums. Can you tell us a little about that process (song selection, track order, who performs what)?
Bruce: The compilations are really fun to do. First of all, one has to come up with the idea for the album. Then one has to do all the research - gathering material and listening. Then one has to narrow down the songs, find which ones will work best with each other, and which will make the most satisfying and fascinating listening experience. Then I cast the album - I do like to work with the same people but I also love to work with new folks, ones I haven't worked with before and sometimes performers who haven't done any recording and who are just starting out. Then I usually work with whoever is musical directing on the arrangements for the songs. We then make sure the singers are comfortable with the arrangements, we set keys, etc. As to song order on an album, well, I think many people don't understand the importance of it. To me if you come up with the wrong order it hurts the CD, no matter how good the CD is. I take pride that people have written me and said they play CDs that I've produced over and over from beginning to end, and I think it's because the order of the songs works and the listening experience is always interesting and surprising if it's right. I've sometimes struggled for weeks trying to get the order right. Sometimes I get it right away. But I'm just amazed sometimes at the lack of thought behind song order on some CDs I hear. Luckily for me, early on I came up with a theory for song order and it's never really failed me - it may take awhile to get right, but the THEORY always works. But I shan't tell you that theory because why should I make other people's jobs easier?
Craig: Fair enough. Bruce, people might think that you've been on a "break" the past 2 years, but that's not exactly true, now is it?
Bruce: Well, if writing two novels, adapting my film The First Nudie Musical for the stage, writing a new movie, working on a Showtime TV show and occasionally jogging is being on a break, yes I've been on a break. Certainly I've been on a break from recording, but after 130 albums in eight years, I needed it. I only wish the break hadn't been imposed on me, hadn't been so negative and I can only say that no human being should have to be treated as I was treated. During my "break" I also learned what true evil is. But, that's all in the past now and I remain the positive sort that I've always been.
Craig: Ok…so first let's talk about your first book, Benjamin Kritzer. I enjoyed it tremendously and thought it was one of the best coming of age stories. What prompted you to sit down and write this book? How would YOU describe what "Benjamin Kritzer" is all about? What was the process of writing like for you?
Bruce: I started writing Benjamin Kritzer before my "break". I had been threatening to write a novel of some sort for many years, and I always thought it would be fun to do a somewhat fictionalized account of my childhood in Los Angeles. But I could never do it - I'd think about it every year and just never have the discipline or the guts to sit down and try. But two years ago I said to myself, "Myself, you have never been a coward about anything, so either write the damn book or never think about it again." I wrote the damn book. It took about eight months all told. I was very lucky in that a close friend of mine was my sounding board and she was so positive about the writing that her support and kindness and warmth just kept me going, even when the "break" happened and things were truly awful. Everyone should have such a friend. The process was interesting, at least to me. I refused to do an outline or be bound by pre-conceived notions. I just started to write. It took me awhile to get the tone and the style right, but once I found it, things got easier. I had made a list of things I wanted to write about, anecdotal things from my childhood, but I had no idea what the actual story would be or even if there would be a conventional story. However, a story did present itself to me (I was led there by some wonderful guardian angel) and that's what the book became. So, it's sort of a love letter to a different more innocent era, it's a love letter to the city that used to be Los Angeles, and it's a love story between two nine-year-olds.
Craig: And now there is Kritzerland. Was the process any different this time around? What challenges did you face with the sequel?
Bruce: The biggest challenge was not wanting it to be exactly the same as the first book - that's always the tendency. Also, I sort of got off on the wrong foot and it took me six weeks to finally figure out how to begin the book. Once that had happened, it took the same amount of time that the first book had taken to write. Kritzerland has a slightly different feel to it, which I'm happy about. And again, I only had incidents that I wanted to write about, no outline, and once again the writing just led me to what became the story - it just took me by the hand and showed me the way. I love when that happens. I hope I'm not being too long-winded, but I found such joy in doing these books, as difficult as it got at times.
Craig: Should we expect another book by Bruce Kimmel?