BWW Interview: Singer, Recording Artist and Popular Radio Personality Joey English Stars in PCT's SUNSET BOULEVARD
Singer, recording artist and popular radio personality Joey English stars as Norma Desmond in The Palm Canyon Theatre's "Sunset Boulevard" March 8-24, as part of the PCT's 16th season. The production is directed by Judith Chapman, star of television's "The Young And The Restless". I sat down with Ms. English in her beautiful Palm Springs home to chat about her career, the upcoming production and "all things Joey". Here are a few highlights from that conversation:
DG: When did you first know that performing was in your blood?
JE: I was three. I was performing at The Christian Church in Greenville, Missouri and singing "Onward Christian Soldier", and I was not the first person on the program, and I noticed that people were coming up and doing their performing - I don't remember if it was songs, musical numbers, little skits - at end of each performance the Methodists would applaud. And my grandmother said I stood up and sang one verse of "Onward Christian Soldier" and then started leading my own applause. Nothing's changed.
DG: Did you go to a school of the arts? Did you study the arts?
JE: When I was in high school I studied -- what was then College Of The Pacific - studied piano and voice - I played violin, I played five brass instruments. Then I went to college and I studied voice. I went to college on a voice, French horn and academic scholarship. I studied child psychology and music and I'm still using both of them. (She laughs) All I ever wanted to do was sing and hold babies. I'm still doing both.
DG: Who were your idols or role models.
DG: Who was the greatest influence on the way you sing?
JE: Probably Judy Garland.
DG: Tell me about that. Who was your favorite?
JE: My favorite was George. Always George. I learned the most from Milton Berle. I mean, not only did we share a dressing room - and there are stories there, let me tell you - but I learned the most about lighting and performing and not stepping on a line. A lot from George too, but Milton was very dogmatic. And George was more about comedic timing and thinking on my feet. We'd come home on the private Warner Brothers jets from gigs and, the pilot would be awake of course, but my conductor would be asleep and his conductor would be asleep and he'd tell me stories about Gracie and comedic timing and everything. I'd pinch myself. I mean, what an incredible education.
DG: You opened for them, but were you included in the comedy act as well?
JE: Which one of them did that for me? It was Rodney. I worked Dangerfield's in New York and he would bring me out in the middle of his nightclub act to do schtick with him. It was wonderful. I mean, they're all dead now. I say "I worked with all the dead guys". I worked with Dinah Shore and Merv Griffin - and they're dead too. I'm next. (She laughs) It was magic time. And they took such good care of you. I mean, George only wanted his piano player but he'd get me a forty piece orchestra. And I worked with people such as Neil Sedaka. We're still friends. I opened for The Smothers Brothers many, many times. I produced the first show that George Burns and Bob Hope ever did together. In Las Vegas. If you are the sum total of your experiences, I've had some wonderful ones.
DG: What brought you to Palm Springs?
JE: Banished to the desert. (She laughs) A marriage, I think. I don't exactly remember. I was living in Palos Verdes and touring a lot, doing a lot of club dates, working all the Playboy Circuit which used to be wonderful - and, I think my divorce sent me out here.
DG: You've been such a big supporter of The Palm Canyon Theatre. What attracted you to them?
JE: I started interviewing them - my radio show started about the same time as they started the theatre - and, you know - Musical Comedy is my first love, probably - and I just started doing shows with them, and only them - except when I did "Senior Class" at The Annenberg with Ruta Lee and Mary Ann Mobley and Gary Collins and Ronnie Schell and Steve Rossi - but I've done "Best Little Whorehouse" there, "Sordid Lives" which we've done for years and years - "Steel Magnolias" and now "Sunset Boulevard".
DG: Let's talk about Sunset Boulevard. You sort of feel you are Norma Desmond.
JE: Oh, I am Norma Desmond. I also make very bad choices with men, as did she.
DG: I hear there are a few coincidences. Tell me about that.
JE: Well, Norma Desmond - when Gloria Swanson played Norma Desmond in the film - she was a fifty year old - Norma Desmond was fifty years old and considered over the hill in Hollywood... and a Scorpio. I'm sixty seven and a Scorpio - and we're having to age me a little bit for the play - so, I just love that. I am very close to A.C. Lyles - who was a director at Paramount - still alive, ninety five years old, looks like a George Hamilton, just gorgeous. My family name is Shaefer and Betty Shaefer is the young ingénue that falls in love with the William Holden character, Joe Gillis. Let's see, there are others. I do pick men very badly. I've never done the "Cougar" thing like Norma does with the younger man but, I'm always trying to recapture youth and that kind of thing, And I am crazy (she laughs) so that's not much of a stretch.
DG: What do you hope to gain from the experience?
JE: Oh, it's a catharsis. I just love it. I get to go from Norma the brilliant, talented silent movie screen, legitimate biggest star of all - to the little girl in Norma who cant imagine that anyone would ever leave her or that the fan letters she gets aren't legitimate - to a raving, losing my mind "whatever happened to Baby Jane" like character - and to sing some of the greatest sings in Contemporary Theatre. Please.
DG: You host one of the most popular radio shows in the desert. How did that happen?
JE: That's a wonderful story. Rick and Rozene Supple, who own R and R Radio, they had a man working for them - I think his name was Dennis - I can't remember, I'll have to ask them - I was coming out here singing in a nightclub, wood shedding, while I was on the road with George Burns - and I was singing in a nightclub called Café San Tropez just to keep my chords in shape and this Dennis person introduced himself to me and said "you know, you've got an interesting personality, you should do some radio" and I said "Oh yeah, sure, I'll do radio, but I only want to do it once a week" and I figured that would get rid of him. So he came back and he said "fine, you can do it one day week" and I said "Oh. Well ... then I want to own my own show", figuring that would get rid of him. He came back and said "okay, you can own your own show". I thought, damn. So I started out in 1995 at KPSI. It was Paul Harvey, Rush Limbaugh, Joey English, Bill O'Reilly. I did my show once a week, on Wednesdays. And within a year they asked me if I would "Strip it" --- which means do it every day - so then up until 2010 I did a daily one or two hour radio show five days a week. Loved it. Moved over to Morris a few years ago - still very close to the Supples. They're like my parents. They're just fantastic people - very involved in the arts and the community - with their Cultural Center. I did TV for a year - at CBS - until they decided not to do any more local programming. It's been a wonderful ride. I've reinvented myself several times. As did Norma. I have to perform. I just love it.
DG: You and Judith Chapman have been friends for a long time and worked together as actors. What is it like being directed by her.
JE: She's divine. We say "two scorpios, two divas, one town". And we try to find a project every year. We'd been lobbying to do Sunset Boulevard for a long time. Now, make no mistake, if Judith could sing, Judith would be Norma Desmond. (She laughs) But, she and are very close. I take direction very well --- now, you may find that hard to believe - but I take direction very well, and especially from her. We think alike. She's never wrong. She gets things out of me - and she sees things that I don't see, from her perspective. She's wonderful and very creative. And we're terribly, terribly close. Working with Judith is a stream of consciousness.
DG: After Norma Desmond, what other roles would you like to play?
JE: That's a great question. I haven't done Mama Rose. I'm probably old enough to play that now. (She laughs)
DG: Tell me something about you that nobody would know by looking at your resume?
JE: Great question. I may use that one. Probably how insecure I really am. And the other thing is what a homebody I am. I mean, my work is very public but my life is very private. I'm a nurturer. I'm a nester.
DG: One last question - how do you want to be remembered on your tombstone?
JE: "Where is she - she's supposed to be here" (she laughs) If I can figure out how not to go, I'm not going. (A beat) I guess, that I made the world a little better than I found it. I've really enjoyed the trip. I've loved it.
Joey English stars in The Palm Canyon Theatre's SUNSET BOULEVARD, directed by Judith Chapman, which runs March 8 through March 24. For tickets or further information call (760) 323-5123 or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.