Interview: Before The Parade! A Conversation With Michael Childers About His Upcoming HELLO JERRY! In The Desert
The last remaining tickets are on sale for the desert's most anticipated annual star-studded concert event, Michael Childer's "One Night Only", benefiting Jewish Family Services Of The Desert (JFS), to be held Thursday, April 20, 2017 at The McCallum Theatre. This 10th season's theme is "Hello Jerry" and Michael and cast pay tribute to the incomparable composer Jerry Herman, bringing to the stage music form his popular musicals including Mame, Mack and Mabel, Grand Tour, La Cage Aux Folles and, of course, Hello Dolly. "Hello Jerry" is directed by Jason Graae with musical direction by Christopher Marlowe. I had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Childer's to talk about this special tenth anniversary production, and more. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation ...
DG: Before we talk about "One Night Only", let's talk a little bit about your personal career. You are an internationally renowned photographer. When did you first discover you had an eye for photography and when did you decide to pursue it as a career?
MC: When I was in high school and in college, working for the student newspaper and annual. But, when I was in college I needed extra income to get me through UCLA - I was in film school, I was in theater arts, I was in photography - so I started taking head-shots of young acting students, friends of mine, and they started paying, they started paying, you know - a hundred dollars for a session I thought was a fortune in those days. So, from that - some of these kids, including a lot of musicians - Jim Morrison of the Doors was there and Johnny Rubinstein was there - and all of them started getting gigs in music, in rock bands or on T.V. shows - so there I was starting to work. And, from there I got Rod McKuen, the composer, and from Rod McKuen I got Kaye Ballard and then Ray Bradbury the author, and then I started getting book jackets - it just steamrolled. It was being in the right place at the right time with just enough talent and a lot of luck. A lot of luck. You know, Kaye Ballard set me up on a blind date with John Schlesinger, who became my partner of thirty seven years. He was in L.A. and he didn't know anybody and he was lonely. And he asked Kaye if she knew anybody young who could show him around L.A. I had just photographed her a week before, and it went well. I was 22 or 23. Very cute. (He laughs) So she called. "Michael, Kaye Ballard here. I have a favor to ask. There's a director friend of mine in town who needs somebody to show him around". I said "who" and she said "John Schlesinger". I said "John Schlesinger. I've seen Darling 14 times. Yes, Yes. I'd love to meet him". So, she arranged for me to meet him for drinks at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel. That afternoon, before the date, I picked up a Time Magazine and there was an article about John that said he was often very mercurial and difficult on the set. And I thought, "Oh sh**, this is going to be a nightmare". So I got an actor friend of mine to go with me and I told him "one kick under the table we're both outa here, two kicks I'm gonna stay". Well, needless to say, he was charming and delightful.
DG: Two kicks.
MC: Two kicks. Two kicks led to thirty seven years.
DG: Do you have a favorite that you have photographed?
MC: Well. Yeah. Favorites. Favorites. Natalie Wood was my first big star so she always had a special place in my heart. She worked with me very early on. I thought "Oh my gawd, I'm photographing Natalie Wood from West Side Story and Splendor In the Grass." And they turned out well and she invited me back to do more sessions. She had the biggest PR people - the most powerful in L.A. - and they saw the work and I got lots more jobs from that. She and Robert Wagner were a big part of my life. Until the week she died. I was supposed to be on the boat that weekend with them in Catalina.
DG: So, on the flip side, what's one photo session that went awry?
MC: Awry. Awry. Only one? (He laughs) Raquel Welch was so difficult and demanding. She had me fired off a movie. A James Ivory movie. Because I wouldn't sign a contract to give her 60% of the photos sales. And my agent told her, no we don't do that. So, she fired me off a movie. Cut to the chase - two months later, her high powered PR man called me and up and said "Michael, Raquel is doing a whole new act in Vegas at The MGM Grand - all Bob Mackie costumes - and she wants you to photograph the act." I said "Are you sure?" So, I told him what had happened. And he said "No, it was a slight misunderstanding. She thinks that you totally understand her and she trusts you." So I said "How much?" "Not enough". "More, more". And then I photographed her.
DG: Now let's move to ONE NIGHT ONLY. What is it and when did you start it?
MC: Well, you know, I've always had a passion for musicals, ever since I was a kid. I love theatre. And I acted in a lot of shows too, but I wasn't a very good actor. But working with great actors as a photographer - I'm like their psychologist. I'm like their director. You know, you have to get an actor to trust you and feel totally at ease with you. So I know how to do that with actors. And I love working with singers. So, I really started this in L.A. in 1992. I started doing big charity events. I got out my rolodex with all of the stars I had photographed. I got Bette Middler to come out and sing with The Harlettes for this big event with Project Angel Food. I got Elizabeth Taylor to M.C. I got Ian McKellen to read a poem written by an HIV Positive poet. That was my first L.A. show. I might as well start at the top, right? (He laughs). Then I moved to Santa Fe a few later and for the Aids group there I started a show at their beautiful theatre, The Lensic. That was really the start of ONE NIGHT ONLY. It was wonderful and in my first show I had Michael Feinstien and Frederica von Stade. I had Baryshnikov in the show. And Bruce Vilanch. I had Lauren Bacall and Carol Burnett, both, as MC's. This was my first show. I got a taste of it. The blood. Be careful what you wish for. I liked it. I did it for three very successful years. Then I had to move back to L.A. to take care of John. So, when I moved to the desert I called Barbara Keller and said "do you think Jewish Family Services would come in and sponsor this thing?" She's a big theatre lover and booster. And she came back and said "Yeah. You've got a show/ They'll finance it". And so, that all began eleven years ago. And it's gotten bigger and bigger and every year is a sell out. We've done everything from "Showstoppers" to "Sondhiem In Love". This year, Jason Graae is directing. Full of creativity. Full of energy. And this is the strongest cast we've ever had, this year. We have Faith Prince, Joanne Worley, Stephanie Powers, David Burnham, Gary Beach, Lucie Arnaz, Liz Callaway - the brilliance of Karen Ziemba, I just worship her - so many more!!
DG: This year is "Hello Jerry", a tribute to Jerry Herman. How do you choose your theme each year?
MC: Well, last year was like "caviar", doing Sondheim - which appeals to a specific audience. We didn't do the dark songs - we did the love songs, the romantic songs. I loved the show. Lucie Arnaz did a great job directing it. John McDaniels was just superb as our musical director. Just superb. So, this year I said I wanted to do something more popular with the people who live here - not everyone loves Sondheim. I can't understand that, myself. What's wrong with them? (He laughs) So, this year we're doing the much loved Jerry Herman who is a very good friend of mine - I've known him for over thirty years. He was my neighbor in Los Angeles. I think he's probably Broadway's most beloved composer. And this is Jerry's year. He's got Milk and Honey in New York, he's got Dear World coming out with Tyne Daly and he's got this big monster revival of Dolly starring Bette Midler. It's a small world. The opening of Dolly on Broadway is April 20th - the same night as our show here. We filmed Jerry doing a greeting to The Palm Springs audience saying "I'd be there tonight but I have a date with Dolly on Broadway after 52 years". It's a great year for him.
DG: Do you collaborate on the show with a creative team. or do you write the show?
MC: Well. I shape the show initially and the casting is completely under my control. But I collaborate on the show with the director and the conductor - I want to know musically where we can go and what we can do? This year we have a backstage chorus of six professional singers and The Palm Springs Gay Men's Chorus - and we have The Palm Springs High School Marching Band in our finale - I wanted to recreate that magical moment we had in our "Sixties" Show a couple of years back when we had the wonderful students from Musical Theatre University in the finale - the audience went wild. That created history. That was really, really great. So I hope we get some of that energy back.
DG: Does the cast donate their time, and how long do you rehearse?
MC: Yes. They all donate their time. Isn't that wonderful? We bring them out on the Monday night and we open on the Thursday. And of course there's some really great lavish parties for them while their here. (he laughs) We treat them well. And they get out of the cold in New York to beautiful Palm Springs - and then they all want to move here.
DG: Anything else you want me to add before we come to a close?
MC: Just that I'm really blessed to work with all of these people. They're all geniuses. I am so lucky to work with all of these incredible people.
Those incredible people of "Hello Jerry" include Christine Andreas, Brent Barrett, Gary Beach, KLea Blackhurst, David Burnham, Carole Cook, Scott Coulter, Davis Gaines, Jason Graae, Danny Gurwin, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Alix Korey, Michele Lee, Ruta Lee, Vicki Lewis, Amanda McBroom, Jeffrey Scott Parsons, Faith Prince, Lee Roy Reams, Gary Shaw, Joanne Worley and Karen Ziemba. Tickets, priced at $175, $95 and $75 can be purchased through The McCallum Theatre box office at 760-340-ARTS or www.mccallumtheatre.com.