BWW Interview: Donny Most of DONNY MOST AT THE BEACH CAFE
Versatility in one's work is a blessing, and Donny Most has been seriously blessed. With a career starting in his teens, Mr. Most has had the great good fortune to work, throughout his life, in his chosen field. With the ease of an Olympic ice skater, Most glides back and forth between film, television and the stage, even taking time out to direct some films. Donny Most, though, had a first love, and that love was music.
A few years ago Mr. Most had one of those defining moments that can change your life: it was time to go back to the music he learned to love in his youth. That decision lead to the creation of The Donny Most Band and the show Donny Most Sings and Swings; and though Most has been continuing to act, he spends as of his creative time as possible with a microphone in his hand, touring the country with his band and picking up gigs whenever and wherever he can get up on a stage and spend an hour or so embracing his first love.
Now Mr. Most brings his music to The Beach Cafe for the holiday season with two performances on December 13th and 14th at 9 pm, and he's bringing along a friend that some of Donny's Happy Days fans might recognize. In the days leading up to his return to the city of his birth, Donny got on the phone with me for an impromptu chat about a lifetime in the business, a passion for music, and what he has in store for the holiday houses at The Beach Cafe.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Don, you are appearing for two nights at The Beach Cafe in New York City.
DM: Correct, yes. The 13th and 14th, Friday and Saturday nights.
You've sung a variety of musical styles during your time in the spotlight, what will your Beach Cafe shows showcase?
DM: I guess a combination of what I normally do, which is the jazz standards, which I love. But I'm gonna mix in some Christmas songs as well - but mostly with a swinging slant to it, a little bit of a jazz swing style to it, mixed with my normal jazz standards and Linda Purl will be guesting with me 'cause we have a long history together. We go way back and we've worked together in the past, so it'll be fun to have her as a guest.
You tour with a popular show called Donny Most Sings and Swings. What is it about swing music that gives you the desire to perform it?
DM: Ever since a pretty young age, I was introduced to it from my mom's albums. She was a teenager and young adult in the swing era in the forties. So she had a lot of those albums. And I started hearing it in other forms... in movies and TV, and I just loved it and I always sort of sought that music out on the radio and certain stations. As a kid, I used to listen to a disc jockey who played all the great old standards so I just always loved that music and would sing along with it at home to all the great artists --- I would purchase their albums. When I was 15 years old, I was singing in a nightclub act in the Catskill mountains, upstate New York, one summer -- in all the nightclubs. Then I put the music aside for a little while to focus more on the acting, but always knowing that one day I would get back to it. And five years ago, I'm thinking to myself, "If I'm ever going to do it, I better do it now." You know that kind of music, for a while, it had sort of fallen out of favor - back in the 70s when I was doing Happy Days that music was kind of looked upon as my parents' music, or grandparents' music. But a lot of that has come back, so it's the perfect time for me to go back to my first love... and I'm loving it.
To what would you attribute the popularity of this music at this time in our lives?
DM: The quality of writing back in the heyday of all this - back in the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties -- that style of music (and maybe into the 60s as well) -- what we're calling the Great American Songbook -- it's at a certain level that, when I play it, when it's exposed, when I introduce it properly to young people -- they're blown away! They're going, "Oh my God, I love this music!" And you look at the lyrics, how clever and witty and funny and emotional and heart felt the lyrics can be, the sophistication of it and the music as well... It's just wonderful, wonderful music. I think there's a reason why they're standards, and why they've stood the test of time and if anybody is exposed to it in the right way, I can't see how you don't respond to it.
Back in the 70s you recorded a couple of albums but they were more pop music. Was that because it was the music that would sell at the time or did your interest in music expand?
DM: Yeah. It's interesting because back then, when I had this opportunity to record, I told them the music that I love, but they said "We can't do that" because, as I was mentioning earlier, in the 70s that music was considered passe. So they wanted me to do more pop; and my musical tastes were pretty broad. So there was some music that I liked, but it wasn't really my main love and in my wheelhouse, or in my blood as much. But I thought it would be an interesting thing to try, and it was a great experience. I learned a lot. It was my first time recording, but it's certainly not the music that I had the passion for, the kind of music I'm doing now. I have a CD out now that's reflective of that called D Most Mostly Swinging, and that's much more representative of what I love to do.
You mentioned that because of your career as an actor, there was a point where you had to put the music aside to focus on your acting. During the years that you were focused solely on acting, what was your musical outlet?
DM: There were times when I used it in musical theater. Every once in a while there was an opportunity to do it here and there... but at home I was always still listening to that music. Wherever - in the car or at home. And every once in a while there'd be opportunities to use that part of me. I think when I decided to really do it again, five years ago, I really took advantage of the technology that's available today that wasn't to me back then. You know, I didn't have my own band to rehearse with. I didn't have my own set up for that. But with the technology today, I was able to figure out how to rehearse, record on my computer, all kinds of things. I spent a lot of time working at home, recording and trying things and experimenting. That was very useful to me in my decision to do this new venture, to try it out. I started out doing some clubs, some jazz clubs, and then in New York at 54 below and the Iridium Jazz Club, The Cutting Room. That's where I really work. It worked at a level that I didn't think I had the ability to do before, unless I had had my own band. But this afforded me the ability to do just that.
And how did you end up booking the Catskills at the age of 15?
DM: I wanted to pursue the singing and acting thing. I wound up going to a school in Manhattan. I grew up in Brooklyn and I went to a school studio type place in Manhattan. It was run by an old vaudevillian guy named Charlie Lowe, and that was for young kids and teenagers for singing and dancing and acting. He would hand pick students that he felt measured up to be part of this professional review that he would put together and he had a booking agent that would book them. So I got picked to be part of it that, at that point. I spent that summer when I was 14 turning 15 doing that. It was a thrill for me back then, and a great, great learning experience. I thought, wow, this is it, you know, I totally made it. But for various reasons, I moved on after that summer and went to a more serious acting class to focus on that for awhile.
A little while ago you mentioned one of my favorite singers and favorite people in the world, Linda Purl. When you guys met on happy days, did you know that each other was a musician?
DM: Actually we go back before that. We were friends before. I met Linda doing a TV commercial a couple months before I shot the pilot to Happy Days. We became friends after that. And then when she came out to LA and I was already doing Happy Days, I introduced her to some of the producers and casting people, and then they brought her in to audition and and she got cast as Richie's girlfriend in that first or second season. That's how that came about. I knew Linda was into music and she knew I was into music right from the beginning of that friendship.
It must be rewarding to have these friendships with people who have similar career trajectories to yours. It speaks about the close knit relationships that you form in Hollywood and the business.
DM: No, there's not that many that are that close knit. There are a select few, and they certainly are special when that happens. You have to kind of look back and go "Wow, when I look at this..." Linda and I went on to do two other movies together and one was supposedly because we both got cast... and another one because we knew the same people. It's great when that happens and a friendship like that can sustain throughout the years, in a business that can be pretty volatile in terms of relationships. So it's very special, the friendship we've had over this long a time and when we perform together, it really comes across -- all of the history in the past that we've had together. And the love that we have for each other.
Your IMDB page shows some new entries - what should your fans be looking out for film and tv wise?
DM: I just recently did a movie called Lost Heart that we shot in Michigan that I enjoyed that will come out, I think, in June. And the movie I did with that company, less than a year prior, is called MBF aka Man's Best Friend - a powerful film about a wounded Vet dealing with coming back. I play a defense attorney and that's actually out on Amazon right now, on Amazon Prime and it will be released in select theaters around the country very shortly as well. Those were the two most recent film projects. And theater! I just did recently did the play Art up in Canada, which I love. It's an incredible play. It won the Tony 20 years ago on Broadway, and I've always wanted to do that play. So when this opportunity came up, I jumped at it and it was a great experience. I'm going to be doing another play, a new play called Middletown in Chicago for four weeks in March, and Atlanta before that. So those were the most current projects.
I know that you do a great deal of regional theater. Does that bring you a lot of satisfaction?
DM: Oh, incredibly so. I love it. I've always loved doing live theater and I'm getting to play roles now that are a lot more diverse. At this age that I'm at now, it's opened up different kinds of roles for me. Back during Happy Days it was a little hard getting away from that. But it's opening up in a brand new way, which I'm very happy about, and excited about. I did The Sunshine Boys a couple of years ago, and I did Art and then this play Middletown -- very different kinds of roles and really beautifully written pieces. I love doing live theater and getting to play such a wide variety of roles.
There's a big interest in nostalgia right now. And they have these big nostalgia conventions. I told a couple of friends that I was speaking with you today and they were so excited. Have you done any of the conventions?
DM: I've been in a few autograph shows, I've done a few of those. Like the Comic Cons... a few of those.
Because you were on Star Trek!
DM: I've been at Star Trek conventions twice now. I did a two-parter on Voyager. That was interesting and fun! There are probably a few more down the road, I'm sure.
You were born in New York - after your Beach Cafe shows will you hang out here and do the holidays in New York City?
DM: I wish I could, but I have to fly out after the Saturday night shows, on that Sunday. I have to take time to enjoy this festive time in New York City, which is always great. I'll get a little bit of it for the three days I'm there. So I'm excited about that.
Don, do you have a favorite song?
DM: Well, gosh, that is a really tough one. I loved all the great artists, the jazz standards and whatnot. But the guy that, for various reasons - one being that he was an incredible talent, more so than a lot of people know, in terms of the depth of his talent - and I saw him at the Copacabana when I was 18, was Bobby Darrin. He could sing any of that stuff as good as anybody. A lot of times I'll close with Mack the Knife, 'cause that was the one I sang along with more than anybody, along with Bobby, you know, in my living room with the record player. So in terms of performing, that's probably my favorite one to do 'cause it's just so in my blood
Because it's the best song ever.
DM: There's so many other great songs. My all time favorite song, which is not for performing... Rhapsody in Blue. That is my favorite all time composition.
I love that answer! Don, I know you have to get on with your day, so I thank you so much for the chat! I will be at your show your first night to photograph it and review it for Broadwayworld and I'm really looking forward to it.
DM: I'm glad you're going to be there!
I wouldn't miss it!