GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Roger Preston Smith of 'Hello, Dolly!'
In his fourth decade in show business, Roger Preston Smith can find firsts hard to come by. The Paper Mill Playhouse's current production of Hello, Dolly! certainly isn't his first time doing the show: He was in the mid-'90s tour and Broadway revival with Carol Channing, plus three other productions of it since then. It's not even his first time in a Dolly! with Walter Charles playing Horace Vandergelder; that's happened twice before, with Smith understudying Charles as Horace at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in 2001.
Yet there is a first for Smith in Paper Mill's Dolly! Back in the early '70s, in his first professional performing job after college, Smith danced in an arena show called Disney on Parade with a young married couple named Gene and Becky Columbus. Their son Nigel is now playing one of Smith's fellow waiters at the Harmonia Gardens. It's his first such generation-spanning experience with a family.
Smith notched another career first last December when he costarred as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head Island, S.C. It was the first nonmusical he'd ever done. The rest of the cast "were all 'actor' actors. Like, two of the people had gone to Juilliard, one had gone to Yale," Smith says. "I would see them in New York [afterward] and they'd say, 'Why weren't you at that audition?' and I'd go, 'For what?' They'd go, 'Such-and-such Shakespeare...'"
It's the bards of Broadway's golden age, not of Avon, that Smith knows best. His recent regional credits include Anything Goes and 42nd Street at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City last year; Dolly! in 2004 at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre (where he'd earlier done Cabaret and La Cage Aux Folles); 42nd Street in Hilton Head in spring 2003; and My Fair Lady, his debut at Paper Mill, in 2002.
There was almost an unfortunate first for Smith during this run of Hello, Dolly!having to sit out a show due to injury. On June 19, Smith was knocked unconscious when a truck smacked into him while he was bicycling in midtown Manhattan. He suffered a concussion and bruised left arm, and was still feeling dizzy when he reported for the next performance two days later. But he went on that night ("I never felt dizzy on stage, I actually felt better after the show") and has been in all subsequent performances. That's business as usual for Smith: The only times he's missed performances in his lengthy career were "when my brother passed away and when I had salmonella in Mexico City."
Good health and fitness have something to do with his near-perfect attendance, but Smith has also been inspired by Carol Channing, who famously never missed any of her 5,000+ performances as Dolly. "I learned so much from her," he says. "One of the things is why I don't want to miss a show. She never missed a show, and she said, [imitating Channing] 'That means you're dispensable. I can't imagine being dispensable.'"
Smith says he also learned from Channing by "just watching her refine how to find a joke, how to focus a joke, how nobody can be moving on a laugh line, it distracts." He's deploying those comic skills in the parade and courtroom scenes of Paper Mill's Dolly! (which runs through July 23 in Millburn, N.J.). As the judge in the "It Only Takes a Moment" scene, Smith gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening for his joked-about nose and for bursting into tears at Cornelius' declaration of love.
Smith played maitre d' Rudolph during part of his run in Hello, Dolly! with Channing and in the Westchester show. But his character is only one of the changes for Smith in this production. Between Tovah Feldshuh's more restrained, more Irish interpretation of Dolly and Mia Michaels' choreography with its Fosse-esque tableaux, he feels like a first-timer. "Mainly I've done the Gower Champion version. But this has much more of a modern feel...very stylized. It feels like a new show because they've reinvented it."
Describing the work by Michaels, who has choreographed mostly for concerts and television commercials, Smith says: "She has a way of layering choreography, and layering intent on top of it. Her work isn't just about steps. She was always talking about the breath. When Dolly comes in the room, we raise ourselves up and let out an audible breath: Ahhh. It's just: [breath] 'She's here!' Mia put the steps down, and then she was always talking about colors that she wanted to add. She asks you to go further and furthertake that movement to the extreme. Never be safe. But at the same time don't turn it into a cartoon."
Last summer, Smith replaced an injured dancer for the Memphis and Fort Worth legs of a mini-tour of Dolly! starring Michele Lee and Walter Charles, directed by Lee Roy Reams (and with the same Barnaby, Brian Sears, as Paper Mill). Another show he's done many times is Peter Pan. He made his Broadway debut in the 1979-81 production starring Sandy Duncan, received the gypsy robe when the show returned to Broadway in 1998 starring Cathy Rigby, spent another year touring with Rigby, and appeared with her in a production filmed for A&E in 2000.
Before joining Rigby in Neverland, Smith appeared with the ex-Olympian in an ill-fated though critically acclaimed production of Annie Get Your Gun. Directed by Susan Schulman and costarring Brent Barrett as Frank Butler and KT Sullivan as Dolly Tate, the production originated at Houston Grand Opera and booked a Broadway house before touring the East Coast. But the New York opening was nixed when the out-of-town tryout flopped commercially. "It was an excellent cast, and we got rave reviews," Smith recalls. "In Boston, they said Cathy was very serviceable as Peter Pan but she's proven herself a musical comedy star [as Annie Oakley]. But nobody came. We went to Washington, D.C., got rave reviews, and nobody came." Audiences, Smith surmises, weren't willing to take a chance on Rigby in anything other than the acrobatic Peter Pan role.
Smith had first worked with Rigby in the early 1970s, when she was just crossing over from gymnastics to theater and he was performing in Disney on Parade. Rigby was headlining Disney's other touring arena show at the time, a lip-synched staging of Peter Pan. Smith says that when he sees Rigby these days, "she always jokes: 'We're going to grow old together. [Pause] Wait a minute, we already did.'"
Disney on Parade, which condensed several of Disney's animated movies (Smith played the Big Bad Wolf in the Three Pigs number and danced in several other scenes), was performed in 18,000-seat venues and featured a cast of 65. Three decades later, it remains a highlight of Smith's career because it took him to the other side of the globe: The show toured in Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. His career has also encompassed a number of other international engagements: two years as a member of Winnipeg-based Contemporary Dance Canada, a six-month run of Disney on Parade in Mexico City, and dancing in the revues at the Lido in Paris and its sister club in Barcelona. He was the only American performer in an operetta company in Montecatini, Italy, that toured Sicily and Sardinia. "We'd play these little tiny towns where the whole town would just close down," Smith recalls. "They all had their opera house, and everybody would come, and afterward they would invite you in, they'd want to feed you." (Smith returned to operetta in recent years for productions of The Pirates of Penzance at Sacramento Music Circus and Virginia's Mill Mountain Theatre.)
Dancing alongside Smith in the Disney show was a chorus boy named Buddy Swayze, later to become famous as movie star Patrick Swayze. He's also had some re-encounters with castmates. In the 1980s he was in the Evita tour starring Florence Lacey, who later portrayed Irene Molloy in Hello, Dolly! with Channing. Smith previously appeared with Walter Charles not just in Dolly! but also another Jerry Herman crowd-pleaser, La Cage Aux Folles, at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. Playing Albin to Charles' Georges was James Brennan, whom Smith had worked with in a shadily run non-Equity dinner theater in New Jersey in 1972.
Smith also performed with Brennan in Me and My Girl on Broadway (after doing the tour starring Tim Curry). Other dance greats he's worked with include Donna McKechnie, in The Goodbye Girl at Walnut Street, and Liliane Montevecchi in a Gigi tour. Smith has also been in several shows headlined by performers formerly known as TV starsfrom The Wizard of Oz starring Roseanne Barr as the Wicked Witch, to Oklahoma with John Davidson (as Curly) and Jamie Farr (as Ali Hakim), to Gigi featuring Gavin MacLeod as Honore. His own TV appearances include a 1996 Saturday Night Live hosted by Elle Macphersonin a skit spoofing the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
He's been a teacher too, at such New York studios as Dance Concepts, Morelli Ballet and the New York Academy of Ballet, as well as of master classes at the University of Michigan and other colleges. He was on the dance faculty for three years at C.W. Post-Long Island University, teaching jazz and tap.
Smith's own early dance lessons, starting when he was 6 years old, cost but 50 cents for half an hour, offered by the PTA in the rural outskirts of Cincinnati where he grew up. Later on, he did farming and household chores to pay for classes at a dance school. He enrolled at Ohio University on a pre-law track"not what I wanted to do," but what he'd been told to pursue; in his small-town farm community, dance seemed an unrealistic career for a man at the time. But he got involved in the university's dance program after attending a performance, switched to the BFA program (though he continued to take political science courses) and, upon graduation, drove 200 or so miles to Charleston, W.Va., to audition for the Disney show. Since then, his longest stretch out of work has been about six months.
The past year has been difficult for Smith personally. His mother passed away last year, leaving him as the sole surviving member of his family (his older brother died about 10 years ago, at age 48, from a rare organ disorder called amyloidosis). He also lost his best friendwho had danced with him in the Canadian company and in Peter Panto brain cancer and his longtime ballet teacher, Alfredo Corvino, who was still working when he died last August at 89. Smith credits Corvino for his mostly injury-free career. He remembers once returning to Corvino's class after some time away and being scolded for possibly letting his training slip. "He came up and grabbed me on the arm and he said, 'You've been doing this too long. You can't be playing around. Your blood expects it.'
"I think it's true," Smith says in tribute. The dedication instilled in Smith by people like Corvino and Carol Channing has kept him employed for so long. "I think I have a good reputation for giving 110 percent," he says. He also attributes his longevity to his employment as a character actor as well as a dancer. In other words, that nose that's ridiculed in Hello, Dolly! may have kept him from being a leading man but is perfectly suitable for character roles. Last fall, Smith was hired for the ensemble of Anything Goes in Atlantic City, but he took over the part of hapless conman Moonface Martin in the second preview due to Leslie Feagan's detached retina. He was still playing Moonface when the show opened, and he continued in the role for a few weeks until Feagan's return.
"I never had great dreams of being a star," Smith admits. "In fact, I've seen, working with stars, how that limits you. All I've ever wanted to do was keep working, and be proud of my work. I just hope I can keep working till my retirement, and long past hopefully. I'm as proud being in the chorus as doing a role. You still have to give 100 percent. I always believe there's at least someone that's watching me."
That reminds him of what Chita Rivera said at the end of her autobiographical show The Dancer's Life, which ran on Broadway last season. "When I went to see Chita, I broke down crying when she was talking about: This is what we do, this wood [the stage], this is our home. And she said: It's a two-show day, it's raining outside, the house is half full, and every bone and muscle in your body hurts. But, you know, there's somebody out there with their mouth wide open that's going to be hooked, basically, from your performance. A person like me the first time I saw a show and went [makes an expression of awe].
"I think that for most people that do it for a life, there is that moment that you just went...not even 'This is what I'm going to do,' but 'This is who I am,'" he concludes.
Roger is immediately to the left of Tovah Feldshuh in the Hello, Dolly! photo [by Gerry Goodstein]. And that's Liliane Montevecchi in the bathtub, with Roger playing her butler, in Gigi at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars in 1999.