13th Street Rep Celebrates Ray DeMattis' 50th Anniversary in the Biz
The 13th Street Repertory Theater celebrated veteran stage/film/TV actor Ray DeMattis' 50th anniversary in the business -- honoring his lifetime achievements -- by proclaiming May 10th "Ray DeMattis Day." DeMattis was presented with a framed certificate of honor by one of his proteges -- Michael J.C. Anderson, an actor with the 13th Street Rep. And DeMattis, in turn, presented the first annual "Ray DeMattis Award," honoring young artists-to-watch, to actors Cody Jordan and John Brady, co-stars of Chip Deffaa's musical-comedy success "Mad About the Boy." They each received a plaque, a copy of a cast album featuring DeMattis ("Flora the Red Menace"), and a $100.00 honorarium.
DeMattis noted he'd originally intended to select only one actor to receive the theater's new award, but after watching three different performances of "Mad About the Boy" over the span of a month, he was so impressed by the strength and spirit of both Cody Jordan and John Brady (who play the roles of "Seth" and "Professor S. J. Sikes"), he decided that both must be acknowledged. "There's a lot of the talent in the whole cast," he stressed, "--but these two carry the show. And they're on their way."
DeMattis chatted and posed for photos with the theater's legendary founder/artist director, 98-year-old Edith O'Hara, complimenting her and her family for their contributions to the world of theater. Her daughters are actresses Jenny O'Hara and Jill O'Hara, whose careers--beginning with such Broadway shows as "Promises, Promises" and "George M!"--go back almost as far as DeMattis' own. Her granddaughter, Sophie Ulett, is an actress in LA.
DeMattis' many credits range from Broadway ("Grease," "City of Angels," "Fiorello"), to national tours (including "Fiddler on the Roof" with Zero Mostel), Off-Broadway ("The Fantasticks"), TV and film ("The Sopranos," "Law and Order," "The Cosby Show," "Family Business"), and much more. In 50 years, he noted proudly, he'd never had to take a day-job outside of the business.
"I am extraordinarily lucky -- there's no question of it! I have made my entire living in show business. I've never been a bartender or a waiter. And the longest stretch I was ever out of work was three months." In addition to acting in theater, in films, and on TV, he noted, "I've stage-managed, I've house-managed, I've done industrial shows--singing and dancing around tractors for thousands of tractor-salesmen. I learned about making quick costume changes, working as a dresser for 'Oh, Calcutta!'" (Walter Bobbie, he recalls, also worked as a dresser on that show, long before Bobbie directed Broadway hits like "Chicago.")
Whether you're doing a big Broadway musical comedy, an industrial show, regional theater, or a comedy TV show like "Cosby," he stressed, you have to learn to land jokes. If you're doing theater, you can tell early in the evening just by the way that night's audience reacts to a particular line, whether they're going to have more appreciation for broad comedy or more cerebral humor. And you adapt. DeMattis explained: "You want everyone -- the audience, the actors, the playwright -- to have a good experience."
ASCAP Award-winning playwright/director Chip Deffaa, who's revitalized the 13th Street Repertory Theater in recent years, emceed the event, noting: "Ray DeMattis is a terrific role model for today's younger actors. He's been a working actor for 50 years.I've always enjoyed his work. And he's made good use of all of his talents. For example, he came to know 'Grease' inside-out, performing different roles during the original Broadway run--and then he used that knowledge to direct a remarkably successful national tour of 'Grease.' We've been delighted that he's returned to see 'Mad About the Boy' three times; I hope some of the young actors in our cast, who've never considered directing, might learn from his example. I'd love to see some of our young actors, for example, someday directing other productions of this show. And his generosity of spirit is inspiring. Our actors can learn a lot from him."
At the awards ceremony, Deffaa asked DeMattis to what he attributed his longevity in the business. "A little talent, a lot of luck, and a cheap rent," DeMattis quipped. And a lasting passion for the theater, which has carried him through good times and bad. "I can see the passion in these young performers," he said, addressing the large cast of "Mad About the Boy." "You need to hold onto that. If you don't have that passion, go do something else. You have to want this more than anything else in the world."
He recalled growing up as a fat kid in New Haven, unsure if he wanted to be an actor or a priest. He moved to New York to give theater a try. Within a week, he was working, and he hasn't stopped since. "At some point you get hooked on the absolute drive to get it right.... It's wonderful when, eventually, you get it right more times than not."
At the start of the day, Deffaa introduced Edith O'Hara to the audience at the theater, noting that for more than 40 years, she'd made her theater an incubator for new talent -- a place where younger artists could experiment and explore, and learn from veterans, and from each other. "Her nurturing spirit has been what's made this theater special. Honoring veterans and newcomers alike has long been part of the theater's tradition."
Both Cody Jordan, who hails from Texas, and John Brady, who's from New Jersey, are making their New York theatrical debuts with "Mad About the Boy." Jordan turned up, out of the blue, at an open-call audition at the theater in February. Brady was recommended by singer/actor/director Seth Sikes, for whom Deffaa originally wrote the show; Deffaa trusts Sikes' judgment so thoroughly, Brady got cast without even having to audition. Deffaa noted: "Both are delivering wonderful performances--I could not have found actors more perfect for their roles. And I'll be looking forward to seeing them make their way in the world. John just made his Birdland debut, singing numbers from our show with Joris de Graaf. And we hope to have my cast on a float in the Gay Pride Parade in June..... This is a tough business. It's not always easy for newcomers to get started. But they're booth shining already. And it's great that a seasoned pro like Ray DeMattis is giving them this kind of a boost."
"They're just setting out in their careers," DeMattis acknowledged, adding he's glad to give them encouragement.
"Ray has been a great friend to us. I hope the actors appreciate the guidance he's been offering them; it's invaluable," said Deffaa. "We're happy to be able to acknowledge DeMattis' 50 years in the theater with this 'Ray DeMattis Day.' We say we're honoring his lifetime achievements -- but don't be thrown by that word 'lifetime'; of course Ray's still got a lot more life to live, and a lot more to contribute. Look at Edith O'Hara -- we're delighted to have her being part of this very special day, still going strong at age 98!"
Deffaa says that in addition to giving DeMattis the framed, engraved "Ray DeMattis Day" proclamation, his theatrical troupe will be honoring DeMattis in one more way. "The set for our show. 'Mad About the Boy,' includes a college on a wooden screen, with images of assorted historical greats referenced in our show, such as Harry Houdini and Ma Rainey; theatrical notables I admire and respect whom I wanted to acknowledge in some way, such as Carol Channing, Lee Roy Reams, Tommy Tune, and the late Thommie Walsh; up-and-coming artists we want to encourage, such as Cody Jordan, John Brady, Emily Bordonaro, Michael Kasper, Jenn Spottz, Nick Keeperman, Luka Fric.... And we're going to add one of Jonathan M. Smith's fine photos of Ray DeMattis to that collage, as a way of tipping our hat to him. Like Tommy Tune and Thommie Walsh and Carol Channing, Ray DeMattis will be a permanent part of our set."
Photo Credit: Jonathan M. Smith