ARCHIVE: Billy Gets His Evening, for M’town Arts

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Playwright Billy Van Zandt is in the hot seat for an April 30 fundraiser for the Middletown Cultural and Arts Center.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank Green April 22, 2011)

No, Billy Van Zandt — to quote the late great Red Buttons and his signature shtick on countless Dean Martin roasts — “never got a dinner.” But on the night of Saturday, April 30, he’ll be getting his very own Evening.

Unlike other Monmouth County folks who went Hollywood in a big way, the comic playwright, producer and performer has, with his longtime collaborator Jane Milmore, maintained a pretty dynamic profile on the area’s artscape — particularly over at the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College, where the Van Zandt-Milmore tagteam has taught, established a scholarship and regularly premiered such new works for the stage as You’ve Got Hate Mail, currently enjoying a hit Off Broadway run at The Triad in Manhattan.

As one half of a bicoastal stage/screen writing partnership, the half brother of Steve Van Zandt spends about half his time here on the greater Red Bank Green — often with his sons and his better half, actress and author Adrienne Barbeau. None of which is to suggest that Billy Van Zandt ever does anything halfway, however.

Scheduled for 7:30p on April 30, An Evening with Billy Van Zandt (it even rhymes with An Evening with Cary Grant) presents the 1975 graduate of the old split-session Middletown High School in an “up close and personal” forum, in which he’s expected to offer advice to aspiring actors and writers — and to share some pretty priceless stories from his travels as a young actor in major motion pictures, and an Emmy nominated writer-producer for sitcoms both legendary (Newhart) and look-it-up (Bless This House).

Moderated by actor Jeff Babey (who, as a member in good standing of the Van Zandt-Milmore stock company, is similarly not known to do things in moderation), it’s a circus that manages to involve everyone from Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Tom Cruise, to Wiliam Shatner, the Wayans Brothers and Andrew Dice Clay — and that’s just for appetizers. It’s also a benefit for the educational programs of the Middletown Township Cultural & Arts Council, hosted at their spacious (and criminally under-utilized) Middletown Arts Center, located just seconds from Red Bank and steps from the township’s NJ Transit train platform. The redbankgreen Drama Desk met up with BVZ at the Broadway Diner recently, to kvetch and ketchup on current events.

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Billy Van Zandt and Glenn Jones do the rarely attempted Double Spit Take at a jubilant Jane Milmore, in the current Off Broadway hit YOU’VE GOT HATE MAIL.

redbankgreen: First of all, congrats on getting your very own Evening With…but just for our enlightenment, where does the “Evening With” fall within the hierarchy of things like the Dinner For, the Tribute To or the Roast Of?

BILLY VAN ZANDT: Well, the Tribute is something they only give you when you’re about to drop dead, so you want to avoid that. I’d say the Evening is not quite the Dinner, but a definite step up from the afternoon golf luncheon. And this is from someone who’s done it all, including the Breakfast with Santa Claus. What exactly can we expect to see at this event? Have you and Jeff worked out some prepared material, or are you just totally winging it?It’s an intimate sort of thing like I’ve really never done before. I’m not singing, I’m not dancing, I’m taking questions and telling stories about how I got into this business as a kid growing up in Middletown; all the people I encountered along the way. Jeff is the one who’s really preparing for this thing; assembling video clips and sweating the details.So you’ll have something of a multimedia component going on?Oh yeah; they’ll also have a wine and cheese reception after the show, with Nick DeGregorio playing piano in the gallery. We’re also bringing in high school kids from Middletown North and South for a sort of mini rehearsal version earlier in the day.How’d this thing come together? Did the people at the Arts Center approach you about it, or did you come to them looking for an ideal venue to workshop this sort of presentation?

Tony Mercantante, the township administrator, and Jim VanNest took me to lunch, I guess with the ulterior motive of asking me to do a fundraiser. They have a great building there, located right at the train station, and they wanted to do something to raise awareness of this facility that a lot of people still don’t even know exists. They’re selling tickets for a hundred dollars, but I should point out that not a penny is going into my pocket; the money is going entirely to scholarships and programs like art camps.

When I was a kid, there really weren’t any places like that, with all of the classes and everything they offer. I had promised myself that if and when I ever got where I was going, I’d come back and try to do something to help kids who are serious about becoming actors. Not kids who just want to be famous — I can’t help them, I don’t want to help them — but those who really want to know how to be an actor.

What then do you tell them as far as where to begin, when so much ground has shifted underneath big segments of the entertainment biz? A lot of the local places where you first cut your teeth disappeared off the map years ago…

I started in community theater…and community theater is alive and well here; it’s still a great way to learn your craft.

Back then we had Lois McDonald’s old Barn Theatre in Rumson, which was such a great place for anyone to get their start. I did a lot of shows at Mark Fleming’s (Henderson Theater) over at CBA — but between those I did show after show at the old Dam Site Dinner Theater in Tinton Falls — we worked on a tiny stage that was about as big as the table we’re sitting at; we’d have performances on Wednesdays, and then have to take down the sets between shows so they could convert the room into a disco on weekends.

I would also take every opportunity to ask questions of every actor who would talk to me, and some of the shows at the Count Basie Theatre gave me the chance to talk to some amazing people. I met Myrna Loy that way — they booked a concert-style touring production of Don Juan in Hell, and Myrna Loy, who was about 85 at the time, was playing the 20 year old daughter of Ricardo Montalban! I waited around outside the stage door on Monmouth Street and got to talk with her – an old lady in a mink coat and galoshes.

You mentioned Lois McDonald, and I recall another Lois — Lois Carlson, otherwise known as Lois Mallonson, a teacher at Thorne Middle School — as someone who played a big part in your path to a showbiz career.

Lois Carlson was, like every great teacher, a hugely influential person in my life. She could create a play out of next to nothing — she’d tie a big box to her car, then cart a bunch of her drama students over to the park and use the box as our stage. On weekends we’d go to her house to rehearse — something that’d be unthinkable nowadays. Several years ago, the NJEA gave me a little award, and the only reason I agreed to show up and accept it was to dedicate it to her, since she had passed away just prior to that.

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Clockwise from top left: Billy Van Zandt as Bob in JAWS 2; as Alien Boy in STAR TREK; as Bug (next to Tim Hutton) in TAPS; as Louie (with wife Adrienne Barbeau and castmates) in A WAKE IN PROVIDENCE.

To a casual observer, it seems you went almost directly from your first original play, at Thorne School (THE OLD BIRD SANCTUARY IN THE PARK TRICK, AND HOW I FELL FOR IT) straight to Hollywood supporting parts in JAWS 2 and the first STAR TREK. Correct me if I’m wrong, but JAWS 2 was the single most eagerly awaited movie of that year, and you were the guest of honor for a local premiere at the old UA Middletown movies on Route 35.

Or Target, as it’s now known. Yeah, that was a night like no other in my life. I made a lot of friends working on JAWS 2 — that for me was kind of my high school graduating class, and a lot of us have reconnected on Facebook recently.When I first came to Hollywood — this was in January of 1978 — we were shooting some pickup scenes for JAWS 2, which meant swimming in dirty water outside of a cat food cannery, but that’s Hollywood. I was on the Universal lot and a car pulls up right in front of me, and out steps — Alfred Hitchcock! Hollywood! This was my very first day in LA.

I know you’ve made your home out there for many years, but you also continue to spend a fair amount of time back here in Monmouth County — particularly in recent months, with your show going great guns up in the city.

It’s being done in Maine, in Montana — and in Mumbai. We’re having a good time, me and the kids, flying back and forth from LA while I continue to appear in the show in New York on weekends. Adrienne’s coming here also, and we’re bringing in a whole bunch of guest performers to do one-time performances in the lead roles. We just had Khrystyne Haje in the show; then Julia Duffy, who I’ve stayed friends with since we worked together on Newhart — and we’re looking at getting Barry Williams from the Brady Bunch in there as well.

These people must all be very quick studies to do a one-nighter like that.

The really great thing is that the whole show is performed with the characters sitting at their computers, looking at their phones — we can actually post the whole script right there in front of them! We designed it to work this way; in fact we haven’t changed the script at all, just the electronics have changed but it all fits. Of course, I didn’t learn my lines when we first did the show at Brookdale, and right in the middle of the performance my computer started acting up — pictures of my kids kept popping up on the screen instead of the script.

So does this New York production, along with the Middletown event, stand in lieu of the springtime Brookdale production that you and Jane have traditionally done for years? What’s the status of those shows in light of all that’s been going on around BCC lately?

The only reason that we’re not doing the spring show at Brookdale is that we’re committed to this New York engagement — and it’s going really well. As for the whole situation with Dr. Burnham, we always had a good experience in all the years he was there; he was an advocate for all that Jane and I did there in Lincroft, and we’re looking to keep the relationship going into the future. Who knows; maybe nights like this one I’m doing in Middletown will really work out, and I’ll do something like it once every year.

Tickets for the April 30 benefit event are priced at $100 per person (payable to Middletown Cultural & Arts Council) and can be reserved right here or by calling (732)706-4100.


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