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Fringe Festival : 'Bit Player' Combines Old Talents

September 26, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

"I don't fool myself," writer Mel Tolkin said cheerfully. "This is no 'Hamlet.' And it's not nostalgia either; it's more than that. These people are good --not just because they're old, but because they're good."

"Good" is a big, big understatement for the combined talents making up Tolkin's "Ode to a Bit Player" at Los Angeles City College's Camino Theatre. (An Ensemble Studio Theatre entry to the Fringe, "Ode" will host the Festival's closing-night benefit on Oct. 4.) The cast features 18 golden pros--in their golden years--who sing and dance and tap and tickle ivories and whistle and clown and reminisce through their long and varied careers in show business.

"There's an excitement from the beginning," stressed Tolkin, 74, "when the people are coming on stage, looking at photos (projected on a large screen) of themselves when they were young, on Broadway or in the movies. Then they talk about themselves--and show us what they can do. An 85-year old woman singing up there! If that doesn't say something marvelous, I don't know what does. That's the part I didn't add: the subtext, the subliminal values that they put in. And, in all modesty, I didn't teach an 80-year-old woman to strip."

Los Angeles Times Monday September 28, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 5 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
A caption in Saturday's Calendar incorrectly identified writer Mel Tolkin as the creator of the play "Ode to a Bit Player" at Los Angeles City College's Studio Theatre. The play was created by Wendy Robbins, who produced it in association with the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Granted, it's not a real strip. But Ginger L. Lee does give us a saucy hint of former goods, as does the rest of the cast: singers Barbara Ames, Art Lund and Essie Moody Sherman; dancers Frances Nealy, Mary Waters and Sheila O'Bannon; comedians Sid Kane and Paul (Mousie) Garner; pianist Magi-cal Bezemer, trumpeter Hugh Bell and bassist Vernon Martin. On the unusual end: Bones player George (Bones) Gilmore, "back-throat whistler" Roy Woldum and "singing paper folder" Pearl Bernett.

The combination is a resounding crowd pleaser. "Audiences love it," Tolkin nodded. "I felt it from the first night. And it's the audience response that really makes this show. It's like the tree falling in the forest that doesn't make any noise; you just don't know how good it is till they get in there. I read once that Neil Simon sends his scripts out to his producer, then he starts worrying: 'Oh no, what have I done?' Then the producer calls and says, 'It was marvelous'--and Neil says, 'I knew it all the time.' "

In spite of such regular bouts of self-doubt, it's a life style that the Emmy-winning Tolkin obviously thrives on. Ukrainian-born (he quips that "I'm probably the only person in this room who lived under the Czar and Stalin"), he emigrated to Canada in 1926 and New York in 1945, where he fell into songwriting.

"It was simple," he shrugged. "I couldn't do anything else. I was a lousy accountant." Before long, he was the senior writer for "Your Show of Shows, followed by stints on "The Danny Kaye Show," "The Bob Hope Show" and "All in the Family."

Nowadays, Tolkin teaches comedy writing at UCLA Extension (where he won the writing program's 1986 Teacher of the Year honor), happily retired from television. "I've had my say, done my thing," he shrugged. "And I'm luckier than most. Writers over 40 have a lot of trouble; the geriatric situation is terrible . . . . But then there's the wonderfulness of "Ode" and its great truths--which are 'Don't throw away lives,' 'Have hope' and 'Age is not the end.' "

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