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Lost art of vaudeville is back with 'Pazzazz'

June 30, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

We were lunching at Musso & Frank's, which is a glorious old restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard once filled with luminaries from the worlds of literature and cinema, but almost empty on this particular day.

The place was opened in 1919 by John Musso and Frank Toulet, and its mixologist became famous creating perfect martinis for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Rudolph Valentino, to name a few.

My guess is that the current parade of celebrities has pretty much moved on to glitzier places on the Westside, leaving Musso and Frank's to those who still like its musty feel and the faint rustle of memory's ghosts.

It was fitting that I sat down with Milt Larsen over corned beef and cabbage, one of M&F's featured entrees, to talk about a stage show he'd been thinking about or working at for almost half a century, based on the vaudeville comedy team of Weber and Fields.

Larsen is one of the town's more familiar figures, unlike those personalities of the moment who pose, disappear and, like the Cheshire cat, leave their showy smiles floating above a tree limb.

An easygoing guy with a puckish sense of humor, Larsen opened the grand old Magic Castle 45 years ago and still owns it. His history also includes writing, performing and other activities too numerous to mention.

He's true Hollywood in a way, a 77-year-old with the enthusiasm of a kid who can do shtick with the ease of a stand-up comic. For instance, I ask where he was born and he replies, "The far east." I say, "Asia?" and he says, "No, Pasadena." Buck and wing, exit stage left.

The purpose of our meeting was for Magic Milt to tell me about the show "Pazzazz," of which he and his wife, Arlene, are executive producers. Larsen also co-wrote the book, music and lyrics, in addition to putting half a million dollars of his own money into it. Arlene was the costume designer, and in some ways, her lavish gowns are the star of the production.

Joe Weber and Lew Fields were a comedy team in the closing days of vaudeville that predated duos such as Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello.

Already fascinated with the era of burlesque, Larsen discovered them in the early 1950s in a cardboard box full of scripts and memorabilia from Weber's estate. He bought the box for $25 from a bookstore whose owner just wanted to get rid of the stuff. "Pazzazz" was born there.

Weber and Fields were among the bright lights on Broadway in the fading days of the 19th century. In addition to their comedy act of dialect and malapropisms, they ran a music hall that attracted top stars of the day, such as the dazzling singer-actress Lillian Russell, whose charm and high notes captivated Manhattan.

Larsen and his co-creators, Richard M. Sherman and Joseph Hoffman, catch the vaudeville era with music, dancing, skits and a lot of fun. I'm not sure if it's up to Broadway standards, but I'm no critic, so what the hell do I know? Well, I know I've seen maybe a few hundred shows from New York and London to L.A. over the years, and I liked "Pazzazz" more than most.

Cinelli and I were in the audience in the ornate old Granada Theater in Santa Barbara on the last day of its performance, after it opened in Glendora to an enthusiastic response. It received standing ovations in Santa Barb too, and now Magic Milt is going to try to take it on the road.

Probably with the Midwest in mind, Larsen set out to do a traveling family show, without obscenity, nudity or open-mouth kissing. "No fornication," he observed with mock regret, and added, "Sorry." He describes it as "an old-time singable, happy musical," and that's pretty much what it is.

George M. Cohan, first as a statue and then as a kid, is the show's Greek Chorus, the guy who tells us what it's all about. Joey D'Auria as Weber and Joshua Finkel as Fields are a couple of vaudevillians who show us what it was like back then, before the era was washed away like love letters in the sand.

There's enough going on in "Pazzazz" to keep it moving at a fast pace, with jokes and skits peppering the spaces between the singing and dancing. The large cast has credits that reach from the Broadway stage to television.

Larsen's white hair is receding and he uses a hearing aid, which he wasn't wearing that day. Our conversation was a comedy act in itself, including a lot of whats and whos and whens. My hearing isn't all that good either. But it was a delightful lunch; two old guys in a grand old restaurant talking about the funny, high-kicking days that made America laugh a long time ago.


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