Jim Dale guides his guests into the study in his Park Avenue home, pointing out memorabilia filling the walls and shelves: album covers from when he was a British pop star in the late '50s; pictures of him from the "Carry On…" comedy films in the ''60s; posters when he starred in "Scapino" and "Barnum" on Broadway; Grammys for his "Harry Potter" audio books.
Tucked away on a top shelf is a small, well-worn book, "How to Be Funny," a childhood manual that helped shape his destiny.
"Ah, that's in the show," he says, not wanting to give away some of his best material from his still-in-development solo show which will play Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II starting Thursday, June 14 to June 24. "Just Jim Dale" is the modestly-titled, 90-minute show which spans an extraordinary varied 60-year-plus career.
On a recent afternoon in Manhattan with his black Doberman "Georgy Girl" stoically seated beside him (he wrote the lyrics to the the Oscar-nominated song), Dale, 76, told jokes and showed off his remarkable gift for vocal mimicry (Dame Edith Evans, Michael Caine). But mostly the Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor talked about his life-long love, dedication and curatorial passion for comedy.
"What was important to me was not to be well-known," he says of his life in film, theater and music, "but to learn more and more about laughter."
In developing the solo show, which received a workshop production at the Eugene O'NeillTheater Center in Waterford last summer, he was essentially defining who he was.
"That's what it's all about, Alfie," he says. "Who is Jim Dale? Am I still searching for him? I'm not quite sure."
What he is sure is that it all began with his love of the English music hall — and comedy.
Began at Age Nine
Dale, the son of an iron foundry worker father and a mother who worked in a shoe factory, grew up in Rothwell, England, a working class town Northamptonshire, in the dead center of the country.
"I went to night school to study shoe design waiting for my big opportunity to get into show business," he says.
He had been performing since he was 9 as an amateur singer in family-type regional social clubs which featured such social talent as a wavering soprano, a hometown ballerina and a man who played spoons.
When he was 17, he turned pro and became a comedian, touring in every major and minor city in England playing to all sorts of audiences. "I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to explore comedy."
But he was open to anything and when an opportunity to do something else that was interesting and challenging came his way, he seized on it.
When warming up a TV audience for pop star Tommy Steele, he grabbed a guitar and started singing. That led to him at the age of 22 being tapped to be a pop singer under the guidance of George Martin, who would later go on to fame as the recording manager for the Beatles. Over a two-year period Dale had a series of pop hits in theU.K., including "Be My Girl," "Crazy Dream" and "Sugartime."
"But because I had a background in comedy I said, 'Let's record comedy songs.' He [Martin] said, 'I don't think it's the time.' But I did. And they didn't work. So I thought, 'OK. I've done some pop singing so now let's move on — and I went back to comedy.' In his bookGeorge wrote, 'If Jim Dale stayed on as a pop singer, he could have become a big name.' Well, if I did I would still be stuck singing the same hits now. So I looked at [pop singing] as just another stepping stone to something else."
Throughout the '60s, while continuing as a song writer, Dale often played the romantic lead in the series of "Carry On…" British film comedies,
Dale's next turn in his career was being invited in 1966 by stage director Frank Dunlop to play the clown Autolycus in a production of "The Winter's Tale" at the Edinburgh Festival. When Dale hesitated about the task of tackling the Bard, Dunlop shot back, 'Who the [expletive] are you to say you can't play Shakespeare!"
That began a professional relationship with the director. In 1970, Laurence Olivier invited Dale to join the National Theatre he was forming and the young actor subsequently played manyat the Young Vic Theater Company in the early '70s.
During his time with the Vic, he performed many of Shakespeare's famous clowns, trading help in understanding Shakespeare's lines from veteran actors in the company for bits of business they wanted the young comic to teach them.
Dale's career took another turn when the Young Vic brought three shows over to play New York in 1973, including Dunlop's boisterously funny adaptation of Molière's "Scapin," renamed "Scapino." It was an acrobatic role that audience members remember vividly, especially the moment in the show where his character would flee a crazed pursuer and go into and over the audience, climbing over and straddling the arm-rests of theatergoers' seats. Dale received his first of five Tony nominations for the part.
But it was the Cy Coleman 1980 musical "Barnum" that made him a star and earned him a Tony Award, portraying Bridgeport's favorite flimflam son, P.T. Barnum,
The show apped into all the music hall skills, and a few new ones he learned, such as walking a 38- foot-long tightrope eight feet above the ground while singing.
"But after 'Barnum,' people didn't know where to put me," he says. "It's been like that my whole life. If you can be put in a cubbyhole you get all the roles that can come with that type. But I was thought of as a jack of all trades and a master of none. I went through agents like you go through underwear.
Over the years, Dale kept returning to the stage including New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre with "Privates on Parade" and "Travels with My Aunt." Artistic director Arvin Brown also staged a revival of "Joe Egg" on Broadway with Dale playing opposite Stockard Channing. He was also cast in Broadway revivals of "Candide" and "Threepenny Opera" and an off-Broadway revival of "Comedians." Earlier this year he co-starred with Rosemary Harris and Carla Cugino in the Broadway premiere of Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca," directed by Gordon Edelstein, the current artistic director at Long Wharf.
One of his most famous career highlights didn't require audiences to even see him. He voiced the seven "Harry Potter" audio books, earning him several Grammy Awards (and a spot in Guinness world records for playing 146 characters in one of them).
What did he think when he read the first book for the series' project? "I thought, this is — hah! —magical and that it was going to be great for kids. Then I realized there were a hell of a lot of characters in it."
Though he wasn't required to speak in such varied voices for the different characters, Dale took it upon himself to create an extensive array of voices, creating not only dozens of characters but "three voices for every character and trying to figure out which one I would use later."
Dale's fan base multiplied with a new generation of listeners. "I remember going into aMcDonald'sfor a cup of coffee and while I was talking with my wife there were two kids nearby. One of them says to me, 'Mister, can you order me a hamburger like Dumbledore?'"
Dale has taken his celebrity and voiced more audio books of children's classic such as"Peter Pan,""Alice in Wonderland," "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "Around the World in 80 Days" "in the hopes of keeping them away from the bloody computer and games."
JUST JIM DALE will be presented as a workshop production at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven from Thursday, June 14 to Sunday, June 24. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Information: 203-787-4282 and http://www.longwharf.org
Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. Catch him talking to Rachel about theater every Friday during the 9 o'clock hour on FOX/CT's Morning show. And be the first to know by following me on http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.
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