For Entertainers, It's 'Heaven' and the Deep Blue Sea

Times Staff Writer

It takes more than talent to croon "Twilight Time." As Kevin Farrell, recently musical director of "Cats" on Broadway, said the other day: "It takes brains, everybody. First it's an 'o-o-o-h' and then it's an 'a-a-a-h.' OK. Let's do it in English this time."

Fourteen fresh-faced singers were rehearsing "Peggy Cruised, Got Married," a show destined for the Sitmar cruise ships Fairsea and Fairwind. Their voices filled the Backstage Dance Studio in Cypress with sweet echoes of the '50s.

Farrell, their musical director, glanced at the sheet music spread on his lap. "Let's have two girls on top, one girl in the middle, two guys on the bottom," he said, arranging the lush vocal harmonies on the spot. "Just go to D-flat. So it's a-a-a-h, a-a-a-h, a-a-a-h, o-o-o-h. . . ."

Before the afternoon was over the cast of the Fairsea (sailing tomorrow from Los Angeles for the Panama Canal) and the cast of the Fairwind (sailing Feb. 5 from San Juan, Puerto Rico, for Brazil) had run through "Mister Sandman," "Splish Splash" and "Wake Up Li'l Suzie."

During a break, Sarah Schaede of Anaheim, a 22-year-old dinner-theater veteran hoping to break into commercials, told why she had signed on: "It's not like you're going to be seen by any major producers when you're out in the middle of the Caribbean, but it's a chance to work and get paid pretty well and see the world."

In the meantime, the phone rang at the desk beyond the studio door. Nance Weenick of the Steenhoven Production Group, the Orange County-based entertainment company that is producing the show for Sitmar, picked up the receiver. It was the White House calling.

Steenhoven, you see, is also staging tonight's kickoff of Super Bowl Weekend in San Diego--a patriotic fireworks-cum-laser-beam extravaganza--and the President was considering making a few remarks at the opening ceremony. The White House wanted to know whether somebody could script a few presidential words.

Since "oooh" and "aaah" were clearly not an option, Weenick referred the call to the company impressario, John Steenhoven, 40, a former director of entertainment at Knott's Berry Farm and a man with a fondness for spectacular kitsch.

During an interview in his Newport Beach office, Steenhoven pulled a photo album from his desk and leafed through the pages, recalling some of the milestones of his career: the time he staged the opening of a San Diego shopping complex with 50,000 balloons and five airplanes writing "Shop Till You Drop" across the noon sky, for instance, or the re-christening of the Queen Mary on its 50th anniversary with more balloons and fireworks in Los Angeles harbor.

A Wisconsin native who learned his trade from the late Tommy Walker, a legend in the spectaculars business, Steenhoven has a fondness for conventions of all sorts but especially for gatherings of vacuum cleaner salesmen. He was visibly moved by a page of Polaroid prints showing the hoopla he had once organized around the swimming pool at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas for an Electrolux-Canada convention.

"Vacuum cleaner salesmen are a wonderful audience," Steenhoven recounted. "They have all this enthusiasm. We put the company president inside this huge display and we brought up the music and the display opened like a huge tulip and he was revolving around inside it with this fog effect and we did this whole 'Star Wars' thing."

The details beggar description, but Steenhoven likes to call what he does "client-oriented show business." Whatever it is termed, the young performers rehearsing at the Backstage studio believed in "Peggy Cruised, Got Married" with as much fervor as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing "Follow the Fleet."

"The show is not as hokey as you might think for a cruise ship," said Kelly Schmitt, 22, of La Habra, who will perform on the Fairsea. "We've got a marvelous cast, and there's already a lot of camaraderie. When you hang around the theater scene here too long, it kind of gets into a rat race."

Like Schmitt, Gary Iverson, 24, could scarcely conceal his pleasure. "We've got some really fine talent," said the Orange native, who will perform on the Fairwind. "It's going to be a great experience."

If it isn't, these show biz hopefuls will be in for a long ordeal. Although individual Sitmar cruises last perhaps a week to 10 days at a time, Steenhoven's performers sign six-month contracts allowing them to get off their ship only briefly.

"Once they're on board, they do not spend another night on dry land," Steenhoven said. "We also let them know there is heavy passenger contact. It doesn't work to be a star and go to your room and see nobody else again. For this thing you really have to like people."

While all the performers earn $350 a week, plus a $50-a-week bonus for completing their contracts--which is more than they'd get at a small Equity-scale theater--some of them pointed out that mingling with passengers would be their real bonus.

"Mixing is the best part of it," said Schaede, whose gig aboard the Fairwind will be her second for Steenhoven. "Being treated like a passenger instead of the help is heaven after eight years of waiting on tables. It's definitely a step up from dinner theater."

Musical director Farrell, who wears his Broadway credits lightly, agreed. "I'm impressed," he said. "A lot of these things are thrown together overnight. This is not being done that way."

Judging from the script pages of "Peggy Cruised," which went through seven revisions, the '50s-style variety show is well-tailored, indeed. But that may not be good enough for the White House.

Although Steenhoven personally wrote "a treatment" about the San Diego football weekend spectacular for the president, he has yet to hear whether his words were a hit.

"I sent them a paragraph, which they're considering," the impressario said. "But I don't know what they've decided. I don't even know if the president will say anything."

In other words, uh-oh.

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