Just when you thought you’d heard every movie tune in last year’s “Blame It on the Movies: The Reel Music of Hollywood,” here comes “Blame It on the Movies II,” opening tonight at the Coast Playhouse.
“We have 70 songs,” announced entertainer/composer Billy Barnes, who, in a reprise of his duties with the original “Blame It,” helped compile the material and wrote special music for the show, which features a small cast singing a wide variety of songs from the movies.
“First, we have music in the comedies,” he said, reviewing the lineup. “Then we have music from epic movies--'El Cid,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ Then we have Entre Acte-- ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ ‘Close Encounters.’ Then we have the Saturday matinees: ‘Tammy,’ ‘Gidget,’ ‘The Blob.’ Then we have a tribute to the glamorous ladies of the screen. And the last section is called ‘See the World'--'The Cincinnati Kid,’ ‘Autumn in New York,’ Flying Down to Rio.’ ”
Actress Lu Leonard links the segments--with the help of Barnes’ original music and lyrics. “The first time we see Lu, she’s a prop woman talking about her love of the movies. The second time, she’s been moved into makeup, as a makeup lady. That’s when she introduces the comedy section. The next time we see her, she’s working at the guard gate; she’s been demoted. And that leads us into the movie spectacular songs.”
Barnes, 61, admits he didn’t know what he was getting into when “Blame It” director David Galligan first contacted him last year.
“It’s a massive thing,” he said. “I was brought in as the older statesman. They never say it, but I know it’s true. Ron Abel, the music director, is wonderful. He knows the rock ‘n’ roll stuff; I just have to hang in there. Talk about the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. That’s what I know. But you can’t fool around. There are a lot of movie buffs out there. You have to make sure it’s from the right show, that it’s the correct tempo. I have to be very careful.”
The care is deep-rooted. It was over 35 years ago that Barnes, who was born in Los Angeles, graduated from UCLA and, with three college pals, took the requisite stab at a New York career. All eventually landed back in Los Angeles, where they began performing Barnes’ material--in cabarets, then in legit houses. The result was a string of hits: “Billy Barnes’ Revue,” “Billy Barnes’ People,” “Billy Barnes’ L.A.” and “Billy Barnes’ Hollywood.”
After a time, however, television reared its financially attractive head. “There wasn’t much theater then,” he said regretfully, “or much money. So it was very fortunate to have variety television.” After a four-year stint on “The Danny Kaye Show,” Barnes went on to almost seven years on “Laugh-In,” followed by “Cher,” “The Mac Davis Show,” and “The Sonny and Cher Show.”
For the innovative “Laugh-In,” he said, “I’d usually have to do three original pieces a week--which is a lot. Very tiring. Not just writing it, but rehearsing it and seeing that the kids knew what they were doing. So I’d do a news section, a topic section--'The Mod World of . . . ,’ then a small number, usually at the piano.”
George Schlatter was the producer. And Barnes recalled that Schlatter would say, “This week, the writers are going to do a lot of jokes about income taxes.”
“I’d just sit there and take notes. I had my topic, my lyrics; I knew my cast. It was almost scientific.”
The demise of variety, Barnes says, came from out of the blue.
“I didn’t know it was demising,” he said. “It was like, ‘Where did it go?’ ”
In time, he learned to make a distinction between the form’s obsolescence and his own worth. “I had friends who thought they were washed up--but it has nothing to do with that,” he said firmly. “It’s just the media: They didn’t want variety anymore. And I don’t blame them. I was shocked when Julie Andrews won all those Emmys for her Christmas special. I adore her--yet I found it a ghastly yawn. The form is so archaic.”
In the last decade, Barnes has worked with nightclub performers like B.J. Ward, Juliet Prowse and Ann-Margret, writing the special music (songs performers use to tell you about themselves) for their acts. In 1975, ’76 and ’78, he brought his own act to the Taper and Studio One Backlot. And in 1982, his and Bob Mackie’s musical tribute to the women of the silver screen, “Movie Star,” debuted at the Westwood Playhouse.
Recently, Barnes has also found himself in the role of an actor. “It’s always been in the back of my mind,” he said, grinning: “When I get older and don’t have to compete with all the good-looking guys, I’ll be a character actor.” Since last year, he has appeared in the musicals “In a Garden” at Room for Theatre, “The Good War” at the Itchey Foot and an all-adult version of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
“I’ll do anything that comes along,” Barnes said cheerfully. “I can act, I can play the piano, I can sing a little bit. And I’m working on a musical, as one always does. I’ve often laughed and thought, ‘One of these days, I’m going to get a career out of this'--thinking that there’s something better and more wonderful out there. But right now, working with these young people, I’m having the ball of my life.”