Show business was always a family business for Donald O’Connor. Now it says so on the door.
On Tuesday, he will join his daughter Alicia O’Connor and his son Freddie O’Connor on stage at the newly rechristened 68-seat Donald O’Connor’s Family Theatre (formerly the “Show” Place in Studio City) in a revival of Brandon Thomas’ comedy “Charley’s Aunt.”
“They picked this one because they thought I knew it,” lamented O’Connor, who performed the play 17 years ago at Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre. “But I don’t.”
At 63, O’Connor’s energy is still infectious, and after six decades as a performer, his career is going strong. The proliferation of videocassettes has brought his movies to a new generation; his club dates are often SRO. So why take on the costly, demanding, risky proposition of running a small theater?
“The lady who owned the space passed away,” O’Connor said. “Her son and daughter came to me and asked if I wanted to keep it.
“Right away, I thought of my Freddie and Alicia, struggling in this business, trying to get somewhere--and the lack of places to work. And when they do work, lots of times they have to pay for it. So rather than close the place, I felt it was better to keep it open, keep everyone going.” (In “Charley’s Aunt,” O’Connor plays Lord Fancourt Babberly; Alicia is Ella Dela Hay; Freddie plays Charlie Wykeham.)
Though he’s happy helping the theater get on its feet, O’Connor is also looking forward to giving up the reins to his board of directors (which includes his son Kevin O’Connor, daughter Donna Quigley and son-in-law Mickey Quigley) and retreating to the sidelines in a supervisory capacity.
He admits that a lot of aspects remain unresolved. Will there be a subscription audience? Will they give acting classes? Will patrons brave the bowling alley downstairs to venture into the unorthodox (yet soundproof) setting?
Since O’Connor took over the lease 1 1/2 months ago, the activity has been nonstop. His children have refurbished the theater, painted walls, laid new carpets and built an office and dressing rooms. “The place is really up for grabs,” he said. “We can do anything we want to in here. I’m sure Freddie and Alicia will want to do things that are daring: new stuff, new authors. That’ll all be totally up to them.”
In the meantime, O’Connor has a career to tend to. After the play’s three-week run, O’Connor will return to his life on the road; he is booked through the summer--after which he’ll start to put together a new act.
“I come from a vaudeville family,” he said, “one of seven kids. When I was 3 days old, I was on the stage with my mother; she was at the piano till she could get back to the heavy dancing. My mother ran away from home and joined the circus when she was 13, met my father and had her first kid when she was 14. That started the first act of the O’Connor Family.”
At age 12, O’Connor was tapped for his first film, “Sing, You Sinners.” Between stints on the road, he racked up a dozen others--including “Beau Geste,” “On Your Toes,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “No Business Like Show Business.”
When it came to raising his own family, O’Connor has also kept the kids close at hand.
He has been married 32 years to his wife, Gloria, who he says “handles my books, handles my publicity, is my bouncer.” Before the children started school, the family always traveled together; the youngsters would often join him on stage.
He says of his enduring popularity: “There’s an element out there that wants to be entertained--and they can’t find this kind of thing I do. And yeah, I think I wear well. I sing, I dance, I do comedy. I’m not threatening.
“When you grow up in a circus family, the more things you learn, the more you get paid. So I can do straight comedy without the song and dance; I can do all kinds of combinations. Whatever’s in at the time, I can fit into.”
Right now, O’Connor’s content to wear the hat of theater proprietor.
“Over 300 people showed up to audition for this play,” he said. “If this place folded, there’d be one less theater for them to go and be seen.
“Of course, I want to help my kids. But the point is, it’s not just for them. It’s for the neighbors’ kids--all the talented people out there. And we’re trying to select plays with large casts, so we can use as many people as possible. Now hopefully, some talent agent will come in and discover them.”