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Hal Linden: Song and Dance (and Clarinet) Man

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hal Linden didn’t star in the BBC-TV’s acclaimed series “The Singing Detective,” but its title neatly sums up his career.

Long before he became famous in the title role of the comical cop on ABC-TV’s “Barney Miller,” Linden was a singing star on Broadway, doing such shows as 1958’s “Bells Are Ringing” and 1970’s “The Rothschilds,” for which he won a Tony as best actor in a musical.

Before Broadway, Linden was a clarinetist, saxophonist and singer with bands led by Boyd Raeburn, Sammy Kaye, Ray McKinley and others.

Linden will celebrate his varied musical background in performances tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

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Sharing the bill will be singer Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the star of such Broadway and nationally touring shows as Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” “My One and Only” (with Tommy Tune) and Marvin Hamlisch’s “They’re Playing Our Song.”

At Cerritos, Linden offers the latest version of a vocal and instrumental show he’s been doing off and on since the early ‘70s, a presentation that was sparked by his Tony. In it, he sings, dances, tells stories and jokes, plays the clarinet and reminisces.

“The show is autobiographical. It’s me,” Linden, 65, said in that resonant and distinctive low-end tenor voice, speaking by phone from his home in Brentwood.

“If I had a title, I’d call it ‘Remember,’ because the show is nostalgia. And in my being nostalgic, remembering, hopefully I bring the audience along into their nostalgia.”

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In Linden’s act, he’s backed by a big band conducted by Howard Salat. It’s built around a bevy of beautiful songs, most drawn from musicals in which he starred.

Among them: “I’m Old Fashioned,” “In My Own Lifetime,” “Mack the Knife” and “Just in Time.” The latter is from “Bells Are Ringing,” in which Linden made his Broadway debut, appearing with Judy Holliday in 1958-59. Fate brought him his starring role.

Linden had been in the show for just five days--as understudy to the male lead, Sydney Chaplin--when the star caught the Asian flu and had to leave the show.

“It was a Saturday morning in October, and we were doing an understudy rehearsal. The stage manager told me I’d better keep rehearsing,” Linden recalled. “Then I just put on Sydney’s costumes and went out and did the show that afternoon. I wasn’t nervous. I was very excited.

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For “Just in Time,” Linden danced with Holliday, who knew she was working with a young beginner and treated him regally, he said. “As we danced across the stage, I felt her hand on my back, turning me toward the audience, as if she were telling me, ‘This is your number. Let the people see your face,’ ” Linden said. “She was giving me the stage. She was one of the most generous actresses I’ve ever known, someone who was typecast as a ditz but who was really brilliant.”

Despite his exposure in “Bells,” the ‘60s were a pretty slow decade for him, alluded to in Linden’s show by his version of “The Hungry Years.” This Neil Sedaka tune, originally about a broken marriage, has been outfitted with a new lyric by Ken and Mitzi Welch, who have helped shape Linden’s concerts.

“I was a star understudy on Broadway, and lots of the shows didn’t last, so I did other things, like industrial shows and dubbing English dialogue to foreign films,” he said.

Then came “The Rothschilds,” and a few years later, “Barney Miller,” which ran from 1975 to 1982. In his show, Linden sings “The Best of Times Is Now” to reflect this period.

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The performance also will include two clarinet numbers: “Bye Bye Blues,” done Dixieland style, and Steve Allen’s “Playing the Field,” played in a swing jazz context.

Clarinet was New York native Linden’s original instrument, and before he went into the Army in 1952, he made his living as a musician and singer. At one point, he studied clarinet with Augustine Duques, the principal clarinetist in Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. Now he keeps up on the instrument, playing chiefly “for fun.”

Linden hopes that people come away from his show with more than just a smile.

“This is, quite honestly, intended to be a theatrical piece, not just a series of songs,” he said. “I hope there’s something in there that will touch people, where people will experience a change that theater is supposed to make in a person.”

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* Hal Linden and Lucie Arnaz appear tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m., $42-$60. (800) 300-4345.


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