It's no secret that Orson Bean, an actor who won fame as a "TV personality," is a master raconteur. No one appears on "The Tonight Show" as many times as he has without talking a good game.
But it might surprise you to discover that the 87-year-old Boston-bred performer, a regular Yankee Doodle Dandy whose family tree includes President Calvin Coolidge, has a Henny Youngman way with a joke.
At several points in "Safe at Home: An Evening With Orson Bean," the gem of a solo show that has returned to Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice after its premiere last fall, it seemed as though Bean were about to incongruously break out into Yiddish.
The cultural appropriation initially seemed odd. But as some of the funniest shtick is vaudevillian shtick with a Jewish flavor, it only makes sense that Bean, a theatrical magpie with a long history in showbiz, would borrow from the best wherever he encountered it.
Dressed like a dapper professor emeritus from Harvard in beige slacks and a sweater, Bean takes the audience on an autobiographical stroll of his life. His anecdotes are vivid, well chosen and crisply told. A natural performer who delights in enthralling a paying crowd, he has a twinkling manner, but his material is streaked with sadness.
His childhood was no picnic. Raised by an alcoholic mother who fell apart after his father left home, Bean (born Dallas Burrows) recounts what it was like growing up in a cramped apartment in Cambridge during the Depression with volatile parents whose lovemaking was as loud as their screaming fights.
The tale of what happened to his beloved dog is heartbreaking, but the real tragedy revolves around his mother, whose fits of jealousy and constant nursing of sherry had tragic consequences. Bean survived by building a wall around himself and developing a set of entrepreneurial skills that allowed him to make an early break from his mother's boozy embraces.
Some autobiographical solo shows are a pity party. Not Bean's. A canny veteran, he knows how to break the somber mood with a hoary one-liner, a silly magic trick or a non sequitur (such as the out-of-nowhere announcement that his shoes are made in Vietnam). To keep theatergoers on their toes, he occasionally asks a member of the audience to assist him with a card trick or comic routine.
He's too smart to attempt to his cover his entire life. There are whole swaths of his career (being blacklisted, the late-night banter with Johnny Carson, all those TV game shows) that are waiting for a show of their own. "Safe at Home," which is directed with discipline and discretion by Guillermo Cienfuegos, paints instead a portrait of a performer as a wounded, wily young man.
A go-getter with a hustler's energy, Bean would no doubt have reached great heights as a politician or owner of used car dealerships. But his earliest positive feedback came from amusing others.
He mesmerized the neighborhood kids with his magic act. After the Army, he tested his legerdemain on the professional circuit before switching to stand-up comedy, which opened the doors to "The Ed Sullivan Show" and Broadway.
Eventually, he found his true calling: all-around entertainer. But the trials and tribulations of his early life dogged him. Loneliness in New York after a divorce propelled him to move to L.A. to be near his kids. But don't get the story secondhand from me. No one can tell it like Bean, whose sense of what works onstage has been honed by decades of experience.
"Safe at Home," a small local treasure performed a stone's throw from Bean's house on the Venice Canals, finds the old master in vintage form.
'Safe at Home: An Evening With Orson Bean'
Where: Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 13.
Info: (310) 822-8392 or www.pacificresidenttheatre.com