Billy Barnes dies at 85; satirical songwriter for Hollywood revues
Billy Barnes, a composer and lyricist whose music and devilishly funny lyrics were displayed on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in the 1960s and ‘70s and in his earlier series of satirical music revues in Hollywood that launched the careers of performers such as Ken Berry, Bert Convy and Jo Anne Worley, has died. He was 85.
Barnes died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his longtime partner, Richard T. Jordan.
A Los Angeles native and UCLA theater arts graduate, Barnes earned a reputation as “The Revue Master of Hollywood” after hitting his stride in 1958 with “The Billy Barnes Revue” at the Las Palmas Theater.
With a cast of eight — Berry, Convy, Joyce Jameson, Ann Guilbert, Jackie Joseph, Patti Regan, Len Weinrib and Bob Rodgers (who wrote the sketches and directed) — the revue skewered cultural subjects such as beatniks, Ivy Leaguers, juvenile delinquency, progressive education and 1930s movies.
A Times critic called the revue, for which Barnes played piano in the pit, “the most outrageously clever satirical show seen in this city in many, many years.”
“Billy’s name meant a lot, and it even drew a lot of stars who came down to watch,” recalled Berry, who went on to appear with the other cast members in the off-Broadway and Broadway runs of “The Billy Barnes Revue” in 1959.
“He was a very important man in my life,” said Berry, who was in several of Barnes’ revues. “Billy was funny — of course, his lyrics were all witty — and great fun to be around.”
Many of Barnes’ lyrics, Berry said, “were like Valentines to Hollywood and the film industry. That was where his main interest lay. He loved the movies.”
Worley was another Barnes discovery.
“If it weren’t for Billy Barnes, I certainly would not have had the kind of career I had,” said Worley, who was cast in a new “Billy Barnes Revue” company at the Las Palmas Theater when the original cast went to New York.
She later appeared in the cast of “The Billy Barnes People,” a hit that originated at the Las Palmas Theater and had a brief run on Broadway in 1961.
Worley also worked with Barnes when she was a cast member of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” the wildly wacky hit comedy-variety series for which he wrote humorous and topical songs from 1968 to 1973 and received three Emmy nominations.
And that was always Barnes playing the baby grand piano on “Laugh-In” whenever Worley performed a short song that had a joke finish.
“Anybody who wanted a comedy musical number would go to Billy Barnes,” she said.
Barnes’ music for television earned him three other Emmy nominations — in 1966 for “The Danny Kaye Show”; in 1971 for the Goldie Hawn special “Pure Goldie”; and in 1975 for the variety series “Cher.”
He also wrote the original music for the 1976 TV-movie “Pinocchio,” starring Danny Kaye and Sandy Duncan. And he wrote the opening musical numbers for two Academy Awards ceremonies: “Lights! Camera! Action!,” performed by Joel Grey in 1972; and “Make a Little Magic,” sung by Angela Lansbury in 1973.
One of the songs he wrote for “The Billy Barnes Revue,” the ballad "(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair, was recorded by Barbra Streisand for “The Second Barbra Streisand Album” in 1963. It also was included in a medley on her “Color Me Barbra” album and sung on her 1966 TV special of the same name.
Another signature Barnes song, “Something Cool,” was a 1950s hit for jazz vocalist June Christy.
Born in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 1927, Barnes attended the Meglin Professional Children’s School and Dorsey High School. He served in the Navy from 1945 to 1946 and then attended UCLA, where he wrote the campus show “Footprints on the Ceiling.”
“To be at parties with Billy Barnes through the years was always special,” Worley said. “He’d go to the piano and could play anything. And he had no ego about ‘I’m just here to entertain people.’ No, it was his gift and his joy that he shared freely with everyone.”
In addition to Jordan, his partner of nearly 30 years, Barnes is survived by his son, Tyler, from a 1950s marriage to Joyce Jameson that ended in divorce.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.