“When we were young, our parents directed us into a more serious business path discouraging pursuit of a career in the arts,” shared Bill Grubman, who goes by Billy to those who know him well.
Grubman joined his sister Judy Whitmore and their friend Lynn O’Hearn Wagner were backstage at Orange County’s Samueli Theater on Nov. 14 following the performance of their nightclub show, billed as “Act Three,” a play on words appropriately referring to three singers realizing a lifelong dream a bit later in life. It is a theme with universal appeal as the massive boomer generation reaches a turning point in their lives and careers.
All three of the performers have impressive business resumes. That success has afforded the trio the luxury to explore their performance dream. And that business success put them on a path to production perfection.
This was not just three singers and a piano putting on a little show. Instead, a methodical, rehearsed and reinvented act began with the assembling of major talent — a producer/director, a writer, a music director, an arranger, a designer, lighting and sound technicians, and a band of the finest Hollywood studio musicians that would make Sinatra proud. The performers themselves got involved in every aspect of the creation of the show.
About a year ago, they were introduced to Jerry Mandel, former president of the then-Orange County Performing Arts Center. Mandel, an accomplished saxophone artist in his own right and major supporter of the Orange County School of the Arts, joined the trio on their pursuit of the mid-life dream. Again, it was a theme close to his own heart.
Together, with professional input from stage director Myrona Delaney, music director John Sawoski, and Grammy- and Emmy Award-winning composer and orchestrator Michael Patterson, the act began to form. In the summer of 2014, a trial run was staged on the boards of the Winifred Smith Hall at UC Irvine. It was rough. Yet the seeds of success were evident, and the audience of some 300 friends applauded with enthusiasm.
A year of work would follow, with multiple rehearsals weekly and a revamp of the musical rundown. Amazing choreography and orchestrations created by Patterson rivaling the best arrangements of “The Great American Songbook” classics help the show move.
There would be more trial runs, including a show at Shady Canyon Country Club and a performance in Beverly Hills. A documentary video producer would be hired to follow the progress.
Then, a big leap for “Act Three.” In the fall of 2014, the three booked the Weill Recital Hall at New York’s Carnegie Hall and performed again to a sold-out audience.
“It was amazing, a dream came true,” said Judy Whitmore, a resident of the Shady Canyon in Irvine. Along life’s road, Whitmore, who holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is a licensed marriage and family therapist, had a hand in the arts as a producer of shows including “Taking A Chance On Love” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town.”
In college, she sang with a band and did back-up vocals for Capitol Records. On stage at the Samueli, doing one of her solo numbers, she told the audience, “Years ago I produced a musical play that included this song. I sat in the back of the theater each night, and as the actress came on to do this number, I remember wishing that I was singing the song.”
Whitmore fulfilled that wish at the Samueli.
Following all the rehearsals and rewrites, the “Act Three” three embarked on the idea to build their current performance around a romantic and nostalgic return to the fabulous Cocoanut Grove at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, which was demolished a decade ago and replaced on the iconic Wilshire Boulevard site with a massive public high school complex.
From its opening in 1921 and for the next seven plus decades, the Cocoanut Grove was the center of the nightclub universe. The list of performers on stage is legendary.
The Grubmans grew up in Beverly Hills and were exposed to the Grove through their parents and friends, although it was nearing the end of the road for the nightclub. Yet, well into the 1970s and early ‘80s, some of the biggest stars, including Barbara Streisand, Elton John, Liza Minelli, Tony Bennett and so many others, graced the massive room with its midnight blue ceiling and twinkling stars.
“Act Three” returned to the Grove on their Saturday night in November in Orange County. The Samueli Theater, at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, was filled from the main floor to the balcony.
The band entered in black tuxes, and music director John Sawoski hit the keys, creating a sound that sent shivers down the backs of patrons. In the age of hip hop and rap, there has been little room for the glorious and rich sound of the big band. It is one of the missing links to the parents and grandparents who came through the Great Depression and the war to end all wars.
The three new stars entered the stage for their opening number, “A Foggy Day,” looking like several million bucks, and proceeded for the next 2 1/2 hours to take the audience on a tour of classic American musical history.
Their timing just might be impeccable. After all, rocker Lady Gaga is dressing like a dame and singing sold-out concerts with Tony Bennett. Adele is topping the charts, and selling records like candy, while embracing a very classic image mixed with her contemporary take on the ballad. Certainly, there is a large audience of folks who remember and identify with the big band era and its music, which catapulted Sinatra, Clooney, Crosby, Como, Fitzgerald, Cole, Davis Jr., Martin and so many others into our lives.
Alternating between solo performances and trios, often joining Mandel and other soloists from the band, Grubman, Whitmore and Wagner ran the gamut, from Cole Porter to Gershwin, Duke Ellington to Sinatra and more. The show was perfectly paced between sentimental ballads and up-tempo toe tappers.
Whitmore was especially good one-on-one with the piano, tackling some tough ballads with style. She has a bit of a Judy Holliday comedic edge, which she should explore and expand on in her act. Wagner adds the va-va-voom sex appeal in her slinky black sequenced gown as she does the Latin rhythms in the show.
As for Billy Grubman, the former business executive and commercial pilot, he returns us to the classic, handsome crooner in elegant white dinner jacket and black tie, charming the pants off the crowd.
In the end, it was a night of making dreams come true for three boomers who managed to take an entire audience with them for the ride.
A portion of proceeds from the debut performance at SCFTA will benefit the Artist Scholar Sponsorship Program at the Orange County School of the Arts.
B.W. COOK is editor of the Bay Window, the official publication of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.