Photo Credit: Heather Sullivan
Richard Skipper talks with Doug Devita
One does not interview Richard Skipper so much as have a conversation with him. That’s one of his biggest strengths as a performer – or entertainer, as he prefers to call himself: he invites you into his world with disarming genuineness, and whether you’ve known him for decades or you’ve just met, you are a friend for life. (Full disclosure: I have known him for decades, and he is a friend.)
Probably best known for his now-legendary performances as Carol Channing (sanctioned by the star herself), and his love for Hello, Dolly!, the musical which Channing performed for over thirty years (Check out Skipper’s reverently researched, exhaustively detailed blog “Call On Dolly,” in which he chronicles the experiences of anyone and everyone who has been involved in the original production and its subsequent tours, stock and foreign productions, and revivals).
Lately he has been concentrating on doing what he does best: being Richard Skipper, the entertainer who “puts his hands in” all sorts of delicious show-biz pies, all (or most) of which he’ll talk about in his upcoming one-man show, “An Evening With Richard Skipper,” – Monday, August 5th at St. Luke’s Theatre. Not so coincidentally, August 5th is the 40th anniversary of Skipper’s arrival in New York City as an 18-year old fresh from the tobacco farms of South Carolina.
“As I say in the show, it was 40 years ago, I was 18 years old – you can do the math – I arrived here with $500 in my pocket, I had one suitcase, and a portfolio of photographs from previous shows I had done in South Carolina which I promptly lost on my first subway ride. And a bible – because I was a good little Methodist boy.”
Eventually, that changed; there was a brief foray into Roman Catholicism along the way (“It lasted a minute!), courtesy of Milly Brown, or as Skipper refers to her: The Unsinkable Milly Brown, who he met and bonded with at his first audition in New York. “She introduced me to my first Pastrami Sandwich. She took me to my first Broadway Show: the 1979 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. She took me on my first ride on the Staten Island Ferry and the Statue of Liberty. … She was a wild and eccentric actress, and a staunch, conservative Catholic woman. … We were very much Harold and Maude.”
The references to Molly Brown and Harold and Maude point to Skipper’s life-long love of all things show-biz. “I wanted to be in show business before I knew what show business was. I was a product of 1960s and ‘70s television. I grew up with the variety show, that’s why the recent series I did (Richard Skipper Celebrates) was my homage to that. … I grew up with contemporary artists sharing stages with those from my parent’s generation, and my grandparent’s generation. And as I was sitting back and reflecting on my life there… think about this: in the 1960s, Vaudeville had only been gone about 30 years at this point. So, a lot of those Vaudeville performers spilled over into television. And that was the show business I wanted to be a part of. Those variety specials.”
But the reality of what show business was, and was becoming – especially in the New York of the late 70s / early 80s was not lost on him as he pursued “those big lofty dreams that are gonna happen.”
He began doing the rounds, being cast in many, many off, off-off, and off-off-off B’way shows, performing in showcase after showcase after showcase, often not being paid because he wanted to work. “There was a period where I went through five showcases back-to-back-to-back. Once I got a show on its feet, I was auditioning for the next show. And if I got the show and it didn’t conflict with the show that I was currently doing, I accepted it.”
All of this exhilarating but unpaid work necessitated many, many, many survival jobs, of course: “I worked as a messenger, I worked for an answering service, I did singing telegrams…”
At this point in our conversation, a light bulb exploded over my head, but we’ll save that for later. I wanted to talk about what led him into the world of cabaret, and eventually, to his most famous creation: An Evening With Carol Channing Starring Richard Skipper. (Full disclosure: I reviewed this show for the Off-Off-Broadway Review in 2004. Here’s a link.
“I learned very quickly that if I wanted the show business I wanted, I would have to create it myself.”
And after a career coach suggested he try cabaret, that’s exactly what he did, performing first as Judy Garland, and then, of course, as Carol Channing, for which he may be most famous, and one which Channing herself applauded. Skipper spent 20 years performing as Carol. As all good things must come to an end, Skipper eventually felt the need to reinvent himself again. “As Carol said to me, you are a brilliant musical comedy performer, and no one will ever know it because you are hiding behind me. I love what you do, I think you are fabulous performing as me, but the world needs to know who you are.”
Once again, he reinvented himself, now as the host of a talk/variety show in an homage to the television shows he loved so much as a child. And again, he had a terrific success; Richard Skipper Celebrates only recently ended its multi-year run of monthly performances at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, although he’s not ruling out an occasional return.
Richard Skipper Celebrates showed him to be the consummate entertainer, but it still didn’t show the world who Richard, the person, really was; something he’s hoping to rectify with his show on August 5th.
“Now, putting it all together in a package, and coming to tell my story, I’m hoping that audiences will see a different me. You’ve seen me over the last few years sharing the stage with other people, but for the first time this is me, myself and I on the stage for 90 minutes.”
Now about that light bulb: as Skipper talked about his survival jobs, the sheer willpower he had to not only stay in New York but beat it at its own game and succeed on his terms, it struck me: “You ARE Dolly Gallagher Levi!” He has that single-minded drive to get what he wants and needs, he has the ability to switch gears in an instant, he re-invents himself at will, and he pushes forward against all obstacles and odds with verve and charm. When I mentioned that to him, that perhaps it’s why he is so drawn to the musical (and its original star) he mused “Maybe. Maybe that is why it resonates with me so much.”
But there is a major difference between Skipper and Dolly: Skipper has never let a parade pass him by; he may have once lived hand-to-mouth, he may “put his hand in” here, there, and everywhere, but he has never once withdrawn from the human race. He’s always out there leading the parade and thank God for that.
“An Evening With Richard Skipper,” Premiers Monday, August 5th at St. Luke’s Theatre. This performance is SOLD OUT. Stay tuned for future performance dates.