Still working after all these years

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  April 9, 2002 at 8:05 PM
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LOS ANGELES, April 9 (UPI) -- Former "Hollywood Squares" host Peter Marshall has put together a troupe of show business veterans including "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" star Arte Johnson for a comedy revue that he is fairly certain will prove there is a market for old-timers in a world that puts a heavy premium on youth.

"Old Faces of 2002" -- a take-off on the "New Faces" shows of the 1940s and '50s, which introduced talents such as Dick Van Dyke and Eartha Kitt -- features performances by comedians Bill Dana (Jose Jimenez), Tom Poston ("Newhart"), Jack Riley ("The Bob Newhart Show"), Ronnie Schell ("Gomer Pyle, USMC") and Lonnie Schorr. Kaye Ballard, Little Peggy March ("I Will Follow Him") and the Modernaires provide the music.

The show grew out of a series of benefits presented by several of the cast members in their capacity as members of "Yarmy's Army" -- named for Dick Yarmy, the comic actor and brother of veteran TV comic Don Adams ("Get Smart").

They put the show together to help with Yarmy's medical bills when he was stricken with cancer. He died in 1992, but the group has continued to perform at other fund-raisers since then.

"This is really an extension of that," said Marshall in a recent interview that also included Dana, Johnson, Riley and Schell.

"Old Faces" has a limited run this weekend at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, Calif. Marshall said he'd eventually like to play the show in Las Vegas, but he thinks it would work just about anywhere.

"I think this will work at the Waldorf in New York," said the 72-year-old entertainer. "I think it will work at a tent in Cleveland."

Although age is a major vein of comedy for Dana, 77, Johnson, 73, Riley, 68, and Schell, 70, they're going at the project with youthful enthusiasm.

"But we do call the show 'Hips-a-poppin'," said Riley.

For the youngsters in the audience, that's a reference to 'Hellzapoppin'" -- a catch-all used to describe comedy revues. It was the title of a Broadway comedy that was made into a movie starring the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson in 1941.

Asked if they work as much as they want to, the old-timers all had different answers.

"Yes," said Schell.

"No," said Marshall, "they don't. And I work a lot."

"Do you know how to spell 'available'?" said Dana.

"There's a thing called the bug, you know?" said Riley. "And I've still got it. After all these years, I still like to go out there and do it."

Schell said he and Marshall are both booked through 2004. Marshall -- an accomplished band singer -- just released a CD, hosts a syndicated radio show and has a book coming out in August.

"Nobody came to me with this stuff," he said. "The phone used to ring all the time. When the phone stops ringing, then you start making the calls. You have to reinvent yourself when you're, you know, our age."

"These guys are talking about the past," said Schell, "but I'm talking about the present. For example, right now, my agent has me up for 'Gunsmoke.'"

As these veterans like to say, they have suits older than a lot of people running the entertainment business. But they have noticed that some network brass have lately come to appreciate the value of vintage entertainment.

Johnson said a high point of the nostalgia trend was CBS' reunion telecast of "The Carol Burnett Show" last November.

"The success of the 'Carol Burnett' show was the highest rating that CBS had," said Johnson. "And it was over the objections of most of the executives there. In fact, heads were supposed to roll because that show had been purchased. And when it turned out to be the slam dunk, everybody suddenly got like, 'Oh, what a genius.'"

Johnson said NBC has been talking with "Laugh-In" creator George Schlatter about bringing that show back.

"With the same cast?" asked Schell.

"No," said Johnson. "We're not ambulatory."

Johnson and other "Laugh-In" cast members joined 80-year-old Dick Martin last week at the dedication of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Rowan & Martin. Dan Rowan died in 1987.

Dana, who became a star in the 1950s with his character Jose Jimenez, lived through a prolonged professional dry spell beginning in the mid-'60s -- paying the price for what many critics condemned as a politically incorrect character. Now, he serves on the advisory committee of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a non-profit coalition of organizations that advocate for Hispanic-Americans in the United States.

"I've been on the forefront of this battle -- la causa, the cause," said Dana. "Actually, Jose Jimenez was the first non-stereotypical Latino ... a prototype."

According to Dana, his career trouble "fueled a major depression for a long time" but he was able to revive the Jimenez repertoire eventually. He described a recent appearance at Bumbershoots, an annual comedy festival in Seattle.

"I'm doing Jose Jimenez," he said, "and there wasn't 12 percent -- and that's stretching it -- of that audience who knew who the hell I was. And I got screams, so the basic line is, if it's funny they're going to laugh."

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