Meet Bruce Vilanch

by Michael Vaccaro
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Bruce Vilanch and I have been dear friends for almost thirty years. We met somewhere around 1989. He's in my web series, "Child of the '70s," which you all can find on Dekkoo. Bruce, of course, is a famous writer, and has written for almost everybody, most notably Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, and he wrote the Oscar telecasts for many years. I love getting together with him because there's always an amazing new story that I'd never heard before. We met over dinner at one of our favorite West Hollywood haunts, had cocktails, looked at hot guys, and had a long chat.

Michael: PLEASE tell that fabulous story about "Mahogany."

Bruce: I played a dress designer and Diana Ross's character comes to me for a job... as a dress designer. I ask her if she can type. She storms out, it was one scene. The day we shot it, Tony Richardson, the Oscar-winning director -- SIR Tony Richardson -- was fired by Berry Gordy, who took over as director. Berry didn't like the dialogue in the scene, so I rewrote it, and he liked that. I rewrote it on wrapping paper, which is sitting on the table in front of us, and we are both referring to it throughout the scene, like cue cards. I am also sewing, which i don't know how to do. In the first take, I sewed my sleeve to her coat, so when she stormed out, she took me with her. On the second take, a sewing coach -- call her Miss Ross -- showed me how to avoid another disaster.

Michael: So, as you know, I came up in the 1970s, and in fact, have a series, "Child of the '70s," which you are in, as the lascivious "Larry Lawrence!" I love the '70s, love it all. The clothes, the music, the TV, the politics. It's the best decade for cinema. So, I'm gonna rattle off a bunch of names, and maybe you can give us your thoughts... first of, Donny and Marie...

Bruce: They were both teenagers and they both had ulcers. Their work, their family, their religion, it was all one big interwoven tapestry and there was no escape... but they never brought any of that to their performances and that must make them unique among child stars.

Michael: Paul Lynde.

Bruce: Hilarious and fun on one drink. On two drinks, the Nazi high command. If he knew we were still talking about him 35 years after his death, he would jump up and tap dance.

Michael: Wayne Newton.

Bruce: A child star, a breed apart.

Michael: Pierre Trudeau

Bruce: I didn't know him, just women he was sleeping with.

Michael: Which, of course, leads me to Barbra Streisand.

Bruce: Funny girl, why is she working with Seth Rogen?

Michael: Susan Olsen... you don't have to answer this one!

Bruce: ...

Michael: Wayland Flowers and Madam.

NIGHT MUST FALL in drag. Madam said all the things Wayland was afraid to say. He was brilliant and caustic and is much-missed.

Michael: Totie Fields, did you ever meet her?

Bruce: Met her, never worked with her, she reminded me of everyone my mother ever played cards with in North Jersey and Boca Raton.

Michael: Bruce Jenner!

Bruce: I had to convince him CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC would be fun for him. Unfortunately, I succeeded. I think his great triumph is to turn a 68-year-old man into a 37-year-old woman.

Michael: Warren Beatty?

Bruce: He's a friend. I met him when he was dating my cousin, a very sexy Beverly Hills decorator, for a minute in the early '70s. He is our last link with the golden age of Hollywood. I hope he's writing it all down, but he usually has his hands full.

Michael: Well, you know I worked with him many years ago in the wondrous film, "Ishtar." I have many stories about that set. But, speaking of Warren Beatty, were you for McGovern? Did you campaign for him in '72? That was a fascinating time politically?

Bruce: Well, I voted for him and did whatever I could, but I was covering the election as a journalist then and we were supposed to be neutral. Today it's called fair and balanced and you see how THAT'S working out.

Michael: The first time I saw Bette Midler live was "Divine Madness" at the Majestic Theater on Broadway, and I was instantly hooked. I think the next time I saw her live was in "Detour," I believe that was what it was called, at Radio City. She had just done "Jinxed," and there was a bit in the second act where they showed a scene from the film, and it was dubbed into Spanish, with English subtitles. There's a scene in the desert where Bette is hit by a tumbleweed, and the subtitles said, "Oh, flowers from the producers." I remember laughing hysterically at that. Was that you? Were you responsible for that? Can you tell us about "Detour" and if you were around during the filming of "Jinxed."

Bruce: Guilty as charged, but I don't remember if it was me or the late great Jerry Blatt who came up with the idea. It happened one night at Bette's house when we were deliberating how to handle the JINXED fiasco. It wasn't Spanish, it was menu Italian. "Antipasto farenese, mezzaluna!" Flowers from the producers was my line. And Joan Crawford is rolling over in Louis B. Mayer's grave. Jerry did the heavy lifting on JINXED. He went up to Reno where they filmed it in and around the casinos and at the ghost town. It was a miserable shoot. Don Siegel had a wonderful career directing movies with big macho stars who were also directors, like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. He had never worked, to my knowledge, on a picture where a comedienne was the star and engine of the movie. It's a different animal, and he wasn't interested in learning how to handle it. Worst of all, Bette had a horrible haircut. And Ken Wahl. "DeTour" was me and Jerry and Bette and she was in an arty-farty period, studying Martha Graham and the Ballet Triadische from Berlin and the whole show was influenced by that. I loved the look of it. We did an outdoor summer version of it called "Camp DeTour." There is a severely truncated video called ART OR BUST. Of course, my favorite moment was PRETTY LEGS & GREAT BIG KNOCKERS, where we used two weather balloons as tits. Talk about global warming.

Michael: And speaking of Bette, I saw a concert she did once at Madison Square Garden, and she flew in on a horse from a carousel. She sang whatever song she sang, "Wind Beneath My Wings," something like that, and then flew out on the carousel horse, except it got stuck. It stopped in mid-air, and she sat there frozen for a few seconds before she screamed: "Get me off this fucking thing!" I couldn't tell if that was a real thing, meaning, if the horse actually malfunctioned, or if it was just part of the show. Sometimes she has "mistakes" written into the show, right? Do you know?

Bruce: t happened more than once, but it was never written into the show. It was a beautiful entrance but was never meant to be comic. The show was KISS MY BRASS and it had a sort of steel pier theme, attractions on the boardwalk and such. I don't remember mistakes being written into her shows, but I am happy to be reminded.

Michael: I know you love being on the stage. Was playing "Edna Turnblad" in "Hairspray" on Broadway exciting? Fun? Harrowing? Exhausting? All of the above? Were you happy to get rid of the beard?

Bruce: I got rid of the beard after they told me it would be a little TOO John Waters to keep it. Once people told me I looked younger, I had a classic Hollywood moment and decided not to grow it back. By then, I had gotten used to my Hitchcock wattle, which had been living like a troll under a bridge under the beard for all those years. I loved doing that show, and I loved eight a week. It pushed some OCD button I didn't know I had.

Michael: OK...Craziest story writing for the Oscars?

Bruce: Bjork was wearing her swan dress and was backstage talking into her cellphone, which was hidden behind the swan's head. She was speaking Icelandic, which sounds odd to the untrained ear. I said to Steve Martin, the host, "Oh my God. she speaks swan."

Michael: I grew up in NYC, I feel like I will always be a New Yorker, my heart will always be there, and whenever I'm there, I feel like I'm home, but... I'm very happy to now live in Los Angeles. How about you? And you lived in Chicago for a long time, right? That's where you met Bette, am I correct?

Bruce: I met Bette in Chicago at a famous club called Mister Kelly's. I am from Jersey, but I've been in LA since 1975, so the statue of limitations in Jersey has run out. I can go back now if Christie keeps the bridge open.

Michael: Do you have a favorite album? The one you would want on the desert island? Is that too hard of a question? Or how about 3? Mine would be "Songs For The New Depression," by Bette, "Superman," by Barbra, and "Dusty In Memphis."

Bruce: Laura Nyro and Labelle -- Gonna Take a Miracle. Anything else would have to be curated from my playlist, which is currently longer than an orca's penis.

Michael: I saw the Broadway show that you wrote, "Platinum." Please tell me everything you possibly can about that. It was at The Mark Hellinger Theater, right? I saw both "Platinum" and "Sarava," which makes me very special!

Bruce: Everything I possibly can tell is in my book which I'm almost done writing on reams of Charmin. The Hellinger is now the Times Square Church and I think they should dedicate a pew to you, which sounds like an opening lyric in a patter number.

Michael: What're you working on now? Can we discuss the Petula Clark musical?

Bruce: I've written an original book musical incorporating the songs of Petula Clark -- think "Mamma Mia"...PLEASE think "Mamma Mia." We did it at Goodspeed last year and it was a big hit. So, of course, I'm revising it. We'll be doing a workshop this December in New York. It's a process that never ends. It's called A SIGN OF THE TIMES.

Michael: Can't wait to see it. Now, let's eat!

Michael Vaccaro