With sad news of the death of Keith Harris this week (a childhood staple of anyone my age in the UK), my thoughts have turned again to my time working on the cruise ship MS Westerdam. My last post on this subject, “Back to Rydell High,” talked about the musical acts I had the chance to perform with in my first week on board.
This time I’d like to turn my attention to some of the variety performers I met and worked with during my time onboard ship. They ranged from comedians to ventriloquists and magicians. We’re forever being told that variety is dead, but whilst the performers don’t get the same column inches as rock stars and movies actors it’s still an immensely popular form of live entertainment. I think this is particularly the case in the United States where the vast numbers of Vegas style venues, cruise ships and clubs suit these performers and their audiences down to the ground.
One of the striking things I found when working in an environment like a cruise ship was the feeling that I was living my whole life in miniature. Imagine – everyone lives in this relatively small environment where people come and go from week to week. Life is intensified into this short timescale where you will find yourself having the deepest of emotional experiences with people and then they get off the boat…and you never ever see them again. It’s like a lifetime of holiday romances! Bear in mind that I worked on the ship pre-Facebook (imagine that, a world without Facebook!) so keeping in touch still required a bit more effort than just posting a baby photo on your wall…
Anyway, I have chosen to talk about three individuals who were most definitely wonderful friends of mine whilst on board, but since that time I have had little or no contact with them. It’s been a pleasure looking up their various webpages and youtube clips to see how they’re getting on. Unlike me, who slipped back into civilian life post-cruise, they all continue to make their living from that glorious business known as show…..
Michael Ziegfeld (comedian, ventriloquist, puppeteer, writer, actor)
I met quite a few ventriloquists on board the ship during my time, and to be frank – and as one might expect – a lot of them are rather odd. We certainly had one who completely missed the point of the ventriloquist act – he would try to chat up girls after the show by talking to them without moving his mouth. …”Oh my gawd, that’s amaaazing!…err…excuse me, I think that’s my friend over there…” The point of the ventriloquist act is not to freak-out/chat-up girls, more to make the puppet so dynamic, real and funny that no one’s looking to see if your mouth is moving anyway.
Michael (“Ziggy”) Ziegfeld’s mouth definitely did not move. He managed to have an act that combined sophisticated observational humour which was also family-friendly (extremely important for the cruise ship crowd), with very funny and believable puppet characters. My personal favourite was Nadia Coma, the world’s oldest athlete. I hear she may have retired now.
We in the band had great fun with Ziggy, a lot of it trying to subtly subvert the cruise ship management, rules and regulations. Ziggy had a (real life actual!) Muppet on board with him and I do remember a drunken evening chatting away to it in his cabin, totally oblivious to the performer operating it a foot away. Such is the power of expert puppeteer and ventriloquist’s art. Another time we bought a joke shop remote-control fart machine from a shop in Juneau, Alaska. Ziggy would have the remote in his pocket whilst he was performing on stage. The loud speaker would be located under our bass player, Herman’s, chair. He would wrinkle his nose in disgust every time Ziggy set it off, the audience completely oblivious to the fact that 2 comedy shows were going on at once…
Checking out Ziggy’s website, I see he now goes by the name Michael Paul, and he really is a true showbiz polymath with a lengthy CV of his achievements in all mediums. You may even have heard of some of it in the UK!
This polymath approach he reckons is part of the reason for his relative lack of fame! He has just released his autobiography – “Breaking out of Showbusiness – What I’ve discovered by not being discovered”.
I’ve bought a copy.
Chris Pendleton (comedian, musician)
I had so much fun with Chris on board the Westerdam – a lovely lady. We both had similar backgrounds, had studied biology at university and were keen musicians. Chris had taken the plunge away from science teaching, and was now forging out a successful career as a standup comedian. Her witty and surreal observational humour, including subject matter that really only a woman could get away with in front of a family audience, was extremely popular with the cruise audiences.
Chris also played the violin in the show in a number of comedy musical sequences and a couple of little Scottish references crept into some of the songs as a little tribute me! Yay! She would also include a rendition of that song “Feelings” by Morris Albert, universally known to be the worst song ever written. She reckoned a song I had written sounded remarkably like it – thanks Chris!
A photo of me and Chris still adorns my office wall, of us posing together at a clothing optional beach on the island of St Martin – we opted to wear clothes.
And, I did get to meet up with Chris again, a few years later for a lovely evening at her apartment in LA, enroute to Disneyland. Hopefully catch up again Chris!
Darren Romeo (magician, singer)
He won’t mind me saying this, but on paper Darren’s act shouldn’t really work. Though come to think of it, mashing up musical theatre and large scale magical illusions didn’t do Phantom of the Opera any harm. What really made this show work was Darren himself who whilst being annoyingly talented and handsome was just extremely personable both on and off stage (imagine John Barrowman with less cheese). It therefore felt like the most natural thing in the world to watch him singing rock n roll whilst making a girl disappear, to doing some close-up magic with audience members and then finish off with some large scale illusion whilst belting out a Broadway showstopper.
The magicians on the ships often tended to stay on board longer than a lot of the other performers, often simply due to the fact that they had so much more gear to bring on board for their acts and it was impractical to do short runs.
I got to know Darren really well over the weeks he was on board and whilst our backgrounds were extremely different we a had a lot in common. In particular we both had a real passion for music theatre and both had dabbled with a little writing. Darren listened to a lot of my ideas and gave bits of opinion and advice on songs. In return I spent time listening to some of his songs and even transcribed a couple for him as he wasn’t a music reader.
One of the most special times on the ship was when Darren and the band gave the first live performance of one of the songs from my show Once Bitten during one of Darren’s shows. Darren decided he liked the song I played to him Silent Cry, he quickly went away and learned it and I quickly wrote some band arrangements and we performed it later that week. Good times!
I haven’t seen Darren since the ship. We did exchange a few emails and he sent me through his CDs, including those songs I transcribed but since then have lost touch.
It looks like he’s still going strong headlining ever more extravagant and epic shows throughout the US. It looks like he’s currently in the middle of a long run in Tennessee.
I also found this clip from a pilot episode of the Darren Romeo TV show – The 8th Effect. I don’t think it’s made it on to the BBC yet, but I’ll keep my eye out….
So there you go, a little window into some of my experiences on the edge of the showbiz world.
Anyway before I sign off, lets all spare a thought for little Orville the duck. Perhaps he’ll finally achieve his dream of flying. Excuse me I better go now, I think I’ve got something in my eye…. (sniff)