Chi Chi Valenti, mother of a “Thousand Stevies.” | MOTHERNYC.COM
The latest edition of the 92 Street Y’s Lyric and Lyricists series is “All Dancing! All Singing! Irving Berlin in Hollywood” and the special guest star is Sandy Duncan, who told me, “My husband of 35 years, Don Coreia, and I are doing ‘A Couple of Swells’ from ‘Easter Parade.’ Berlin’s music is just timeless for film and theater, and this is just his music for movies. I never met Berlin but Tommy Tune and I did a workshop using his songs on and off for three years. It was huge success in Australia and we did it as a presentation in New York but Berlin’s daughters passed on letting him put it on because he had not done it in that traditional, old-fashioned way and they didn’t like that the characters were very contemporary and there was a reality going on, but it was fascinating.” (Lexington Ave. at 92nd St., May 2-4; 92y.org/Event/Irving-Berlin-in-Hollywood)
Approaching 70, Duncan looks truly ageless, which brings up her great role of “Peter Pan”: “You can’t get rid of it, the theme of it is so seductive because we don’t want to grow old, especially in this country where it’s almost like a sin if you start looking and acting old. We’re so afraid and the Peter Pan theme is being explored in every direction and not always successfully. I did not care for the recent TV production, did not watch all of it. I met Allison Williams once and she was lovely but I just think of all the people who were available to do that, she was an odd choice. Also I thought, given today’s graphics and stuff, how come they’re still hanging by a wire? I thought they would be zooming all around. Somebody’s gonna do that.
“I appeared in the first revival since the original with Mary Martin and it was scary because it was a strictly stage production while hers had been on TV. Daunting, because that’s such an iconic image, so I told the creative people, ‘If I’m going to do it, I want to do it like a little boy — maybe an effeminate little boy, but I don’t want to do it like the grand lady of the theater, which was valid for the 1950s.
Indomitable Sandy Duncan; silver anniversary of Chi Chi Valenti, Johnny Dynell’s “Thousand Stevies”
“Only now that I’m 70 and have two sons, 30 and 31, I would have a whole new kind of perspective and layer to it, having been around little boys growing up. I really get them. I had mine late, at 37. They’re heartbreaking. I just know I’m going to be arrested for being a pedophile because I stare at little boys from one to five on the street, and their mothers are like what the hell? They are just so tender and sweet, more than little girls at that age, who’ve already got some guile going on.
“Mary Martin came to see me, and we were both just crying. She introduced me to sing on some show and I sang ‘Neverland,” and she was so gracious. There was a big media thing on stage with all the photographers and she said, ‘You’re my Peter Pan!’”
Duncan’s Captain Hook was flamboyant gay Brit actor George Rose: “He and I were very close and he didn’t like a lot of people because he was kind of salty. He first thought I was going to be the kind of perky person I look like, which I’m not. One night he said, ‘Darling, I’m going to take you to my apartment.’ He had wild cats living in his loft downtown. You’d go in and they’d hiss at you. He slept in a cage in case they would turn on him in the middle of the night, four huge wildcats. One was an ocelot — I think that’s even against the law.
“He had the filthiest, dirty potty-mouth you could imagine, this grand, ever so proper English fellow who also wasn’t what he looked like. God, how I loved him. I remember going to dinner with him and Hermione Baddely. She’d sit there, with her teeth and have her tripe and pork pie, all this English food, and eat this stuff between shows. I’d want to be polite when they’d say, ‘Darling, we’ll take you to dinner ,’ but I’d be like, ‘I really don’t wanna have sweetbreads. I’m from Texas!’”
Duncan spent a year in college in Texas and came to New York in 1964, “with $350 and got into the Rehearsal Club, a girls’ residence, like in the movie ‘Stage Door.’ I was able to live there for $32 a week with breakfast and dinner, and I went from one job to the next. If I hadn’t, I couldn’t have worked because I can’t audition. I don’t know how and turn into a 14-year-old moron. When I was in ‘Canterbury Tales’ [for which she was Tony-nominated], Alan Jay Lerner came backstage to say he was doing a show, ‘Coco,’ with Katharine Hepburn and wanted to hear me sing. I was 23 and sang the duet from ‘110 in the Shade’… ‘We get in a car…’ I did both parts — what possessed me? I finished this to stunned silence. and Lerner asked, ‘Do you have another number?’ ‘No,’ and I lost the job because I was so awful.
“I hate auditions and the business of the business, everything about it, except stepping on stage. But I’m still a nervous wreck, hyperventilating in the wings before I go on. I did ‘Peter Pan’ a thousand times, thinking, ‘I’m pretty sure I am going to literally die out there.’”
Duncan nearly did die, or so the doctors told her, when, in 1971, she underwent surgery to remove a tumor in her left eye: “I don’t even know the terror I was going through at the time because I was in such denial. They’d told me I was going to die so I’d already faced that and had to sign papers the night before the operation. I woke up and remember being pushed down the hall on a gurney and my dad was there. I said, “Daddy, I’m alive!’ ‘What do you want, babe?’ ‘I want a beer or a banana popsicle!’ It was a ten-hour surgery —I was thirsty!
“Daddy sure understood the beer part, and I had to adjust to not seeing. I’ve never been honest about this because nobody’s ever asked me but it has totally colored my existence because I’m in a business that is so cosmetic. They severed the optic nerve in one eye so I have no vision and that eye strays like a lazy eye. The orbit that holds the eye is where the tumor was, so they had to remove the entire orbit. The orbit supports the eye, which is a muscle, so like all muscles they sag [laughs], and so my eye more and more recedes which makes the difference even more apparent. It has made me shy away from pursuing film stuff because I’m self-conscious, very much so when I’m first working with people because I know it’s a distraction for them, as they never know quite where to look.”
Duncan is well aware that the basic public knowledge of her comes down to “Peter Pan, lost an eye”: “Yes, like Sammy Davis Jr., or Peter Falk. When I did ‘No, No Nanette,’ all I put in my Playbill bio — because who cares, anyway? — was ‘Sandy Duncan would like to refute the urban myth that she has a glass eye. She doesn’t.’”
In 1987, Duncan famously replaced Valerie Harper in the series, “Valerie’s Family” which later became “The Hogan Family” for four seasons: “It was fine. I never met Valerie until this year and she said, ‘Oh, honey they were trying to make such a big deal about it.’ She had been fired, and I had said, ‘I don’t want to be used as a pawn so if you’re using me to get rid of her, I’m not going to cooperate. But if it’s a done deal, then I’ll consider it. I immediately loved those boys and they loved me and I never had a problem.”
That was what Duncan refers to humorously as “one of my awful series,” and I asked her if she had ever felt a victim of typecasting: “I don’t feel victimized by it because I enjoyed what I was doing. I did it so well I became typecast, but I didn’t cooperate with it. If I did, you would see me on TV still doing it. But I got tired of it and reached a certain age when it was inappropriate. So I turned down most things, unless they’re unusual. I just did ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ a big success but no money. The things I’m attracted to pay no money and the paying jobs just want you to show up and do what you’re known to do.”
Duncan also has done “The Glass Menagerie” with her son Jeffrey (“very painful”) and was recently asked to look into “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Jeffrey is gay and Duncan said, “He was about 15 when he told us. He assumed we knew but you can’t assume anything about anybody unless you’re in the room. ‘So what?,’ we said, ‘big deal,’ and he realized how fortunate he was to be in a family, situation, and city where you are not ostracized. I sort of always knew but you don’t know until you’re told so you can’t assume or assign stuff to people.
“He very well may have gone through a period of torture about it — I’m guessing — because he was always one of those people who does everything right and thinks it through. So on some early level he must have gone through some mental thing, thinking ‘This is not the right way to sexually live your life. This is the norm, so if you don’t adhere to that…’ He never actually said this to me, and is, of course, way beyond that now.
“I went through that living in Texas because we didn’t go to church. My mother just didn’t believe in organized religion. And living in the Bible Belt, I felt it wasn’t right but got over it and realized I was lucky as hell, thank you Jesus. I don’t think I have a friend who isn’t gay. I may have a couple but I have to think real hard.
“I like gay women and I like gay men because they’re a nice blend between the two sexes. I don’t like women with too much estrogen or men with too much testosterone I don’t care what you do with your little willies or ‘boginas,’ as my kid said. It’s all personal — who cares? — but I do care about how people interact with each other and I find people with too much testosterone or estrogen just exhausting.”
On May 1, the truly legendary New York event “Night of a Thousand Stevies” celebrates its 25th anniversary at Irving Plaza, so naturally I had to sit down with founders Chi Chi Valenti and her husband Johnny Dynell, the First Couple of Downtown, at their offices at HOWL for some deep dish about this long-running tribute to Stevie Nicks. (17 Irving Place at 15th Street; May 1, mothernyc.com/stevie)
“This is such a retrospective we’re putting together,” Valenti enthused. “We’ve invited back the true show’s superstars to do highlights that took us over the top, our greatest hits. Director/ choreographer Rachel Klein is creating a number with four of our lip-synch legends from different eras, from Gusty Winds to Poison Eve to Hattie Hathaway, and for the upcoming generation of lippers we have Severely Mame, who’s very genius. That will all be staged beautifully and will have its own little battle of the Stevies, which closes the number, as well as the Big Battle of the 1,000 Stevies at the end, sort of the Faberge egg within.
“The HoHos are recreating their ‘Stevie’s Live at Red Rocks’ number with her dressing room backstage with all the shawl changes, frenzy, and cocaine. There will be lots for our longtime audience who’s gone through our different moves, from being founded at the club, Jackie 60, then Mother, Don Hill’s, the Knitting Factory, the High Line, now we’re at Irving Plaza. It really shows our progression from this tiny event on this tiny stage.”
The show came about when Valenti saw Nicks playing at the Jones Beach Theater “in the late 1980s right before we started Jackie 60. I ran into Joey Arias and Dean Johnson, who both said they were performing Stevie songs and were huge fans of hers as opposed to Fleetwood Mac fans. They were people from our culture who focused on Stevie as this true alternative goddess, so that inspired us months later in our first season of Jackie — which always had weekly themes — to do a theme about her with Joey and Dean performing.
“Our first show had maybe 75 people there and now we are up to 1,500 through the course of the night, which is like a real marathon with some staying for the whole thing, while others just come for one segment.”
Nicks herself has never attended, Valenti said, “but she’s spoken many times of it, saying she sees it as Halloween with everyone dressed as her different personas, which in a way is exactly what it is. She says it’s really built a bridge for her with her gay audiences, and I think she’s always enjoyed that. Rock and roll tends to be very hetero and homophobic and that’s the difference: her audience has always been much more gay-tolerant, if not specifically gay.”
Dynell added, “I give her a lot of credit as it must have been very confusing. We had this telephone conversation with her where she confirmed that she had first heard of it from these airline stewards on her flight who had glitter all over their faces. She was laughing, ‘You guys must have gone out last night!’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we were at “Night of a 1,000 Stevies!”’ This was in the ‘90s and they couldn’t get the glitter off.
“If she does come to it now, at least we have room for her. We were always worried that she would come when there were 70 people in a dressing room space for 10, and now we could at least have a panic room for her, if necessary.”
Valenti and I had a truly magical Manhattan meet decades ago at Studio 54 during Karl Lagerfeld’s Bauhaus party. I was dressed in black, as she was: me in leather pants, a lace top, and a huge Loretta Young felt cartwheel picture hat, and she as a dominatrix. That enchanted evening, across that crowded room, we took to one another immediately and I went home with her to her loft on 14th Street to dish all night.
She and Dynell met similarly, as she said, “at the Mudd Club Combat Love party, I was again dressed like a schwein and he was dressed like a cute young sailor and the rest was herstory. But I always remember meeting you, talk about pedigree, sweetie, and these days we both feel so lucky we were here for all of that. I’m not, nor is Johnny, the kind of person who thinks everything is shit now and was only great back then. New York always changes as time goes on and I think of something Debbie Harry said to Johnny back then, ‘Really enjoy this as it’s a very special time.’ ‘What do you mean?’ It was the only time we knew and we thought it was always going to be. She said, ‘You’ll see!’
“People don’t understand there’s this long continuum of New York, which is symbolized in Busby Berkeley’s ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ number when the Broadway baby says goodnight and comes home in her evening gown in the morning to sleep all day as the mundane world is going to work. Maybe we can only sleep ‘til 11 am now, but that’s still pretty good!”
Pretty good is an understatement for the lives Valenti and Dynell lead, what with the Stevies and their fruitful association with the HOWL festival, which besides nurturing new artists is proactive in connecting young creatives with affordable housing.
Dynell is also a most in-demand DJ, something he first did at the Mudd club more than 30 years ago. Ever humble, he scoffed when I called him “so A-list now” and said, “If you had told me back then I would still be a DJ all these years later, I never would have believed it.”
He spins now for elite parties including the AmfAR Cannes Film Festival soiree and the Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Award Party and for fashion shows like Max Mara. He and Valenti are put up in grand style for these gigs.
“They’re all fun but sometimes they can compare in wildness to our old parties at Jackie 60, like when this girl showed up late, completely naked except for high heels. I was told, ‘I don’t know who she is, but she’s on your guest list!’ Which was genius and then I found out she was the date of somebody who was on the list. Elton’s party is always fun, and this year Chic performed — there was a kind of disco theme, which is always fun because you can never go wrong with disco.”