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To fully appreciate DJ and music master Tony Smith, it’s good to know that when Scott Greenstein, President and Chief Content Officer of Sirius XM Radio, had his own special birthday party, it was Tony to whom he turned as the turntablist of record. As anyone knows, Sirius has become the ultimate online radio network. Greenstein was confident that Tony could produce a most substantive set of disco tracks to charm his guests for the party.
When this New York native wanted the crowd to get up out of their chairs, he chose Cerrone’s “Give Me Love” to kick things off. But, that night’s crowd was not the only one Tony’s been delighting. In fact he has his own group of happily fanatic Facebook followers who call themselves The Smithettes. Listening in from around the country and internationally, they look forward to his weekly posts on Thursday evenings of club playlists based on his time spinning in such notable dance dens such as Xenon, Barefoot Boy, Funhouse, among the many others. They then tune in to Channel 54 -- after Studio 54, of course -- to hear his shows (9pm Eastern, repeated each Monday at 2 am.)Smith has made it his mission and life’s work to celebrate the sound and experience of those “Classic Beats and Rhythms” which is the name of his show.
His sets have included tracks out of a history of R&B, music from New York’s hip hop community, Caribbean ethnic beats, blasts from the best of 1980s New Wave and so on. Each show represents the latest public culmination of the joie d’vivre that runs through Tony’s entire personal timeline, as well as through his life’s ups and downs.
‘Effervescent” is one word which sums up Smith’s approach to life. Whether he’s waxing enthusiastic about the vast array of sounds and beats he’s played during the considerable hours he’s put into club world DJ career, or in listening to music from his extensive collection, this seasoned professional is always bubbling over with excitement.
This disco veteran has seen it all as far as the club scene goes. Known around the world for helping disco music become a global force, Smith’s spun records virtually unheard before they were played in such aforementioned Manhattan hotspots, helping them become true hits.
He even played the opening night of the Palladium with Madonna’s producer/DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez (sadly, the late lamented mega-club is now a massive NYU dorm). During the heyday of disco, and well before the Internet, social media and digital socializing, Smith was on the scene, creating memorable and moving mixes that kept happy dancers out on the floor.
Th seasoned Smith has also been a successful music producer, creating and remixing songs as “Tony’s Soulbeats” with many famous artists from their own musical worlds. He’s also held DJ guest slots throughout the globe having played for diverse crowds in London, Paris and across the USA.
This wouldn’t have been so, however, if he hadn’t listened to his heart instead of doing what was “expected” of him by his parents and community. Instead of graduating from college and getting a master’s degree like his siblings,he discovered his music passion early on in life. By age 15, Smith had formed his own band. By 19, he was a professional club DJ. In 1976, Smith was cited by Billboard as one of the Top 10 DJs in the country.
In fact, during dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Smith smiled and said with a chuckle, “I guess you could say I’ve always been following my own beat.”
Then he added, “I remember from high school, that famous Robert Frost poem, ‘The Road Not Taken.’ I think of it now as I look back on decades of following the road my heart always seems to have desired instead of the path I was expected to take. Just as Frost wrote about two roads diverging in a wood, my taking the one less traveled by — following my own beat along the way – has made all the difference in my life and for my happiness.”
Growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Smith hung out a block away from Chinatown. “My father had left home the year I was born and I was the ‘baby’ in the family of Elaine Smith, a fiercely hard-working single mom, and three much older siblings — two sisters and a brother. Everyone helped to parent me while each of them — Carolyn, James and Antoinette — earned their master’s degrees. It was understood that, of course, so would I.”
But early on, there were signs that Smith’s life would be different, based around music, notwithstanding a couple of detours. Smith recalls a story his family had often told him. He was just an infant at the time.“On this particular day everyone was dancing to music while I was lying on my sister’s bed. It must have been clear that their movements were joyful and fun, since I felt compelled to find a way to join.
“Even though I couldn’t yet stand on my own — let alone walk — my family still talks about my unfortunate interaction with a rickety wooden desk next to the bed. I was too young to remember it now, but evidently the desk was low enough that – despite my tiny stature -- I could shakily ‘stand’ on the floor by reaching up my arms and hanging onto its top for support.I was just a happy kid wanting to dance along with his family.”
A happy kid of about 10 months old, that is, until a table toppled over. “The heavy manual typewriter resting on it clunked me right in the head.My mother fainted and my sisterrushed me to the hospital immediately! Fortunately, all ended well — and here I am today.
“That was my first attempt at dancing, and I’ve been dancing ever since. My brother James was the amateur videographer of the family. It seems that whenever he caught me on camera as a boy, there I was – dancing — even sometimes, at embarrassing moments: still dancing!
“When I was six, I moved along with my brother’s favorites —Olatunji’s ‘Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion)’. With music always in the air, it now seems inevitable that I began using my allowance to amass a giant collection of 45 RPM records.”
Music perpetually wafted through the household. Tony’s mother listened to gospel, James played congas, Carolyn was a soprano and Antoinette was a tenor. “My sisters formed a group modeled after the Chiffons or The Ronettes, calling themselves ‘The Debonaires’. While Ma was out working at a factory hand-crafting jewelry, she insisted on knowing that her kids were safe at home. So instead of visiting friends, mysisters invited people to come over and sing. I was eight when I sang along with them to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love.’
“By my first year of high school, I’d learned to play guitar. I was 15 when I started my own band with some friends. At first, we were five; then webecame ‘The Soul Sound Explosion’.Eventually, we won some talent contests and began accepting paying gigs. We never made much money nor did we become the next Kool and the Gang, but I loved it.”
That experience proved to Smith he could, in fact, both earn money and have fun by making music. That defining notion liberated him from some societal conventions. “Something life-shaping came from that experience. When our band would take breaks — and since I was the guy with all the records — I’d play music to keep the crowd happy. I didn’t fully realize it yet, but I was learning how to DJ.”
By the time he was 16, Smith was playing records for free in the park. “I’d plug into a lamppost to get free electricity and loved watching people dance to my selections. Every day was different, with still more new music coming out. My passion — along with loving movies — had become playing music in the park for people to dance to.”
After graduating high school at age 17 in 1972 — and despite being as addicted to music as Smith had become — his attendance at college was automatically assumed. “I succumbed to my family’s expectations. But although I’d imagined going to Brown in Rhode Island, I chose Fordham in the Bronx for one reason only: so I could remain close to the evolving music scene of New York City.
“There I was with lots of music,” Smith enthused as he remembered those early years of disco. “As deeply drawn as I was to the new music scene, it wasn’t easy to explain it to my mother when I gave her the bad news — that I’d be dropping out of college to become a full-time DJ. Ma was worried about my security and future without a college degree, but I couldn’t care less. I simply had faith: music would take me wherever I needed to be. Music was my rush!”
At about that time, he discovered Greenwich Village -- filled with discos of multiple persuasions, gay, straight, black, white. As the 60-something added, “You name it, I was checking them out! I’d listen from the sidewalk without even having to enter — the music inside was that loud!”
With the technology evolving, DJs went from simply playing one song after another to mixing the two or more together into a single, continuous stream -- sometimes seamlessly and, at other times, altering course in order to surprise. But as the industry standard —Technics 1200 turntables and solid analog mixers — went the way of the discman, complex digital mixers enhanced by sound effects and real-time remixing tools took hold with “deejays” playing digital turntables, CDs and MP3s replaced vinyl . Today, many DJs just show up for a gig with pre-recorded music on an iPod or thumb drive so they simply push a button and the music unrolls by itself.
“That’s definitely not my way,” Smith emphasized. "I like to ‘read’ the crowd — adjusting my choices on the fly as I observe reactions to the different selections I put out there. My goal is to keep people happily dancing and getting thirsty, which bartenders and owners love. When you learn to DJ well, you are truly in charge of the night, directly affecting the mood of the crowd. You can make the entire evening of music feel like your own, single performance.”
As he was starting out, disco was just taking root in the culture. This new musical genre emerged out of jazz, R&B and classical, pulling the heat from rock which had enjoyed such an influence during the ‘60s and on. “Disco” — the Americanization of the French word “discothèque,” (which meant record library) — was also the term for the European dance clubs that served as havens for danceable rock.
By 1972, the newest sounds of disco music were not being heard on the radio but in clubs, where DJs chose what the crowd would experience. No one could hear the complete version of Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” on radio stations. Those DJs were only allowed to broadcast the three-minute “radio version.” But the DJ in a disco could play the full 7:33-length original and better yet, watch the crowd dancing to it. Discos were becoming launch pads for this new form of music, soon leading people to buy them at record stores. DJs were taste-makers. New York was their hub, but cities like Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Montreal, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. followed The Big Apple’s lead.
Rolling Stone magazine’s Vince Aletti wrote the first report on disco in 1973. He also wrote a weekly column about this new form of music for Record World in which he often reported on Tony Smith’s latest playlists. Many of those were later captured in Vince’s book, The Disco Files 1973-78. By 1974, the new form of music had become such a “thing” that WPIX-FM launched the first disco radio show where, for example, you could hear the full length version of Barry White’s ‘Can’t Get Enough’.
Recently Tony and Vince were at a theatrical event for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, one of the nation's leading industry-based HIV/AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations. During the intermission, they talked about music, of course — a core connection between these longtime friends.
However, before achieving acclaim from movers and shakers like Vince, and his status in music history, Smith had held boring low-level jobs. He was a clerk typist at a plumbing company and a library page at the Municipal Building library to support what is now his vast accumulation of music.“Back then, Warren Brown, my only gay friend at the time, told me about The Village Voice — a weekly newspaper with pages and pages of print ads. There was a want ad for a DJ at Barefoot Boy — a gay club that hadn’t even opened yet. Warren felt I should audition — an idea I thought was ludicrous. I was just a black kid from The Projects. But he pressured and motivated me into giving it a shot.
“So I packed up a crate of music -- heavy crates of vinyl 33 and 45 rpm records -- and jumped into a taxi to 39th St and Second Ave. Along the way I realized that the name I’d been born with -- Harvey -- simply didn’t seem cool. In 1950, there’d been that Jimmy Stewart movie, ‘Harvey’, with a tall, invisible rabbit. The title character’s name wasn't exactly sexy in 1975. So during the cab ride to my first audition, I renamed myself, Tony -- inspired by my sister’s nickname, ‘Toy’.
“I can still picture the club manager who pointed to the DJ booth and the ladder I needed to climb to get there. Up I went, scared out of my mind -- with a new turntable I’d never worked with: no pre-set playing speeds. It was up to me to adjust the speed with each song and vibe I wanted. Even as I studied the mysterious equipment, I was faking a sense of confidence. ‘It’ll take me a few minutes,’ I said. ‘I'm just getting my records ready!’
“I don’t remember what I played. Surely, some Gloria Gaynor. One thing I’d begun to realize was the way that different types of crowds have different musical tastes. Gays, as I already knew, had a weakness for female artists and songs with lots of melody – like ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’. James Brown’s ‘Give It Up, Turn It Loose’ would not have cut it with that crowd.”
Whatever Tony did, it worked. “The manager said, ‘You’ve got the job, – 25 dollars a night, seven nights a week.’ The first thing I thought was, ‘YES! I can buy more records!’” (Disco DJ’s didn’t start getting free music from the Labels until 1975.) “The club succeeded, to put it mildly. Next thing I knew, DJs who were my idols were coming to hear me – David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Richie Kaczor and Steve D’Acquisto. Barefoot Boy was packed every night. By 1976, Billboard magazine had named me one of the Top 10 DJ’s in the country.
“I will always consider 1976 one of the best years for music in my lifetime and, certainly, for disco. By now there were at least 400 discos in the city! I was being courted by promoters like Ray Caviano, Issy Sanchez, Billy Smith and Curtis Urbina. They gave me all the free music I could handle. The gold and silver record awards, hanging now on my walls, hale from that special era. I had become very well-known and was hired for guest spots at other clubs and private parties. Disco was a major force and DJ’s like me were no longer paid cash off the books.”
Studio 54 had opened and a new, well-funded competitor, Xenon, was looking for a DJ. Barefoot Boy had only 200 people on the dance floor, but Xenon was major, aiming for 700 or more. There was a lot at stake for its management to make the right choice. “Each of us — there were seven DJ candidates — had one week to show our stuff. As was true for Studio 54, white DJs would get the chance to try out first, something I understood and accepted at the time. But I could tell from my visits that the DJs auditioning before me were playing gay music for a straight crowd. While those colleagues were good at their craft, I saw that they were clearing the dance floor — playing sounds that they personally enjoyed, instead of taking their cues from the crowd. We’re talking about two different musical planets.
“When it was my turn to play, I avoided new songs or personal preferences. I had one goal in mind: keep people on the floor and make the management give me the job. I concentrated on playing popular songs and was hired.”
Xenon and Studio 54 had become the 900-pound “gorillas” of the business — spacious former theaters with lots of room for dancers. Popularity came from word of mouth; there were no big advertising campaigns back then. After one year at Xenon, it seemed that everyone knew: Tony Smith was its resident DJ.“After I got the crowd ‘trained’ — and they knew I was paying attention, keeping their pleasure in mind – I was able to introduce them to new songs that other clubs weren’t playing. I could intersperse my personal ‘finds’ with tried and true hits I knew they would love.
“I’m an extrovert and a natural-born entertainer. My booth was often open and I’d step out onto the floor with the crowd. Famous people stopped by -- actors like Richard Dreyfus and Farrah Fawcett; singers like Neil Diamond and Stevie Wonder; athletes like Reggie Jackson and even NYC’s Mayor Koch.
“I got local press coverage as a ‘celebrity DJ.’ For example, the New York Post did a story about me in 1978 (‘The Men and Their Music’.) It paired me with Bill Lombardo, nephew of Guy Lombardo of New Year’s Eve ‘Auld Lang Syne’ fame. We were paired as two separate musical planets, each with a deep commitment to the music projects we led.”
In 1979, although disco was still very big, the rock faction of music -- bitter that a different style of music had replaced them -- started the “Disco Sucks” campaign. It did have some impact, but New York City mostly remained strong.
After Xenon came Magique — an East Side club that mostly appealed to what Manhattanites call the “bridge and tunnel” crowd from other boroughs. This crowd had a narrow taste range wanting to hear the same song, like Laura Brannigan’s “Gloria”, two or three times a night. “Frankly, that got boring and after a long get-away vacation to Mexico, it was clear that Magique wanted more of a ‘formula’ DJ, so we parted ways.”
By 1982, music was moving toward the “new wave” sound of such tunes as “I Ran” by Flock of Seagulls. Said the now-veteran disc-spinner, “Music was evolving. I enjoyed playing songs like The Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ so I moved to The Palace — a new club with a new wave flavor. Rock was interspersed with disco for its diverse crowd. I was there for a year, having a ball. I love learning and now I was gaining the experience of playing different sounds for yet another kind of crowd. Every once in a while, I would go to the Fun House where Jellybean Benitez was playing. Sometimes he’d sneak out for his dates with Madonna and I’d play in his stead. Neither management nor the audience knew the difference.
“The crowd was mostly teenaged kids and when Jellybean left to focus on music production, he talked them into hiring me. I continued to observe the differences between one clientele or another including those in a lesbian bar, Network, and another one, Garbo’s. For me, it’s always fun to play for new audiences by studying people’s responses. When House music became big, however — check ‘Move Your Body’ by Marshall Jefferson — audiences wanted (just as the lyrics say) ‘house music all night long.’ The same steady beats and not much melody. Sorry: I like variety but ‘house heads’ just wanted house.”
As a result, Smith turned to his other passion — movies. He went to technical school to learn how to repair VCRs, since video cassettes had become huge. “Eventually I became, I was told, the first black owner of a Manhattan video store. Friends in the music business (then and now) – Danny Krivit, Claudia Cuseta, Bobby Shaw – kept me in touch with the latest music.
The store was successful for a decade, from 1989-1999. “But, by the time my lease was up, my beloved mother had suffered a stroke along with other serious health issues. I moved back into her apartment and became a full-time caretaker — the least I could do for the woman who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much. During some of those years, I kept myself in the game by DJ’ing on weekends at the Union Square Lounge in Manhattan.”
Elaine Smith passed away in 2007. Even though Tony had taken a decade-long hiatus in order to care for his mother, his passion for music still gnawed at him even though he had taken this decade-long hiatus. “I’m back to music full-time and loving it.” He proclaimed, “I’ve trademarked my brand — “Tony’s Soulbeats” — producing and remixing songs for artists like Kimberly Davis, Jason Walker and Shara Strand. I’m working with music icons in their fields like dance producer, Tony Moran; choral composer, Jim Papoulis and musician-composer, Paul Guzzone.
“And thanks to my old buddy, Jellybean, I have that classic disco show on Sirius XM radio. Music remains at the center of my life. I'm still doing guest spots and private parties like those that have taken me to London and Paris, and back to New Jersey, Brooklyn and Manhattan. But nothing compares to when I was spinning disco music during the hot summers of NYC in the ‘70s. New disco music was released literally every day. You never knew what surprises were coming next.From 1974 to 1980, I was spinning five to seven days a week so I had plenty of hours to fill with music. I even enjoyed the nights when attendance was light. That gave me the chance to experiment with new music, to see what worked so I’d be ready when the club was packed. There were also certain songs that just sounded ‘summer-y’. I loved to DJ on those summer nights, getting screams from the crowd when I played just the right thing!”
Record label owner/partner Curtis Urbina, who’s known Tony for decades, considers him a rare talent. And Urbina describes Tony’s work today on Sirius XM Radio as that of a master music curator since he does so much to help people re-discover disco hits from the past and bring new value to them. If anyone can sum up Tony Smith, it’s Urbina. “If SONY, RCA or whomever were to hire him as a music curator, Tony could take their catalogue and create new playlists and song compilations for music that’s currently not generating revenue. The guy has that much of an uncanny instinct for music. He could revive the whole genre.”
Tony Smith’s top 10 DJ-able tunes of all time (in no particular order):
Artists of all time:
Music producers of all time:
Festooned with tambourines around her neck and elsewhere, raconteur Wendy Stuart Kaplan darted through the cavernous main theater of the famed La Mama performance complex. No one could ever call Kaplan shy, let alone at a loss for words. At Brian Butterick’s memorial, this author/personality was one of the speakers who celebrated the late gay activist/founder of the famed Pyramid Club and shared her memories of him.
Memories. Kaplan has been writing her memoir, “She’s The Last Model Standing,” all her life; it’s that she’s lived her life to be memoir-worthy. By the time the willowy bon vivant met and married renowned photographer Alan Kaplan, she had already carved out her perch in New York as a bona fide scene maker and observer. Born and raised in the Bronx, she exited her suburban confines to embrace many bold faced names such as Andy Warhol and became a regular at such NY haunts like Studio 54, Elaine’s, Area and Xenon.
Kaplan was already famous for photographs that graced the pages of GQ and Italian Vogue when he met the free-spirited Stuart. He encouraged her to become a model and advised her to travel to Europe for work and maybe, fame and fortune. What she found instead was a season of misadventure, so she returned to the States and she did what any Jewish mother would love a daughter to do, she got married — in Wendy’s case to Kaplan. Their partnership flourished as they began roaming the globe filming and established “Model with a Mission Visual Journeys” which documents unique stories of indigenous people and endangered species through Alan’s keen eye and Wendy’s quirky way and compassionate heart as the on-camera host as well as series producer. They also released “She’s The Last Model Standing” which garnered praise and finished “Whisperers and Witnesses,” a film which won the Best Documentary award at NYC’s Chelsea Film Festival.
Q: How long did it take to get the book done?
WSK: I’ve been writing this book my whole life. This book is about my life from the time I came to NY in the late ‘70s all the way up to now. But it was hard getting it together because a lot happened over that time period. I had to go back through photo albums, I have over 250 photo albums. Pictures of everything that came down the pike from the late 70s up to now and all the things I did. So I started looking at the pictures and started writing paragraphs and there was no timeline, nothing made any sense. It was almost stream of consciousness, like James Joyce. I showed somebody the draft and I was lucky enough to meet David Wallace who ended up becoming the editor and was able to work with me that way.
Q: Was it easy or did you need to get James Joyce involved?
WSK: We didn’t need to James Joyce but I had to beat up Wallace a couple of times because he kept trying to change my words. Those were my words, my life experiences, my voice, nobody else’s.
Q: When you’re writing a book how do you know when to stop from adding new things.
WSK: This is the easiest thing in the world because you know where you start and where you’ll end within the month of doing the book and that’s exactly what happened. It ended on one of my trips when I was making films about people in remote parts of the world. It was easy enough to end the book on one of those projects. You always want an audience to want more.
Q: When did you decide you needed to write this and did you have you to stop your life to write this book?
WSK: I’ll give you an analogy. You got all these bloggers. What is a blog? Half the time it’s someone’s very uninteresting daily memoir. What makes a book different is that you have a story in you. For someone like me it was always a running monologue of “Oh I should be writing this down — this is an incredible story.” I took pictures and knew one day I would share the stories behind them. When someone writes a memoir, that’s a historical record of their life. You’re probably thinking, “what makes your life so special?” It’s just a thing a person knows. You go to cocktail parties and share experiences or when you’re at a job and you tell people what you do. You can tell by the reaction you get. I have to be honest, more than a few people said “you should write a book.” So I did.
Q: And no one else had those photos to refer to.
WSK: My story is a very unique one. There’s not a lot of people that came out of the whole club scene and are still movin’, shakin’ and can remember what happened.
Q: Uptown or downtown clubs?
WSK: Things have come full circle for me because now the last five years have been spent in the downtown scene, and more recently, the Brooklyn scene; let’s not forget that. But my club culture started out with Studio 54 and everything that went with that. I remember what went on then and the other clubs around then. I went to all of them — Limelight, Roxy, Paradise Garage, and more. The thing is with me, I never stopped going to clubs. I remember being eight months pregnant and dancing on a party boat in New York in a leopard dress .
Q: Where’s this poor child now?
WSK: Actually, the child is brilliant,. She’s 26 years old, and getting her first apartment. She's got a job that can pay her rent, and is really an incredible writer, but totally different from me. She’s been schooled in writing and I’ve been schooled in club culture.
Q: Does the disco beat seem frightening to her?
WSK: It’s not frightening but she doesn’t connect with what I am about. She’s never read my book. She said, “I’m just not ready to do that yet.” Maybe it’s because I’m her mom.
Q: How do her friends react? Do they think you’re cool?
WSK: I’m like a goddess to a lot of her friends, they totally look up to me and they do wanna hang out when they’re over. But they’re her friends, I say I don’t want to monopolize your conversation. People came here to see you, not me. The stuff I’ve lived through really interest them. I really interest them. Because their parents, most of them, are not like me. You find a few, because after all, this is New York.
Q: You still have your disco clothes?
WSK: Someone asked me to audition for something today based on my fashion background and they were very intrigued that I have my disco clothes. We don’t call them disco clothes though — they’re “vintage”. Vintage is the proper fashion term for them. So yes, I still have my disco clothes and I’m proud to say I’ve carried those clothes forward and mix and match them with what’s going on now.
Q: Do you have a glittery Halston dress?
WSK: I have a glittery dress, I’m just not sure if it’s a Halston. I have every Betsey Johnson thing, and a lot of Haute Couture. That’s when Couture was a size 8 and not 0 or 2 or whatever. I’m proud to say I’ve maintained the exact same size and body weight as I had back in those days. I have a lot of no-name brands as well, from stores like Rainbow.
Q: How about from Fiorucci, the very fabulous Italian brand?
WSK: I love Fiorucci. That’s collectible, the shoes are above and beyond.
Q: I knew the club-tastic Joey Arias whom I met when he was working at their legendary midtown store.
WSK: I love Joey. He had a Cabaret act at 54 Below. I adore him. He had a retrospective with polaroids from back in the day and writings and photographs from [the late] Klaus Nomi [Both of them performed with David Bowie on SNL].
Q: Who else is memorable to you in a profound way?
WSK: The other day I had lunch with Rollerena. She’s still a major icon, just that she ain’t rolling anymore [smiles]. But still so fabulous. We talked about how you didn’t have to become anything in those days, you just were. Rollerena was a Wall Street broker by day, fairy godmother by night. She’d roll around the dance floor at Studio 54. After work from her Wall Street job, she’d go uptown, get into her Fairy Godmother outfit, and roll from 6th Avenue and 57th street down town on 6th Avenue. She’d roll against traffic so everybody noticed her. People in those days really went against the grain. They were the real deal.
Who did I know in those days — Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Calvin Klein, Joe Dallesandro. It’s in my book; Andy offered me a role in one of his movies with Joe, but it never came to fruition. I’m just a kid from the Bronx and there I was, rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Warhol. I remember going to a Halloween party with Cornelia Guest. C.Z. Guest, Cornelia Guest, those are names you don’t hear a lot of anymore. But in those days, Cornelia Guest was a big deal. There was a Halloween contest at Studio 54 and I was a finalist and she was a judge. I came out and people were applauding and I heard her say, “Ugh, she’s tired.” I hated her, HATED her for saying that.
Q: Who else did you hate?
WSK: Honestly, not that many people. There’s no room for hate in my life.
Q: Who do you love the most from those days?
WSK: I love the purely creative people like Andy Warhol. I know there’s been a lot of stuff in the negative said about him. I never had to deal with him on that level. He was a creative genius. His exhibit at the Whitney, it was above and beyond. Debbie Harry was in some of videos. I knew Debbie then and I know her now. I have such incredible respect for her transcending the decades. Unfortunately Warhol never got a chance to do that and maybe that’s what was supposed to happen. People had put his films down, put his actresses like Edie Sedgwick down, they put down the Campbell Soup cans, and just about everything else. Now look at it. When you go to the Whitney and see his body of work, my god, this guy was such a visionary. I wish he lived longer. Calvin Klein was a guy I used to see out a lot. I admired him because he never seemed to age. Ironically now you don’t see him out much anymore. I used to think he slept with intravenous embalming fluid because he was so handsome and always looked the same.
Unfortunately the times that we’re talking about is when AIDS wiped out everyone. It wiped out Halston and some of the brightest most creative people that existed. I was on the board of an organization that took care of the pets of people who had AIDS; it was called POWARS: Pet Owners With AIDS Resource Service. That was a very empowering time for me because it was the only way I felt like I could do something. I lost everybody and so did so many other people too. Three phone books I went through of people who died.
Q: How many phone books did you have in total?
WSK: Probably 12 from back in the day. The rest are from after what I call the Holocaust, cause that’s what it was. There are two things that impacted New York; you can’t talk about all this without talking about the AIDS epidemic and 9/11. Those were big game changers. For me personally, nothing was the same after that.
But you always have to repackage, reinvent, and move on. I’ve had a whole life of reinvention. Still modeling, still acting but now I do brand ambassadoring for clients and have moved into a whole different area.
I was auditioning for travel shows. Maybe it was the impetus for the book, but I went up for a show called “Ms. Adventure” — it was either Nat Geo or the Discovery Channel that was doing it. I had all the qualifications. I had lived in the Amazon and had leeches on me, lived in Nigeria, my book opens in Nigeria where I was living in a village up in the area of Nigeria where the Boko Haram were. They were there then under a different name. There I was, blond hair down to my waist, free as a bird, thinking absolutely nothing can happen to me.
When you’re in that age group, you don’t think those things can ever happen to you. All these things led up to me auditioning for this show, but I didn’t get it. Not only that, but I didn’t even get called up for the audition. That’s when I started to understand the way things work. I had all the qualifications and didn’t even get to audition. I had to reinvent myself, get my brand out there, and let people know about it.
So with my husband, a brilliant videographer and photographer, we started combining our work and going to remote places around the world and I wrote these very loosely put together scripts. They were very reality based; we called the project Model With A Mission. We told the story of elephant rescues in Thailand. Our most recent film, “Whispers and Witnesses,” — which is about Rachel Hogan from Ape Action Africa and Dr Sherie Speede from Sanaga Yong Chimpanzee Rescue, who are both saving primates from the bushmeat trade in Cameroon — won best documentary at the Chelsea Film Festival. It was made because I became a member of the Explorer’s Club so I met these two women who have rescue centers which are working in Africa to stave off primate extinction.
Q: You’re involved with the Explorer’s Club, aren’t you? It’s a curious place.
WSK: I do the tours, I’m a docent there. My tours are different from others. My tours are based in history but there’s an awful lot of juicy stuff about our explorers, including the polar bear. I encourage people to take a selfie in front of the polar bear. That was the impetus behind the film, I heard these women speak there. There was a fundraiser to bid on this trip. I was making these films two years ago and didn’t have a project. I thought Cameroon sounded interesting. I looked at the bid sheet and no one else’s name was on it. I won the trip and they called me a week later to tell me I had won it.
Within three days I used my frequent flyer miles and then they called me and said they’d give me some dates and I said I was going to come there to shoot a film about these rescue centers for animals. They said you need a letter from the government so I’m like ok, when can you get me one? When I have a vision I go through with it, nothing stops me. The women said they have to get me a visa, I didn’t know what no tourist infrastructure really meant. You think they have your name on a sign. My name was on a sign, held by a BEAUTIFUL man, about six foot four, completely dressed in uniform. We get there, we’re exhausted, this man is gorgeous, has an enormous gun and a sign with our names and I say “Hi I’m Wendy Kaplan and this is my husband.” He said, “My name is Kennedy, my English not so good.” I thought to myself, don’t even talk, just let me look at you. He had to be the most handsome man on the face of the earth.
Nobody spoke English but everybody spoke French, so it forced me to use my high school French. I said where is the super market in French, and he took me right away to the one supermarket. I bought 50 bottles of water for drinking, bathing, washing hair. Do not use local water for anything. Even if they tell you the local water is purified, there’s that 8% and that 8% is gonna get you. It was an experience but I managed to get as close as I am to you right now with gorillas and chimpanzees. I got to tell the wonderful story behind what the women are doing there.
Q: It’s a feature?
WSK: It’s 42 minutes. I call it a “shlong” because it’s between a short and a long. I came up with that. If you know film festivals, they’ve got these categories that are so confining.
Q: How does your husband keep up with you?
WSK: I fell apart in Africa. Alan actually did much better than me. He doesn't keep up with me easily because all I need is five hours of sleep, I read all the time, and love meeting people. But Alan is very grounded and when I was in Africa I was freaking out thinking I was gonna die there. One guy I interviewed said he was recovering from typhoid and malaria; and I heard about things that crawl under your skin and lay eggs. By day eight, I thought I was going to get all those things. But I got through scot free.
Q: What’s happening now?
WSK: I’m working on getting an expedition going. I’d like to go to Madagascar. Patricia Wright studies the lemurs there. There’s a leech expert I know from the Explorers Club who is there. I begged him to take us. The Explorers Club has these great experts from all over the world about everything. I want to make films about them but you can’t put just an academic film out there. I can find the hook to bring it into your living room. Alan shoots amazing video and I’m the comedic relief freaking out in a foreign country.
And “Whispers and Witnesses” is at the Africa, Women, and Arts Festival in Tanzania. I would love to have gone there… And I’ve got the African Film Festival coming up in Dallas. I also run panels for them.
Plus, I’d like to do a follow up to my book “She’s The Last Model Standing.” I’m a baby boomer and I’m up for us to be as fabulous as possible. 40 to 50 is the new 20, yes it is. We’re all aging backwards. I have the fashion background and I’d like to work with fashion designers who aren’t designing things for 20 year olds that are size two. Boomers are the ones with the money. Women come up to me all the time and say they can’t find clothes. And I then find them what they need. That's what I am -- a connector.
For a seasoned comic actor like Melissa McCarthy, getting a chance to play a sardonic, dark character like the late author Leonore Carol "Lee" Israel offers one of those rare opportunities to display your chops. Marielle Heller’s film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” provides the 48-year-old with serious but unexpectedly droll fodder for both her mind and personality. And as a result, she’s getting award season buzz like she hasn’t had before.
The movie, in turn, surprises if not quite delights, challenging audiences to look under the scruffy skin of the talented but curmudgeonly Israel whose emotional distance masks a deeply vulnerable woman, made all the more so as a lesbian in less enlightened times, who copes with the deep chasm she feels with most everyone let alone a lover. Only her cat offers her comfort as does her belief in his writing skills — both abruptly challenges when the animal becomes ill and the writer finds no one want to publish her after successful biographies of Katharine Hepburn, Talulah Bankhead, cosmetics executive Estée Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen.
Because Lee Israel falls out of step with the book industry's desire for warts-and-all biographies, she goes broke and finds herself at wits end. To survive, she turns to forging letters of legendary writers such as Noel Coward with an innate skill at accurately mimicking their styles. But once suspicion falls on her and her accomplice Jack Hock (Richard Grant), a homeless gay man she takes in, she turns to theft of collectibles from archives to further their survival.
In this case, McCarthy’s character doesn’t so much reveal who she was as she shows who she wasn’t. And in managing to illuminate that, the flat out comic McCarthy demonstrates that there’s as much a thought provoker in there as much as she been a societal provoker in such grungy/grotty films as “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover Part III.”
Through such films and many others including the “Ghostbusters” reboot, She became a two-time Primetime Emmy Award winner and received nominations for a Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Awards, a BAFTA Award, and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, among other accolades.
With husband and fellow comic writer Ben Falcone, she founded production company “On the Day,” launched her clothing line, “Melissa McCarthy Seven7,” and was named the one of the top five highest-paid actresses in the world by Forbes with earnings of $33 million.
Though she transitioned from her Plainfield, Illinois roots having made it to both New York and Los Angeles, she still connects with her serious Irish roots having been raised on a farm in a large Catholic family with an Irish father, two cousins — actress and model Jenny McCarthy and professional basketball player Joanne McCarthy — and a mom of English, German, and Irish ancestry. Graduated from St. Francis Academy (now Joliet Catholic Academy) research into her past reveals much family from County Cork. As she said, “I am very proud of my Irishness. I was just doing an ancestry project with my daughter and I talked with my dad about when my grandparents came over and where they’re from— their real names are Carty. I discussed this with my father and want to learn more.”
Q:What part of this film tested you the most?
MM: The playing of a character with such stillness was a fun challenge. I’ve played so many strong women that have been energy forward and there’s more physicality and verbal sparring. I felt Lee was more turned inward and did a type of deflecting that was more like, “I will wait you out in hopes that you go away.” And it usually worked for her. So there’s a stillness to this type of character that I found very interesting.
Q: Were you familiar with Lee Israel prior to doing this project?
MM: I wasn’t and I felt like I should have been. That was my take-away when I first read the script. I didn’t know about her.
Q: Who lent you the insight in regards to her mannerisms because you gave her nuance and a rich personality.
MM: It was challenging in researching her. Initially, I thought I’ll do a ton of research, and watch things. True to her personality, she didn’t want people in her life and didn’t offer that up. No photos or videos. Also, it was a time before people felt the need to document every moment of their lives, so it’s just not out there.
One of the few photos I found was of the back of a [book] jacket. Luckily, David Yarnell, one of our producers, knew her very well, for about 20 years ,and he was the main person who poked, prodded and made her write her memoir — which she didn’t want to do. She was incredibly difficult about it and, I think, he might have called her “a pain in my ass,” but she did finally write it. And for 10 years, Anne Carey was taking her book around and trying to turn it into a film. She would meet with Lee for dinner. I find this weirdly endearing, Lee was always early. Anne would show up and Lee would be waiting there, drink in hand, and once dinner was finished, Lee would up and go before the bill would come. Anne realized Lee would get there early and order a few drinks to put on her bill.
Q: Well, given all that, you seem to have gotten her right.
MM: That’s good to hear, thank you. I asked if I was on the right trajectory and they said, “stay the course,” so I did.
Q: What was it like working with [director] Marielle Heller — what was her process like?
MM: It was fantastic. Mari is one of the few people, who, if she said she had something for me but I couldn’t read it ahead of time, I’d still say okay, which is not something I have ever said before. There was a great comforting sense that you knew who was in charge. She had a great tone with the crew and everyone involved; they looked to her to lead us in the [best] way. She did it with such a, I don’t know, light touch. She never said, “This is the way we’re going to do things today and it will not change.”
Something comes up, something happens in a scene or organically changes, she’s okay with it. Or, if something felt a little bit odd, there was this absolute certainty we would work through it. When someone is there to guide you, but also listen to you, it’s very collaborative. Everyone, us actors, every department, rises up to do their best work because we all contribute to making this thing as opposed to having someone say, “It’s my way or the highway”.
Q: By embracing falsehoods, Lee makes her best work. Did you feel a connection to that because, as an actor, you’re playing pretend to find truths in reality?
MM: I feel like we were on very similar paths in terms of what we do. I don't want to play someone exactly like myself. I would be very uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do as myself, I don’t know where to put my hands in a picture. As a character, strangely, I have no hesitation on how I do something. It gives me a lot more courage than I have in my normal life. Lee and I would do the exact same things. She lived through other people. She was a great writer when she could write through someone else’s voice. Turns out she was a great writer either way, but the safety net of standing behind someone, I really relate to that. We picked different ways to do it, but we do similar things.
Q: Did you find your way to the character through her mannerisms, the way she dressed, or did certain things?
MM: It’s all of those little things. I certainly connect to a character first from reading it, and if it’s a real person, trying to look into who she really was, and that was through her writing. Then I feel like I have to take care of the exterior or I can’t do the first thing to quite of an extreme. It’s a bit of a game of Tetris, I do so much work with hair and makeup and wardrobe. We had such amazing people at the helm of all those things. I thought she should dress like an Italian, was my weird initial thought. It should be a small closet, but with well made, quality pieces, and that she probably hasn’t shopped for anything new in 15 or 18 years. So at one point she probably had a tailor and had her pants and jackets made and three cashmere sweaters, but they needed a lot of wear.
I said utilitarian and comfortable, and when vintage pieces didn’t fit right I said we can’t tailor it or fix it for me because if you’re wearing pants from 15 years ago they may not fit great. When things didn’t fit great we let it ride. I think all of the costumes and the hair, the whole pallet of the film could have easily been the costume shop, and a wig and makeup.
Q: What do you want audiences to take from this film — that crime does pay — after Lee got off easy once she was caught and admitted her guilt?
MM: I’m hoping that’s not the takeaway, although it [does] makes me giggle. For me, I hope people will think about seeing the invisible people that are around them all the time. Lee and Jack were just people that no one looked at. No one passed by Lee and thought, “I wonder if she’s remarkable? I wonder if she’s smarter or funnier than anyone in my life?”
They were just invisible. Jack was homeless when they met; how many people do we pass each day that we don’t even look at? Especially today, we’re all so busy staring at what other people are doing, I hope that people look up and actually see people.
Q: This film is a love story between two queer people in New York. How did you portray that and what do you hope a modern queer audience will take away from it.
MM: It was very much a part of her personality, and a heartbreak [for someone] watching it — that she just couldn’t connect. The fact that she went to Julius’s in the early ‘90s was very telling [as to] how uncomfortable she was. In the early ‘90s, gay men and lesbians didn’t intermingle. In those days, I was at Julius’s with my friends and it was not a place to be seen. I think Lee went there because she wouldn’t be bothered; she could still go somewhere where there was a bit of safety in the company. She would not only be bothered, but it was another way for her to shield herself.
Towards the end, at that point in New York City, when Jack is clearly losing his battle with AIDS, epidemic wasn’t even a big enough word. It plays back into what I was saying before about the invisibility of people. I don’t think we’re there yet by any stretch, but I think that people now don’t have to shield themselves or cloak themselves — [and that] is a very good thing to be reminded of. Not that long ago you did [have to do that]. You still do in many places now. I love that it was part of who they were without that being “on topic” to the story.
Q: And what was it like working with actor Richard Grant who played Jack?
MM: Very difficult. Awful. It’s all a sham [laughs]. No, he’s constantly as charming as he seems [to be]. It was just fun [working with him]. He’s an attentive and remarkable actor. We shot this film in 28 days, which seems fairly insane. We both worked similarly; we showed up, and we knew what we were going to do. And he’s a tremendous listener. Just the most receptive. He’s like that as a person [as well as an actor].
When you talk to him about anything, he’s all in. He’s one of the most present [people] I ever met. Each scene, it was like the lights went out around us and we were just singular. What a dreamy situation to have with someone you’re working with. We met on Friday and were shooting on Monday and if it didn’t work it was gonna be tricky, but in seven seconds I knew it would be great.
Q: Did it help that you played Sean Spicer on SNL also a person constantly trying to justify lies.
MM: I was doing that on weekends. Oh lord. I’d come back and feel like I was in opposing worlds. So, no, because Lee is someone I found engaging and wanted to look at the heart of why she did troubling things. Whereas with the other one I was just holding the mirror up, I wasn’t examining him. I said we must always use his words, I don’t want to make things up, I just want to hold up the mirror and have his own words reflect back because they’re crazy enough. It was a very different world.
Q: What was it like to work with former SNL star Jane Curtin who played Marjorie, Lee’s agent; was it hard to yell at a comedy legend?
MM: [laughs] No, not at all, because she’s so game for anything. Getting to do those scenes with Jane, I felt like if I could run back to my younger self, watching SNL through the door crack to my parent’s room, I don’t know if that ever would have processed at that age. She seems like she’s 35, she’s so game for anything that to do less than that, to not hand it to her, she’s just like “come on!” She’s all in, she’s an amazing woman.
Q: Her gayness was portrayed in a very matter of factly way, not as a cornerstone of who she was. It was played so brilliantly. How was it to make that aspect of her so casual?
MM: It made nothing but sense to me. It’s a part of who you are and it’s integrated into your being from the beginning. So it shouldn’t be like this separate entity that’s added on, like you picked it up along the way. I love the history in that scene with Anna [Deavere Smith as Elaine, Lee’s ex-lover], because there was this lovely possibility between them — you almost see Lee at her best.
Every time I see that scene with Lee outside the restaurant, I think it could work out. And when you see her with Anna in that park, you see someone that knows her well and isn’t so charmed by her. I think the reality of both those situations of who you are and who you have been, and seeing past loves that truly know you and aren’t so taken by you, it feels real rather than “presented.”
Q: Why was she always so pissed off and angry?
MM: For me, it was just about when someone loses focus and loses who you are. Lee lived with her outward abrasiveness and stopped seeing what it was. She was so inside and struggling with “why am I losing my career? Why is my talent undervalued?” She was so at odds with herself inside that she stopped realizing when she offended someone. She stopped ever looking at herself and saying, “am I doing this?” It was just, “The world is against me.”
Jane [Curtin] met her, which none of us knew. When we were shooting the scene that was in Jane’s apartment at the book party. She said that 25 years ago, her and her husband were at a party for a book launch. It wasn’t so much [a matter of] volume as [it was] someone who just came in and was disruptive, who walked through conversations; she was like a groundhog going through the party. She took some food, pounded [down] a couple drinks, and took off. And Jane turned to someone and said, “who the hell was that?” It was Lee. They didn’t even write that scene based on Jane’s experience [directly into the film] but she lived through that scene.
Lady Gaga is as mega as you can get as a rock star and Bradley Cooper knows the best and worst about the movie business. She’s got the vocal chops; he’s got the acting chops. You might wonder in making A Star Is Born if she was putty in his hands or if he just let her loose to run wild.
Like the characters they play, she says, “We relied on each other in every single way. We were truly in this together. We approached every scene, every song as partners.”
He states, “As a storyteller, you want to make sure you cast the right person. Her talent and work ethic honed from years of performing exploded every time we did a musical number. I saw this undeniable force in her, and knew there was no one else who could’ve played the part. There’s something about acting and singing that’s so honest, you can’t hide at all. I thought that those two things could be put together in a way that maybe I’d find my point of view.”
Putting his stamp on the a thrice-told story to make its timeless nature of human feelings and failings appeal to today’s diverse audiences and music lovers, Cooper says, “I never thought, ‘How do I make it original?’ I just knew I had to make it authentic. I wanted to tell a meaning story filled with lots of raw emotion.”
Though she loved his take on the story, Gaga was nervous taking on a role of such depth. It was my first feature film. When somebody has talent inside them, brewing for years, ready to move into another medium and it finally happens, it’s a huge explosion, an opus. I’m so insecure. I had to get past the nerves. When Ally talks about how ugly she feels, that was real. Bradley was not only at the helm but also always by my side. He knew the ropes, and as we created the songs, I watched him become a real musician. He was meant to direct, and I got lucky to be in his first film.”
Cooper states, “You’re going to say, ‘This is her first feature?’ Stefani [Gaga] has done incredible work as an actress, but to make this huge transition was brave of her. Actually, we were at the same point individually in our work, and we both needed the same thing from each other, essentially, in order to jump the tracks to this other place.”
In the film, when they first meet, Jackson tells Ally, “Talent comes from everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out there and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth.”
“I always wanted to direct,” informed Cooper, “but I knew I needed to have a point of view to know why I was doing it. I always wanted to tell a love story, because it’s something everyone can relate to — love, the loss of it, the high of it. It’s the thing that makes you feel the most alive. I wanted to explore the complexity of intermingling lives along with fears, joys, doubts, anger, hopes. Coupled with that is music — not just music, but singing. I was ready to dive into something that would challenge and push me to be relevant and current.”
To enhance the immediacy of Jackson and Ally’s first connection, while dancing and is lying on the bar looking at him for the first time, to really get the impact of that moment, Cooper shot at 48 frames per second instead of 24. Another thing was to go close up on Ally in the beginning of the relationship – when Jackson touches her nose, when he’s wrapping her hand after a bar brawl, when she touches his ear. You always remember the first touch of somebody, because it either sends a chill down your spine or it’s a dead fish. But for them it’s chills!”
“I wanted to pull back the curtain on what it means to be a star and a rising star in today’s industry,” observes producer Lynette Howell Taylor. “And Bradley isn’t your typical first-time feature director. He’s business been in the business for years, soaking up knowledge from directors David O. Russell, Clint Eastwood, and Todd Phillips and honing his own craft as a producer. He’s paid attention”.
Though they’d never met, Cooper conceived the role of Jackson’s brother, his surrogate father, manager, counselor, and talented singer who sacrificed his aspirations for the more driven Jackson. “We discussed his vision and how I might fit in. He shared footage on his phone of working with Stefani at her piano. I was dumbfounded at the beauty of it.”
“It’s all about the work with Bradley,” he adds. “Getting at the truth, being honest. He’s such a collaborator, so generous, and filled with trust that you want to give it back to him.”
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