A Conversation with Richard Skipper
March 27, 2017
As Richard Skipper prepares for his next installment of Richard Skipper Celebrates, honoring E. Y. “Yip” Harburg on his birthday, we thought it was a good time to chat with him about how this series came to be and what his plans are for it going forward.
Cabaret Scenes: For years, you made your living performing as Carol Channing all over the country. When that ended, did you ever consider performing as yourself?
Richard Skipper: Believe it or not, performing as Carol Channing came about merely by accident. I never set out to be a Carol Channing tribute artist—I never called myself an impersonator. MY Carol was a combination of Richard AND Carol. Beyond the wig, make-up, costumes, songs, it was ALL me. The improvised interaction with an audience, for example, was something that Carol never did. She was ALWAYS scripted. Because I was able to imitate her voice and mannerisms, it was suggested that I put together a show as her when she did her last revival of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. Putting my show on the boards at Don’t Tell Mama in 1996 led to three, long-running shows in Atlantic City, which led to a 20-year career. Please note that, prior to that, I had an extensive background as an actor. I am a proud member of Actors’ Equity.
CS: How did Richard Skipper Celebrates come about?
RS: I consider what I’m doing now a combination of everything I’ve learned in this business up to this point. I have always had a deep respect for the past—the people, places, events that have shaped the way to the business of show as we now know it. Several years ago, I started writing a blog, now called Richard Skipper Celebrates…. My goal was/is to celebrate artists and their bodies of “worth”—the contributions that got them to where they are, and the ups and downs of surviving in this business. I have been lucky enough to interview close to 800 people, not only for my blog, but for the book that I am writing celebrating the legacy of Hello, Dolly!, and the many players both on and off stage. As a result, these blogs and the book-writing have led to many on-stage interviews (many at Barnes & Noble). With Facebook Live, I now try and do interviews once a week. Recent interviews, as of this writing, have included Lesley Ann Warren, Melissa Manchester, Loretta Swit, Tippi Hedren, Rich Little, among others.
The series of Richard Skipper Celebrates is bringing my interview skills, along with my hosting/singing abilities, into a world that is reminiscent of the old talk/variety shows, and I’m loving it! I feel that THIS is my niche!
CS: Speaking of the old talk/variety shows, you follow that format. Who are your favorite hosts from these shows and how have they influenced you?
RS: First and foremost, Merv Griffin. There are many that are comparing me to him and it thrills me beyond belief. I also would put Mike Douglas there. Definitely Ed Sullivan! Sol Hurock, Dinah Shore, too… with a splash of the Hollywood Palace thrown in.
CS: How have the years performing as Carol Channing influenced your interview skills?
RS: Performing as Carol for as long as I did, and the interaction with the audiences around the country, has given me a comfort level with audiences and my guests that has to be genuine—otherwise, it comes off as forced. One of my skills as an entertainer is that I am very in the moment. I listen to my audiences and my guests and respond to whatever they present to me without anticipating what I’m next going to say and/or what will happen next. The songs now, as they were with my Channing shows, are just steps along the way of each journey that we take the audiences on.
CS: How do you determine the balance between the interview and performing aspects of a show?
RS: As with everything, there has to be a learning curve. When I started this series, it was to celebrate each date that the show fell on and the events that took place on that date. I started out with five featured guests AND a mystery guest. There was a stress level in trying to fit everything into a 90-minute show.
In January of this year, I hit pay dirt with my show celebrating the 53rd anniversary of Hello, Dolly! on the actual anniversary (January 16th). [See a report on that show at http://cabaretscenes.org/2017/01/29/richard-skipper-celebrates-hello-dolly/]. I hit a stride with that show that is continuing with each show. I now only have three guests and a mystery guest. I also focus on ONE aspect of that day and build the show around the person or event that we are celebrating. I also have time to sit and present each of my guests in a way that they may not necessarily be seen, even in their own shows. One aspect that I am truly excited about is that some of my guests’ appearances have led to other gigs!
CS: How much time do you put into each show?
RS: It is a full-time job, because I am presenting a brand new show every five weeks! As soon as the previous show is over, I start the next day preparing for the next one. It starts with coordinating the songs and presenting them in a way that continues to build excitement within our audiences, leading up to the mystery guest. It starts with the promotion. I have a team of five: my designer, Glen Charlow, designs a poster that captures the essence of each show; Michael Anthony Masci designs a promotional video specific to that show; publicist Scott Barbarino gets the info to the appropriate outlets; and my producer Russ Woolley has been an amazing emotional support, in terms of all the things that are needed to be taken care of to get each show on the boards. My assistant Jannie Wolf is here once a week to help me double my efforts on whatever day she is here!
I love and crave the collaborative process which is required in putting a successful show together.
I then spend full days looking for opportunities to build my audiences beyond the three Fs: Friends, family, fellow performers. I get lucky with some guests who are pro-active in getting the word out.
CS: E. Y “Yip” Harburg is the subject of your next show. He was very political, both personally and professionally. This seems the perfect time to honor him. Did the current political climate influence your decision to honor him at this time? If so, how?
RS: The current political climate has nothing to do with it. The Laurie Beechman Theatre booked me on April 8th. That happens to be Harburg’s birthday. Because of my obsession with The Wizard of Oz growing up, it was a no-brainer. I then proceeded to put together a cast that all had an affiliation on some level with Harburg. Karen Oberlin, Leslie Orofino, and Maureen Kelley Stewart all have done Harburg tributes. There are a few more surprises with this show. Audiences who attend are in for a BIG SURPRISE!
As for politics, I want my shows to be an escape from what is happening outside that room for 90 minutes. My goal is to celebrate each other and the gems that ALL of us have to offer.
CS: How often do you plan to present these shows?
RS: Because of the amount of work each entails, I try to have at least a five-week break between shows.
CS: What is your goal with these shows?
RS: To celebrate! I love bringing people together, both on stage and off. I desire each show to feel like a party. I want to introduce the audiences to aspects of whomever or whatever we are celebrating that they previously have forgotten or never even thought of. I desire my guests to have an experience that is positive and to present them in a way that they truly desire to come back as audience members AND on-stage guests.
CS: Are you taping the shows to upload to your website or YouTube?
RS: We have been taping them. You have planted a seed. Perhaps these should go on YouTube!
CS: Can you share with us future subjects of Richard Skipper Celebrates?
RS: Depends on the dates booked. Our May show is May 20th. It is a celebration of the songs of World War II in honor of Armed Forces Day. It is also my producer and good friend Russ Woolley’s birthday, so I think there might even be cupcakes! My guests are Diane J. Findlay, Sue Matsuki, KT Sullivan and a mystery guest. I hope to book something the week of June 25th at the Laurie Beechman. I LOVE THAT ROOM for a myriad of reasons. As long as audiences come, we will continue to celebrate!
In closing, I would like to thank Frank Dain, Cabaret Scenes, and Scott Barbarino for your interest in my work and this series. Cabaret Scenes, both online and the magazine, are read from cover to cover by me, and I’m always looking out for the next guests to celebrate in future shows. What an important and significant resource you are.