September 5, 2014
Joan Saves the Day
Joan Rivers came through Central NY about twelve years ago performing at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY. A local contractor called me and asked me to direct a 12-piece pick-up band of local musicians for the Joan Rivers comedy act. The directions were: “play her on” and “play her off.” This simply means when she’s introduced the band needs to play an uptempo number as she walks onto the stage and play it again when she exits. This seemed to be a simple task for the Music Director (in this case yours truly), starting and stopping. There was one issue, no music was forthcoming from the Joan Rivers people. So I went the extra mile and wrote 12 measures of uptempo swing that would bring Joan on with appropriate fanfare.
An afternoon rehearsal was scheduled and the band assembled on the stage at the venue. Joan proved to be likable and attentive to detail. Many artists never show for the rehearsal, they send someone in their place. Joan talked us through the show and made clear of one thing that the musicians were not to do. “At some point in my act,” she said, “I’m going to ask you to help me move these potted plants at the front of the stage. Under no circumstances are you to help me in any shape or form, no matter how I plead or beg.” It sounded like a direction that was easy enough to follow.
Ah, now for the fanfare. “Here’s what we’ll do,” she directed her comments to me. “We have a warm-up comedian, Tony Romeo. I’ll be in the wings and I’m going to hype Tony, and when you hear me announce his name to the audience I want you to launch into that fanfare and Tony will stride onto the stage.” It sounded easy enough. The band retired to their dressing rooms and awaited the downbeat.
Showtime. The band assembled on stage, the curtains opened, and Joan Rivers is in the wings unseen to the audience but laying it on thick with her microphone, or so I guessed. Unlike the rehearsal, Joan was not standing next to me, and to my consternation I realized all I could hear from her was an unintelligible echo-laden slur of words. Joan Rivers was not a mild, calm personality. As she is in the wings waving her arms wildly and shouting into the mic, I’m trying to guess will I hear the words “Tony Romeo”? I’m standing with my hands up, musicians are watching me and I’m watching Joan, trying to sort out this indiscernible tirade. There! I think she said it. The downbeat. The band launches into the fanfare and I’m conducting wildly. As I look to the wings I see Joan Rivers staring at me. She hands the mic to an assistant, and to my horror strides onto the stage, grabs the stage mic and proceeds to exclaim, “no, no, no! That’s not how we practiced it. I’m supposed to say the guy’s name and you then launch into the music. Don’t you remember that?” I shrunk in horror but soon realized that Joan, the ultimate pro, was making it part of the act. I managed to nod my head, “okay, okay, let’s try it again” and she strode back to the wings with one of those comments like, “the help these days, can you believe it? Let’s try it again.” This time there was no doubt when she announced the name “Tony Romeo.” Take two on the fanfare. Out comes Tony, does his bit, we play him off, and out comes Joan.
As she did her act I sat at the piano feeling as small as one can be. I had just proceeded to mess up Joan Rivers’ act, or so I thought. Indeed, Joan did berate the musicians — actually I can’t print what she called the musicians when they refused to help her move the plants, but it all was part of her shtick, and the professional demeanor made the whole act seem like a well-oiled machine.
I’ll never forget my Joan Rivers encounter and the ultimate pro that she was.