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Published: 10/31/2004

Say hello, Jamie

By NANCIANN CHERRY

BLADE STAFF WRITER

The actor and Toledo native is appearing Wednesday and Thursday in the one-man show Say Goodnight Gracie in the Valentine Theatre.

"[The Valentine] actually was the very last theater that I attended before I left for Los Angeles. I saw a movie called Scaramouche there and the following day or so I left on a train from the station in downtown Toledo and headed for fame and fortune at the Pasadena Playhouse."

Farr, who is best known for his role as Cpl. Max Klinger in the long-running television show M*A*S*H, is on the road again, appearing as George Burns in the show created by Rupert Holmes and featuring Frank Gorshin.

"It was a funny thing," Farr said in a telephone interview from his home in Ventura County, California.

"I got this phone call and they said, 'Well, there's a show that Frank's been doing and he's going to be leaving the show and they're very interested in you replacing him.'

"So I called this buddy of mine who is good friends with Frank, and I said, 'What show is Frank doing now? Is it The Sunshine Boys, because I think he brought it to Toledo.'

"And he said, 'No, no, he's doing George Burns' one-person show Say Goodnight Gracie.' "

Farr said he was surprised and delighted - for several reasons - that he was being offered the role.

"It's certainly an era that I'm familiar with, and I get to play a man that I knew and treasured as a great talent."

Farr said he and Burns were on many talk and variety shows together, and they often attended the same charity functions.

"As a matter of fact, one of the last times that I actually saw George was when the Friars Club in Beverly Hills gave Danny Thomas, our fellow Toledoan, a lifetime achievement award, and George Burns and I were on the same dais," he recalled.

Say Goodnight Gracie, which was nominated for a Tony Award in 2003 and

won the 2003 National Broadway Theatre Award for Best Play, features Burns toward the end of his life, in limbo between this world and the next. He's unable to join his beloved wife, Gracie Allen, in heaven until he gives a command performance for God.

He looks back on his impoverished youth, his rocky career in vaudeville in the 1920s, the day he met Gracie, and the marvelous chemistry that made them stars. He recalls that after Gracie died, he regrouped and became an Academy Award-winning actor, comedian, and raconteur.

Although he's stepping into a role created by Gorshin, Farr said that his performance and Gorshin's are different.

"Frank was playing more for the laughs, I play more for the text of the show, which is a love story. It's [Burns'] love for Gracie Allen, his love for show business, his love for [his best friend] Jack Benny, his love for his family."

Even though Farr is the only actor onstage in Say Goodnight Gracie, the show's many multimedia elements offer added interest and historical context.

There are audio re-creations of radio's The Burns and Allen Show from the 1930s in which Farr and actress Didi Conn provide the voices for the original pair. Film clips provide glimpses into their early days at Paramount Studios and their television show, which ran from 1950 to 1958.

"You know, most of George Burns' life until he met Gracie, he was quite a flop. He had to change his name after every venue because he was so bad, if they saw his name on it, they wouldn't hire him. So he had many, many different aliases until he met Gracie."

Even their meeting was an accident, Farr said. Allen didn't realize she was teaming up with George Burns; she thought she was working with someone else. Burns let her make the mistake, and when he finally admitted who he was, it was too late for her to back out of the sketch.

Another serendipitous moment came when Burns realized he wasn't funny, Farr said.

"When they started their show, he was the comic, and she was supposed to be the straight woman. When he did it - he'd never really done comedy before - he bought clothes that you'd see in burlesque, you know, pants that were too big and jackets that were too tight, hats that didn't fit right, and he'd have a spinning bowtie, and he do those kinds of things to heighten his jokes.

"Well, nobody was laughing at him when they went out. They were laughing at Gracie, who had all the straight lines. So what he had to do was make a change immediately, because he was afraid they'd cancel them. And they just switched roles."

And that, Farr said, was the birth of the famous Burns and Allen team.

"Gracie was hysterical, but she was doing George's comedy, he was the one who created it. He called it illogical logic and it fit her perfectly, because she made it sound as if it made sense."

For example, in one comedy routine, Gracie was asked by an interviewer: "Were you the oldest one in the family?" "Oh, no," she replied, "My mother and father were much older!"

Another time, she was asked how she possibly could be earning 8 percent on her investments when everyone else was only making 4 percent. "I have my money in two banks," she said.

Farr said he studied some tapes of the Burns and Allen television show to pick up some of Burns' mannerisms, but he is relying a lot on his memories of the comedian, who died in 1996 at age 100.

"He was a dapper man, he was always impeccably dressed. He had his manicure, his shoes were always shined. His shirts were pressed. He wore a tie and nice suits. He took great pride in himself."

One quirk: he smoked the cheapest cigars on the market, but even that had some logic to it. They were the only ones that would consistently stay lit while he was on stage doing his routine, Farr said.

"I saw him at several functions a couple times at one of the big hotels in Beverly Hills, and he was always with some beautiful lady on his arm and dancing. My wife and I would be sitting at one of the tables around the dance floor, and he would dance up to us, then just stop in the middle of the dance while the music was playing, and he'd look at me and he'd smile and he'd wink at me. He was resting. Then he would pick up on the downbeat someplace in the song and continue dancing.

Farr said there really aren't many tricks to keeping the sheer volume of lines straight in a one-man show. It's just a matter of memorization.

"I think once you have it, it belongs to you. It becomes your life story. It's my life story now, because [as George] I know my brothers and sisters, I know when my father passed away, when I met Gracie, I know when I fell in love with Gracie, I know when I met Jack Benny and who he was with, so it really becomes you."

Farr also said he is out to capture the essence of Burns, not impersonate him. "You try to find the soul of the character and then that's how you play that person throughout the whole show."

Another thing that makes all the memorization easy, Farr said, is that he likes the show.

"The jokes in it are nice. They're not the Neil Simon rip-roaring, fall-on-the-floor kind of jokes, but they are very, very funny. The humor is gentle and it's kind. I guess in contemporary comedy, I'd put it very close to what a Bill Cosby would say and do."

Farr is no stranger to the stage. He has toured with John Davidson in Will Rogers' Follies, played Oscar Madison in the national tour of The Odd Couple, and made his Broadway debut as Nathan Detroit in the long-running Guys and Dolls.

And he's hoping for an equally long run with Say Goodnight Gracie.

"If you think about it, I'm too young to play George Burns. He was over 100 years old. Of course, if I do it right, I've got 30 more years to play him."

"Say Goodnight Gracie" is scheduled at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets range from $30 to $52, and only limited seating remains. Information: 419-242-2787.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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