Heaven may be crowded, but the stage at Le Chat Noir won't be. For Hollywood Heaven, the latest drollery from the fertile brain of Ricky Graham, is a two-man show. Hell, of course, is not far off. It's in the sardine-can-size backstage, where the costume changes take place.
"It's the ultimate quick-change show," says Graham, who is not only writing and directing the piece, but taking one of the two roles -- or more accurately, portraying half of the vast array of vintage stars who put in cameo appearances.
In fact, Graham will probably be waking up nights in a cold sweat from nightmares of shredding Velcro. For, while performing in Hollywood Heaven, he will be in rehearsal for Irma Vep, another two-character quick-change show that opens next month at Le Petit.
In his spare time, Graham will be doing rewrites of When Ya Smilin', his semi-autobiographical comedy about growing up in the Ninth Ward, which will be performed as a staged reading later this fall by the Abington Theater Company in Manhattan. (The Black and White Blues, his popular collaboration with Hollywood Heaven music composer Harry Mayronne Jr., is in an open run Mondays at Le Chat Noir.)
Welcome to Graham-o-Mania: the hectic, nonstop world of a freelance local theater star without a day job!
"I'm very lucky, of course," says Graham. "But the Red Queen had it right: you've got to keep running faster and faster to stay in the same place."
Not that you would know it from his demeanor. I met Graham twice recently at the Croissant D'Or on Ursulines Street. In person (even in the morning), he has that same unflappable, wry presence that has made him such a favorite with audiences, who once again this year voted him best local actor in Gambit Weekly's annual Best Of New Orleans© reader's poll. While we chatted, Graham -- who lived in the lower Quarter for years -- was accosted often by fans and friends. If not quite in the "mobbed-on-the-streets" category, he is nonetheless a true local celebrity and moves through life, intermittently responding to cheerful cries of "Hi, Ricky!"
Graham had come to our meeting by streetcar. Despite his busy schedule, he doesn't drive. Neither does his co-star, costumer and collaborator, Roy Haylock. Luckily, composer Mayronne Jr. not only drives but is a good sport about chauffeuring around the headliners.
Graham and Haylock, in fact, have much in common, besides a reluctant familiarity from the R.T.A.; they're both New Orleans natives. And they both speak of high school with a shudder of dread.
"I had gone to a small Lutheran grammar school on Franklin Avenue, not that far from where we lived," Graham recalls. "But my family moved to St. Bernard, which put me in a big, public, all-boy high school. Oh, yes, they had all-boy high schools back then. It was filled with hoodlums. Mostly, what I did was practice being invisible. That worked, until my picture came out in the newspaper for a show at (the New Orleans Recreation Department Theater), then they ferreted me out!"
If NORD made school hours more difficult, it also offered a refuge, a social life and a forum for self-expression. By the time he was in high school, Graham was already a veteran in the NORD troupe.
"I know exactly when I started at NORD (1966)," says Graham. "It was the year after Hurricane Betsy. Easy to remember, because Betsy destroyed our home. I saw an audition notice in the newspaper. It changed my life.
"You see, Louisa Street, where I grew up, didn't have many kids. There was a bar on the corner. There was a flophouse for Merchant Marines across the street. You get the picture. I was a pretty much a loner. With only my older brother Russell to play with. Russell was as introverted as I was extroverted. So I was like an only child -- with a supporting cast of one. I lived in a fantasy world, largely composed of the movies I loved.
"Anyway, I was in the sixth grade when I tried out at NORD. My parents were thrilled to get me out of the house, so they wouldn't have to listen to My Fair Lady blaring on the record player. I got a lead role. Then I got my whole family involved. My father, who was an electrician, helped out. My mother and grandmother actually cleaned the theater. My brother worked the box office.
"Like a host of other performers in town, I owe so much to (NORD Theater director) Ty Tracy. He shaped a lot of my theatrical tastes -- nostalgia, broad humor, music."
It was in those early days at NORD that Graham met two of his current partners: Bob Bruce, who is co-writing the lyrics for Hollywood Heaven, and music director/composer/keyboardist Mayronne (who will be appearing in the guise of Liberace).
Working with old friends is a standard modus operandi for Graham. Heidi Junius and Times-Picayune theater critic David Cuthbert, other Graham collaborators, also go back to NORD. Becky Allen, perhaps his most well-known and indelibly linked partner, has been trodding the boards with him since the 1970s. For many years, Graham and Allen did a two-hander comedy act in clubs -- most notably, a long run at The Mint on Decatur Street (now called El Matador). In fact, the two were game for almost anything, to avoid the dreaded 9-5 -- including throwing together specially tailored portable divertissements for the convention trade. Mayronne, who was often dragooned into these ventures, can still toss off such memorable lyrics as, "Mayonnaise, mayonnaise, you can spread it in so many ways!" In these rough-and-ready venues -- beset by wary corporate types on the one hand or drunken hecklers on the other -- Graham and his cohorts learned how to grab an audience and make them laugh.
But Graham's big breakthrough came in 1996, when he decided to try and write a real play. He drew on the memories of his childhood -- the Ninth Ward and the lower-middle-class way of life that he had long been too ashamed to acknowledge. ... And the Ball and All was an imaginative summoning up of that world. The play is broadly comic, and somehow manages to be gentle and mordant at the same time. It was an unprecedented smash that ran for more than two years. The Producers Circle, the production company run by Graham and Roy Smith, followed up with a seemingly inexhaustible outpouring of local hits, written by Graham. Presently, they have another success, The Black and White Blues at Le Chat Noir, while Our Class Reunion ... and All recently closed at Rock 'n' Bowl after a long run. They are also in pre-production for The Pecan Cracker, a Deep South spoof of The Nutcracker that is slated as a Christmas offering at NORD.
Obviously, at the age of 50, Graham shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary -- as he remarks with a typically homegrown metaphor: "I've got projects backed up like buses, waiting for a parade to pass!"