Theater Preview: ‘Good Night, Mr. Barrymore’
Actor David Graham Richmond strikes a pose in front of a photo of a young John Barrymore. Richmond portrays the famous actor in ‘Goodnight, Mr. Barrymore’ on Oct. 30 at the Avo Theater in Vista.
Homage to the Great John Barrymore
Vista’s Avo Theater to stage ‘Good Night, Mr. Barrymore’ on Oct. 30
By Marianne Regan
VISTA — John Barrymore was the George Clooney of his day. Handsome, suave, a ladies man (he was married four times) and an icon in the theater, he was at the top of his game on both the stage and screen. During a 25-year career arc, he starred as the leading man in more than 60 films and had established himself on the stage with memorable performances of, among others, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Richard III. There is a YouTube video of Orson Welles being interviewed in 1963 wherein he admits that John Barrymore was “the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen.” You can view the 1933 screen test of Barrymore’s Hamlet in this clip.
Barrymore was born John Sidney Blythe in Philadelphia in 1882 to a theatrical family — both his parents and siblings were in the “business” —and his formative years were spent doing vaudeville and light comedy until he finally found his forte in serious drama. Hit followed hit until he caught the attention of Hollywood and was tapped for silent films during the early years of motion pictures.
Unlike some actors who couldn’t make the transition to “talkies,” Barrymore displayed equal proficiency, most likely because of his stage training, and spent another decade churning out movie after movie. His handsome face allowed him to play opposite many of the leading ladies of his day. Unfortunately, he was his own worst enemy and his alcoholic tendencies finally got him booted out of Hollywood and back to the stage. The last four years of his life he tried to reclaim his former status, but died without doing so, in 1942. He was just 60 years old.
At 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, The Curbside Café in Vista is a happening place. Inside the small café, the noise is deafening, but the patio seating is also packed and
full of animated diners. I am scheduled to meet with Steven J. Conners, actor, author and playwright to discuss his current project, “Good Night, Mr. Barrymore,” a one-man play about the iconic stage and screen star of the 20th century. I recognize Conners right away by his trademark Greek fisherman’s cap. We sit down and order tea for both of us and I ask him to tell me how he became involved in the theater.
In 1959, Conners met Jack Baker, who was then traveling around with “Dr. Silkini’s Midnight Ghost Show” and later “Dr. Silkini’s Asylum of Horror” — a magic show with a macabre slant. Although he started out as a “gofer,” in just a few years, Conners was managing the show and creating its illusions.
When Baker died in 1980, Conners purchased the rights and titles from Baker’s widow and continued performing as the magician. About this time, Conners was also producing a traveling children’s show, “The Magic Lamp of Mother Goose,” and needed a replacement actor for “Old King Cole.” He called a talent agent who sent over David Graham Richmond. Richmond was hired on the spot and a friendship and collaboration was born. In the mid-’80s, Richmond and Conners co-wrote the national arena tour of “The Bugs Bunny Revue” for Warner Brothers Entertainment in New York.
I spoke with David Richmond over the phone on the same day as my interview with Conners. Richmond trained for the stage at The Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He co-wrote and produced “The Passion of Dracula,” which opened off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater in 1977. In a partnership with Bob Hall, Richmond co-authored an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus,” which had its regional premier at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park in 1987-88. His most recent stage role was in 2008, playing Inspector Tupolski in the Martin McDonagh play “Pillowman,” under the direction of Natasha Isakova-Williams for the Balagula Theater in Lexington, Ky.
Richmond became interested in John Barrymore as a result of reading Gene Fowler’s sentimental biography, “Good Night, Sweet Prince.” In conversations with Conners, Richmond would share favorite anecdotes about Barrymore. Over the years, even though they were involved in other writing projects, Conners and Richmond would toss ideas back and forth about doing a play on Barrymore. About seven years ago, Conners produced a working script that he shared with Richmond. “What do you think?” Conners recalls asking Richmond after he had read the script. “While I hate to say it, this is actually quite good and I think it will work,” Richmond responded in his deep, gravelly voice. “I’ll do it!”
In 1997, Playwright William Luce wrote a one-man play, “Barrymore,” which premiered on Broadway and starred Christopher Plummer. But, as Conners explains, “the Luce play fabricated a storyline for Barrymore. Our play deals with actual events and a true timeline.”
“Good Night, Mr. Barrymore” focuses on the last four years of the famed actor’s life when he was touring in the play “My Dear Children” in a desperate attempt to pay off his debts to, among others, all of his ex-wives. The staging and premise are minimal: Barrymore has arrived ahead of schedule at the theater and discovers that his costume trunks have been delivered, but no one and nothing else has. So, he sets about getting things ready for the first performance. Even though Richmond lives in Versailles, Ky. and Conners is in Vista, the two have been rehearsing this two-act play through the technology of Skype.
I asked Conners why it is important for Barrymore to be remembered. “I think the choices he made and the films and plays that he performed are so much more than could be done today,” Conners said. “His life should be a part of every theater course that’s taught.”
Also, young Hollywood could learn a lesson or two about being a “star” from Barrymore. “Although he lived a very wild life, Barrymore was a good and honest man,” said Conners. “He could have declared bankruptcy instead of paying his debts, but he didn’t.” Which is important to the Barrymore descendants, of which Drew Barrymore is probably the most famous. In fact, Drew’s first name was her paternal great-grandmother’s last name and. of course, Barrymore is just the stage name that the whole family adopted.
Both Richmond and Conners would love for “Good Night, Mr. Barrymore” to become the hit for them that “Mark Twain Tonight!” has become for Hal Holbrook. Audiences in Southern California have a chance to make that happen by attending this labor of love that’s taken 30 years to unfold.
On Oct. 30, two performances will be held at the Avo Theater, 303 Main St., inVista, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets/information: (760) 724-2110. Website: www.moonlightstage.com.
Marianne Regan is a member of Actor’s Equity and SAG-AFTRA since 1981. She began a career in theater in 1976 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pa., and moved to San Diego in 1985. She has performed at the North Coast Repertory Theater, the Mission Playhouse and has taught and directed at the San Diego Junior Theater.