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05/03/2012 - By Gayle Davis
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Andrea Wolff - What A Character
What a treat is was to sit down with Andrea Bell-Wolff! We laughed and then laughed some more as the character actress took a trip down memory lane, recalling her days on Broadway as well as her days performing on the “Donny and Marie Show.” Bell-Wolff has had the opportunity to work alongside many well-known celebrities in the business such as Ethel Merman, Carol Channing and Phyllis Diller - to name a few!
Bell-Wolff talks about getting her start in the entertainment industry, as she reflects back to the tender age of four when she used to sing at home during family gatherings and people would comment about how great she was. As she grew up, she was bit by the “bug” and the rest is history -- literally. Bell-Wolff’s resume boasts credits on Broadway in the roles of Ermengarde and Minnie Fay in “Hello, Dolly!,” appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Emergency!,” and many performances seen regionally and internationally. She has worked for nearly 50 years in show business!
After taking off some time to raise her family, Bell-Wolff has re-emerged and has been involved
in a few productions. But the one she is looking forward to the most is the production of “Loose Screws,” a one-woman show starring none other than Bell-Wolff herself, produced by her production company, Loose Screws Productions, in New York City.
We invite you to sit back, relax and enjoy the show starring Andrea Bell-Wolff!
LIM: Glancing over your bio, you sure have done a lot during your career as an actress, singer and dancer. When did you first realize that you had these special talents?
ABW: I would say when I was about four years old. I was always dancing and singing around the house and people would take notice and say, “You know, she’s really good.” I just really enjoyed doing it … I just had a love for it.
LIM: When did you decide to receive formal training?
ABW: When I was 13, I went away to a sleep-away camp on Long Island called Gateway Playhouse Theatrical Camp. I was cast in “The Sound of Music” as the eight-year-old girl, Marta; they actually had to ace bandage my chest! The camp was affiliated with a semi- professional theater. A lot of the kids who went there also went to a school in New York called Professional Children’s School. When I left the camp, I decided I really wanted to go to that school. I would say I was going into my sophomore or junior year of high school. I took a test and I got in -- barely. You have a lot of protégés and very smart children who go there. As soon as I started going there, my mother started taking me to a singing teacher named Gracian Oullett, and he recommended that I go see a children’s manager by the name of Muriel Karl. She took me on and sent me out for a few little things … some commercials and things of that nature. At one point, Carol Channing was going out on the road with “Hello, Dolly!” and she sent me out on an audition that was narrowed down to three girls for the part of Ermengarde, but I didn’t get it. About a few months thereafter, she called me and said, “The girl who is doing that part is actually leaving and they want to see you again.” So I went and I got it! I was at school and they called me from class to tell me the news. I was so excited. They told me I was leaving in a week to perform with the show up in Rochester, N.Y. I was walking on cloud nine! So I went off and I joined the company. This was the tail end of the tour. Then, I got a call from my manager that the girl who was playing the part on Broadway was leaving to do “Henry, Sweet Henry.” So they wanted me to join the Broadway Company, not only to play Ermengarde, but to play the understudy, Minnie Fay, which was the third female lead. So I was doing that, and then the girl who was playing Minnie Fay was leaving … so then I went right into the part of Minnie Fay!
LIM: Let’s talk a little bit about the audition process. Was it nerve-wracking early on or did it come naturally to you?
ABW: The business is filled with young and talented people. I think when you are younger, you aren’t as nervous. I always wanted to do my best. I was pretty secure in what I could do at that time. I would always want to “get the part,” but if I didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world. Life would go on.
LIM: You have appeared on several television shows that many will recall: “Donny and Marie,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Emergency!” -- to name a few. Please tell me how you landed these jobs and when?
ABW: I had already been doing “Dolly” on Broadway and I learned of an audition with a band called “Your Father’s Mustache.” They were based in Greenwich Village. They also had a Dixieland band that would perform on the weekends. So I got the job, and they landed a stint on the “Ed Sullivan Show” doing the warm-ups. On Sundays, I would do these warm-ups -- getting the audience warmed up. Then, we got to actually perform on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” I also did a few commercials in New York: Dentyne, Dr. Pepper, High Karate Cologne. A lot of the television and film work I did out in California.
LIM: Did you move out there?
ABW: I moved out there when I was 23.
LIM: So you were headed out to become a big star …
ABW: [Laughs] I never really thought I was going to be a big star. I really love doing what I am doing and I know who I am. I know that I am very distinct in what I do and can do. I just like to work. I mean, it’s great if you can get paid …
LIM: So when did you appear on the “Donny and Marie Show?”
ABW: When I was out there, I got involved with these people, Sid and Marty Kroft, who were puppeteers who were involved with the show. I was actually a dancing clock. We did a whole number together where we appeared together on the show and my name was in the credits, which was kind of nice.
LIM: How would you describe your television experience compared to Broadway?
ABW: Not as rewarding and not as successful. I actually did a part on “Emergency!” and it was called “The Girl on the Balance Beam.” I had to audition and cry hysterically like I needed to be rescued. I got the part and I was very excited. I go up to Universal Studios and I go for my fitting. I was supposed to play a girl who is with Tinkerbell Airlines who gets stuck in the wires … and they put me in this cute pink little leotard with a crown and wand and it looked great! The day I go to fill it, they come out with this padded harness that was going under my leotard because I was going to be suspended 15 feet up in the air. Well, I looked like a hippo! They hung me up really high with no mattresses. So besides looking fat and being dangerous, it was not one of my shining moments. I prefer Broadway!
LIM: You were in the company of such great talent: Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Grable and Phyllis Diller. Did you pinch yourself every day you went to work?
ABW: I loved going to work. It is always great doing the shows, and the energy is just amazing when you are not only working with the stars, but with everyone in the theater. I also got to work with Linda Purl, Desi Arnaz, Jr., E.G. Marshall, Ruby Dee, Tammy Grimes and Andrea McArdle. When I did “Grease” in Sacramento, Calif. with Desi Arnaz, Jr., Lucy came to the show and took everyone out to dinner. This was in the 1970’s. When I was on the road with Dorothy Lamour, I met President Lyndon B. Johnson. He came to my dressing room door and asked to meet me!
LIM: How would you compare your roles on Broadway to taking the show on the road? Is there one you prefer?
ABW: The thing is, when I was really young and traveling, that was great because you are young and you don’t mind it. I got to go places that I probably wouldn’t have ever gone to.
LIM: How does that work? Do they put you all up in a hotel?
ABW: Yes. You have what they call a national tour and what’s known as a bus and truck. When you go on the national tour, which is better, you basically are traveling by plane, stay at the best hotel … it’s much nicer. When you are with the bus and truck, you get there, you get off the bus, go to your hotel; you unpack, go to dinner, and go to do the show. Sometimes you have no idea what the theater is going to be like before you walk in there. It’s like really making the best of the situation. I don’t think I could do a bus and truck now, but it was exciting at the time. We would get off in some towns, especially in the South, and the people at some restaurants would say, “We don’t want actors in here.” Back then, there was prejudice against gay people.
LIM: You also toured with Walt Disney Productions …
ABW: I was one of four people and we toured the country with two different shows. One was called, “Donald’s Birthday.” I was Donald! But I was also Minnie Mouse -- in full costume. We used to have bodyguards! Kids would always pull on the costumes and pull us. It was a good job and it paid very well. At that time in my life, it was a good thing for me.
LIM: So, this was an interim sort of thing?
ABW: Yes. We toured all over the country to malls. We actually did a private party at someone’s house that was friends with David Eisner, and Dustin Hoffman was there.
LIM: Tell me more about your experience performing in the New York area and throughout the region. Do these jobs, or roles, help to earn or keep your Actors’ Equity?
ABW: I am an active Equity card member since 1969. I got my card early because I needed it for “Hello, Dolly!”. I just pay my dues to keep it active. I am also a member of the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA. The business has changed enormously. Because of the economy, a lot of theaters have really had to cut back and limit the amount of actors with Equity for shows. That makes it very difficult. A lot of people have actually made the choice to give up either their Screen Actors Guild status, or their Equity Card, because they want to work. There’s a lot of non-union work available. It’s a scary time for everyone. Most stars are taking jobs that used to go to the actor like me. They are taking all of the voice-over work. They are doing a lot of the commercial work, and this is the type of work that the average actor like me would do. Now, there’s a lot of crossover and a lot of people not working. I have been lucky because I have been able to keep my foot in there and keep working.
LIM: Las Vegas, Australia and Chile are just a few places around the world where you have been afforded the opportunity to belt out a few tunes …
ABW: Okay, Chile … I was living in California and I had done a pilot for a new television show called “The Circus Is Coming,” which didn’t get picked up. But I met a man during that time; his name was Bob Yerkes. He’s a very famous stunt man and very well known in that circle. We became friends and he tried to train me to become a stunt person for children. But after three days, I hurt in areas of my body that I didn’t know existed! So, I decided that wasn’t for me. One day he calls me and says, “What are you doing next week? How would you like to go to Chile?”. Mary Ann Mobley is supposed to go to Chile with Connie Stevens and Joey Travolta and she can’t go. I said, “How can you send me in lieu of Mary Ann Mobley? She was a Miss America, people know her. He said, “Guaranteed, by the time you get there, people will think you are a big star!” So I got my music together. He said, “Not only are you going to be a judge in the Vina Del Mar Music Festival, but you are going to sing, too!” So I get on the plane to Chile. This is like the biggest event there. It’s like a five-night event. When I got off the plane, people were screaming my name and trying to tear off my clothes! As for Australia, I was working on a show in Las Vegas called, “Bottoms Up!”. We performed two shows every day at the lounge in Caesars Palace. We did the opening act for Engelbert Humperdinck and The 5th Dimension, sometimes. We would sometimes fill in; it was a comedy review. This show was asked to go for two months to Australia to be performed at the South Sydney Junior Club. While we were there, we did two TV specials.
LIM: Being a performer is not the easiest of careers to have, especially while raising a family. How did you find balance?
ABW: When my daughter was born, we were living in California. She was neurologically impaired but we really didn’t know what was wrong with her. I was able to work. Then, I had gotten a divorce and had moved back here with my parents, who were very helpful in watching my daughter. But when my son was born, it became a bit more difficult. Once they get into school, you have to be more involved … it’s really hard. When you are a performer, one of the things you really have to guard is your voice, and if you don’t get enough sleep it is one of the first things to go. So I decided that I didn’t bring my children into the world to be raised by somebody else; I wanted to be their mother. As much as I loved the theater, I had to put my priorities first. As my daughter got older, issues with her became more bizarre. We would take her from doctor to doctor. She was tested for every kind of syndrome you can think of and nothing came up. She was gaining weight. I sent her to every weight loss camp there was and everyone would lose weight, except for her. Finally, when she was 16, I took her to another endocrinologist at Cedars-Sinai. He said, “I think your daughter has Prader-Willi syndrome. She doesn’t have all the traits, but it seems she has some traits.” Sure enough, we sent her to a hospital in Pittsburgh that has a wing for children with this type of syndrome. They did testing on her and found that she is something that they call a mosaic. They didn’t initially pick up on it because she is only missing part of her fifteenth chromosome. Normally, people who have this, they are never taller than their mothers. So even as tiny as I am, she is taller than me … so they missed it. Once we had the diagnosis, it was kind of a big relief so that I could get her help. She actually lived at home with us until she was 21. Now, she lives at a group home in Connecticut. There is 24-hour staff there. She has a life. She has a job and a boyfriend.
LIM: You put your career on hold, and now you are sort of getting back into the biz.
ABW: A couple of years ago, I decided to go back. I did an off-Broadway production -- off, off, off-Broadway [laugh].
LIM: Was it on Staten Island? [laugh]
ABW: Maybe it would have been better if it was! [laugh] It was at the Sanford Meisner Theater. It was called, “Conversations with the Pool Boy.” When I auditioned for the theater, I didn’t realize it was a gay theater. I mean, it really didn’t matter that it was, but I got cast as a lesbian. It was really not one of my finer moments. People came to see it and it was cute, but not so great. I worked with a lot of bands, too. I was with an original band called The Space Cadet League. They were local and we did CBGB’s. We worked wherever we could get booked. So we did that.
LIM: What kind of music did you perform?
ABW: We did a lot of covers and originals, and when I was working, Cyndi Lauper’s manager discovered me and took me on. That’s when I got a recording contract. I was “Angora”; they gave me that name. So I did that for a while. I was on the road with “George M!” the musical for awhile.
LIM: You are currently in production of a one-woman show called “Loose Screws.” It is a show that will be produced by your own production company, Loose Screws Productions. Tell me about the show and why you decided to take the plunge.
ABW: About a year ago, this is fairly new, I decided that I was going to do a cabaret act. So I got together with my musical director, Jeff Halpern, and we started working on the act. As I am singing songs, he said to me, “We should do some fairytale characters in this act.” So I said, “Okay.” While I was singing, I began to change the words to “dirty” lyrics. We started adding dialogue. He said, “You know what? This stuff is brilliant! Go home and start writing!” Now, I am not a writer, but I have a really bizarre imagination. People say to me, “Where do you come up with this stuff?” I don’t know, it’s there and it’s always been there. I try to keep it under tabs because people might think I belong in an insane asylum. I think things and I say ‘em! I would get up at 2 a.m. and start writing, and he would take it and format it. Before we knew it, we didn’t have a cabaret act, we had a show. He said he would love to do underscoring for it. Well, I wanted backup singers -- they add a lot. They are both from “Forbidden Broadway.” We put the show together and did it at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York. A lot of people came up to me and said, “We can really see this playing in a theater somewhere for a specific crowd.” So, we are working on it. The only thing is I have to get the licensing rights for some of the music so that we have the permission to perform in a regular theater.
LIM: Where did the name “Loose Screws” come from?
ABW: Me. I have just a few loose screws! I actually have screws coming out of my head in the show when I am in an insane asylum. The whole show is a story of one woman’s journey. This is not my real life. There are sections of things I have gone through, but this is not my real life story. I was never a drug addict or a porn star. This is all out of “Andrea’s” imagination! Oh, and I was never in an insane asylum -- Yet! [laugh] It’s a show about surviving. I am a survivor. I have had some journeys in my life. Life is a roller coaster; you get the good with the bad.
LIM: Recently you received some bad news. During your yearly mammogram, you were diagnosed with the early stages of breast cancer. How has this forced you to look at life as you know it right now?
ABW: As I said, I am a survivor. I know I am going to survive this too. I don’t know really what the next stage of it’s going to bring. I have yet to go through taking the medications and the things that I am going to have to go through. I am going through my life like I would normally; like nothing is wrong. I am not going to worry about something until there is something to worry about. At this point today, I feel great. I have been very blessed in my life. I have a wonderful man in my life who I met 30 years ago, my husband Robert. And I have a son, Adam. You also know that there is always tomorrow. And something wonderful can happen tomorrow.
LIM: Are you satisfied with all that you have done in your career, or do you want more?
ABW: You know, I am 62 …
LIM: But you don’t look it!
ABW: Thank you. You know, a lot of people my age are retiring, and I feel like I am beginning again. I would love to be offered a sitcom, or whatever comes my way!
Broadway show tunes, music from the 50’s and 60’s, doo-wop, rhythm and blues
Cult Movie “Silent Running,” “Schindler’s List,” “Spartacus,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Dr. Zhivago”
John Edwards -Psychic, Dr. Oz - God , just not yet
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