Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1996
Dennis Kelly was born to be Joe Boyd. Both the real and the fictional characters grew up loving loser baseball teams. Boyd, the middle-aged fan of the fictional Washington Senators, sells his soul to the Devil to become the world’s greatest ballplayer and defeat those “Damn Yankees”.
Kelly, a Cubs fan who still lives in Chicago, says “I could really identify, at the sports level — loving a team in the gutter — and at the desire level — wanting your team to win and wanting to be young again.” He stops for a hearty laugh. “I think that’s why I got the job.”
Not only did he get the job, but he kept it. He played Joe Boyd in Jack O’Brien’s acclaimed 1994 Old Globe revival of the 1955 Adler-Ross-Abbott musical smash-hit, “Damn Yankees”. Then, he went to Broadway with the show, and stayed on through the national tour, which, after 46 weeks and 38 cities, makes its first hometown return (November 5-10 at the Civic Theatre).
It’s a homecoming for Kelly, too. He played his first Little League game in San Diego. He saw his first movie here (a John Wayne double bill at the Rio Theatre in North Park). He attended Garfield Elementary School, and lived here for about four years in the early 1950s.
“I have very fond memories of San Diego,” Kelly says wistfully. When he spent four months here with the premiere of “Damn Yankees”, he re-visited the cliffs of Point Loma, and the schoolyard at Garfield, where the grass was replaced by blacktop but the same old merry-go-round was still there.
Both his parents were ordained ministers; Kelly, Sr., had his first church on El Cajon Boulevard. “He had a gorgeous voice,” recalls Kelly, who dedicates all his performances on tour to his late father. “My parents used to do a Sunday night radio program for the church.”
Immediately after high school, Dennis went into show business. “There’s very little difference between the two,” he says, comparing his parents’ work with his. “It’s amazing how many PK’s — Preacher’s Kids — there are in this business.”
After 33 years in the business, he made his Broadway debut in “Damn Yankees” — at age 52. That’s a lot younger than Jerry Lewis, the current star of the show, who had to wait till he was 70 to make it to the Great White Way. “It was a dream for him,” says Kelly of Lewis. “His father, a vaudevillian, had always told him, ‘You ain’t done it all till you’ve done Broadway.’ He was like a kid in a toy shop.”
According to Kelly, he still is. Even after a year, Lewis “keeps it fun. When the curtain comes down every night — and we get a standing ovation every single performance — everyone feels so good. We all hug each other and go home happy. You don’t see that that often. There are often glum faces, people shuffle off, thinking, ‘Oh boy, I gotta do this again tomorrow.’ That’s one of the reasons I stayed so long [with this show]. It’s fun and it’s funny.”
It was funny before, too, when it first opened in San Diego, with the Devil played by Victor Garber (who recently returned to the Old Globe to play Macbeth). Funny, but different.
“Victor is a consummate actor. His energy was very high, but his focus, rhythm and pace were different. Victor’s pace was much faster, and his focus was on acting. Jerry’s like a genius with rhythm. He won’t allow the same pace or rhythm [for any stretch of time]. He starts off slow, so everyone gets all the information about the deal and the escape clause and everything, and in the second act he really cuts loose. When he sings “Those Were the Good Old Days,” he does a little step-out in the middle. And that’s perfect; the Devil would like to be a vaudeville performer… Things were probably a bit more serious with Victor. They’re probably more fun now.
“The difference between Victor and Jerry is one’s a comedian, who says funny things, and the others a comic, who thinks and acts funny. Jerry is a very physical comic. Sometimes it’s hard to do a scene with him. I’ll start laughing. If I let him see me enjoy it, he’ll start to laugh…. How lucky I am, being paid well for doing something I adore doing. It puts breath in my lungs.”
The show’s dramatic premise has become a reality for Kelly. “Going to Broadway gave me a chance to realize a dream I’d given up on. It’s given me a younger feeling. Sometimes I forget I’m not 25… When I was in New York, I wanted to play in the Theatre [softball] League. But I was so out of shape, I was afraid of pulling a muscle and having to stay out of the show.”
Now he plans to spend another year with the tour (there’s talk of Europe and/or Australia), and then try to get back to Broadway. But he’d definitely stay on if the proposed HBO movie of the show comes to fruition. “[Actor] George Hearn told me the only way to make money in this business is to stay with a show as long as you can. I think it was good advice.”
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.