Over time I have grown interested in the phenomenon of live theatre in Los Angeles — and already I know you’re hearing condescension in my remarks which I don’t intend. Yes, New York is America’s undisputed theatre capital, but for a long while there, prior to its eventual displacement by film, radio and TV, theatre was a national institution, present in every American city and town. L.A.’s theatre is interesting because, paradoxically, most of it grew up AFTER that city had become the film/TV capital. It is largely an adjunct to THAT industry, rather than the other way around. At any rate, this is a major digression, deserving of its own post.
This is all preamble to saluting Billy Barnes (1927-2012). Barnes was a local L.A. phenom, born and raised there, and did most of his work there. By trade a songwriter, cabaret performer and professional piano player, Barnes became best known for a series of revues he produced, some of them in collaboration with Bob Rodgers, who wrote sketches and directed. These revues have become legendary, for many of the then-unknowns in the casts went on to become quite famous. The first, The Billy Barnes Revue, which launched in 1956, featured a cast that included Ken Berry, Jackie Joseph, Lennie Weinrib, Bert Convy, Patti Regan, Ann Guilbert (Millie from The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Barnes’ then-wife Joyce Jameson. The show ran for two years. In 1959, when they brought the production to New York, the original L.A. version was kept going for almost another year, with a new cast that included Joanne Worley.
The New York version opened off-Broadway at the York Playhouse in June 1959, then moved to Broadway in August, then was forced to move off-Broadway after a month because another show was coming in. Then it returned to off-Broadway, where it closed a couple of months later (late November) due to a mishap. In October almost the entire cast flew to Chicago to do a TV spot and got snowed in before they could return to NYC for the next day’s performance, forcing a costly cancellation of a show. (The show was Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Penthouse, by the way). The entire cast was replaced by a new group that included Charles Nelson Reilly, Larry Hovis and others. But that version didn’t click and the show closed.
Barnes’ next production (1960) was Billy Barnes People, with many of the original cast members from his previous show. That also went to Broadway in 1961, but closed after four days. Later Billy Barnes revues included Billy Barnes Party, Billy Barnes L.A. and Billy Barnes Hollywood. He also wrote musical production numbers for television, including Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The Carol Burnett Show and several Oscar telecasts. His best known song is “Too Long at the Fair”, recorded by Barbra Streisand, Patti Page, and others. It was one of the songs in The Billy Barnes Revue.