Remembering Rip Taylor

I feel hugely out of step, even a little guilty this morning. Every other show biz writer is going to be discussing yesterday’s passing of Lisa Maria Presley — and I will cop to the fact that the news made me very sad. She was as close as we get to American royalty. I learned the news while my wife and I were watching the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles and the new TV reality show that picks up where that movie left off. So there’s Graceland, and a mansion inspired by the Palace of Versailles in Orlando, Florida, and….well, those topics do seem to harmonize with the aesthetics of the late Rip Taylor (Charles Taylor, 1931-2019). Like the King, Taylor performed extensively in Las Vegas. And he even appeared in a 1998 film called Elvis is Alive: I Swear I Saw Him Eating Ding Dongs Outside the Piggly Wiggly. We focus on Taylor this morning because we’ve long known that our previous post on him a decade ago, about the $1.98 Beauty Show, was a bit perfunctory. And I was on a public speaking tour when he passed away in October, 2019, else I might have posted a decent memorial at that time. So here I am eulogizing him late, someone who was at his peak 40 years ago, on the day when everyone is memorializing the daughter of the greatest pop star of all time, who was married to the other greatest pop star of all time (I won’t argue this nebulous point and neither should you. There are a LOT of “greatest pop stars of all time”). Anyway all I can say is, if I wasn’t at least a step behind, I wouldn’t be marching at all.

The photo above tells you everything you need to know about Rip Taylor: 1) It is the 1970s; 2) he is taking all the attention away from Jerry Lewis; 3) Jerry is letting him; and 4) he is doing it with the hokiest of comedy props, a rubber chicken. The picture also presents us with an opportunity to talk about Taylor’s comic mask, which was such that it hid his real age for decades. It consisted of an obvious toupee; a handlebar mustache of the type associated with barber shop quartets and biker bars; bushy, Grinch-like eyebrows, and lively pale blue eyes that were always dancing and darting about. Still photos don’t do Taylor justice, he was always in motion and making noise. He reminded me a bit of Bert Lahr in “dandy lion” mode, with all the Cowardly Lion make-up and costume ON. And like that larger-than-life character, Taylor had a bit where he sobbed and cried. It was one of his signature routines when he first began showing up on TV screens in the early 1960s.

Did you know that Rip Taylor was born on the exact same day as Charles Nelson Reilly? Not just the same birthday, but the same date in the same year, almost as though the heavens decreed that there must be not one, but TWO gay, strange, over the top comic presences named Charles in the world to delight television audiences in the coming decades. Taylor started out performing as a soldier in special services during the Korean War. Like Jerry Lewis, he started out doing pantomime routines to record albums. When he began doing his own verbal shtick, he maintained the same animated, exaggerated physical style from the lip syncing routines. Throughout the ’50s he performed in strip joints, night clubs, and resorts in Miami and The Catskills. This naturally got him on the TV shows of Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Phyllis Diller, Johnny Carson, Woody Woodbury, Merv Griffin, etc. et al. His status increased in Las Vegas, and he began opening for acts like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Judy Garland, Ann-Margret, Debbie Reynolds, and Eleanor Powell’s revue. For a number of years he was married to a show girl named Rusty Rowe. He was pals with Liberace, and in time, his personal style began to resemble Lee’s garish, and out there flair. Rhinestones were generously employed.

Taylor’s big style appealed to children. One of the first places where I would have seen him was on episodes of The Monkees and Sigmund and the Sea Monster (even as that other outre Charles had starred on Lidsville!) The disco era was Taylor’s time of glory. At some point, he began throwing confetti into the air whenever he appeared, as though he were his own personal New Year’s Eve party — a touch of genius I have occasionally stolen, for what better way to get the audience in a good mood before you’ve even started your act? I saw him on things like Hollywood Squares and The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, and then — lightning in a bottle — he crossed paths with Chuck Barris of The Gong Show, who put him on The Chuck Barris Rah-Rah Show, and then the pinnacle, The $1.98 Beauty Show on which he reigned supreme for a single season in 1978.

Taylor was one of the few people who was equally at home on game shows (he seemed to be on most of them), or teen oriented music shows like American Bandstand or Dance Fever, or off color adult programming, or children’s shows. (We had cause to mention him the other day; he played Uncle Fester in the 1992 cartoon reboot of The Addams Family). Occasionally he got to play a real role, as in Adrian Lyne’s 1993 thriller Indecent Proposal, or on the soap Santa Barbara. He did a turn on John Oliver’s show as recently as 2015. Apparently there’s been a documentary about him in progress since 2016 called Rip, Rip, Hooray, but it has to date not been widely released. The world wants to know!

For more on variety entertainment, including TV variety, where Rip Taylor throve, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.