It was a confetti-filled cavalcade of celebrities, cake, and comedy the Sunday before Thanksgiving, as comedians and classic sitcom stars the valley over descended upon the El Portal Theatre’s Debbbie Reynold’s stage to honor the man most aptly embodying all things celebratory (and sidesplitting) all in one upturned fell swoop: Rip Taylor.
The lobby, fully decorated pre-maturely for Christmas, was additionally festooned with Rip Taylor photos signed (and au natural) from nearly every celebrity/film project/sitcom in which he had ever appeared. Flanking the retrospective: A cake the size of a magician’s suitcase, sandwiched between two large piles of white chocolate mustaches courtesy of Hollywood Chocolatier Frank Sheftel.
Festively, yet historically, adorning the stage were many a sequined robe and jacket worn by the entertainer, courtesy of the Hollywood Museum, fronted by an ironically blue urn (completely diametrically opposed to Taylor’s unironic mustache) containing Taylor’s ashes.
Not so ironically (and relative to all things blue) Taylor’s life evinces the signature ups and downs of Pagliacci himself. No stranger to the concept of laughter-through-tears, Taylor negotiated his way through a rather rough childhood. The victim of copious amounts of bullying and abuse, the aptly monikered “Prince of Pandemonium” “Master of Mayhem”, “Crying Comedian”, “King of Camp and Confetti” swiftly discovered that “they can’t hit you if they’re laughing”.
Born and raised in Washington D.C., politics no doubt played a role in Taylor’s sardonic outlook on life. Attaining congressional pagedom at the outset of his teenage years, he would eventually go on to serve in the armed forces in the Korean War. So commenced Taylor’s origins in showbiz, as it was then that he first began entertaining the troops!
Taylor would eventually go on to star in all manner of movies, sitcoms, cartoons, and game shows, most notably garnering the coveted center square on The Hollywood Squares!
Among Taylor’s noted cinematic appearances: Chuck Barris’ The Gong Show Movie, The Exorcist satire movie Repossessed, co-starring Linda Blair and Leslie Nielsen, and Silence of the Lambs spoof, Silence of the Hams. TV shows in which he appeared include The Monkees, The Bradys, HnRPufnStuf and host of Chuck Barris’ The $1.98 Beauty Show aka “The world’s tackiest TV show”, to speak nothing of The Gong Show — natch!
None more apt to vocally personify animated characters, Taylor’s voice has starred in such colorful sonorous enterprises as The Jetsons, Ducktails the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, Tom and Jerry: The Movie, along with Scooby Doo and The Monsters of Mexico. Last but certainly not least Taylor took home an Emmy for his resounding rendition of Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.
Pertaining to his “more serious” acting roles, he portrayed Demi Moore’s truculent boss in Indecent Proposal and Kate Hudson’s father in the Rob Reiner film Alex and Emma.
But one of the lesser known venues in which Taylor made his mark was Las Vegas. Appearing first and foremost in The Eleanor Powell Show at The Dunes, Taylor would eventually share the stage with such icons as Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Ann-Margaret, Judy Garland, and Sammy Davis Junior, up to and including a once in a lifetime appearance with the bombshell to beat all blonde bombshells garnering Taylor a picture signed “Love and luck to my Baby Doll Chuck Taylor, Love Marilyn Monroe.”
From there, Taylor would commence his journey as one of the most sought-after performers in Vegas. Named “Entertainer of the Year” for three consecutive intervals, noted extravaganzas in which Taylor performed would include The Flamingo Hotel’s Rockette’s Extravaganza, and Rip Taylor’s Christmas Spectacular at The Rio. Noted Broadway and tour productions in which he has starred include Sugar Babies, Anything Goes, Oliver (in which he played Fagan), Peter Pan, (appearing as Captain Hook), and A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Having appeared later in life in Jackass: The Movie, Silent but Deadly with Dawn Wells, Lee Meriwether and Bruce Vilanch, along with the Funny or Die video Ehhhhhhhh.com co-starring Ed Asner and Cloris Leachman, Taylor was introduced to a whole new generation of fans!
And with that, on the momentous afternoon in question, actors, loved ones, and behind the scenes influencers descended upon the proscenium stage, to pay their respects to the King of Comedically Timed Confetti Chucking!!! Interspersed were clips from Taylor’s innumerable variety show, sitcom and HnR PufnStuf appearances featuring a signature Taylor joke one might never forget: “Now that I have replaced sex with food as my new addiction, even I can’t get into my own pants!”
Honoring the comedian first and foremost, his longtime publicist Harlan Boll, whose sentimental remembrances most raptly associated Rip Taylor with food, certain restaurants to be precise, and no doubt the scintillating conversations centered around, in, and of them. Eating establishments among the most superlative kind: Hamburger Hamlet, Silver Spoon, and IHOP (where, as legend would have it, Taylor had his very own booth.)
Taylor “loved Hawaii,” according to Boll. Hence the ubiquitous, vibrant Hawaiian shirts doubling as his costume and leisurewear all in one!
Taylor’s singular rule however was that his age never be divulged and there was much contention as to what it even was. “Right before his death he approved it, but approved it younger,” proclaimed Boll.
Though steadfast in said age-defying anonymity, like any good comedian, Taylor took it all in stride, particularly when attending the theatre wherein he made no bones about admonishing friends to forget about Lincoln, “I thought they were shooting at me!”
Bruce Vilanch, next to alight the stage, distanced himself a far piece from Lincoln by declaring:
“Hello, I’m Boris Johnson, and I need a job…I just saw Charo running into Mexico!!!”
Subsequently referring to his Grumpy Cat shirt which he claims he wore in honor of Taylor, he could only proclaim, “He had his moustache and he (Taylor) was a grumpy cat on many an occasion.”
Describing Taylor as “Hysterically funny…one of the great Vaudevillians,” one of Vilanche’s initial memories of Taylor would be that of his written co-craftsmanship on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour which, though his scripted contribution evoked real genius, “I did not win an Emmy for that.”
Though variety shows were all the rage… to The Partridge Family, not so much. As ABC’s first choice, they rejected it, after which, according to Vilanch, “They (ABC) overlooked many Klezmer groups!”
Additional fun fact(?): Rip Torn declined the role of Alice’s paramour Sam the Butcher. So, their second choice was Rip Taylor. According to Vilanch, it is said that when Vincent Price arrived on the set, foreshadowing his guest appearance, he could only proclaim of the Ann B. Davis/Rip Taylor pairing, “They’re a couple?”
“[Think of it as] Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. Just go with it.” Vilanch proclaims to have responded.
Regarding one of Vilanch’s first penned, (and probably last) Disco musicals entitled Platinum (which Vilanch once discussed at length over dinner with Bette Davis on a rare visit to her abode, but “only because a friend was having an affair with her secretary”) Taylor auditioned with Alexis Smith of whom Smith said ,”Scares me.” This all incumbent on the fact that Taylor seemed so real or unreal she didn’t know what he was going to do next.
Marty Krofft spoke subsequently of Taylor as Sheldon the Sea Genie on HnR PufnStuf and then recounted the time the set caught on fire, proclaiming right before descending the stage, in great Taylor-reminiscent fashion, “Don’t buy stock in confetti, it’ll never go up!”
Candy maker Frank Sheftel, who currently hosts a radio show with none other than Susan Olsen aka Cindy Brady, confessed that Rip Taylor called her “Baby Brady” a fact that she herself could not impart firsthand, as she was regrettably home sick with the flu.
No stranger to brushes with greatness, particularly in that of the chocolate variety, Sheftel is credited with making and providing the chocolate for Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie’s wedding along with making its Russell Stover replica for the film Forrest Gump.
As a teenager, he also got gonged unforgivingly for his ostensibly meager rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sounds of Silence, but was later invited back repeatedly, as a filler act by Chuck Barris who ended up liking him nonetheless. As a result, Sheftel would go on to develop a friendship with Taylor delighting particularly in Cheech and Chong films and the Jackass movies in which Taylor made a cameo.
But the watershed memory in compassion-infused-comedy would be the night Taylor coaxed Sheftel out to the premiere of The Gong Show Movie, over copious protestations, pertaining to Sheftel’s sore stomach. Later, upon dinning at Canter’s Deli, prior to the red carpet parade, Taylor took the liberty of traversing the booths imploring anyone and everyone who would listen, for their Tums, only to find the Los Angeles denizens of the time a little more hale and hearty of the digestive tract, and much less co-dependent with their probiotics: (An age, no doubt, before gluten, and the mass gustatory resentment fomented in its wake – Oy vey…)
Kathy Griffin reminded us all that Rip Taylor “was revolutionary for his time…as a gay guy on TV [in the 70s].”
As fate would have it, Griffin never really worked with Taylor but for the Anna Nicole Christmas Special (mysteriously “missing from the E! Library”, according to Griffin). Ironically enough, the comedienne recalls it being one of the most normal scenes of domestic bliss she had ever beheld as she walked into the onset kitchen only to witness Taylor in charge of the turkey and Anna Nicole hovering over the yams.
From the side of the theatre to mic’d and spotlit appeal, Julie Newmar stated “One of the things we loved about him was that we never knew what he was going to do.” In other words, for the same reason Alexis Smith avoided him, Julie Newmar embraced Taylor!
Ruta Lee addressed us all on the big screen from Mexico stating that she wished Taylor and Debbie Reynolds were there as, Reynolds in particular, loved Mexican food, adding in the same breath, that she was convinced that Reynolds and Taylor were together in the Heavenly realm. Lee, speculating from a most divine tropical paradise knows whereof she speaks. As a co-founder of the group Thalians (with Debbie Reynolds herself) Lee not only recognizes an apt after life pairing when she sees one, but moreover, what is good for the soul. Thalians, a charity-based, philanthropic group dedicated to mental health issues of returning military men and women via UCLA Military Mend, was initiated in 1955; its name, inspired by Greek Goddess Thalia: Muse of Comedy and Idyllic poetry.
An emotional Johnny Whitaker (aka Jody on A Family Affair, Tom Sawyer of the original Disney Tom Sawyer movie and Scotty Baldwin (#1) on General Hospital) gave a touching farewell speech as he referred to Taylor as “one of my greatest friends.”
Alison Arngrim aka Nellie Oleson A-double-K the “Prairie Beeeyotch” from Little House on the Prairie, having never worked with Taylor, DID happen to attend his first mock funeral following that of a real one!
At the age of 19 “I had just come from the funeral of Larry Germain (hairstylist of Little House on the Prairie),” only to enter Taylor’s house to witness a purple coffin from which the comedian promptly sprang like all so much jettisoned confetti, swiftly on the heels of her entry! According to Arngrim, “He was a man who would take death itself and turn it on its head… (pointing to the front of the stage) I keep expecting him to bust out of that urn!”
Most emotional of all was Taylor’s longtime companion of 44 years Robert Fortney, of whom it was said, “deserved a medal for sticking with Taylor,” but admittedly claimed the same thing about Taylor for staying with him. One of Fortney’s most arresting showbiz memories concerning Rip Taylor revolved around Taylor portraying Demi Moore’s curmudgeonly boss in the film Indecent Proposal. Bereft of his signature blonde wig, trading it in for his au natural, white, male pattern, bald-clad glory, almost no one knew it was him. This would include Ms. Moore herself, who, upon first meeting Taylor, merely corrected Taylor’s pronunciation of her first name, (the accent on the secondary syllable rather than the first) to which Taylor could only respond by introducing himself in kind: “It’s DeRIP!”
Jo Anne Worley (and who better to do so?) ramped up the comedy yet again, in a rousing conclusion amidst the glitter-clad costumes and confetti!
After the fact, actor Jim Schendel personally imparted his own remembrances of Taylor: That he used to hand out pictures of Torn (Rip Torn that is) when fans, and mistaken L.A. denizens alike, would approach Taylor and declare their love for Rip Torn. (Torn: not the name symbolic of rending the fabric but the name evocative of putting it together: “Taylor”. Get it together people!!!)
Others in attendance included actress Ann-Margaret, Singer Roslyn Kind, Singer squared, Barbara Van Orden, star of The Young and the Restless, Kate Linder, Olympic Figure Skater Tai Babilonia, Comedienne Judy Tenuta, Singer, Dancer and Musical Oscar winner George Chakiris, Actress (currently best known as Mrs. Puff on Spongebob Squarepants along with Arnold & Wills’ maid Pearl on Diff’rent Strokes) Mary Jo Catlett, child–now adult actor–aka Israel Boone, Darby Hinton, Actor Rico Anderson and none other than Lee Meriwether to name a few!!!
All in all, a day of sentiment, humor, and celebration, and only fitting that celebrities and loved ones honored him on the very stage wherein he had recently opened his wildly successful one man show It Ain’t All Confetti from which sprang the cinematic and lauded documentary, Rip Rip Hooray!
An avid humanitarian, Taylor spent much of his time in support of varying AIDS causes. Other charities in which he was actively engaged were The Thalians, Screen Actors’ Guild, The Actors’ Home, The Friars Home and of course, the list would not be complete bereft of his gregarious contributions to The Jerry Lewis Telethon!
Taylor’s steadfast and longtime partner Robert Fortney requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Thalians at www.thalians.org