Rita McKenzie: Hello, Rita!

Look like you’re having fun, but don’t have any
-Lawrence Welk

Rita McKenzie, the star of the highly acclaimed and award-winning off-Broadway Musical, Ethel Merman’s Broadway, is one of my favorite entertainers. She is also one of Broadway, Hollywood and television’s most versatile actresses. Jerry Herman says: “Rita is absolutely the best. If you want to know what Ethel Merman was really like, it will never get any better than this.”
Those of you who follow my blog know that I’m writing a book celebrating Hello, Dolly! There are various productions happening around the country to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary, also the purpose of my book at this time. Rita McKenzie is the only entertainer that I can think of who could play Dolly Levi as Jerry Herman originally envisioned her. 
I hope that all who read this will suggest to those venues that they consider Rita McKenzie!
Ethel Merman was the reigning royalty of the Broadway stage for four decades. She first sang the songs of many of the great songwriters of her era – Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman – who all considered Merman among the greatest interpreters of their work. It takes a star to play a star of this magnitude and Rita has that wrapped up in spades. They forever belong to each other's voice and persona.
I was thrilled when she took time out of her busy schedule a few weeks ago to sit down and discuss all things Rita! Today, I'm celebrating Rita McKenzie!
The above quote is Rita’s favorite. The reason she likes it is because when we work in our profession, or any profession, you have to do the work, but you must look like it’s a lot of fun to everybody else.
Rita started entertaining when she was three years old. She loved to sing and dance. Now, we are talking about her mother’s kitchen! She always liked it. She had an affinity for music. Rita’s mother loved to listen to opera. There was always music in their house. When she was eleven or twelve years old, she was part of a singing group called The Gumdrops. They were an a cappella group. There were six of them and they won several contests. They were singing rock and roll and those types of songs at the time. Rita thought to herself, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done. This is so much fun. This is what I desire to do.” Growing up, Rita was in dancing school, she took piano lessons, and she went to charm school. You would think her parents would say. “Hey, that’s great! Why don’t you do this for a living?” 

They said NO! “A lady doesn’t do that.” Rita thought, “What lady?” Rita had a choice of high schools. There were four or five that she could choose from. She had gone to Catholic schools. There was an all girl school and they did plays every year and they got their costumes from Brooks Van Horne which was a huge costume house in the city. Some of the girls played boys. They did operettas and musicals. Rita thought, “My parents don’t want me to do this so much, BUT, if they see me in one of these shows, they’re definitely going to want me to do this.” So, of course, she went to that school.  She played the lead in several productions, including Cyrano deBergerac

She played Cyrano AND King Arthur in Camelot. It was that kind of a deal. Just as she hoped and expected, her parents loved her in these productions. They thought she was great. 
When she got out of high school, she went to Nazareth College in Rochester, NY, for a year. She then came back and went to a junior college, Immaculate Conception Junior College, now called Felician College. All during that time, she didn’t pursue this business at all. She had her first child. She eventually started in community theater. She started, believe it or not, washing dishes. She’ll never forget going to her first meeting. She was new and they asked her if she would wash dishes! She thought they were kidding. They weren’t. THAT’S how she got her toes into the water! She did Gypsy when she was twenty-eight. It was highly acclaimed and her mother saw her in it and told her she was so good. At that point, her parents told her, “We want what you want.” 

She did summer stock, but she could only do it part time. She would do a musical here or there but she had a child at home. She went to study in New York. She did four or five years of study. She did two years at HB Studios; she did theater workshops, studied with Larry Moss. Larry nailed her. He told her she had to gain twenty pounds or lose twenty pounds but that she couldn’t stay the way she was.   
She was the housewife in his class, probably the only housewife. She lived in Connecticut. She would take the train in early in the morning. She would go back at night. She did this every Monday. She paid her dues in ways that other people don’t pay their dues but she wanted to do this. She eventually got her Equity card at Coachlight Dinner Theater, which no longer exists. She did Theater by the Sea when it was Tommy Brent’s, where I have also worked. She built up her career and continued to grow. Around 1989, Equity card in her possession, she is going to cattle calls and getting on those long lines just to be seen. She doesn’t have an agent. She would get in and they would love her but she had no major credits.

Chris Powich, a friend of hers since the seventies, tells her, “This is ridiculous. You don’t need to be doing that. We’ll put an act together and go to Don’t Tell Mama, a club on Forty-Sixth Street in New York.” He brought up the fact that critics were saying that she reminded them of a young Ethel Merman and suggested they put together a show of her songs. Rita said to him that she didn’t even like Merman! 
She liked Julie Andrews but she didn’t want to be Ethel Merman. He said, “Let’s just see what happens”, and they put twenty minutes together. They went to Don’t Tell Mama’s and they loved it. They did a section on Irving Berlin of all of the song titles he had written for Merman. 
They knew in May that they were booked in September. That’s how they did it. They got the booking and then they booked the show. They wrote the show and the first night, they had about six people in the audience. Rita was sick to her stomach. She doesn’t even remember taking a breath from the first moment of the first song to the end of the show. She literally didn’t breath. 
The late Bob Harrington, who wrote a cabaret column called Bistro Bits for Back Stage, wrote a review. He said she could be wonderful, BUT, and then he named a couple of things. They then took the show away and took it to Rhode Island, to the Colonial Theater. They went there and said they wanted to use the theater for a night and asked what the cost would be. 
It was like five hundred dollars. Chris, with the help of Tommy Brent, got together huge mailing lists, and they invited EVERYBODY to come in and see the show. They charged nine dollars a ticket. 
They had rewritten it, turning it into an actual play with music. Now, it was a musical. Before, it was a cabaret act. 
The audience loved it, passing the litmus test. These were people who were invited but did not know what they were coming to see. Chris and Rita brought it back down to New York, they got a press agent, and sure enough, Liz Smith heard about it, and The Ballroom, which was a big place at the time, got wind of it and they came to see it. One night, something happened that Rita will never forget as long as she lives. The show was over and they came walking up that little aisle at Don’t Tell Mama and took her by the hand to take her to The Ballroom. They were taken by limo, about twenty blocks, and they went and saw the act that was currently playing there. They were then asked to bring their show there for a run. That’s how it started. From there, they went to The Pasadena Playhouse, not the main stage, but in one of the smaller theaters. The playhouse put production values on the show, resurrecting it once again. They got good reviews and then took it t the American-Jewish Theater, another theater that is no longer there. They got good reviews there, as well.  Famed New York Times pen and ink artist, Al Hirschfeld, also gave McKenzie’s show a boost during that time. 
At that point in his life, he narrowed his selection down to three or four shows. Out of all the shows that were running in New York at that time, he decided to pick Rita to draw.
Hirschfeld came to see her, drew her and she ended up in the paper. The show lasted there five months. The Times even had a tea for her.
It was a charming year. That was 1989 and it was like she could do no wrong. She couldn’t believe what came out of what was supposed to be six performances at a small cabaret room. The Ballroom, also gone, booked big names there. 
She was booked for three different engagements over the years. People came and loved it. All along in her history with this show, she has been blessed. Whatever it is, and she says, at the beginning it wasn’t very good, but, it was good enough that people saw something in it. That is how it grew and grew and grew. Now, it’s a two act twenty-three song musical, with seven costume changes. It has really grown, but it took its time.
The turning point that convinced her to forge ahead was the night her parents sat her down, after seeing her in Gypsy, and saying, “Rita, we believe in you. We’ll pay for you to go to New York to study.”
What would be the perfect day for Rita? It would be a beautiful California autumn day, temperature between sixty and seventy. She would be resting because she is in the midst of a long run and she was going to work that night. Working is the perfect day for her. She LOVES to work. It didn’t happen when she was young, it came later in life. She was twenty-eight. She didn’t expect this to happen to her.
Rita tells me that she no longer has a “routine” when she works on her craft and/or career every day. She doesn’t do that unless she is preparing to another group of shows. Because her Ethel Merman show is so musically heavy, there is also much preparation when she is doing those shows. She has to rest and sleep is the most important thing for her. She says, “I have to keep my big mouth from flapping.” She is very social. She can talk to anybody anytime. 
Rita McKenzie singing "I Hate Musicals" from Ruthless
When she is doing the show, she really has to “tone back.” “Dial it back” because she has to have a perfect voice every night. World, Take Me Back comes at the end of the show and she HAS to be able to sing that song. She has to rest and she does exercise. She makes that part of her day every day.
The advice that Rita would give to anyone desiring a career in this business is to take risks. Put yourself out there in some way that makes you different. Until she did that, nothing was happening for her. She was the same girl. She was the same voice. She was the same personality. She needed to find a way to jump from the crowd out a bit. 

She does talk to students. She does the college circuit. She always offers to do a class because the business of the business is what actors don’t pay attention to. That is the most important part of your business. You must now how to take care of your business correctly. It really matters. Your reputation is the most important thing you have. Then, of course, when you’re making money at this, you better know how to manage your money.  All of those things, Rita's father taught her. 
He was a very good business man. For Rita, when she found that this is a profession that she could do, she also realized that all of the business acumen that she had learned from her father, she could also apply to her career.

On the day of this interview, several weeks ago, five pm our time/three pm Rita’s time, I asked her what work she had done that day on her craft and/or career. She said, “I’m talking to Richard Skipper!” Pay attention, fellow artists. Michael Orland, from American Idol, and Rita were also meeting to discuss a project they are working on together. I know Michael from many years ago when I appeared in Atlantic City with the late great Beverly "Pudgy!" Wines.  Rita is learning some new songs. She and Michael are working on a new album together. I can’t wait. I listen to Ethel Merman’s Broadway all the time. Rita is developing an act that has nothing to do with belting Ethel Merman. She didn’t belt “that way” before she started doing her Merman shows. She learned to do that. That wasn’t something she had in her back pocket. She had some of it, but she didn’t have what she didn’t to make this succeed. She had to work very hard to get that voice that you hear. It was a part of her, but that was not the voice she started with and that’s not her only voice. The late Bob Bendorff, who was Rita’s musical director, wrote a lovely song for her called The Melody Inside
She and Michael are also leaning towards that as the name of her CD and the act. It is the melody inside of Rita that people have not heard.
Rita is very proud of the work she has done as Ethel Merman. 
Quite frankly, it is Rita McKenzie up there. There is nothing like that for a person to do. There is no way to describe how wonderful it is to have an audience out there waiting for what you’re going to say, what you’re going to tell them. If you are hearing them laugh and sometimes you can hear a pin drop during the World, Take Me Back part, it is a very powerful moment. There is nothing that Rita has done or will do in her life that matches that. Taking care of her dying mother is Rita’s proudest moment, however. That is on a very personal level. Rita is trying to get Ethel Merman’s Broadway where it belongs, BROADWAY, even off-Broadway! 
Either way, she would be happy to be here in New York. She is very excited about the possibility of that. I, for one, want her back. She has a wonderful life in California, but as she admits, she misses New York. Her life in California is not the same. It is a very casual laid back lifestyle. It is a much different. That is why she loves to go off to do the shows. She also did the national tour of the female Odd Couple playing opposite Barbara Eden. That was a big ball, a three-year tour with a couple of hiatus’ in between. Rita produced that tour. So, she’s a producer, too!
Linda Purl, who we both love, gave me this next question: Who does Rita pray to when she’s in trouble? God. She’s a Catholic. She is actually a good Catholic in good standing.
The biggest change that Rita would like to see in this business is people over thirty being respected for their talents. She would like to see them being rewarded for learning and working. She is not a big fan of “star vehicles”. She has produced them and she respects them. But, there are many who work in this business who are not bona fide stars that are amazing. Rita would like to see many of those people work.
How is Rita reaching audiences in today’s frenzied world? When Rita was booked at the El Portel Theater in Hollywood, they really started utilizing Facebook with ads for the show. That is basically where their ad money went. Nowadays, you practically have to drag people out of the house to get them into a theater. You practically have to feed them. Rita is even thinking of that for her next show! They’ll come out for food.
For my singer friends who read this blog, Rita recommends Throat Coat, that can help. 
If you are dealing with vocal ailments. Rita says the moment she feels a tickle in her throat, she takes a lozenge or she gets sleep. She found a product in Chicago from a girl that she was doing The Odd Couple with. Rita did a ninety city tour of Annie Get Your Gun and never got sick once.  The product can be gotten at Whole Foods, GNC, and other health related places. 
It is called Wellness Formula. It comes in a white bottle with a turquoise label. Whenever she goes out to do a show, Rita takes this every morning. That pretty much protects her. That is the main thing, to protect you BEFORE illness steps in.
Rita is also joining forces with Chris Powich once again. They are now collaborating on a play. He wrote Ethel Merman’s Broadway. Rita wrote it with him, but he’s been attached to the show from the very beginning. The process is phone calling. They spend hours on the phone. He is in New York and she is in California. They do a lot of writing over the phone. She also has a dictation app on her Ipad. She can dictate what she wants to say and send it to him and he can edit and send it back. That is part of their new process. The best way to write, for both of them, however, is to see each other face to face. 
It doesn’t always happen that way. They cannot always be in each other’s company. Therefore, this is what the process has to be. When they wrote the Ethel show, he was working at Entertainment Tonight, and then he moved over to Pfizer. 
All the transcripts and everything, in the days when a long distance call was very expensive, he used to call Rita when he finished work, and they would stay on the phone for three hours. She was in Connecticut and he was in New York.
What does Rita do to prepare for performances? She is not a heavy woman. However, she tries to eat a little less starting the week before. 
Two of my favorite Dollys: Lainie Kazan and Rita
She has to get into those costumes. “Believe me, they are not forgiving.” Ten to twelve days before, Rita will start sleeping at least nine hours every night. Then she continuously goes through whatever show she is doing act by act, scene by scene. She has never done her show in any venue without first having a dress rehearsal. She has a musical rehearsal with her musical director, David Snyder, not necessarily in costumes, and she is prepared before she sees him. She says it is an iron of steel and it is preparation, preparation, preparation. You cannot take a chance when you are the only person on that stage. You’ve got to know where you are.
There are several productions that Rita wishes she had seen, Ones that jump out at her are the original Camelot on Broadway. 
She wishes she had seen an Ethel Merman vehicle. Rita wishes she had seen her in Gypsy. She has seen Gypsy.
Rita’s fondest memories include her children being born, and her first grandchild recently. She was in the delivery room for that event. It was a wonderful moment in her life. Those are the kinds of things that people remember in their lives, those personal family moments. She originally didn’t want to be in the delivery room, she did not feel she should be there. They wanted her there and it was the best thing she ever did, spending time with her mom and father, both have past. She also has five dogs and loves spending time with them. People who know her go, “What!?!?!” They know she doesn’t like all that fuss. 
These dogs all came to her individually.
What Rita remembers the most is the love she has shared with the people around her. That is what she takes forward all the time, no matter what hardships or no matter what happens, she always has love given to her and she always has hope. That is a very important thing to have, as well.
Rita McKenzie would like to be remembered for her reputation and work ethic and that she liked to have a good time in the process.   

Hey, Mister Producer...Here is your next Dolly! I can't wait to add that chapter to my book!    
Thank you Rita McKenzie for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!

With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

Do you have any pics?
If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at Richard@RichardSkipper.com.


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    
My next blog will be...my exclusive interview with Gene GeBauer (Original Production of Hello, Dolly! 1964)

Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!

Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!

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Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com                            

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