A couple of weeks, I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with actor Gary Sandy. Our conversation occurred on the historic final night of the 2016 World Series with the final play-off between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. Sandy, a longtime Cubs fan, was generous with his time, but was noticeably excited about the upcoming game. Here you can read our interaction as he reminisced about his time spent in The Pirates of Penzance.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES: Good evening, Gary, thank you for joining me. Allow me to begin by asking how did you first become involved with music and show business in the first place?
GARY SANDY: I remember I got started in a junior high speech class. I did a Bob Newhart stand-up monologue, and the teacher said to me, “Wait a minute! There’s this school talent show coming up, and I want you to perform this before the entire school.” I remember coming out from between the curtains, and I did this monologue. After that, everything was different. All the students treated me differently. All the teachers treated me differently. After the show, my teacher took me aside and said, “You might not remember me saying this, but you’ve got this thing called comedic timing which will be very valuable to you in the future.” At that moment, I realized that this was something that I wanted to do.
I received a scholarship to attend Wilmington College in Ohio, which was a very good place to do theater. I loved theater. After my time at Wilmington, I left for broadcasting school in Atlanta, Georgia, when my dad tried to talk me into to broadcasting. I eventually left Atlanta and went on to attend the American Academy of Theater in New York. Right out of acting school, I started working on soap operas for six and seven years where I’d always play the bad guys—the heavies—and after that, I went on to Broadway.
I started doing these musical things because I had pretty high energy on stage. I don’t claim to be a singer, but I’m a mover and I can sell it. When it comes to something like The Pirates of Penzance and Music Man, I can sell it. I think the reason I was left in among the actors of these musicals is because of my energy level. I did like six major productions of The Music Man; I did Barnum, which was even harder than The Pirates; I did Will Roger’s Follies; and I did Front Page at Paper Mill Playhouse, just to name a few. All of these things I did, but nobody ever really knows it.
ADRIAN: How did you transition from being Andy Travis in WKRP in Cincinnati to playing the Pirate King?
GARY: It was during our hiatus for WKRP. I only had a three-month contract, but they cancelled [the television show] while I was on Broadway so I stayed around for a while. I filled in for Treat Williams, I had seen the national tour of Pirates with Jim Belushi, and I had other friends like Barry Bostwick in Los Angeles—so when I went in to audition for The Pirates, I stole ideas from all three of them. When I left The Pirates, Belushi was brought in from the road to take over for me. He was different because he didn’t try to be swashbuckling and suave. He portrayed more of a real pirate. I thought he was very effective.
You realize, the only reason why I got WKRP in Cincinnati in the first place was because I needed that credential on my resume so I could land bigger, better roles on Broadway. When I was in acting school, I was around the Broadway community for a while. I saw almost all the shows of the time while in school. There were people coming in from California with TV credits and taking the lead parts. I decided to go out to Los Angeles for the sole purpose of building my television credentials so I could take more commanding roles. It was a natural progression from soap operas to WKRP, and from WKRP to Broadway. None of the guys in WKRP realized my desire to return to stage.
I know Frank Bonner, who played Herb on WKRP, he was extremely complimentary. He said to me years later that he had no idea what to say after seeing The Pirates. He said that I just blew him away, he was just in awe of my performance. From the second I hit the stage, he had dropped his tea.
ADRIAN: Speaking of fellow acting colleagues, I have interviewed several other people from The Pirates who have shared some interesting stories about working with you on stage, one notable example being Kaye Ballard.
GARY: Yes, I knew Kaye Ballard because I did the musical version of Come Back Little Sheba when I was twenty-three. She was always just really nice to me, giving me pointers, and all that kind of stuff. Having a friend in Kaye for ten, twelve, or fourteen years before was encouraging, as Kaye was extremely supportive—very, very supportive. We became friendly enough that I ended up staying at her house a couple of times. Kaye would often like to call me “hot buns.” That was her nickname for me. One of my best friends now Ann-Margret and Kaye hadn’t seen each other in years, so I helped to reconnect them. Another mutual friend, Juliet Prowse, was one of the classiest people that ever lived. She was a real beautiful person.
After Pirates, I would end up working for Kaye again when we appeared in one of the original revivals of Chicago for the Pacific Light Opera long before it returned to Broadway. The Chicago experience was a big deal. That was a very big deal. I happened to think that I was really good in that role.
ADRIAN: What were your impressions of the other cast members?
GARY: Everybody was so supportive. Not only Kaye, but one of the most supportive people that I became fond of was George Rose. He was not only a nice man that would help you, he was also a funny trickster. I also became very friendly with Maureen McGovern. Treat Williams, when we were young guys auditioning for stuff, we would run into each other a lot. They were all very nice with me. It was seriously one of the highlights of my life.
Peter Allen really wanted to play the Pirate King and stopped me in New York and goodheartedly lambasted me on stealing his role.
ADRIAN: What are your memories from being in The Pirates?
GARY: At first, it was very, very scary. I rehearsed for three weeks, and then the opening night came.
I came up with an idea that worked extremely well. At the end of the first act, there’s a scene where I sword fight with everyone then stab myself in the foot. I’m going around trying to get this sword out of my foot, but then when I pull it out, I stab myself in the eye. I sneak out in the cover of darkness and then sneak back in at the beginning of the second act, with my back to the audience, so that when I turn around, I have a patch over my eye. We built a certain kind of patch that I could see through even though it didn’t look like it.
ADRIAN: What were your favorite songs from the show?
GARY: My favorite moments in the show were hearing George Rose sing “Modern Major General,” the full cast singing “Hail Poetry,” and of course “Cat-Like Tread” which I thought was very interesting. The reaction from the audience—the audience went crazy. The choreography just kept building and building and building which made people leap to their feet at the climax of the show. I also thought Maureen McGovern’s “Poor Wandering One” was lovely, and I enjoyed “I am a Pirate King.”
ADRIAN: From your experience in The Pirates, how do you feel about the work of Gilbert & Sullivan?
GARY: I have to say before you and I talked initially—when you told me that back when Pirates was originally done, it was more of a serious piece—I just always assumed that Gilbert & Sullivan saw the humor in their almost tongue-in-cheek thing. They were probably taking the attitude of someone asking “Are you making fun of me?” And they would say, “What are you talking about? No, of course not!”
And you know what’s really strange? Eight years after my stint in The Pirates, this very talented guy named Lara Teeter nominated for a Tony Award for “On Your Toes.” He’s teaching now at one of the colleges in St. Louis. I got this phone call from him, and he said, “I will be directing a production of Pirates of Penzance at the Mishkin Opera Company. I’m going to be playing the Tony Azito part as the cop.” He invited me to play the Pirate King role again, which I reluctantly accepted. I had never seen anything like it, and I think in many respects I came off even better eight years later. When I did it on Broadway, I was more like a pop star. When I did it with the opera company, I would only do it Thursday through Sunday, because the company wanted to preserve the singers’ voices. They did my make-up for me and gave me a hair piece even though I had all the hair in the world. I was really impressed with how different I looked and at Lara’s direction.
ADRIAN: Do you remember any gaffes or bloopers from your time in the show?
GARY: There is one scene where I would run up a ramp on the ship and appear as though I jump over the side into the water. They would place an air mattress behind the scene, however, one of the last times I ever did the show I nearly missed the mattress and landed on the handle of my sword with my face. It made a gash and has left a permanent scar on the bridge of my nose.
ADRIAN: Do you have any final thoughts from The Pirates of Penzance?
GARY: I’ve done a lot of theater, but the production of The Pirates of Penzance was so cool. I had never been treated like the way they treated me in my dressing room. I could have lived in my dressing room. I had this dresser, this gentlemen who did a really good job. When I got there, he had all my clothing ready. He would dress me. He would help me with any issues. If I had vocal problems he would be standing there off stage with hot tea for you to drink. He would help me undress from the sweaty clothes at the end of the night. The way they treated you was fabulous. They realized that your job was to go out to perform on that stage, so they did everything for you short of you walking out there to do what you do.
And you want to know something thrilling? I finished my part on a Sunday matinee, and then I left the show. When I left, I was going to do a movie up in the Catskills which coincidentally began the day after my run in The Pirates ended. Coincidentally Gordon Jump was in it, as well as another certain gentlemen I’m about to mention. After I do my last performance, I peel of my stuff and my dresser hands me some outfit and tells me to put this on for my guests. Outside my door, Gordon was there with Andy Griffith who happened to be in the same movie that week, so to have Andy Griffith tell me that my performance knocked him out was the thrill of my life. As I’m leaving the theater, a limo pulls up to take me to the Catskills for filming the next, and when I get in, the driver says, “I’m not sure if you’re interested in this, but I have some champagne for you.” I tried to be mindful of my drinks when I was in the show, but now that I was done I said, “You bet.” What was even more amazing was that there was a TV in the limo, and when I turned it on, I was on the screen. Talk about an amazing ending to an amazing show!
Adrian D. Holmes is an American musician and composer based in Palm Bay, Florida. Since launching his professional music career in 2014, he has released several singles featuring an electronic classical orchestras. He will release his debut full-length album titled The Pirates of Penzance: Revamped and Revisited on December 31, 2016.
Gary Sandy is an American stage and screen actor ntoed for his role as Andy Travis, a radio station director, on the popular sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He has performed in over two dozen stage productions on Broadway and elsewhere. He resides in beautiful Bluegress State of Kentucky, near where the location of WKRP was set.
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