Ponies & Rainbows, the Life of James Kirkwood

I’m stepping out of my field just this once  in order to make you aware of Sean Egan’s new biography of playwright James Kirkwood. You may not recognize his name, but you know his works: co-author of A Chorus Line, U.T.B.U, Legends! and PS Your Cat Is Dead!, an adaptation of his novel of the same title. Other books included “Good Times/Bad Times”, “There Must Be A Pony” and  “Hit Me With a Rainbow”. In addition, he wrote dozens of teleplays, and in his early life he found ample work as a light comic actor in all the media , including a  four year run on the soap opera “Valiant Lady”.

What makes Mr. Egan’s book a must read for anyone interested in Theatre Arts is that Jim Kirkwood is the sort of complicated and interesting character that informs well written biographies, and Egan has captured him with all the charm and all the demons that fought each other in the too short life of his subject.

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It’s Egan’s claim that Kirkwood is one of the most under appreciated literary figures of his generation, and it’s his intention to shed light on him in the hope that interest in him will rise again, and that his books, most of which are now out of print, will take their proper place on the shelves (or nooks or kindles) of a new generation of fans.

For Kirkwood had fans from the 1950s through the 1980s, lots of them. He was attractive and slightly cuckoo, the son of two bonafide silent screen stars, James Kirkwood, Sr. and Lila Lee.  Sadly, the careers of both his parents crashed along with Wall Street, so Jim’s life was turbulent from the start.

The first years were bathed in the golden light of Hollywood glitz, but before he could really appreciate Easy Street, he was shipped to Skid Row.  His parents were divorced, his father re-married twice and supplied two half-siblings for him. His mother bravely tried, without much success, to rekindle a flame under her career, and though she and her son remained close until her death, she could never offer him much in the way of support, emotionally or financially.

I knew Jim Kirkwood for several decades. We had friends in common, and in my early years as a talent agent, I was able to place him on “Valient Lady, a booking that supported his first years as an actor.

He and his friend Lee Goodman separated themselves from the horde of journeyman actors by forming a light comedy act that had great success in the thriving small cabarets of the 1950s and 60s. That in turn led to them being asked to appear on tv variety shows and  in a revue or two, and ultimately to disappointment. Jim was selected to play a featured role in support of Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame on Broadway, only to be found wanting, and was dismissed before it even opened.

It was in “down” times like this that one could almost see the dark side of this seemingly elf-like young juvenile.  The chance meetings that can change a life are part of his story too, as it was Michael Bennett, having seen one of his plays, who invited him to join the creative team on what turned out to be A Chorus Line, and though that job brought unexpected pain to Kirkwood, it also made him a millionaire, and something of a genuine celebrity.

Egan’s book is one of the most readable and thoroughly researched I’ve read. Much of the detail will interest those who are entertainment-oriented;  it is the story of the anguish of an actor/writer suffering from rejection in areas of great importance to himself, and adulation in areas he feels less deserving. If you’ve ever had the urge to create, to express, to tip your big toe or your entire being into the world of the arts, I think you’ll give this book, and Jim Kirkwood, the attention and high regard  they both have earned.

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Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.

Read more at RichardSeff.com

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