It was about thirty-seconds into my phone conversation with John McGivern that I realized that this actor/writer/comedian/producer/director/raconteur could have just as easily been the guy next to me who had the next deal in the Wednesday afternoon euchre game at Carlone’s Bar in downtown Fond du Lac. He couldn’t have been nicer.
If you haven’t seen him on stage, or heard him as a pop-in guest on Milwaukee radio, you may have caught his Emmy-winning PBS TV show, “Around the Corner with John McGivern.” Or maybe you saw him on HBO, Comedy Central or recognized him as the guy in the film “The Princess Diaries” who was knighted by Julie Andrews.
We talked for twenty minutes, and I laughed for nineteen of them…the spare 60-seconds was spent catching my breath.
John: I grew up on the east side of Milwaukee and when I tell people that, if they’re familiar with Milwaukee, they’re always like, ‘Ohhhh…’ And I’m like, ‘Noooo, it wasn’t bad.’ We lived close to the river in a duplex on the first floor with 6 kids and a mom and a dad.
Michael: But your formative years…
John: I went to high school right outside of Fond du Lac in Mount Calvary, at St Lawrence Seminary.
Michael: Your folks wanted you to become a priest?
John: Well you know, I’m from an Irish Catholic family so there’s always one who they say has ‘the calling’ (laugh). When I was sent away at the age of thirteen I said to myself, ‘Oh, I guess it’s me!’ (laugh) Give me a break here! So that’s how I knew Fond du Lac as a kid. I knew the Holy Land. You go anywhere else in the world and you say that you went to high school in a place called the Holy Land, my God…you can’t make this sh!+ up! All of those little burgs…Mount Calvary, St. Joe’s, St. Anne, St. Peter, St. Cloud and I always loved the last one…New Holstein. You’re kidding me! New Holstein? Which means “holy cow,” right? That’s what I always tell people! (laugh)
Michael: So you spent four years of high school at the Seminary?
John: And in fact stayed on for a little bit after that. Then went to school in Oshkosh. So that whole part of the state, I know well. I became an actor in 1978 or ’79. It’s what I thought I wanted to do and I have never, ever stopped doing it. So from ’79 to ’93 I just kind of waited for somebody to say, ‘You would be perfect for a role in my show,’ working in a tiny theaters making almost no money. I did that for a good long time.
Michael: Then you decided to write your own show?
John: In 1993 I wrote “Midwest Side Story.” It was the stories of growing up in Milwaukee with an Irish Catholic family and going to Seminary with the nuns. And it did really, really well kind of all over the country. Comedy Central hired me to come in and do a couple of specials and HBO had me come in and do a special and it really kind of worked.
In the meantime, I got this job with Shear Madness in 1986 in Chicago. It was a “go-to” job whenever I didn’t have one.
It’s been running in Boston for 35 years. It’s been running at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for 28 years now. And it ran in Chicago for 17 years. I did it in Chicago, at the Kennedy Center and in Tampa, at the Performing Arts Center, and at the Ordway Theatre in St. Paul, at the Mason Street Theatre in San Francisco and in 2001 I brought it back here.
Michael: You actually bought the rights to perform it.
John: I did. And we ran it at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts for about 13 or 14 weeks, which was unheard of for a run of a sit-down show in a 500 seat theater. It did really well. I brought it back here four more times and this time, I secured the rights, got the license, and my co-producer is Potowatami. So we’re doing it at Northern Lights Theater. I’m telling people it’s my last time doing the show, and I completely believe that.
Michael: Are you, and have you always been the same character in the show?
John: There are two women and four men in the cast. I was first hired to play the young cop, which tells you how long ago it was, I was the young cop! (laugh) Now I’m old. For God sake, I’ve been doing this off and on for 28 years. So, I was hired to play the young detective and six months into that contract, they asked me to understudy the main role, of Tony Whitcomb, who is a gay hair dresser who owns the salon. I understudied for three weeks when the guy who was playing Tony got another job in Chicago and they put me in, and the rest is sort of history.
Michael: Whitcomb is a little over-the-top.
John: You think (laugh)? He’s a really sweet, funny, in your face, gay guy, not the bitter and edgy kind of gay guy. He’s this gay guy who’s always like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! Oh my God!’ He’s this kind of wide-eyed, lovely spirit. It’s amazing how audiences have changed over the years…back in the 80’s and early 90’s the whole gay thing was sort of, ‘Oh my God, he’s gay!’ It’s funny because you really see the attitude towards gay people has completely changed. And through the eyes of this Tony Whitcomb character, I’ve seen it make a complete 180 to where people defend him. Someone may call him a fairy and people say, ‘Did you just call him a fairy? Are you an idiot?’ It’s just so kind of different now. It’s great!
John: No…you just try to take the words and make them yours. Heighten them with the help of a really good director and a person with experience in this show. It’s kind of formulaic because there’s every sort of stereotype.
There is a gay stereotype, the 2 cops are a little dim, there’s an antique dealer who’s shady, there’s a socialite woman who’s a little bitchy, and there’s a gum-chewing, white-trash woman stylist. It’s all sort of stereotyped and they take a formula, and they fit you in. The skills and the talents you have, have got to come to this role but it’s done in a mold that you really have to stick to.
Michael: Let’s change gears and move to the premise for “A Kodachrome Christmas.” It sounds hilarious!
John: I have a really great relationship with a guy named Pat Hazell. He was one of the original writers for Seinfeld. He also wrote a stage show called “The Wonder Bread Years,” which I have done all over the state. He wrote “Bunk Bed Brothers,” which I have performed at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Pat also wrote this show called “A Kodachrome Christmas.” He opened it five years ago in Pittsburgh, and I flew in and said, ‘If you change this character from Earlene to Earl, I think it would be good.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to change the character, but I would love you to do it as Earlene.’ I’d never ever done gender-bending on stage, in real life…I’ve never done it! (laugh) I just didn’t know if it was going to be believable. Turns out, people kind of adore Earlene. Again, she’s over the top.
Michael: She hosts a talk show?
John: On cable access in Ozaukee County and she loves to do crafts and loves to bake! What she’s doing in the show is taping a final Christmas special, that’s the premise of the piece. It kind of feels like a TV studio. We have an “On Air” light that comes on when we’re supposedly on air and we have an applause sign, and I bring somebody up out of the audience to help me bake Christmas cookies. We have a bell choir that I pick out of the audience. It’s really clever, smart and sweet and very Christmassy.
Michael: Forgive me for saying…you’re not a very attractive woman…
John: I’m not so bad…shut up man! (laugh)
Michael: Those photos of you in the red wig are just too much.
John: To make that happen every night, I don’t know how people do it. I’m wearing Spanx for Chrissakes!
Michael: How do you keep a straight face?
John: I’m telling you, I’m COMPLETELY committed, and I wear these little red kitten heels, and I didn’t know what a kitten heel was until we did this. But there are women who stop me after the show and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, your legs are gorgeous!’
Michael: What was your mom’s reaction when she saw you as Earlene?
John: My poor mother. (laugh) She came to see the show and sat in the audience with her head in her hands! (laugh) She said to me, ‘You reminded me of Aunt Agnes!’ That was her aunt, who back in the day everyone said she was a “bachelorette,” when in fact she lived with her dear friend Hilda. And Hilda was a woman who drove a Harley-Davidson! (laugh) So I said to my mother, ‘You mean I look like a big, ole lesbian, right?’ (laugh)
Michael: What’s next for you?
John: I do a lot of corporate entertainment, telling my Wisconsin stories for big companies. I do a lot of work for Northwestern Mutual, I go to Sheboygan for Acuity, and several others…Time Warner, Northwestern Mutual, and so on. I work for all these companies that bring people in and they want to show off Milwaukee or Wisconsin and I come in and do an hour of material about Wisconsin. I also have a business with my partner whose name is Steve Brandt which is called “Home in Milwaukee.” We have 15 condos, all in the building that we live in, and we rent them out to corporations. So it’s corporate housing and we take care of that. As my mom would say, “Oh your dad would be so proud.”
Michael: You don’t rest on your laurels.
John: I’m the result of a generation of men who believe that the worst word in the English language is “lazy,” and I work my butt off all the time.
Michael: And another season of your PBS show is coming up.
John: Last year we won the regional Emmy for “Best Magazine Show in the Midwest.” I was nominated for Best Host this year along with three other people for “Around the Corner with John McGivern.” Now it’s running in Minnesota, and both Chicago Public Television and Iowa Public Television just picked us up, and it runs on every PBS station in the state of Wisconsin. It’s been a huge numbers success for Milwaukee Public Television, which is the producer of the show.
Michael: You’re highlighting Oshkosh in the coming season.
John: We shot our Oshkosh episode last June. The final editing was just completed. In fact, I watched it last week and it’s a great episode.
Michael: And Around the Corner in Fond du Lac is on your calendar?
John: Fond du Lac has just been chosen for season 5 and we’ll shoot it next summer and it will air starting in January of 2016.
John McGivern stars in “Shear Madness” at the Northern Lights Theater, through November 15th. For tickets go to paysbig.com
December 6 & 7 John stars as Earlene Hoople in “A Kodachrome Christmas” at the Cedarburg Performing Arts Center. Visit cedarburgpac.com
December 11th through the 14 John/Earlene will take the Kohler Arts Center stage. Go to jmkac.org
John’s final performance of “A Kodachrome Christmas” will deck the halls of Young Auditorium in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Click uww.edu