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Acclaimed entertainer shares passion for his profession at Embassy Theatre Gala

Renowned American actor & cabaret singer Ken Page will be in town this Friday for a special performance at the historic Embassy Theatre’s Marquee Gala.

A Saint Louis, Missouri native, Page cut his teeth in the chorus of the Muny (St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre) the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theater back in the early1970’s.

Equally at home on the big & small screens, as well as any stage he lands a part on, at home or abroad, Ken’s love for his craft is legend, and he currently enjoys revising many of his greatest theatrical performances, including that of Oogie Boogie in the Nightmare Before Christmas Franchise.

For a look behind the scenes at the man and his zest for life, WBOI’s Julia Meek spoke with Page by phone about his remarkable career.

Julia Meek: Ken Page, it is great to have you on the phone. How in the musical world are you?

Ken Page: Well, you know, I'm good. I mean, with the change of the COVID situation, we're able to get up and do things again. So in the world of the musical, if you will dot, dot, dot, I feel terrific that I can get back out there and do some things.

Julia Meek: Oh, my goodness, I'm sure your fans do as well. That was the first time at least maybe in a long time that you could not be in front of a live audience.

Ken Page: It was the first time ever 40, almost 50 years for me. I mean, other than performances at the Muny where I've worked a lot that were rained out, because it's outdoors. Other than that, I've never really had anything happen where you just were barred from performing, if you will, because it couldn't happen. But we know the big story of that, of course, is huge. As far as all live performing. If you could think about that for two years, basically, it was horrifying, really, really frightening.

Julia Meek: For all concerned, for all concerned, there's no way around it. Meanwhile, as you note, you have been pleasing crowds with musical performances since you were a kid. When did you know that that was your calling? Was there an aha moment? Or are you just hardwired that way?

Ken Page: Well, you know, I think it's both I'm hardwired that way. But you don't realize that to the point, do you? But I was fortunate enough in grade school to have a teacher, Sister, Ruth Cecilia, she was an extraordinary woman. And she turned me on to music and theatre. And that's where it really started. So I'm going to say as far as actually doing it when I was a kid around fifth, fourth grade like that, but I had a cousin who was three years older than me, who took tap lessons and piano lessons and sang in the Cathedral Boys Choir here in St. Louis and participated in the speech tournament. So I had this person right next to me, because we were like brothers, who did everything. I took everything I learned from him, and I went into the business. But it started with that nun, and when I say hardwired I think the ability to do it was there innately already, it was just a matter of somebody discovering it, and helping me, being very shy as I was, and still am to some degree. I will never forget the day I was having a little trouble with one of the speeches and sister Ruth Cecilia said to me, she says, Alright, listen, you got to do this. You got to get over being shy, do you want to do it? Or don't you? Because otherwise you're wasting my time? You know, and right there's when you say what was the aha moment, that was the day that I thought I do want to do this. And I will step outside of my own shyness and my own lack of confidence and all those other things because I so want to do this. And that's addressing the hardwired part, you know, it was just within me to want to do it. And once I decided that changed the trajectory of my whole career, if you will, you know.

Julia Meek: Being able to wanting to and being able to overcome whatever you need. That's really quite remarkable. Meanwhile, you literally cut your teeth at the Muny once you were finished with school, America's oldest and largest outdoor theater. And what's it like being on that stage? What makes it so special? We can imagine--you've been there.

Ken Page: Well it's amazing. And might I also add, I did play Starlight there in Indiana at one point I did Damn Yankees there. I think that was like two, three years, before it closed. But at any rate, the Muny seats, 11,000 people and 1000 I think, 1200 or something like that seats are always free, which is I always love to say that because it's so great. They're all the way at the top. And that's where I first experienced the Muny, was in the free seats going there with my best friend, his mother took us. But what I did was, after my senior year of high school for two summers, after I graduated from high school, I was in the ensemble at the Muny, which for here was a big deal. The closest thing to it that I've done is the Hollywood Bowl. And Hollywood Bowl seatsMuny like two times as many people. I've done 43 shows at the Muny and it's a very different kind of thing. But it's so great, because you really in the beginning of the show, generally you can still see the audience, the sun hasn't set yet. And you look out into the sea of people and idea A, that they're there and they want to be there and they love being there. And over the years, they've received me very warmly as the years went on. And it's a pretty great feeling, you know, and now there's so many people it's become I call it Broadway adjunct. There's so many people who are on Broadway are working in the New York theater community who play the Muny in the summer. If they're not in a show. On occasion, some of them will even take a week off or whatever to come and do the Muny and then go back into their show. So it's become a sort of a playground in a lot of ways for the New York Broadway community. You get all kinds of people coming there and doing shows or have been there and so forth. And for me, I came back in 19, I want to say 90, Paul called me up, they were doing Ain't Misbehavin, if you can believe in an 11,000 seat theatre, but it actually did work and asked me what I want to come back and do it. And I thought, well, you know what, I never did it in St. Louis. Did it of course, on Broadway and in Paris and LA, whatever. And I thought, yeah, yeah. Because I'd left St. Louis in 1974. And I hadn't been back in the interim. So I said yes. And I went back to do Ain't Misbehavin. And that started me on the long haul from '90 to now of coming back. And I think there's maybe one year where I haven't done a show therein all that time now, maybe one or two.

Julia Meek: What a glorious homecoming, good for you and them--and your craft, the whole thing amazing.

Ken Page: Yeah, and has been great. And I would add another thing to that while we're talking about the Muny, not only was it a great homecoming to get to do a show I'd created on Broadway, I've gotten to practically do all, I've done Cats there twice now. But the roles that I've gotten to play, they just allowed me I should say, Paul Blake, and now Mike Isaacson, whatever role that I could play, I got to play and mostly, of course, the character supporting but the point is, they weren't barred by racial barrier. I've done My Fair Lady. I've played Pickering. I've done all these roles that are in the canon of musical theater that most character men would get to play, but not very many African American men would get to play. And I've done so many of them. I can't, I've lost count so many. And it's been wonderful along with the Ain't Misbehavin, and of course, things I created. I don't know that there's anywhere else that would have been that generous in that way, considering when they started in the 90s. Me doing that. But I think the more I did it, obviously the audience stopped thinking about it from a racial place. They just thought about the fact that this is the person who's doing this role well. Which is what we want everyone to think everywhere.

Julia Meek: Sure, sure. Yeah, it's the magic of your craft. But it's also your particular magic that you work on the crowds. That's a fact.

Ken Page: Yeah, and for me, again, I always say to people in different arenas and areas that I grew up on the musical theater, and it included all the black shows, and the quote unquote, white shows, there was no difference in terms of what I absorbed about the musical theater. I knew Purlie as much as I knew Sweet Charity. I knew Porgy and Bess, as much as I knew Oliver and My Fair Lady, you know, and they were just shows to me, I never really thought of them as being something I couldn't do, as you talked about hardwired right? I just never saw them that way. I realized later that that wasn't the common thing on either side, you know? And then of course, I said, Well, look, there are a lot of people who know the classic shows the My Fair Lady's and Olivers and Guys and Dolls. But I also know Raisin and I know The Wiz and I know Porgy and Bess, and I know, you know, down the list of the shows that are quote, unquote, black shows. So for me, I always feel very fortunate to have that I guess the word would be hybrid background in the musical theater that it's all been there for me. I realize not everyone's had that. And I feel very fortunate.

Julia Meek: That's for sure. And your interest and passions. Now another point, you seem equally at home or at ease on the big screen, the small screen, certainly on any stage that we can think about, in obviously any role, including Broadway. Do you have a favorite? Or are you truly an omni performer--embrace them all, it's a stage and you own it?

Ken Page: Each one has something different. And the thing that's different about each one of them, I embrace film, I love because you do it, concentrate, they get it on film, and you move on. So you can really put all of your energy into that take that moment, that role in that film, and it's there forever. That's the upside and the end of it, it's there forever, and you only have to do it, that time that you're filming it. So it's a different concentration level. It's not easy, but it's great. Because once you embrace how to do that, it's very freeing, because you don't have to invest in Well, I gotta reach the balcony, and I gotta you know, save some but the matinee, you put it all in there on that film, and it's there forever. So that's the thing for film. For stage, there's nothing that can compare to the energy that flows between a performer on stage and an audience. It's singular, every performance, people say don't get tired of doing eight shows a week, same show. I say well you can because it is the same thing, I said, but you always have to remember, every audience is different. It's never the same people, you can do eight shows a week and you got eight different audiences, you can do it for three years. And you've got eight times how many times four times 12 times three, you know, and it's always different. And I was taught in terms of how my education in theater was. And I had a wonderful teacher named Don Garner in college, who had been on stage and in film and TV, and he taught me the stage to always go at the performance as if it were your first A: it'll keep you fresh and interested. But it will always be that easy for the audience. It possibly is the first and only time they ever going to see you. So know that and remember that when you go out there while it may be the sixth show of the week for you, it's the first time they're seeing and possibly the last time they'll see you and that always has stuck with me and I really do hold to that. You know, I'm not one of those people they say who phones it and I don't know how to do it. I wish I did but sometimes I say, God you gave too much at the matinee. But I didn't know how to do that and I still don't. It's either full out or it's not happening. You know,

Julia Meek: I think long term-wise, it's the way it should be for your own soul and that of every soul you touch with your performances, Ken.

Ken Page: Well I think so too, Julia I mean, if you're really doing it, and not just as they say phoning it in on any level, you know, and sometimes your technique is what carries you through that sixth show, when you're not feeling great, you know, you know, whatever, you got problems you're dealing with, any of those things are real, especially for theater, and even more so for film, by the way, but you have to have the technique to know how to work past those things, and do the performance and the character and all those other things you do. I've worked with people who bring all of their all their Yuck, I call it to the stage, not good, not good. Because then the character is not there. You can't respond to them, because they're actually using all of this stuff that happened this morning on staging like, Yeah, but that has nothing to do--nothing to do with the scene we're playing right now, you know. And I wanted to add one thing for television, which is an interesting thing. episodic television is very akin to film, as you'd know, and that I enjoy because it is akin to film, and you do come in and you film it and you go, Okay, we're moving on to the next scene. And they put it all together. And you have an hour show that comes on TV. Sitcom work, which is more akin to theatre, because you basically do it in front of a live audience, most things I've ever done, but it's that the line is you're not doing it for them, you're doing it in front of them. And it's a very interesting hybrid, because you have to play the performance on sitcom for the camera. And yet the audience is there to provide you with a magic carpet, if you will. So you have somebody to respond to. But it really isn't about the TV audience. It's about the filming what you're doing. To be frank, I enjoy that the least out of all of them. Because when I'm in front of people, something kicks in that's like you're in front of people, it's live. And then it's "to the camera," you know what I mean, it's a strange, hybrid thing. So that's the one I enjoyed the least. And also, this is just a footnote, but they changed the writing in sitcoms up to the last second. You can be going on to actually film live in front of a TV audience and they will hand you a new page to insert two, three jokes, change this change that, till the last second. And my theater training, it goes against that completely. You know, you've frozen the show at a point. And that's what you work on. Film even doesn't really do that because the script is King next to the editor. And they don't change it a lot once that's what everybody's working from, but for sitcom, they change constantly. You have blue pages, Yellow Pages, green pages, magenta pages, and by the time you get to actually doing it, sometimes your head is spinning, you don't remember what line you're doing from which version. So that's my least favorite, but they're all valuable. I guess that answers the question.

Julia Meek: That is an amazing answer to that question. Now, I am kind of curious--two little funny, niche genres, perhaps but the whole Disney Land and World and Kingdom that you continue to inhabit as well as your Cabaret Singer show, Page by Page, again, two vastly different situations. You do beautifully in both. How do they fit into the Ken Page- ism of life?

Ken Page: (Chuckles) Well, you know, it's an interesting thing again, when I putPage by Page together, it was a slow period in LA. and I thought, well, you know, you've done enough in your career that if you put a show together about your own life and career, you have a show of your own, you don't have to wait on somebody. So that prompted me and a wonderful theater out there called Poway Performing Arts Center said, we would love you to come and do your show here and we'll pay for it, we'll do orchestration for it. And I thought, this is a sweet deal, you know, I basically get my show orchestrated, and I get to stage it on a real stage and not a cabaret, if you will, and they're going to pay for it. So that was the impetus. And then I said to myself, well, if I can do it well enough, which theatre would give me as a thing, I can record it, and then I'll have a CD. So it was a one shot deal, it was like you better do it, right? We can only afford to record at one time, then you can go back and edit it. So that's what happened. The benefit of it is you're kind of doing your own thing. You know, I have a director and had a director for that and so forth. But it's your own show, you're talking about things you want to say and how you want to say them. And the premise Page by Page was that I had written a book called Page by Page, and I was now reading from the book on stage. And that was the show, right? And this included music and so forth. And I had the funniest thing happened one city down south, I don't remember where now, but this lovely southern lady came and make a long story short, she got to the end of our conversation. She came backstage and she says, Now I have a bone to pick. I said, Oh my God, you know, she said, My friends and I because you kept saying well, the rest of that in the book, you'll have to read the book. And we all ran to the lobby to buy the book. (Laughs) And we got there and found out there was no book. She said we were very disappointed and we are just not happy that there is no book. I said, Well, it's a premise. You know, I use that. She says, Well, we were there to buy your book and a word to the wise is sufficient. And I said, when I do the book, which I will, I'm gonna thank her because she planted the seed in my head that was like, if you can do a show about having written a book, and we're all buying that there is a book, then you can write a book, you know. That stuck in my mind. And it echoes all the time. I just keep saying, Well, I have to do something where I can launch it, you know, but it really does stay with me. So that's the Page by Page. The Disney, you know, we do the concert live too, with a symphony orchestra and have done it, of course, at the Hollywood Bowl, we've done it at Staples Center, and Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We've done Wembley Arena in London and Scotland and Ireland, Dublin. It's great. And of course, knock on wood from the beginning with the film, of course, getting to do the character anyway. But even when they were paying 25 cents, which they were in the beginning for video games, things like that, that came up from it. I said, Yes. And there are people say, Oh, no, you shouldn't do it, because then are paying you enough. And I thought, well, you know what, it's my... it's ownership for me. It's my voice that's Oogie Boogie. I don't want to voice alike, which they do often, to be hired to do all the subsidiary things that come along, I'll do them. So as the years went on, of course, this is now we're talking, I think it came out in 96-7 somewhere around there. I've done all of the subsidiary, everything, games, video games, whatever that has happened with the project. I've done them all since the movie and everything afterwards, including it up to the concert. I don't know that anybody else has done that. I hope so. But it's been really fulfilling because now I do signing Cons, you know, Comic Con, and people come up and of course, they've never seen me, but they know my voice. So that's another level in the Disney World, in terms what you're saying, because when I sit there and they meet me, they're like, Oh, my goodness, you're Oogie Boogie. And I'm like, That's me, you know? (Laughs) And they get to meet the person behind the voice, which is not always I mean, it's common among the ComiCon world cause that's what they're about a lot. But I'd say 75% of that world is about performances people have seen, and then they come there to meet them and get pictures and so forth. For me and my partner, Chris Sarandon, who does them with me, who is the speaking voice of Jack in the film, it's a big deal, because they don't know us. They know him from other things--Fright Night, Princess Bride, but they don't know me other than to say, you know, that's the voice. So for years, I've been doing those and I was telling a friend, I said, you know, when I look and think back on all the people I've met at these signing events, who now know the person, not just the voice from A to Z, it's been worth it all the way around the table.

Julia Meek: That's fantastic. I would also say it sounds like you are telling me from Fats Waller to well, a bug filled burlap sack that we know and love as Oogie Boogie, you love it all?

Ken Page: I do. I do, Julia, I'm blessed to have been able to do these things that I love. You know, there's maybe one or two things I've done when I was like meh, not so much, but I did you know the job. But everything I've been able to do, and I say blessed to do, I've loved it. That's what people say, What's your favorite show? What's your favorite...? I don't have a favorite because every one of them had its own reward in itself. And certainly in retrospect or in history as this moves forward, you know, Ain't Misbehavin? Now I direct it. I'm directing a company in September in California, I've done it four times. Our production and La Murata won the LA Ovation award as Best Musical out there. So it continued, you know, all the way from a little off Broadway room and Manhattan Theatre Club in 1977, I think it was, to now I am giving it back to people in terms of directing it. How do you not love that? Right?

Julia Meek: Yeah.

Ken Page: Cats I've done several times. I did it on Broadway. And I bring with me all the energy of the original people in production and everything. It's just great. I'm so lucky that, you know, that I was young enough starting that I'm able to still do these things and I'm not you know, being wheeled around yet. You know what I mean? And I'll keep doing them when I'm even wheeled around. (Chuckling)

Julia Meek: We hope so. But yeah, we're betting on you, Ken, I've gotta say. Your, your legacy is remarkable. So is your spirit. I really do appreciate your sharing your time with us. And we are looking forward to your appearance at our own historic Embassy. It is the first time you're going to be on that stage. So a new first.

Ken Page: It is. It's beautiful, isn't it?

Julia Meek: Yes.

Ken Page: I looked at it on line and said: What a great theater, and I said it'll be so great to be in that space. I always think of each theater as a temple, think of all the people that have not only been out there in the audience throughout, when was in 1928 I think the theater was?

Julia Meek: Yeah.

Ken Page: Yeah. And you think of all the people that have crossed that stage and the energy. I love that. Everywhere I've ever played. I'm always very conscious of all the people that have been on that stage. I was lucky enough to do a show I did on Broadway called Ain't Nothin but the Blues and then we did it at Ryman Auditorium. Now, the Grand Ole Opry of course, you know, they built a fancy place but Ryman Auditorium was the original Grand Ole Opry and the acoustics in their amazing, but that's another story. But to stand on that stage and I had Minnie Pearl's dressing room, (chuckles) which they told me, they said, well, we don't always open this room because we just kind of...Minnie's room, and we don't really you know, and I was very moved by that. I thought Well, isn't this great? I thought well who in the world would have thought I would be actually performing on the stage of Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and having Minnie Pearl's dressing room. That's the breadth that my career reaches, which I have to always step back and go Wow! You know?

Julia Meek: Yeah. If you're bagging stages and occasions, that is really a grand one!

Ken Page: It's a good one, isn't it?

Julia Meek: That is for sure. It's such a treat talking with you, Ken. Before I let you go, and that's a painful experience all on its own. You know, Fort Wayne really is a mighty theatrical city. And our youth theater is the fifth oldest active Children's Theatre in the nation. We have a lot of talent coming and going and really appreciating the creativity. What word of encouragement would you give every young creative out there about pursuing their dream? You know, it's the same one that keeps you going strong--what can you tell him?

Ken Page: Well, you know what I would say, I mean, of course, we're all looking through the prism of COVID. So there's that and we all know what that is. I won't even address that. But I will say this: My motto which I will be singing at the Embassy Theatre, the first show I did in high school was Funny Girl, okay? And I'm a big Barbra Streisand fan and all that. But beyond that, and I say it this way, because they will be able to glean everything they want out of it. The words to Don't Rain on My Parade are my motto. And it has been since I was a freshman in high school. And I used to sing it at the bus stops. I used to sing it on my way to school in college. I sang it on the train in New York. I sang it walking through the streets of New York going to auditions, and I meant it. It wasn't just oh, this is a great song from Funny Girl and the Barbra Streisand. The words: Don't tell me not to live, just sit and putter, life's candy and the sun's a ball of butter. Don't bring around a cloud to rain on my parade. I love the lyric that says, If someone takes a spill, it's me and not you, who told you you're allowed to rain on my parade? So that's what I would pass on to young people. It's your parade. Your light is your parade. Be at the front March grandly, because it's your parade and nobody has the right, for whatever reason to rain on your parade and therefore tell you what you should do and it's your parade your life, your accomplishment, your talent, your ambition, your needs and or wants. It's your parade, March proudly,

Julia Meek: Amen! And Ken, thank you again and again and again. Safe travels.

Ken Page: Thank you.

Julia Meek: Happy Trails. We're gonna see you soon. Thank you so much.

Ken Page: Have a good rest of the day, Julia.

Julia Meek: You too.

Ken Page: Bye bye.

Julia Meek: Bye bye.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.