Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Jim Brochu at the National Arts Club

Growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Jim Brochu thought his Lady of Angels parish was the center of the universe and from it he would achieve greatness.

“I knew I was born to be the first Brooklyn-born pope,” he said yesterday, speaking to our Dutch Treat Club luncheon group at the National Arts Club. Instead of playing ball with the other children, he liked to pretend he was at the podium at St. Peter’s in Rome dispensing blessings to the crowds.

That early dream has partly come true. Brochu is dispensing blessings nightly, but not in Rome and not as pope. He performs his sacred duties Off-Broadway at the DR2 Theatre where he stars in Zero Hour, the award-winning one-man play he wrote in tribute to the late actor Zero Mostel.

Brochu says he’s living proof against F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that there are no second acts in American life. “Here I am, an Irish Catholic playing Zero Mostel.”

His Irish charm was on full display as he filled the dining room with stories of his life in show business. He was 13 in 1959 when the lure of the theatre hit him. His father, a Wall Street bond trader, had a business friend named Ed Zimmermann who gave young Jim and his father house seats to a show his daughter, Ethel, was in. That was, of course, the one and only Ethel Merman, who took Jim onstage after the show so he could gaze out from that perspective on the darkened theatre. Suddenly the thought of Pope Brochu vanished from his mind.

“I have never had a religious experience in any church like I had in the theatre,” he said. “That day my life changed forever. I knew my church from that day on would be the theatre.”

Ethel was the first of the greats he got to know. He would go on to watch his father in a spontaneous sing-along with Judy Garland one night at Jilly’s, later he introduced his father, who had lost his wife when Jim was 3, to Joan Crawford, with whom his father had an affair for three years. While selling orange drink -- his first job in the theatre -- he met Tammy Grimes, who just happens to be one of our Dutch Treat Club members and who was sitting at the table in front of him yesterday, a nice moment of coming full circle.

And, also at 13, he was wowed by Zero Mostel in A Funny Thin Happened on the Way to the Forum. “I could feel myself go back in my seat like someone had stepped on an accelerator.” He went backstage to meet Mostel, who became his “godfather and mentor.”

In time, Brochu took the plunge into acting, in one case it was a literal plunge. Appearing in his second show, an Israeli revue called To Be, or Not to Be, What Kind of Question Is That?, in what he calls “the worst show ever,” he tripped and fell center stage, smashing his head so hard he “saw stars.” In his review the next day, Clive Barnes wrote that you’ve all heard of a play within a play. “Last night we witnessed a flop within a flop.”

Brochu did go on to win approval. The New York Times has hailed him as a “Man of the Theatre” and he keeps in his dressing room a signed photo of Mostel inscribed “To Jim, with my admiration.” He created Zero Hour as his way of saying “To Zero, with my admiration.”

Originally scheduled for a 12-week run at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, Zero Hour has been so well received by both critics -- this one included -- and audiences that it has now moved to the DR2 Theatre for an open-end run, and talk is mounting about a move to Broadway. The show has been blessing people in unexpected way. Brochu, like Mostel, is also an artist. Each night on stage he paints a picture and those works have been sold or auctioned, with the money going to the soup kitchen at St. Clement’s and to the Actors Fund.

What a delightful man. I was glad to have the chance to tell him after his talk how much I enjoyed Zero Hour. I do hope it moves to Broadway. It deserves to be there.

As always, our afternoon had began with a musical performance. Our very own Mark Nadler, a superstar in the New York cabaret world, treated us to a selection from “Beyond Words,” his new show of the work of Ira Gershwin that he’ll be premiering at the Algonquin starting Tuesday, costarring with our DTC president and cabaret darling, KT Sullivan. Mark was joined onstage by another DTCer, composer Jon Weber, who popped up from his table, as he is apt to do, to pump up the action. For the next 12 minutes their four hands leapfrogged across that one keyboard for a rousing Concerto in F, with the two men switching seats or jumping up to tackle the music standing or stooping over the keys. Brilliant!

Another Tuesday, another engaging lunch at the National Arts Club. As we who belong always say, it’s the membership that makes the Dutch Treat Club so special. But the entertainment sure ain’t bad either.

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