I had Adrienne Barbeau on the line, and suddenly I found myself thinking of Friday evenings at the old Empire Theater.
The building at 14th and Main now houses the Alamo Drafthouse, a sophisticated cinema all tricked out with digital projection systems.
But the old Empire was a classic grindhouse that projected light through film running through mechanical projectors. If you were lucky, the reels were in the right order.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Empire was where you were most likely to see a movie starring Barbeau.
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She gave me a call on her 70th birthday to talk about her role in the national tour of “Pippin,” based on Diane Paulus’ Tony-winning revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical fable about the son of a king who wanders into the world seeking the meaning of life. She plays Berthe, Pippin’s comedic grandmother, and has a big number, “No Time at All,” part of which she performs from a trapeze.
When it was explained to Barbeau that her interviewer was once a second-string movie critic who was assigned to review anything the lead critic didn’t want to see, she instantly understood what that meant.
“So you saw all my movies,” she said. “We go way back.”
Barbeau has some serious theater bona fides — she was the original Betty Rizzo in the 1972 Broadway production of “Grease” — and she’s well-known to television viewers, particularly for her regular role as Maude Findlay’s divorced daughter on Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” spinoff, “Maude.”
But then came her scream-queen career. She co-starred in “The Fog” and “Escape From New York,” both directed by her first husband, John Carpenter, who made his name as the director of “Halloween.” She also appeared in “Creepshow,” written by Stephen King and directed by George A. Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”). And she co-starred in “Swamp Thing,” directed by Wes Craven (“Nightmare on Elm Street”).
Working with those directors cemented her association with the horror genre — an association that continues to this day.
“I love doing them,” she said. “I don’t watch them, but I love doing them. I just did three last year.”
She has also written two vampire novels — the protagonist is a scream queen — and earlier wrote a memoir, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” One of the novels, “Love Bites,” is in preproduction as a film in which Barbeau will star.
When she was approached about joining the tour of “Pippin,” Barbeau said she first had to do a little homework.
“I had never seen the show, ever,” she said. “I had never read the script. I remembered a little of the music. But I had no idea. So I went online, and Andrea Martin was in a video (as Berthe) from the show, and I thought: ‘Well, OK, maybe this is something I should consider.’ … I’m overjoyed that I made the decision, because it’s just a fantastic show to be doing and a fantastic company.”
And yes, the show marks a first for Barbeau.
“I’ve never performed on the trapeze, but I’ve been a gym rat all my life, I guess you could say,” she said. “So when they called and asked if I wanted to join the company, I knew I could do it. I was a little concerned the first day, because I wasn’t sure my wrists were strong enough. But it’s been a great joy and a great revitalization.”
The touring company of the Tony-winning revival of “Pippin” is about to take the Starlight stage, and with it comes practitioners of the circus arts. That’s how director Diane Paulus re-imagined the 1972 show. Her 2013 Broadway production claimed four Tonys, including best revival.
The original production was conceived as a show within a show about a traveling theater troupe that enacts the story of a young man, Pippin, the son of a king, who sets off on a journey to find the meaning of life.
The show was of its time, reflecting a yearning of many young people to make sense out of the war-torn world they inherited. As such it is often thought of, at least vaguely, as bearing a certain kinship with “Hair,” which closed after a Broadway run of more than four years only a few months before “Pippin” made its debut.
Paulus, working with Montreal circus artists, altered the basic conceit. The traveling theater troupe became a company of circus performers, and acrobatics became part of the show.
Actor John Rubinstein has a perspective on “Pippin” as it was and as it is that nobody else in the cast shares. He played Pippin in the original production — a role that launched a long career in theater, television and film. And now, in this touring version, he plays Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne, a role he took over from Terrence Mann in the Broadway revival.
“‘Pippin’ is an interesting show,’” he said by telephone recently. “Even though on the surface it’s about Charlemagne and Pippin, it is by no stretch of the imagination a historical play. So it could take place on the moon, it could take place in a white room, it could take place anywhere. … It’s a story about a troupe of people who entice a young man to re-enact his life for them.”
Rubinstein said the original show, co-written, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, was dance-oriented.
“It was about dance,” he said. “He choreographed the hell out of it. It was a dance show. Over the years it’s never been revived, and my theory is that the reason it hasn’t is because nobody could come up with a concept for a new way to do it.”
Looking back, Rubinstein said, the material almost immediately acquired a degree of social significance that made it something more that just another musical.
“The times are what they are, and at that time the Vietnam War was raging and young people … protested all across this country against it,” he said. “We were definitely making a statement about war. The whole first part of the play is about Charlemagne going against the Visigoths.”
But socially the country was quite different. There was a military draft, which connected almost every family to the war, and nightly news coverage of the fighting fueled dissent and widespread protests.
“There was a tremendous feeling largely against — and obviously some for — the war at the time,” he said. “So we came out onstage making fun of it. There was a palpable chill in the audience. It hit home with virtually everybody there.
“But the Dick Cheneys of this world learned their lessons, and when they decided to start another war with no reason, they didn’t put it on television, and there was no draft. And so now America is very little involved or interested in the many wars we are making and the many people we’re killing. But don’t get me started.”
The year before “Pippin” opened on Broadway, Rubinstein starred in his first film — “Zachariah,” billed as “the first electric western,” in which tropes from cowboy movies were freely intermingled with contemporary music. The film incorporated performances by the James Gang, Country Joe & the Fish and Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw. And drummer Elvin Jones, former John Coltrane sideman, popped up as the villain, a gunfighter in a sleeveless silver vest called Job Cain. A centerpiece of the movie is a long Jones drum solo.
“Zachariah,” Rubinstein said, was a retelling of “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse, a novel that was widely read on college campuses in the ’60s about a young man’s spiritual quest. The writers of “Zachariah” were members of Firesign Theatre, a comedy troupe whose recordings were heard in dormitory rooms across the country.
“They were humorists who were brilliant men, and they wrote this script in this sort of crazy counterculture way, and it turned into a western but with music and big amplifiers plugged into the desert sand,” Rubinstein said. “It had spiritual and even religious overtones.
“It was actually a very modern, forward-thinking and intelligent movie, but they didn’t know how to sell it. It was too weird. It was like: What is this? They cut about a third of the movie out. That was basically ‘Siddhartha,’ which is very ‘Pippin’-like. It was just coincidental that I made ‘Zachariah’ and a year and a half later was on Broadway playing Pippin with the same haircut.”