Clint Griffey: A whirlwind of comedy

Clint Griffey was an actor with a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of energy.

He was something to watch when he immersed himself in a farcical musical parody, which he did often through the years at the Martin City Melodrama and Vaudeville Company.

Griffey died earlier this month, and I like to think that death is the only thing that could have forced him off the stage.

As far as I know, Griffey never performed at another theater company in Kansas City. He was certainly talented enough to do so. But Griffey was part of the Martin City Melodrama family, and he remained loyal to the company for all the years he performed there. He was never on the staff, but he was so much a part of the operation that he had his own key.

“Well, put me down as a Clint Griffey fan,” I wrote in 2008.

That was the first sentence of my review of “The Wolfman, or, Another Bad Hair Day,” a calculated bit of silliness typical of the brand of entertainment Martin City has delivered for some 25 years. Griffey played Dr. Sigmund Origami, a scientist from Asia.

“From his squinting glare to his over-the-top laughter, Griffey elevates this nonsensical entertainment every time he’s on stage,” I wrote.

Griffey was a hard worker. There was no question about it if you watched him on stage, because sweat poured out of him during his calorie-burning performances. Martin City requires actors to go at warp speed and Griffey never faltered. Indeed, the only actor who was really his equal in terms of crazed energy — a phrase I’ve used more than once to describe shows at Martin City — was the company’s founder, Jeanne Beechwood.

“The thing that was so great about Clint is our product is very, very difficult because it’s a stylized product,” Beechwood said. “And we do lots and lots of notes sessions when we get ready to open and even after the show opens, actors take notes.”

Beechwood, the director, would tell each actor detailed adjustments they needed to make in performance, and each actor would write them down in a notebook. And they were expected to remember it all the next time they stepped on stage.

“He would always remember and he wouldn’t argue about his notes,” she said. “He knew it was to make the show better.”

Griffey, who succumbed to liver and kidney failure at age 36, appeared in the company’s annual holiday show, “Mother Goose’s Nursery Crimes,” but health problems prevented him from completing the run.

After Griffey became too ill to perform, Beechwood asked another local actor, Nino Casini, to replace him. From his hospital bed, Griffey texted a simple collegial message to Casini before he went on: “Break a leg.”

“I can’t imagine how poorly he felt, but he did rehearsals and three weeks of the show,” Beechwood said. “That’s a true professional.”

In 2009 Beechwood and Griffey appeared in another holiday show, “A Ridiculously Reduced Christmas Carol.” The comic premise was that all the other cast members had dropped out of the show, leaving Beechwood and Griffey to perform all 57 roles in the Dickens classic. Watching the two go tit-for-tat was a singular experience. Think of it as dueling comedians.

Going through my old reviews, I found that I had nice things to say about Griffey most of the time. Once I praised him (as Sherlock Holmes) for taking “mugging to an artistic level that requires precision and sharp timing.”

In that “Wolfman” review I wrote: “Let’s hope he doesn’t plan to retire very soon.”

Griffey never retired. He kept at it until the end.

“He loved making something new and creating a brand new character,” Beechwood said. “He loved the process. He loved doing it.”

Contributions in Griffey’s memory may be made to the Martin City Melodrama & Vaudeville Company, 9601 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, KS 66212. Beechwood said money would be used to establish two scholarship funds.