Saturday, October 15, 2016

SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW: With Broadway Actress and Singer Dee Etta Rowe Ferraro

Dee Etta, I’m not quite sure where to begin with your interview because so many experiences and images pop into my mind. I guess the natural thing to do is start at the beginning.
Dee Etta Rowe Ferraro

We met when we were both cast in the bus & truck tour of The Sound Of Music starring Sally Ann Howes in the fall of 1978. She's probably best known for her film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke.

Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes
You and I became fast friends and seatmates on the bus. The tour was quite amazing – roughly 9 months long covering 97 cities. Some were one nighters, others were what we called split weeks - 3 nights in this city, 4 in another. And occasionally we spent a week at one theatre. Personally, I loved the experience and opportunity to see so much of the country and Canada too.

ARTHUR:  Dee Etta what are your memories of that tour? Good or bad, easy or frustrating?

DEE ETTA:  I was thrilled to be touring as well. And to see the country. And of course, making many new friends, especially you and Joyce Hall. I was cast as the understudy to Terry Saunders as the Mother Abbess. I remember we were doing several one nighters and Terry was ill, but really did not want me to go on for her. She kept hanging in there right up to the last minute and finally gave in because she was too sick to go on. I went on for her, opposite Sally Ann Howes. And although, I was much younger than Terry, to be playing the Mother Abbess, Sally Ann was so gracious and said that she loved my performance and never felt that I was younger than her. I was so happy that she felt that way and thrilled to have had the opportunity to play opposite her. I always admired her as an actress from the first time I saw her in the film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And I must mention that working with Jim Coleman, our conductor, it was simply a joy and I have more stories about Jim Coleman later. 

Dee Etta and Arthur in Sound Of Music (What is on my upper lip???)

ARTHUR:  We've both done a lot of productions of The Sound Of Music. Before meeting you, I had been in one starring Farley Granger and prior to that, another one with Bob Gunton both with Adrienne Doucette. You did a national tour with Ann Blyth and I remember some great stories from that production. Care to share? And can you explain to readers who don't know, the difference between a bus and truck and a national tour?  

DEE ETTA:  I did summer stock with Ann Blyth and Jean-Pierre Aumont. With all due respect, and with nothing regarding their talents, they were both too old to play those roles. Regardless, the cast had a lot of fun with this production and I remember that Ann was absolutely lovely, and very professional to work with. Now don't laugh, but she was knocked-kneed and pigeon toed. I found out some time later, that in her celebrated movie career, they never filmed her below the waist. Now watch some of her movies and you'll see exactly what I'm saying. We did travel by bus with this tour and the sets were delivered by trucks. On national tours, which I've done several, the cast and crew travel by plane to each city with a longer runs at each venue.

ARTHUR:  What was your first Broadway show?  

DEE ETTA:  My first Broadway show, in 1979, was the revival of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, starring Metropolitan Opera star, Giorgio Tozzi. The purpose of this revival, was to mount it for a PBS production, so we only did an out of town performance in Detroit at the Fisher Theater and then it went directly to Broadway at the Majestic Theater. The PBS version is still aired occasionally. Look for it! I was one of the neighbor ladies and understudy for the role of Cleo, but I never had the opportunity to go on in my understudy role. Richard Muenz played Joey, Sharon Daniels, from the New York City Opera, played Rosabella and Louisa Flannigan played Cleo. I hate to say this, but she (Louisa) was not nice to me at all, because during our first run through of the show, just singing through it, she did not show up. She was having issues with her contract, and so I got to sing the role of Cleo in front of everyone in the cast, including the producers and directors. Louisa found out that I knew the entire roll perfectly and sang it to perfection. So, she made certain that I never had the opportunity to go on for her. Every other understudy in the production got the opportunity to at least go on once. Well, everyone except Dee Etta Rowe.

Dee Etta in Nine (eighth from the left)
ARTHUR:  I was so excited when you were cast in the original Broadway production of Nine starring Raul Julia and a bevy of Broadway beauties, including yourself. I came to your show no less than 4 times, including a last minute alert that you were going on as Mama Maddelena, a character whom you were understudying.

DEE ETTA:  It was absolutely thrilling for me to be creating an original character in a brand-new Broadway musical. I originally did the role of Olga Von Sturm, one of the four Germans in the show. Nine was first produced as a workshop, developed at the New Amsterdam Theatre, in the upstairs ballroom that originally was host to Florenz Ziegfeld's private parties.

I knew the moment I first heard the music, by Maury Yeston, that Nine was going to be a huge hit. In addition to the role I created as a German, I was also given the understudy to Camille Saviola, who was playing Mama Maddelena. However, I was not the original choice. My long time friend, Lulu Downs, also a German, was the original understudy, but she could not stand the pressure of not knowing when she might have to go on. She was physically built like Camille, I was not. The stage manager came to me and asked if I would take over the understudy of Mama Maddelena and of course, I said, "Yes." With costumes by William Ivy Long, they quickly built me a brand-new costume that had foam rubber padding in the bust, that allowed my breasts to sit on top like a shelf. Camille, was naturally big busted, and I was not. However, no one knew that when I got into that costume with a black updo wig. No one would ever know that I customarily played a fair skin, blonde German, in my new Italian Mama get up. My first understudy rehearsal, was to be the following Thursday after I received the role. But when I came into work on Tuesday, I was told, "You are going on tonight as Mama Maddalena." The stage manager asked, "Can you do it?" And I replied, "Of course, I know the part!"

Dee Etta in a stunning NY Times ad for Nine

And so I went on the Broadway stage of the 46th St. Theater, in a role that I never had a rehearsal for. From the "German in a Turban", to a "Buxom Italian Mama!" And I went on in that role about three times a week, thereafter. I would come to the theater and ask, "Am I flying to Germany or Italy tonight?" And going on in either roll just became second nature and I loved it.

ARTHUR:  And was it in 1980, not long after we returned from our bus & truck, that you landed the national tour of Sweeney Todd starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn?
DEE ETTA:  Actually, first I got the Broadway national tour of Showboat, starring Lanie Kazan and Eddie Bracken. We were performing at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. when I received a phone call from musical director, Jim Coleman, our conductor from Sound Of Music. He was conducting the first Broadway national tour of Sweeney Todd and said, "Dee Etta, you must come to NYC, to the final callbacks for this production, because we are looking for your voice and you are perfect for the show. Please come!" So that Monday, on our day off, I flew to New York City, to the Uris Theater. This was the final call back and they needed a mezzo soprano voice. 

Now at the time of this call back, I had a broken arm and was in a cast. I had fallen teaching a class at AMDA (The American Musical and Dramatic Academy) just before I got Showboat. I had to call the producers at Showboat and tell them I definitely wanted to do the show, but I had a cast on my arm. The producers were so nice and understanding, and said, "Can you twirl an umbrella in your cast?" And of course, I said, "Yes!" They said we'll make all your costumes with long sleeves. I was not only in the ensemble of Showboat and played the role of Mrs. O'Brien, but I was also understudy to Lainie Kazan as Julie. I was so fortunate.

When I arrived in New York City, for the audition for Sweeney Todd, I was greeted with stares and daggers, from the girls that had already auditioned. I was at the final callbacks and never auditioned prior. "Who was this new person?" they whispered,  i.e. me…in a cast up to my elbow! I went into the call back, and sang my operatic area, "Morro Ma Prima Grazia." They dismissed everyone but me, the mezzo and two sopranos. And then we heard what we all were waiting for, "You got the job!" I flew back to Washington, D.C. with the good news that I was now in the Broadway national tour of Sweeney Todd, with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. And in addition to that, Hal Prince (the director) asked me to understudy Angela as Mrs. Lovett. Wow!

ARTHUR:  You continued to consistently tour and work in regional theatres. Is it true that you’ve spent 8 years, off and on, doing productions of Menopause The Musical? 

Dee Etta in A Christmas Cabaret

DEE ETTA:  Oh yes! My husband Jimmy Ferraro and I were living in Florida and were owners of the Angel Cabaret Dinner Theater in Tampa Bay. Jimmy was producing and directing the productions and I was still performing. We were in our fifth year when we received a phone call from musical director and longtime friend of my husband's, Michael Larson. He asked if I could fly, the next day, to the East Coast of Florida for a emergency audition to replace the role of the Iowa housewife in Menopause The Musical in Denver, Colorado. It was an 18 month sit down contract at the Denver Civic Theater. I got the job and we closed the Angel Cabaret and moved to Denver Colorado. Jimmy was asked to be company manager and he ran everything for the Denver production. Menopause The Musical is now the longest running musical in the history of Colorado. In fact, six months after it closed, it was revived again in Denver to sold out audiences. I was asked to also learn the role of the Earth Mother and I ended up doing both roles for a total of eight years, traveling all over the country, performing to sold out productions.

Dee Etta as Earth Mother in Menopause The Musical
ARTHUR:  And I think it was around 1988 that you met and married your husband Jimmy Ferraro, yes? He’s also a well-established Broadway actor - did you meet while doing a show together? And what is the key to a successful relationship in an industry that traditionally doesn’t foster such longevity?
DEE ETTA:  It was in 1987 that Jimmy and I were married. In fact, we just celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary this past September. Jimmy is a fabulous singer, actor, director, and producer. This is how we met. I was in between shows and my parents asked me to visit them in their winter home in St. Petersburg, Florida for the holidays. I arrived just before Thanksgiving. My mother mentioned that there was a new dinner theater that opened in downtown St. Petersburg, that was having auditions for the Broadway musical Barnum. It was the newly opened, Encore Dinner Theater and she persuaded me to audition, with the idea of having a working vacation. I really was not interested, but my mother persisted and I reluctantly agreed to audition. I sang for the producers and director and I was hired on the spot for the Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind. Jimmy had already moved to Florida from NYC, and was the most popular working actor in the area working at every regional theater in the state. He was currently playing Bert Healy in the Encore's opening production of "Annie."

The producer offered Jimmy various character roles to play in Barnum. (There were no leading roles for him in the show.) Jimmy politely turned them down, but when he was offered more money than his last contract with them, he said, "Yes!"

Jimmy and I met at the very first rehearsal and immediately, we felt like we knew each other. We were engaged three weeks later and married nine months after that.
Jimmy and Dee Etta
The reason for a longevity? We really respect each other as people and our talents and we work very well together. Love is the most important thing and Jimmy Ferraro is my soulmate.

ARTHUR:  You and Jimmy live in Florida. I know you are a New England girl. Was this a tough adjustment, the two climates and lifestyles being so different?
DEE ETTA:  Not for me! I was an Air Force brat and moved constantly as a child. In the first grade, I lived in Spain and in the second and third grades I lived in Germany and in the fourth Grade, West Hampton Beach, Long Island and ended up in fifth grade in Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. I loved moving around as a child and being the new girl in town. And I do love living in Florida, we have a large beautiful home with a pool and lots of air conditioning. Perfect for me. 

ARTHUR:  And what’s also exciting is that you and Jimmy produce and often perform in your own theatre, JIMMY FERRARO’S STUDIO THEATRE – I understand you closed for the summer, while reorganizing and moving the theatre to a new location. Tell us more about this and the type of shows that you produce. And what’s the next show audiences can look forward to, once the Studio Theatre is settled in its new home?

As Sophie Tucker in Sophie, Totie, and Belle at the Studio Theater

DEE ETTA:  The beautiful and elegant Jimmy Ferraro's Studio Theater in historic downtown, New Port Richey produced and developed new musicals and plays as well as rarely seen productions. Truly a unique venue in this area.

While we closed for the summer, Jimmy received an offer to develop a brand-new musical that is headed for Broadway. So once again things have changed for us and thankfully in a very positive way. And so finding a new location is on hold for the moment. In the meantime, we are also busy producing and I am starring in a murder mystery production, as a fundraiser for some area schools. Jimmy and I like to give back to the community that supports us. We love doing charity work in our spare time. 

Dee Etta as the Mother Abyss in Sound Of Music
ARTHUR:  Of all your shows and performances, any standout as memorable and why?

DEE ETTA:  After all of our years of being married, Jimmy and I have been in many shows together, but we never played opposite each other until the 2012 national tour of Fiddler On The Roof, starring Jimmy as Tevye and me as Golde, his wife. In fact, we celebrated our 25th silver wedding anniversary during the tour and on that day we had two shows. After the matinee performance, the stage manager brought two dozen red roses to me at the curtain call in honor of our anniversary. When the curtain came down, The stage manager quickly snatched the roses away from me and said that he had to take them backstage and keep them cool because he was presenting them once again after the evening show that night. LOL! That's showbiz! 

Dee Etta as Golde and Jimmy as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof

I must say, that one of the highlights was Jimmy and I singing to each other, "Do You Love Me?" on our 25th anniversary and Tevye and Golde have been married for 25 years also, which is revealed in the song as well. As they say, theater imitates life.

ARTHUR:  I also know that you are an activist and supporter of many causes. Any you’d like to highlight in this interview?

DEE ETTA:  Jimmy and I have supported many causes over the years and have raised over $100,000 for such charities as the Alzheimer's Family Organization, A Child's Wish Come True, the American Cancer Society, Ovarian Cancer Awareness, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, and many more.

We not only raised money for these charities, but we performed in benefits for them as well. We now have a nonprofit organization for our charity work called, Angels of Gratitude, Inc., which provides scholarships in the performing arts to students in financial need as well as helping the poor and homeless.

ARTHUR:  And last but certainly not least, tell our readers about your adorable Midgie!

Dee Etta, Midgie, and Jimmy

DEE ETTA:  There is so much to tell. My wonderful and talented and amazing mother, Elinor, well known as Midgie, is going to be 97 years old. She  was a major tap dancer for over 40 years and appeared all over the country with great stars of the Golden Age of cinema, in large variety shows. She appeared with Judy Garland, Martha Raye, Dean Martin, Ray Bolger, Buddy Epsen, Mickey Rooney, and all the big bands just to name a few. But our favorite story, is that she appeared with The 3 Stooges. In 1938, Midgie was traveling with an offshoot of the Rockettes, called the Rhythm Rockets. In the variety shows, they had all types of acts on the bill. After her dance routine she would run and change costumes and then run down to the stage wings to watch the Three Stooges perform, as they were on the same bill. Curly noticed her standing in the wings watching them and asked her to please hold his change from his pockets, as he had to stand on his head in his act and he didn't want his change to fall out on the stage floor. Midgie was happy to do it and she stood in the wings for each performance to hold Curley's change. She said all of the Stooges were very nice and brought their wives with them. Isn't that a great story?

ARTHUR:  Dee Etta, your talent and love of life is infectious and inspirational. Thanks to social media I still feel connected to you. (Sure wish we were closer, though.) Any final thoughts?

DEE ETTA:  I feel the same Arthur. We had so much fun on the road and have become lifelong friends and can you believe that we only did that one show together? You are so very talented and I value our friendship and I hope that we get to see each other in person in the near future. Let us know when you want to take a trip to our home in Weeki Wachee, "The only city of live mermaids."  And you have an open invitation to stay with us. Love you Arthur Wooten.


Dee Etta as Miss Hannigan in Annie