It’s funny the journeys of discovery we go through. This weekend I was privileged to see Jeff McBride’s new show Magic at the Edge. I have seen Jeff perform many times in the past, but was particularly blown away by his new show. One of my all time favorite pieces is his “Transformations.” It has always spoken to me, but this time it brought me to tears because I could relate to it so strongly. It is Jeff’s story of trying to break out of his dependence on the silent White Face character, and his struggle with it. Ultimately he is successful, and he emerges as “himself.”
I have struggled with a similar dilemma. I had made my living and gained professional notoriety as the larger than life character “Big Daddy Cool.” He is a swingin’ zoot suited hepcat circa 1946. Audiences love him, and I love playing him. The problem I encountered though was that I had become so identified with the character that really that was who audiences and clients thought I was. I began to resent that, much like an actor who has been pigeon holed in a role.
Then last October a very well known Nashville magician wrote me an e-mail telling me how the character didn’t work because audiences didn’t get to know me, and that is what they really want. My friend Nelson Griswold told me he was a nut, but the guy is a former World Champion, so I took his advice seriously.
So I started experimenting, going so far as dropping the character name in all advertising and promotion. The majority of my show transformed into new material that I performed as “myself.” I still did a few pieces as Big Daddy, but the show was about John.
The first thing that happened was that ticket sales dropped. They dropped dramatically. While I was selling out houses to audiences eager to see Big Daddy Cool & The Swing Kittens in the Swing Magic Revue, far less had a desire to buy tickets to see John B. Pyka in (insert show name here – I experimented with so many different titles). So I pulled my protégé Lonny Divine along for the ride to boost tickets. It only worked a little. Further, when I performed as myself before playing Big Daddy, the audience did not respond to him as enthusiastically. If I opened the show as Big Daddy, the audience would not accept me any other way because he is so strong.
So, fast forward to my trip to Las Vegas this past weekend. Jeff McBride had graciously invited me (as Big Daddy Cool) to be a performer on the Wonderground. What an honor and thrill! It was amazing – more on that another time. But Jeff told me that because of erratic lighting with The Wonderground my Dancing Cane Routine was a no-no. I had been working on a “commando” routine for a long time, in case such a situation arose. So this was the excuse to polish it and finally put it onstage.
Wednesday prior to my performance I invited my friend Jason Michaels to come over and check out the act. He loved it and was very complimentary. Then he said [you are very comfortable in that character (BDC) and I think you should focus on that.] Hmmm. OK.
Then after my show Saturday night I was discussing with a friend of mine who saw the show about my struggle to break free of this character. She was confused and told me [Big Daddy Cool is such a strong character. People love him! Why would you want to not be him? If I were you I would focus just on being him.] Hmm… Interesting.
Then during his show Jeff looked me dead in the eyes and said [focus on one thing and you’ll find the success you seek.] Whoa! Ok, three people just told me basically the same thing. In my life that usually means it is a word from God and you had better listen!
So Jeff’s “Transformation” tore me up because I need to embrace the thing I’ve been trying to get rid of. That Nashville magician was wrong, and I need to focus on what I do best and that is the swingin’ magic of Big Daddy Cool! So does that mean that I will never be myself again? No, because BDC comes from me, so he really is me. Does that mean that my other characters are dead? No, but they will become secondary as experimental pieces for my creative pleasure, but not for performance. I will no longer focus on trying to create routines for them, and will only do them when specifically requested to do so.
When I appear on stage from this moment on, I will be only one character – “Big Daddy Cool” Johnny Dellarocca. My struggle ends a little differently than Jeff’s but in the end I think the results will be very similar!