Rich Little in Morristown: Leaving a lasting impression

For Christmas I gave my father DVDs of Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts from the ’70s, and we enjoyed watching them recently.

So my curiosity was piqued when I heard that one of the funniest regulars on those programs, impressionist Rich Little, was bringing his one-man show to the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.

Impressionist Rich Little at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Impressionist Rich Little at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

How would Little’s lampoons of long-gone artists hold up before a live audience in 2014?

Pretty well, as it turns out.

Yet behind the laughs–and Jimmy Stewart & Friends had plenty on Thursday–there lurked a bittersweet sense that this was an historic event, the last hurrah for a fading genre.

Impressionists once were a staple of TV variety shows. David Frye, Frank Gorshin, Rich Little and others were regular guests in America’s collective living room.

And they had plenty of fodder, thanks largely to the old Hollywood star system and a three-network  television monopoly that gave the nation a durable set of iconic entertainers. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, George Burns, John Wayne… the list was long and everyone on it was almost like family. Politicians were the other common denominators.

For much of the 20th century, stars maintained proper public personas, carefully cultivated by Hollywood agents, studios and handlers.

Comedian Rich Little

Comedian Rich Little first performed his Jimmy Stewart impression for the actor in 1964.  They became friends and did many charity events together. Little also spoofed Stewart on a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast–one of 24 appearances by Little in that 1970s TV series.

Playing against type, impressionists put outrageous words into celebrities’ mouths. Often, the results were funny.

Today’s e-gossip world of Twitter, TMZ and Gawker, by comparison, leaves little to the imagination. We know too much about modern celebs; their Tweets are more outrageous than anything impressionists could cook up for them.

Plus, movies have changed.  Viewers in a bygone era would go to see John Wayne, who played John Wayne, regardless of the picture. Now, the story drives the movie. Big name actors are chameleons, changing from role to role. This makes for more realistic films. But it’s curtains for impressionists.

“How the hell are you going to do Brad Pitt?” Little lamented in the Q & A after his two-hour show.

Luckily for him–and thanks to cable networks like Turner Movie Classics–enough people still remember Jimmy Stewart et al  to appreciate what now amounts to a comedic archaeological dig.

(Louis Armstrong? Raymond Burr?)

Over the years, Little has portrayed Johnny Carson in a movie and done voice-overs for Peter Sellers, David Niven, Stacey Keach, James Cagney and Gene Kelly when death or illness prevented them from completing projects.

At 75, Little’s virtuosity remains impressive.  With very few props, “The Man of a Thousand Voices” inhabited nearly 40 characters without missing a beat last week in Morristown. His sendups of Carson, Paul Lynde, Andy Rooney and Richard Nixon  were especially hilarious.

We don’t want to reveal Little’s jokes. Let’s just say that after Jimmy Stewart & Friends, it will be hard to think of Pasteurization, asteroids or fox hats in quite the same way.

Not bad, for a guy who got his start mimicking his sixth-grade teachers in Ottawa.

In other words: Try to catch Rich Little’s act now… before he is history.





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