Actor pays tribute to 'Kojak'
Back when "Kojak" was king, Tom DiMenna wasn't even born.
Yet, more than 35 years after that prime-time crime show made a star of Telly Savalas and launched one of the more enduring pop culture icons, New York Police Lt. Theo Kojak, DiMenna may know more about Savalas than just about anyone.
Anyone except perhaps Hunter Nelson, who has collaborated with DiMenna to bring the star and sometime singer back to the stage, at least in spirit. Savalas died in 1994.
"The show is this fantasy of what the real Telly Savalas is like, inspired by the iconic, cool Kojak," said DiMenna of "Who Loves You Baby?" a live show at Joe's Pub in New York City, Thursday, March 7.
With a mix of fact and fiction, DiMenna, a New York City-based actor who grew up in Darien, plays Savalas, who has come back from the dead having lost none of his tough-guy style. It affords him a chance to lay waste to some of the things he sees in today's culture that have him steaming, such as clothing and video games. Those new to Savalas brief, but concentrated music career, also will get a taste of the music they may have missed the first time around.
It was a YouTube video of Savalas' performance of Bread's "If," one of the tracks on his 1974 debut album, "Telly," that got the project on its way. DiMenna, who was working with the improv group SMIRK, which also included Nelson, happened to see it online one day and was immediately and charmed, bewildered, intrigued, entertained and hooked.
Soon, a surreal lounge act featuring Savalas, intent on fixing everything and making things right again, began to take shape.
"It was really kind of a dare," said DiMenna. "It was really a lunatic idea."
DiMenna said he and Nelson, who are both in their early 30s, took the idea of cabaret tribute show -- elements of which he poached from his mother Lynn, a Darien resident and successful cabaret singer -- and expanded on it.
"Usually a singer is paying tribute to someone else's work," DiMenna said. "We thought wouldn't it be great if he was just paying tribute to himself."
While DiMenna was busy incorporating Savalas, it was left to Nelson to work on the narrative arc.
"I've been with it a while," said Nelson, a New York City-based writer and performer. "The first version was short . . . and probably the most factual."
The show has gone through several iterations, and has picked up new team members, including the actor and playwright Taylor Negron, the show's director; and Alex Leonard, the musical director. It had runs in 2011 Hollywood Fringe and New York Fringe festivals and an extended run at the Huron Club at SoHo Playhouse in New York City earlier this year.
The audiences at Joe's Pub will see an updated, longer version that runs for more than an hour. As described by DiMenna, "It's a play, disguised as a lounge act."
And, though the absurdity is front and center, Nelson said the show is not without heart and an earnestness. Amid the spoken word musical numbers, monologues, advice, reminiscences about famous places and friends, there is a tribute to Savalas' larger-than-life personality and career, and what appears to be a genuine desire to make sure today's young people live life to the fullest.
For Nelson, Savalas becomes a touchstone for the time when celebrities told it like it was and were willing to experiment, like taking a risk on a singing career when it was clear that acting was their strength.
"I guess I am fixated on the '70s," Nelson said. "My father was really good at making it seem like the most important decade . . . so I guess it makes me overly reverent of it."
For those who may only know Savalas from an arcane tidbit unearthed during an online search, to those who are ardent fans, DiMenna and Nelson say the show has equal appeal.
"You don't have to know Telly Savalas to enjoy this character," Nelson said. "People shouldn't worry that they need to know this person before they come to the show."
DiMenna recalled one of his most challenging performances -- the night members of the Savalas family came to see the show.
"It was scary as hell when his family came," DiMenna said.
But, the reviews were good.
"They really liked it; they loved the message, which was great . . . very affirming," he added.
The "Telly" team is excited to perform at Joe's Pub, which attracts established performers and emerging artists from around the world. A crowd may lead to more performances.
If you go, plan on seeing DiMenna up onstage, along with Leonard, his sidekick and musical accompanist.
"It's just me and the `A
Train,' " said DiMenna, slipping ever-so-slightly into character. "Telly never travels without his piano man."
Joe's Pub is at 425 Lafayette St., New York, N.Y. Tickets are $20. Show is 7 p.m. 212-967-7555, http://www.joespub.com.
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