BOWIE GOLDEN YEARS

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THE ELEPHANT MAN

In San Francisco Bowie watched a performance of The Elephant Man with Phillip Anglim in the role he was soon to take over. Bowie had seen the play a couple of times and studied the script for a few months then rehearsals for the role began in early July. The role was notoriously difficult as Merrick's physical disabilities had to be expressed by the actor. Rehearsals went well with Bowie's drawing on his training in mime to convey Merrick's physicality.

29 July - 3 August 1980

Denver Centre of Performing Arts

The Elephant Man opened at the Denver Centre of Performing Arts for a weeklong run with Bowie in the role of John Merrick. This was his first attempt at acting on stage in a conventional role.

The play was a sellout from the start, in its first week grossing $186,466, making it the biggest box-office attraction in the entire 38-year history of the Denver Centre of Performing Arts.

Bowie's opening night in Denver was reported in Variety (6 August):

"The acting debut on the American stage of rock singer David Bowie was greeted by a standing ovation in Denver when the singer, noted for his flamboyant musical style, took on the role of physically misshapen John Merrick, the human monster with a liking for culture. Drawing on an early mime background and the resourceful staging of his rock shows, Bowie displays the ability to project a complex character.

Playing a man too ugly to draw a freak audience, and too human to survive within a distorted body, Bowie shows a mastery of movement and of vocal projection. Bowie takes the stage with authority to create a stirring performance. Vocally, he is both quick and sensitive. In scene after scene he builds poignantly, crying for the chance to become civilised, though he knows he will always be a freak; pleading for a home; though he knows his presence disturbs; and questioning the rules of society; though his well being depends on their acceptance. Judging from his sensitive projection of this part, Bowie has the chance to achieve legit stardom … "

Richmond Crinkley, Elizabeth McCann, Nelle Nugent's presentation of a drama in two acts by Bernard Pomerance

Staged by Jack Hofsiss

Setting: David Jenkins

Costumes: Julie Weis

Lighting: Beverly Emmons

Cast

Ken Ruta: Frederick Treves, Belgian Policeman

David Bowie: John Merrick

Richard Neilson: Carr Gomm, Conductor

Thomas Toner: Ross, Bishop, Walsham How, Snork

Dennis Lipscomb: Pinhead Manager, London Policeman, Will, Lord John

Jeannette Landis: Streetwalker, Pinhead, Miss Sandwich, Princess Alexandra

Concetta Tomei: Mrs Kendal, Pinhead

Thomas Apple: Orderly

David Heiss: Cellist

(The American National Theatre and Academy Production)

5 August 1980 - 31 August 1980

Blackstone Theatre, Chicago

During the three weeks of the Chicago run, Bowie sees a Roy Orbison concert. Orbison later attends the play.

Signing autographs in Chicago

1 September 1980

Rehearsals for the Broadway run of The Elephant Man with a new cast.

3 September 1980

Good Morning America interview with Bowie broadcast on ABC live at 7.30am.

Q. An awful lot of performers talk about how difficult it is to deal with what the public sees them as, and do you think you're alike, do you have a problem with that because you've been so many different people?

Bowie: Not really because I don't circulate in places where there's much public…

Q. You're a private person?

Bowie: It's not that as much as that I prefer travelling than sticking in cities where you're sort of immersed in the rock 'n' roll circus. So I end up in Africa or Germany or Japan.. Mombassa, Berlin and Kyoto are my main ports of call.

Q. Opening night, do you get jitters, I mean, I'm wondering about the play, but even in your concerts, are you a little nervous before you go on?

Bowie: Yes. I don't like riding in on a concert in too relaxed a state.

Q. You like to have the adrenalin flowing then?

Bowie: Yes, very much so.

Q. How about Elephant Man, did you have many jitters opening night?

Bowie: Yes, I was petrified. I didn't know what was going to happen, but once I got on stage, the supporting cast were just truly wonderful.

6 September 1980

Interview by Robert Hilburn published in New York Times.

Bowie: There is discipline involved in both rock and straight theatre, but it's a different kind of discipline. The strange thing for me was to take one character and play him with an emotional chronology from beginning to end, knowing the emotional and psychological steps he was going to take in a two-hour period. In concert, I play with the characters and evoke different kinds of emotional drive anytime I wish.

I knew after the first night that I was credible. I felt, 'Yes, I was John Merrick tonight.' That made me happy and I thought, it's a continual process. It may be imperceptible to some people, but I do find something new every night.

13 September 1980

The Future Isn't What It Used To Be, an interview with Bowie conducted in Chicago in August by Angus MacKinnon, published in NME.

David, sitting in his Blackstone Theatre dressing room, explained: 'The thing is, you see, that - well, the reason why I haven't given any interviews in recent years is simply because I've become, I think, very private. Also to be honest, I really don't think I've got that much to say. But why don't we just start and see how it goes?'

AM: Did you know anything about the Elephant Man himself before you saw the play?

DB: Sure. A lot of those strange freak stories appealed to me in my teens and then stayed with me - everything from hairy women to people with fifteen lips. I read all that stuff avidly and, of course, I did my homework on Merrick.

AM: It must have been a rather unsettling experience for you. The last time you encountered audiences as closely as you do here must have been back in the Ziggy days.

DB: Yes, it makes one suddenly very aware of how one's body and one's facial expressions function. It's - you do feel you're being scrutinised to an unbearable extent. It's not that pleasurable, actually.

But I think that was the first thing I had to fight. After we'd finished rehearsals and opened in Denver I was furious with myself on the first night that the thing that was preoccupying me during the performance was how people were adjusting or relating to my body movements and that I hadn't been considering the character at all. It took a good week to shake that feeling off and become interested and involved onstage with Merrick.

 

23 September 1980 - 3 January 1981

Booth Theatre, 222 W 45th St, New York

Cast

Donal Donnelly: Frederick Treves, Belgian Policeman

Richard Clarke: Carr Gomm, Conductor

L M. Hobson: Ross, Bishop Walsham How, Snork

David Bowie: John Merrick

Jeffrey Jones: Pinhead Manager, London Policeman, Will, Lord John

Judith Barcroft: Streetwalker, Pinhead, Miss Sandwich, Princess Alexandra

Patricia Elliot: Mrs Kendal, Pinhead

Dennis Creaghan: Orderly

Michael Goldschlager: Cellist

Benjamin Hendrickson: Standby for John Merrick

Director: Jack Hofsiss

Producer: Richmond Crinkley

Evening performances: Tuesday to Sunday

Matinee performances: Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday

The Elephant Man opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre to excellent notices ensuring a good run.

Celebrities who turned out for the opening night included Christopher Isherwood, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Diana Vreeland and Oona Chaplin, the 55 year old widow of Charlie Chaplin, who flew in from Switzerland especially.

Rumours of a relationship appeared in the press. Oona Chaplin told a journalist, "I like him very, very much indeed."

 

October 1980

Bowie's co-star Patricia Elliot spoke to the New York press about working with Bowie.

"He's real dynamite. Heavens, and so good in the role. I missed David's rock music trip, though I have recently bought Scary Monsters and what an album. I thought, I'm in the show with a household name."

10 October 1980

Friday Night - Saturday Morning TV show (BBC 2) broadcast, featuring an interview with Bowie recorded a week earlier in New York's Plaza Hotel by Tim Rice. It included extracts from the play onstage at the Booth Theatre.

Bowie: I've had a terrific audience that have been staunchly loyal, in the main part, to what I've done and the changes that I've taken, which as you know have been quite diverse to say the least. And there have been a sort of knotty band that have stayed with me through all of that. And so I've never tried to feel self-satisfied with what I've done which has prompted me to move in different directions. But it certainly was an incredible fulfilment for me to be able to do something, so-called 'legitimate', in fact undergo that kind of discipline and find I could withstand it and work within somebody else's very strict confines.

Rice: Are you getting people saying, 'I enjoyed your performance but I've never heard of you before'?

Bowie: That element has crept into it, yes. There have been some regular theatregoers who've come … well, they had heard of me but in some sort of perverse fashion or some kind of really corrupt idea of what I was about and I suppose they've got a different impression of me now …

Rice: Would you like to go back on stage in due course?

Bowie: Not particularly. I've learned an awful lot just from the few weeks that I've been doing this. I hope I can explore the part even further. If I don't then I'll be wasting a lot of time. I would like to be more adventurous with the part. Whilst all this palaver has gone on about press and opening nights and whatever, now things are relaxing more I would like to stretch out into it more. There are certain avenues that I'd like to follow that I haven't had the courage to do so, yet. But now.1 will probably take advantage.

 

13 November 1980

Scary Monster on Broadway feature by Kurt Loder published in Rolling Stone.

25 November 1980

"Bowie's Achievement on the Legitimate Stage" by Patricia Barnes, published in The London Times.

The interview was conducted near the Booth Theatre, at the same Japanese restaurant as the Countdown interview in October. Bowie astounded the reporter by deftly addressing the waiters in fluent Japanese.

Barnes: After several weeks in New York as an actor, is it now possible to walk down the street without being set upon by innumerable fans?

Bowie: Oh yes, I have worked out a very coherent New York lifestyle and there are two ways of walking down the street - I really buy that one. You can walk down the street wanting to be recognised and you can walk down the street not wanting to be recognised. This is especially true of New York and to a certain extent, most of America. The most you get is, 'Hi Dave, how's it going?' It's a very neighbourly. They don't get as excited at meeting you as they do in London, which is still a bit star conscious. Here you see Al Pacino walking around or Joel Grey jogging. It's quite easy to do that, it's great.

Photo by Anton Corbijn

6 December 1980

John Lennon and Yoko Ono interviewed by Andy Peebles, Lennon's last interview.

Peebles: We mentioned Elephant Man earlier - which we've been to see while we've been here in New York - I must say a stunning performance from Bowie, he's a very talented gentleman.

Lennon: Amazing guy isn't he?

Peebles: I mean I was quite puzzled by that, because I thought, I wonder whether David starring in a stage play like that would encourage the wrong sort of people to turn up. The screamers may come to see Bowie and to say, to hell with the intellectual element of the play, we're just here to clock him, and it wasn't like that at all actually, it was a very sympathetic audience.

Lennon: I must say I admire him for his vast repertoire of talent the guy has, you know. I was never around when the Ziggy Stardust thing came, because I'd already left England while all that was going on, so I never really knew what he was. And meeting him doesn't give you much more of a clue, you know,

Peebles: That's very true, very true.

Lennon: Because you don't know which one you're talking to. But … and, you know, we all have our little personality traits, so between him and me I don't know what was going down but we seemed to have some kind of communication together, and I think he's great. The fact that he could just walk into that and do that. I could never do that.

7 December 1980

Muzikzene broadcast on German TV (RB), including a feature on Bowie in The Elephant Man.

8 December 1980

John Lennon murdered in New York.

Mark Chapman had seen The Elephant Man during his stay in New York. A program was later found among his belongings. He had also photographed Bowie as he left the theatre that night.

On the 8th December, his plan was to stake out the Dakota building for Lennon, and if that failed he'd head over to the Booth Theatre. He bragged later that he could have killed either of them.

When told of this Bowie decided to make himself less accessible in the future, taking security more seriously from then on.

3 January 1981

Bowie's last performance as John Merrick in The Elephant Man in New York. A party was held in Bowie's honour after the show. He was presented with an Elephant Man sweatshirt and also the Elephant Man cloth backdrop featured in the show by the rest of the cast.

autographed production still

 
 
 
 

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DAVID LIVE  |  YOUNG AMERICANS  |  STATION TO STATION  |  LOW  |  HEROES  |  LODGER  |  SCARY MONSTERS

CRACKED ACTOR  |  THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH  |  JUST A GIGOLO  |  THE ELEPHANT MAN

ARTICLES  |  TV APPEARANCES