Barbara Minkus Interview

with Don Grigware

Barry Pearl - Barbara Minkus

Actress/singer Barbara Minkus is a charmer on and off stage. Currently treading the boards as Jennie Grossinger in the world premiere musical Saturday Night at Grossingerís at Theatre West, Minkus delivers a star-making performance. She also happens to be a delightful lady who entertained me with a plethora of amusing stories throughout our chat.

BM: My father owned a department store in Chicago Ė Leslieís Department Store on Armitage Avenue Ė and my mother was his biggest shoplifter. She had a room in our house, which she called the secret gift room, because she had half of his inventory there. Whenever he couldnít find the right size in the store, he would call my mother and ask her if she had it. And then I learned that itís not right to cheat dad (she laughs, practically in tears) Öbut I was never arrested. (continues laughing)

DG: Thatís so funny. Tell me how the Grossinger project came your way. Wasnít there another show about Grossingerís a few years ago?

BM: A big Grossingerís. This show was originally in a very big form with 20 people at Casa Manana Playhouse in Texas. I suggested to the writers, who were my friends, to do a smaller version because they couldnít sell such a big production. Smaller shows are more economical. When they finished it, I was involved in Picon Pie. I saw the non-equity production in Long Island, and itís gone through even more changes since then too. I was able to get a production at Theatre West, because Iíve been a member here for 25 years. I was thrilled to be able to do it here, but I first had to finish my contracted obligation in New York with Picon Pie.

NowÖthere have been many twists and turns to this whole story. One of the writers of the show is Rita Lakin. When I first met her, she was doing the NBC soap "The Doctors". I was 17 years old, in my first show in New York Ė Youíre a Good Man Charlie Brown. She sublet my apartment in New York because I was coming out here to do The Danny Kaye Show. She saw me in Charlie Brown and told me I was an incredible talent and that she wanted to do something to help me. I said, "Sure, sure, sureÖjust sublet my apartment." Many, many years went by. I did many shows in New York and she was out here writing for television, but we kept in touch. In fact, she recommended me to the woman who wrote Picon Pie: Rose Leiman Goldemberg. I had left the business several years earlier while my kids were growing up, so Picon Pie was the second show I did after my return. And then when Grossingerís came along, she said, "Let me know when youíre ready for this, Ďcause youíre Jennie Grossinger." Want to hear another coincidence?

DG: Sure. Iím loving every second of this.

BM: When I presented this show to Theatre West to do here, the chairman of the board was the producer who hired me years before on "Love, American Style" Ė Arnold Margolin.

DG: Everything comes around again.

BM: By the way, of the writers of Saturday Night at Grossingerís, only one is still alive: Stephen Cole. I was very fortunate to meet Claibe Richardson before he passed away. He gave his go ahead for me to do the role. I was so honored because he was a very famous composer. I didnít know it would be the last time I would see him. The same thing happened with Doris Silverton who was Ritaís partner Ė they conceived the show. Itís very special for me that I was able to have that connection with those people.

DG: Did you ever meet any of the Grossingers?

BM: I got involved in meeting the existing Grossinger family. And hereís the funny thing Ė Jennie Grossingerís great, great niece lives here. And she was my childrenís kindergarten teacher. Really. And she had the "This Is Your Life, Jennie Grossinger" recording with Ralph Edwards thatís used in the show.

DG: Talk about six degrees of separation! How long were you away from performing?

BM: I didnít work for over 20 years.

DG: But your voice is phenomenal. You must have kept up your singing.

BM: Iíve always taken singing lessons with my cantor Nate Lam, whoís a wonderful teacher.

DG: Do you feel that you are somewhat like Jennie Grossinger?

BM: (She laughs) To tell you the truth, I think I am because she was a real go-getter. She was a dynamo. She was little (like me). She had a vision and she went for it. I had a vision with Picon Pie. I researched it, I went for it, and I did it. (Itís still running off-Broadway.) I had a vision for this show too. I brought it to these people and they did it - with no money up front. I raised with June Sattler (a great producer) over $25,000, just on pre-sales: going to seniors and groups, talking about the show. I made an arrangement with Grossingerís, I sang it, and I went down to Florida. I think thatís the way Jennie Grossinger was - a hustler. I got the tuxedos for free, the food for opening night. I think whatís happened in the world is that people need to help other people. Jennie Grossinger in her time was that way. She was the first person to open up a hotel that wasnít segregated. Everybody was welcome. She was the first woman to bring in star entertainment. This was long before Las Vegas. She was an innovator. They had an airstrip for famous people to fly in, but she treated everyone like they were important. They were all equal. It was a wonderful quality, and if I have it like her, Iím honored.

Saturday Night at Grossingerís continues on at Theatre West on Thurs, Fri and Sat @8pm and Sun @2pm through May 15.  Extended through July 31.  It should have a future. See my column for a detailed review!