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Kenny Cool: Broadway Actor Ken Page Talks About Joy, Celebrity, and Coming Home Again

Page created three of the most famous roles on Broadway in Ain't Misbehavin', The Wiz, and Cats.

Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

It’s mid-July, triple-digit temperatures, and Ken Page rehearses for Dreamgirls at The Muny’s outdoor pavilion every day and sweats through Aladdin onstage, in a massive pale-gold turban and flowing robes, every night. In the movie version of Dreamgirls, he played the club owner, but now he’s Marty, R&B star Jimmy Early’s world-weary manager.

Thursday afternoon, Page watches the young dancers from the sidelines, smiling, a bandanna wrapped around his forehead like a biker, his loose white short-sleeve shirt hanging untucked. On cue, he pads across the stage, his white tennies soundless. At break he takes part in the easy affection of the theater world: the arms casually around waists, sweat ignored; the faucet-flow of compliments. Then he steps away, and a quiet settles over his face, distancing him from the crowd.

The minute the rehearsal resumes, Page is Marty, pacing the stage, a cranky frown grooving his smooth forehead as he checks his watch impatiently. He’s wearing his own; no one in costuming thought of it. “Marty’s got to have a watch,” Page told them. “He’s a manager. He’s always concerned about the time.”

At the first read-through, when he reached the line “You can’t have it all,” he, Milton Craig Nealy, and Jennifer Holliday looked at each other. They’d lived long enough, been in show business long enough, to know how true those words were. Nealy had even wondered whether he was too old to do Jimmy Early again. Page said, “Milton, you just now are Jimmy Early. Before, you were ‘playing’ him.’”

“Damn,” Nealy said. “I think you’re right!”

As for Page, at 58, he’s reached the perfect age for the magisterial patriarchs he’s been playing since he was 24. But those roles were plentiful for African-Americans on Broadway in the mid-1970s, and now they’re not. Besides, he agrees with Marty: “I’ve been in this business a long time. I’m not listening to some hotshot spoutin’ bullshit.”

We’re sitting in Plush, just down from Page’s favorite new restaurant, J. Spain’s Waffles & Wings. (He’s been back less than a year, but he plugged in fast.) He settles into the booth, turns off the new phone he calls “fancy,” and starts chronicling his life’s crazy seesaw between L.A. and New York. Midway through, his urbane voice deepens into the throaty mockery of Oogie Boogie, the menacing sack of bugs in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. When it’s time to explain the ending of Cats, he is, just as swiftly, Old Deuteronomy, his eyes all-knowing, his gestures feline and oblique. When he indulges in some old Broadway gossip, his bulk vanishes, and he is Lena Horne, sliding her slender fingers up and down the long-overdue Tony Award.

Page doesn’t act. He becomes. But what’s even more extraordinary is that through every transformation, whether he’s playing God in London or a gargoyle in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he never stops being himself.

Ken hurries into his family’s Carr Square Village apartment, yells of “Fatso!” and “You weird!” tearing the air behind him. He throws his schoolbooks down and picks up his favorite novel, To Sir, With Love, imagining himself speaking with Sir’s grave dignity. Then he sits in the airless stairwell. “People,” he sings, starting soft and sad and building until he’s belting it out like Barbra: “are the luckiest PEOPLE in the world…”

He knows Streisand, too, grew up feeling different.

He does school projects brilliantly, surprising his teachers with a confidence his shyness hid. He’s not showoffy, though; he makes jokes to deflect mockery. The nickname the old folks gave him, when he was a toddler, was Kenny Cool. “He wasn’t rippin’ and runnin’,” explains his mother, Gloria Gilstrap. “When you talked to him, he listened. They said, ‘Oh, he is so cool.”

Except in competitive sports, when the aggression of other boys roars in his ears. Theater is his safe heaven. Every time he sees a Muny show, he comes home and builds a miniature set from shoe boxes. By eighth grade, he’s writing and directing entire musicals.

“Remain true to your own heart,” his mother urges him. “You have a very good heart. Don’t ever lose that.”

When his speech and music teacher, Sister Ruth Cecilia, goes to the archdiocese and insists he get a place at Bishop DuBourg High School, his mother is thrilled. Less so freshman year, when her handsome son tries to diet and faints at school.

Click below for an excerpt on growing up in St. Louis from Page's one-man autobiographical show, Page by Page.

“You’ve always been big,” she reminds him. “Your first shoes were size 3!” These are not things a teenage boy wants to hear from his mother. But she keeps going. “You are who you are. You are who God made you to be. And don’t ever try to deny that!”

Chastened, he settles into being his big, big-hearted self. His friends at DuBourg are the theater kids, and his mother cooks them spaghetti–and–garlic bread dinners. His family has moved to Northwoods in the white-flight era, and when he throws a party and all these white kids show up, his neighbors do a double take.

Senior year, he plays Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. His costar is a white girl. When the director tells them to get into bed together for the dream sequence, they shoot each other nervous, giggly looks. One night before the show, Sister Romelia, who’s from South America, is doing his makeup. “Tonight, we’re going to make you your own color,” she says. Until then, they’d been going a few shades lighter.

Word of a black Tevye and white Golde rips through the DuBourg community. Shocked parents call the principal, who shields the kids from any knowledge of the comments. Page is in his twenties when he first learns just what an uproar there was. He flashes back to his drama teacher telling him, before the show, “I want you to be wonderful in this.” He remembers nodding, dutiful but vague. She grabbed his arm and repeated it, almost fiercely: “No, I want you to be wonderful!”

At Fontbonne College on scholarship, Page meanders past the theater-department chair’s office, glancing through the always-open door and hoping Don Garner has time to talk. Page loves his stories about playing the delivery boy on I Love Lucy, acting in My Darling Clementine, helping start Circle in the Square Theatre in New York.

Garner sees the boy’s talent and sets to work developing it. The summer after freshman year, Page makes it into the Muny ensemble. Rehearsing alongside actors who work in New York, he starts dreaming. Toward the end of sophomore year, he goes to talk to Garner, who listens to the boy’s halting opening sentences, then gets up and shuts his office door. Through a fog, Page hears him say, “Kenneth, I’m not supposed to say this to you, but yes, go. What you will learn in a year there—just go, and throw your arms wide open to your life. You can always go back to school. You won’t always have the bravery, and the innocence, to do this.”

Page does a second Muny season and saves his pay. He and Carol Ann Basch, a dancer from the ensemble, decide to brave NYC together. An actor from the ensemble offers them his New York apartment for their first few weeks.

They make their way to the Upper West Side, excitedly unlock the apartment door, and see—their friend’s roommate standing there in his underwear. He’s come home unexpectedly.

This is New York.

They learn to adapt, daily. Basch finds work as a Rockette, Page in small repertory companies. He stops feeling weird; the city’s full of people who grew up listening to cast albums in their bedrooms with the lights off. When his mother comes to visit, she finds his place full of young people “who’d kicked their shoes off, and they’re lying on the floor laughing, and chicken’s frying in the kitchen, and he’s at rehearsal…”

In 1976, two years after moving to New York, Page makes his Broadway debut in Guys and Dolls. His gospel rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” stops the show and wins a Theatre World Award.

Next, he plays the Lion in The Wiz, just when he needs a shot of courage. He’s not Broadway’s baby anymore; he’s supposed to know what he’s doing. “Be a lion!” Stephanie Mills sings to him every night, and he listens hard. In 1978, he creates the role of Fats Waller in Ain’t Misbehavin’. “Your feet’s too big!” he sings, the big, infectious laugh as natural to him as it was to Waller.

The show’s a huge hit. He and a costar fly out to L.A. to do The Tonight Show, and NBC gets them tickets to see Lena Horne in Pal Joey.

“It was like meeting the Queen Mother,” he says. “She came out of her dressing room, and she looked glorious. They said, ‘Oh, Lena, these are the stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’.’ And she said, ‘Well, what are you all doing here—you took off work?’ Just like your mother.

“They were great friends, she and Fats Waller. She said, ‘You playin’ Fats?’” She looked me head to toe and said, ‘Mmmm-hmmmmm. Well, all right.’”

Page shows up at an audition for a new musical; it’s to be called Cats. When he’s called up to the stage, director Trevor Nunn comes up, shakes his hand, and says, “In your own time. Take your time.” Only then does it hit Page just what a big deal the show must be. Three days later, he gets a callback. He does a dramatic monologue. Afterward, he leaves for Fire Island; they’ll be casting over the weekend, and he’s too nervous to stay in the city.

On the beach, he sees a man walking two Siamese cats on long leashes. They head straight for him and circle his body. An omen?

Monday, he returns to his apartment, and the phone rings. “Mr. Page? We were wondering if you’d be interested in playing Old Deuteronomy.”

Click below for an excerpt on leaving Paris, Cats, and losing friends to AIDS from Page's one-man autobiographical show, Page by Page.

He inhabits the role, gravely addressing the motley cast in a moonlit junkyard. He is 27, but onstage he seems ancient, filled with an almost mystical power.

Cats is a hit, influencing pop culture, street fashion, Broadway itself. The aura follows Page offstage: When he hunts for a loft on 42nd Street, all he has to say is he’s in Cats. “Oh, let me show you the one upstairs with the roof terrace,” the realtor gushes. He’s reached the summit.

In the ’80s, Page loses friend after friend to AIDS. He directs the L.A. premiere of Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens; he acts in Torch Song Trilogy. Life will never be the same.

“To lose so many people, within 10 years—it’s like being in a war,” he says now. “You were going to memorials every two days. There was no way to make sense of it.”

I ask whether his mother was terrified for him.

“She knew friends of mine who were dying, but she never let me see her fear,” he says quietly. “What purpose would it have served?”

Later, he asks how this profile will label him. “I’m not closeted, never have been to my knowledge,” he says. “But ‘gay’ means so many different things to people.” He hears young people talk and wants to tell them: “Be careful. I understand, believe me—because I fought for your label. But don’t define yourself by the label you put on yourself.”

He’s not saying to stay clear of the subject, though: All those friends he lost—“It would be a dishonor to them not to be who I am. And after living 58 years on this earth, not to be fully myself would be a dishonor to my own spirit.”

James Baldwin, he says, summed it up: “You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”

As Page is ending his run with Cats, an idea crystallizes. He digs out his worn copy of To Sir, With Love and tracks down the author, E.R. Braithwaite.

“He really is Sir,” Page thinks, marveling at the older man’s erect posture, his gleaming black skin and snowy white shirt, his formal courtesy. When Braithwaite speaks, his voice’s clipped precision is softened by the lilt of British Guiana: “Well, I can tell you are very passionate about this idea.”

“Yes, I am,” Page says, leaning forward.

“The question I have for you, young man, is: Is it only to take passion?”

“It’s going to take a lot more than passion,” Page replies quickly, “but without the passion, it won’t go anywhere.”

Braithwaite inclines his head, approving the answer. He options Page the rights.

Page finds backing; he gets just the right Sir and Lulu; he directs a workshop production in L.A., and Sammy Davis Jr. comes.

And then the producer chooses a more seasoned director to take the show on to Broadway.

Page spends the next decade in L.A. He guest-stars in a string of sitcoms and does two short-lived series (Sable and South Central). In 1993, he does the voice of Oogie Boogie in the cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas.

“They were looking for a cross between Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, vocally,” he says, one eyebrow going crooked as he moves into the role. He laughs that hearty, Oogie Boogie laugh at the silliness of it all—then admits that it was, in fact, profoundly satisfying to do something that would be captured forever, not re-created the way theater roles are.

Besides, just as Page can bring a few deft strokes of hilarity to a serious role, he can bring gravitas to a cartoon. Marilyn Atlas, his manager in those years, loved his “ability to get into an audience’s psyche, read its feelings. He’s very in touch; he’s a very wise man. It’s never agitprop. And because he works deep, even in small parts, he has this huge resonance.”

At the end of 1993, he celebrates New Year’s Eve by going to Barbra Streisand’s comeback concert in Las Vegas. He’d become friends with her son, but never mentioned what a profound role Barbra had played in his childhood, lest it seem like an ulterior motive for their friendship. Backstage after the show, Page looks around. There’s Coretta Scott King; Marvin Hamlisch; Marilyn and Alan Bergman, who wrote “The Way We Were”—Streisand’s intimate circle.

“She has no idea of the influence she had on me,” he thinks. “She changed my being.” He takes a deep breath. “Don’t get silly,” he tells himself. “Just say thank you, but invest it with everything you’re thinking. And if she is who you think she is, she’ll get it.”

He takes her hand and says, with every bit of feeling he’d ever brought to the stage, “Thank you.” She starts to respond breezily, then stops, looks into his eyes, and says, “Thank you.” The room has gone quiet; everybody is watching them. She gives one of those Barbra nods, that slight, knowing smile.

“Look how far you’ve come,” Page thinks as she moves on, “from singing ‘People’ in the stairwell to actually standing in front of her.” The moment feels like a validation, a prize for staying true to himself.

He moves back to New York.

Page also goes back to The Muny in 1994, 20 years after he left for New York. He stars in Ain’t Misbehavin’; the following summer, he plays King Pellinore in Camelot, The Muny’s first experiment with colorblind casting. It goes over a lot more smoothly than Fiddler did at DuBourg.

He’s done The Muny regularly ever since, in recent years playing “the Disney dads”: the Sultan in Aladdin, Maurice in Beauty and the Beast, King Triton in The Little Mermaid

“The Disney stuff is all primary colors, yet he makes it musically real,” says Mike Isaacson, executive producer of The Muny. “When he was mourning his daughter, you completely believed it. And he’s also fall-on-the-ground funny. He’s one of those performers where, if you’re studying musical theater, you have to see everything he does, because it’s a master class.”

Page shrugs off the praise. “All the Disney fathers are motivated by love for their daughters. So it’s a parental story you’re telling, like in Aida when I played her father. They are not complex characters, but there’s a certain shading you have to hit. There’s a depth in their emotional impact that you can mine.”

We’re talking at Plush, and suddenly Page’s eyes open wide and his mouth stretches into an exaggerated oval “Whoops!” A toddler has fallen. “That ol’ floor just came up and hit you, didn’t it?” he asks, and she giggles and starts crawling toward him, her eyes never leaving his, the beeline interrupted only when her dad scoops her up into his arms.

Page chuckles. “Kids think I’m a big stuffed animal. They’re always surprised when I talk.”

I ask if he minds not having children of his own. “In a way, yes. But I’ve always had children in my life, and I like being the uncle they can come to. I say, ‘You can always talk to me about anything. I’ve seen a lot.’” His laugh rumbles. “‘More than your parents, trust me.’”

Page’s second stint in L.A., from 2000 to 2011, was for the living, not the career. New York was punishingly expensive; in L.A., life was easier, sunnier, more relaxed.

His friend Greg Gorman was still there, photographing celebs (Streisand, Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Leonardo DiCaprio, Heath Ledger) but keeping perspective. “L.A.’s a strange city,” Gorman remarks. “You have a close inner circle and a bunch of people you wouldn’t turn your back on.” What he loves about Page is “that Midwestern centeredness. He’s the same person I met 100 years ago. He gets it.”

In eight interviews, Gorman’s the fifth person to use that phrase. Just what is it that Ken Page “gets”? His close friend since DuBourg, Greg Schweizer (now head of Visitation Academy’s music department), says it’s humility: He gets that talent’s an undeserved gift and fame is fleeting. His lawyer and friend, Mark Sendroff, says Page gets people—what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. Gorman says he gets “life, and living, and realizing that before soon, we’re all going to be pushing up daisies, and the most important things are your close friends and the people who love you back.”

The other word that keeps cropping up is “soulful”—what does that mean?

“I think soul is the essence of the greater part of yourself,” Page says slowly. “I don’t think it’s the part of yourself you have anything to do with. It’s the sum of the parts that have influenced you, and it has to do with what is, for lack of a better phrase, your God-nature: what is innate to you as a being, before it is educated, de-educated, tainted, molded. An actor’s job is to get back to that essence, not only in ourselves, but in the characters we play.”

When James Lapine directed a workshop of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Page and Dorothy Loudon played the gargoyles. Loudon said, “James, darling, what are we supposed to do when we’re not doing anything?” Nobody had quite thought it through. Page said, “Oh, I’m used to playing inanimate objects.” And Loudon said, “Yes, but you bring humanity to them.”

In Cats, for example: “Yes, you are playing a cat, but what you are playing is a patriarch of a tribe of beings,” he says. It occurs to me to ask whether he likes cats. “They’re all right. I never find that I can completely trust cats. There’s always a part of them that only they know. Like people.”

Page saw actors sell their souls in L.A. “Everything in life is a choice,” he remarks, “and making the right ones determines your life. The big choices are easy enough, as hard as they may be. It’s the little ones: Do I associate with this person? Do I alter myself to fit that scenario? In Hollywood, there were people who were like, ‘Oh, please, absolutely, just tell me what you want me to do.’ They were a mess, because they were oarless. The desperation, the loneliness…

“L.A. is a diminishing place. If you don’t fit into the mold, nothing else you are is relevant.

“I just realized I needed a gentler life.”

So is it true you can’t go home again?

“I think it’s an oversimplified statement,” he says. “Home to what? Home to yourself? Home to what used to be?” At first, he felt like time should have frozen: “I think somewhere in my head I was still 11 at a family gathering. When you realize you’re 58, and half those people aren’t here anymore, that can be a little jolting. The trick is finding out how you fit into the home that is now.”

His mother says, “Oh, it’s like taking a deep breath to have him closer.” But she also knows he was tired of the L.A. game, with its endless dangling string of opportunity, the “sides” (script parts) his agent would rush to him for an audition the next morning, the disappointments that could have made him bitter if he’d let them.

He’s still got the same bubbling-over joy that made it so easy to play Fats Waller. And he’s learned to protect it.

“Some people perceive a joyous heart as weak or shallow. They don’t trust it; they think you have to be faking it,” he says. “Billy Wilson said something profound to me right after we did Guys and Dolls. He said, ‘You have to be with people who are where you are, because the other people will wear you out.’”

Page has worked with Broadway’s best—Wilson, James Lapine, Trevor Nunn—and gotten firsthand advice from African-American groundbreakers: Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Leslie Uggams, Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne. Now he’s ready to teach more master classes and do more directing, like Café Chanson for St. Louis’ Upstream Theater, opening this January.

He’ll still audition by Skype, or fly to one of the coasts, when the right part comes along. I ask whether there’s a part he really wants to—

“Yes,” he says. “I really want to do Fiddler on the Roof. It’s never left me. Tevye is a role I’ve grown into, and that father I’ve been playing is my prep work.”

The Jewish and African-American concepts of a village are more similar than different, he points out. “It’s just a beautiful piece about humanity. And I love that idea of balancing your life, like a fiddler on the roof.

“It’s a very delicate balance.”

Click here to purchase the two-disc CD of Ken Page's one-man autobiographical show, Page by Page.

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