Milly’s Orchid Show is celebrating its 21st anniversary this Saturday. Anyone who lived in Chicago in the late 80’s and early 90’s will remember it as the hottest ticket in town. A Post-Modern Ed Sullivan Show, where audiences could see everything from second rate magicians to cutting edge musicians, and knock your socks off performance art. It was the show that everyone wanted to be in and somehow I stumbled into becoming one of its regular performers.
The show was the brainchild of Brigid Murphy. Performance art in the 80’s was so super serious that she wanted to bring some fun back to the stage, and Chicago was bursting with this varied array of talent in the late 80’s. She invented a country character called Milly Mae Smithy, a poor man's Loretta Lynn, who would host a variety show. The evenings were a mishmash of musicians, monologists, and assorted novelty acts. Some of the more famous alumni of the show are David Sedaris, who would read his journal entries, cartoonist Lynda Barry, who after reading a story would inevitable stick her full fist in her mouth, and Blue_Men_Group, who were always show stoppers.
Before the Orchid Show, my singing career consisted of getting drunk at parties and singing Frank Sinatra songs anywhere that there was an available space with an echo. One night I had a party where I made all the guests perform (ala the Dick Van Dyke Show’s living room parties). It was really an excuse for me to do my Sinatra sound-a-like thing. One of my friends Jill, was an opera singer. She told me that she had just performed in this crazy show at Medusa’s. She said, “You should audition for it.” I met Brigid one winter afternoon at The Red Lion and I sang the alphabet like Sinatra. I believe I directly stole that bit from Fred Travalina who did it on the Tonight Show.
I was told to come to the next show and try out during the 'open mike' section of the show. Being 20-something and full of vim and vigor I just jumped into the performance pool feet first. My first song was an version of Bohemian Rhapsody putting emphasis on the ‘Put a gun up to her head, pulled the trigger “BANG” she’s dead.” It was a hit and I was asked back. By the third time I was did the monthly show I was considered a regular. My shtick was to sing some popular culture song but ‘belt’ it out like I was singing “Come Fly With Me”. Over the years I sang “The Theme to the Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “The Theme to the Patty Duke Show”, “Freebird” “Viva Las Vegas” all in the Lounge style. I guess this was cutting edge because there is a guy in L.A. called Richard Cheese who has made a complete career out of doing this.
The Patty Duke Show Theme
After only my third time in the show, Linda Barry suggested to a writer at Interview Magazine that she should talk to me. I was interviewed, then sent to photographer, who must have been important because in his studio were photos he'd done of Mayor Daley, Michael Jordan and Dolly Parton; Before I knew it I was all over the country in "The" 'Interview Magazine' . Talk about being unprepared for success. This started out as a joke and suddenly I had morning radio programs from all over the country call me up to sing on the air. Most amazingly, I got a call from John Peel's producer in England and she asked for my press kit and said they wanted to fly me to London to be on the show. I said I would get it to her in a couple of days; knowing full well that I didn't even know what goes in a press kit. After putting together probably the world's worst demo tape and head shot; I got a nasty phone message saying that they were mislead by the article and that I would not be asked on the show. (click photo to read article)As the years went by the show became more and more popular, moving to the thousand seat venue, Park West, going on tour to New York, and finally getting an offer to become a Fox Network show. Things were “Movin’ on Up”; then the Fox offer fell through when the executive who was working on the show decided to hire a stripper to come to a board meeting for the network president’s birthday. He was fired and the show’s plans were canned and then Brigid was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The next few years were dedicated to Brigid getting well, and for a while the Orchid Show became just a distant memory of the Chicago theatre scene. After Brigid recovered. (She is now cancer free.) There were periodic revivals of the show when she had the time between projects. The last one I was in was ten years ago, when I was first starting up Bric-a-Brac. Per my usual I sang a medley of Doris Day’s Secret Love and The Captain and Tennille’s Muskrat Love.
Now this Saturday is the 21st anniversary show. Crap! I’m excited and scared to death. My pal Paul, who is the pianist for the Joffery Ballet, wrote an amazing arrangement of a the Amy Winehouse song “Rehab” which we’ve blended with Sinatra’s standard Drinking Again. So I’m hopeful that I live up to my past goofy performances. To add stress upon stress my father and sister are coming. My father has only seen me sing once before when Bric-a-Brac played at an event called Rummagepalooza, a rummage sale/band show. My mother and father seemed much more interested in shopping than listening to me. This afternoon I got a call from my father. He told me my mother said she wants to come to the show too. I told my father it would be impossible, that the theatre isn’t really wheelchair friendly, and that she doesn’t like to be away from home more than an hour. It’s sweet she wants to come. My father said, “I told her that we should have gone years ago when we were healthy.” I still don’t know how I’m going to explain to my 86 year old father why I’m singing “Rehab”.
Anyway… if you want to see me sing, circa 1987-style, come to the Park West this Saturday, July 19th.
Tickets available HERE.
Some articles about the show: HERE, HERE and HERE