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Director Dexter Fletcher Taps into Elton John’s Life To Make Rocketman a Real-Life Musical Fantasy & Nabs Oscar Nom

Dexter Fletcher, photo by Brad Balfour

Thanks to director Dexter Fletcher, Elton John's successes and travails are transformed into the mega-pop star's redemption song through the film 'Rocketman.' Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25th 1947, he went from being a shy child prodigy to outrageous stardom and survived.

This English singer/songwriter/pianist/composer collaborated with lyricist Bernie Taupin on more than 30 albums making him one of the world's best-selling musicians. He has had more than 50 Top 40 hits, seven consecutive number-one albums in the United States, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10 singles —four of which reached number two and nine reached number one. Through it all, Sir Elton Hercules John CBE consumed copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, had an numerous sex partners — especially once he fully came out — and spent millions as one of the world’s greatest shop-aholics. But as one of his songs proclaimed, The Bitch Is Back and John straightened himself out, found his life partner David Furnish, with whom he is raising two children and has conducted his long extended farewell tour. 

Fletcher’s biographical fantasy renders Elton's life into a fabulous “song & dance ” quasi-biopic, stringing together his tunes in such a way as to tell a narrative with a full emotional arc that presents his life story, albeit in a speedy, truncated, surreal way. Written by Lee Hall, it stars Taron Egerton as John (who sounds uncannily like the original) with Jamie Bell as Taupin. Titled after 'Rocket Man,' John's 1972 hit, this biopic had been in development for almost two decades, going through studios such as Walt Disney and Focus Features, has had many directors and actors on board including Tom Hardy and Justin Timberlake. After creative differences halted an initial production in 2014, John took the project to Paramount Pictures, with Egerton and Fletcher signing on in 2018

Premiering at this year's Cannes Film Festival, it has received generally positive reviews.At the 73rd British Academy Film Awards it earned four nominations, including Outstanding British Film. The film also won both Best Original Song at the 77th Golden Globe Awards, Best Song at the 25th Critics' Choice Awards and is nominated for Best Original Song at the 92nd Academy Awards for "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again.” Egerton also got noms, and won the Golden Globe’s Best ActorMotion Picture Musical or Comedy Award

Sometimes actor Fletcher appeared in Guy Ritchie's 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,' as well as many television roles as well as being a child actor in the film Bugsy Malone. He made his directorial debut with 2011's 'Wild Bill' (2011) and won acclaim for such indie fare as 2013's 'Sunshine On Leith' and 2016's ‘Eddie the Eagle.' Fletcher replaced director Bryan Singer to finish the tail end of the Queen biopic, 'Bohemian Rhapsody,’ but due to DGA rules, he only received executive producer credit.

At a press event held at the Dolby Soho pop-up space (which had a celebration of the film installed at the time) earlier in 2019, the 53-year-old Englishman conducted this Q&A with a few journalists.

Q: Who’s responsible for opening that window into Elton's heart, mind and soul?

DF: Well, I suppose, I am. We all are; our connection to Elton is profound. To do the man a service you have to love him, but to do that you have to love him in a very real way and not pull your punches. If we tried to sugarcoat it or make it self-serving then we're not giving what the real story is. What we're trying to do is look at the emotional content of what it is. What was happening to him as a person? What was he going through? Can you put the music and the drama together and does it stand up? If we don't have that then it would just be a left turn that doesn’t ring true.

The challenge is keeping things on the rails. People ask what was Bernie going through at the time and I can't deal with that. I made a film called 'Rocketman' that’s about Elton John. Of course, Bernie is a key part of that and his lyric writing is responsible for his relationship with Elton. But the Bernie Taupin movie is different from the Elton John movie and you have to get into the heart and mind of that. So it was about being true to that and not losing sight. That's the challenge of any filmmaker, to keep it on the rails. So as ridiculous as I tried to make it sound, I did do it, it's my job to keep it on track and in the editing process everyone else brings it together.

Q: The ‘Rocket Man' song sequence in the movie encapsulates everything by taking a song we know in real life and launching it into the word of fantasy. How did you come up with the imagery in that scene?

DF: That's a contribution of screenwriter Lee Hall. The image of him in the pool that's In the script I read; what makes 'Rocket Man' particularly interesting is that it's one of the few songs that crosses over from the fantasy element of this life that are out of control and these out-of-body experiences into the reality of the performance and then back again into something quite crazy and imaginative.

It's the very backbone of the film in that he flies high, he burns bright, and that comes at a cost. It's one of the great moments when you see him take that step behind that stage and you realize the story behind the curtain is about someone who has hit rock bottom. When he flies through the door and everything gets suspended in time, there [he is] sinking into the depths. But 'Rocket Man' becomes the musical spine of the film because of how it crosses from fantasy into reality, and back to fantasy.

Q: There's a great sense of stagecraft in going from him falling from into the pool to the hospital.

DF: I have a great love of silhouettes as well. We went to that space for something else and I saw that huge glass window. I knew that at the right time of day I was going to get some beautiful silhouettes. The idea originally was that behind a lot of hospital screens, but once I saw that window with the sun behind it, it gave me the idea to create that balletic moment.

Q: That's an example of something you can't plan ahead for.

DF: That's very much how I work. There are storyboards of course, but often times I'll go somewhere and get taken up by an idea for a location and use that as a framing device. It's important for me to find my locations as soon as possible and figure out what's going to happen.

Q: Was there a point at which you worried about getting too fantastical?

DF: I worried about going too normal. Once those fantasy sequences started happening, I thought, 'this is really exciting, this is really amazing, let's make a whole film like this!' But you've got to have a balance. And then you have a sequence which is fantasy and music together but in a very pedestrian or suburban setting. I just wanted to keep a connective tissue between them.

Q: How did you come up with that sequence spotlighting 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' which felt like a 1940s musical number?

DF: It said in the script that Reggie is running down the street and people are fighting when they sing and dance. That's what I had to go on. I also wanted it to be about a young man breaking free from the bonds of his parents and family life and seeing the outside world. [It's a] colorful and imaginative world full of cultural and musical influences. So the fairgrounds seemed like a good place to do that. It's full of lights and color and magic. That gave me a backdrop to work with these interesting and diverse people that caused Elton to see it's a wide world [out there]. You can't deny the energy [to] something like 'On the Town' when you've got [Gene] Kelly and [Frank] Sinatra doing literally one of the first on-location musicals where they hit New York and they're bouncing around. The excitement of that is something I've always loved so I tried to create this continuous storytelling that's about him coming of age.

Q: In your collaboration with Taron Egerton, you have to be in simpatico to make this movie to work. What was your first meeting like?

DF: He and I first worked together on 'Eddie the Eagle,' which was a really good collaborative experience. Great actors search for truth in the moment and Taron and I talked about that a lot on 'Eddie.' So when 'Rocketman' came along, [producer] Matt Vaughn called me and said 'Taron as Elton.' I already knew from that sentence alone that there was something exciting about that. Taron fell into the groove on that. We just hit the ground running because we knew each other and wanted to work together. I knew he had this incredible [timbre] to his voice. There was work to do on that because he said he was more of a ballad singer and I had to nudge him towards more this rock kind of vocalization. Elton set the ball running. He said 'don't do an imitation of me, do your take on my songs.'

He was very clear about that with the songs and said, 'Do what you got to do.' We were doing a musical set to Elton John's music but, in theory, it could be about anybody. It's about Elton and his journey but I'd like to think there's a universality to the story that means it's not specific to Elton and that's why it's not a biopic. It's Elton's recollections and memories of how he felt at the time and what that song meant to him. 'I Want Love' wasn't written until [much later (2001)] but I used it in a scene set in 1956 because it fit the story.

Q: What about the first meeting between you, Taron, and Elton?

DF: The first time I was in a room with Taron and Elton at the same time was during the rehearsal period. We had been in rehearsal for about six or eight weeks and Elton came along to hear the opening number. So when he came in, there was this incredible buzz and excitement for everyone involved. We were getting absorbed in all things Elton. He had no idea we were getting obsessed with him. Where did he grow up? What toys did he have? What kind of piano did he have? Where did he go to school? Who were his neighbors? Every department had to do that. And he was just saying, 'Oh yeah, I remember that.'

There was a bit of childish excitement on Elton's first day with us. The next time I really remember being in a room with him was at Cannes. Everything happened so fast. I was crying, he was crying, Taron was crying. My wife was just shaking her head in dismay. Elton generously let us go do it, and we're not always free to do things the way we want or need. He understood that it had to become its own thing and it needed the freedom it had. You need the freedom to go to darker places and not worry [about] what would Elton think. He was actually fine with it, he said, 'It's a masterpiece, I love it!' You can't get better than that.

Q: Elton lived through this period, you were younger, and Taron wasn't alive. How did your memories fuse with Elton's and transfer to Taron?

DF: It's about giving things historical context, helping Taron understand things that today we take as a given. What life might be like if you scrapped those things. There's a fantastic documentary from 1971 when Elton first got back from America and he's in his flat sitting by the piano talking about how they write songs. 'Yeah, Bernie gave me these lyrics for this thing he's called 'Tiny Dancer.'' Elton goes to the piano and reads the first lines and plans how it's going to be and says he wants to do it as a ballad. It's basically 1971 footage of Elton John writing 'Tiny Dancer.' It's an incredible moment. That's what I try to capture when Elton writes 'Your Song.' He's in his dressing gown and complaining that there's egg on a piece of paper, but then writes one of the greatest pop standards of all time.

It's about giving talent context. You can look at the material, but even if you talk about Elton's mom, for example she wanted to leave Elton's father and be an independent woman in 1958, but she couldn't get a mortgage, couldn't have a credit card, things that we take for granted. iIn that kind of scenario, how does that impact you as a person if you're a woman trying to get out of a loveless marriage? That gives you some historical context for why people were the way they were in that period. It's part of mining the historical realities. Being gay in the UK at that time¦ It was de-criminalized in 1969, that's only 50 years ago. You have to get into the mindset of being a criminal for nothing more than how you feel. It's not like, 'Oh no, there are no mobile phones then.' It's something more meaningful that you can have a discussion about.

Q: Was this ever conceptualized as a play? how you think about it; ow would it change it?

DF: I think that would be amazing if it could be re-imagined as something as glorious as a Broadway show. That would be extremely exciting. Who wouldn't want to see that? But it wasn't conceived for that. I conceived it for the screen, it's very much a big palette. I know I can get on a crane and go really high to show 50 dancers jumping around a fairground. I like to use the cinematic elements. It would need to be re-conceived.

Q: How much did Taron or the screenwriter discuss the script with Elton; there's a lot of stuff about his feelings that only Elton would know?

DF: Lee Hall, who did the original draft of the screenplay, is an old friend of Elton's. They worked on the musical 'Billy Elliot.' A lot of the old draft is Lee sitting down with Elton and recording his thoughts. It's a biopic, it's about unpacking memories to understand who a person is. Then Taron and Elton became good friends on the set of 'Kingsman: The Golden Circle [Kingsman 2]' [which Elton was in]. Elton was wowed by this guy. Things just aligned and when we started the film, Elton spent time at Taron's house and gave Taron a small heart-shaped diamond and said, 'This was the first diamond I ever bought.' It must have been a really personal item. No matter how rich you are, it's the first thing you bought when you made it that was really expensive. And Taron wears it throughout the rehab sequence.

So immediately there was this strong personal connection that plays into Taron's commitment to the role. It was a great thing sitting down with Elton the first time who said, 'Ask me anything, what do you want to know?' And we danced around a few questions. We asked about what it was like at the Troubadour and we got into the nitty gritty about one night with John Lennon. That's for the sequel.

Q: Costume designer Julian Day did great work with Elton.

DF: The beauty of what we're doing is that it's about memory, not a biopic, and memory is fallible. If I try to remember what this jacket is like in 10 years time it would look very different when I describe it because the memory plays tricks. I talked to Julian about doing it as Elton remembers it. We know the chicken man suit, but our version is larger and heightened because it's his recollection. So that's what got Julian excited, we didn't have to be slavish. It's so hard with a biopic because you relentlessly try to get every detail right and someone goes, 'Yeah, wrong shoes.'

So I said let's create a reality of his memory. The other thing I was proud of was I made a vow to say no to everything for the first week. So everybody is mad and then they come back with something really extraordinary. Which works until people want to kill me. Julian Day is phenomenal and said, 'If I could make a costume that even Elton John wish he wore, then I'll have achieved what I was trying to do.' The one Elton saw was the orange devil thing and he said 'I wish I had worn that.'

Q: How much of Elton's technical sound did you research for the movie?

DF: The beauty is that we can use this modern technology to'€¦ Some of what Taron is doing is sung live, some of 'Crocodile Rock,' Your Song' etc. But the beauty is in what you can do with sound mixing, the music and instrumentation when you have Giles Martin just say he's going to pop over to Abbey Road and re-record that. You can layer it and build it and extract a bigger palette so you can play with it.

The wonder of the musical is that the projected image with music is as old as the cinema itself. The music is what brings it together. When 'Your Song' happens, it's really simple. There's a guy off-camera playing piano and Taron's singing. Then you bring in the strings and you feel the tingle on the back of your neck. The audience feels how unifying music is when the right note is hit at the right time. It's hard to resist or deny. It's the wonder of where technology is moving that you get the gift of wonderful sound design.

Q: What Elton John song did you wish was in the movie for a more fantastical view?

DF: 'Someone Saved My Life Tonight' is a great, great track and there was a time when it was going to be in there. It was around a sequence that was a suicide attempt. There were two suicide attempts in Elton's life and the scene was written as more comical and I didn't feel that was right because I thought it was quite a serious subject at the end of the day. 'Someone Saved My Life Tonight' was Taron's favorite song [but it didn't make it into the film].

It's an embarrassment of riches, there are so many great songs and the hits keep coming. There are over 20 songs in the film and maybe I put one too many. I even love 'Nikita,' but I'm weird like that.

Irish-tinged Singer-Songwriter Rebecca Hart & The Wrong Band Do The Right Thing This Season At Rockwood

Rebecca Hart & The Wrong Band
Rockwood Music Hall
stage 3
196 Allen Street
December 13th, 2019

Last year, as the Christmas season was kicking in, Rebecca Hart with band in tow, and a variety of special guests, did an intimate but remarkable version of a holiday show — or at least her idea of one. Laden with a few blasphemous references and a bow or two to Hanukkah (or Chanukah depending on where you look), this millennial proved to be knowledgable beyond her generation drawing on a solid set of references from country to Irish ballads, to perform quite a bunch of originals and cover all in her own special style. Once again, she does her version of this show at Rockwood Music Hall’s stage 3 on December 13th, at 8:30 pm.

This NYC-based actor, songwriter, theatrical writer/composer once accidentally won a comedy contest in a bar in Dublin, Ireland, while appearing as musical guest. She’s racked up acting credits in the national tour of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat with the Public Theatre Mobile Unit; The Civilians’ Rimbaud in BAM, perfomed in Midsummer, a play with songs at Hartford Theaterworks (CT Critics Circle Best Actress Nomination); done a workshop of The Pogues musical ‘Fairytale of NY’ at the Public, and five shows at the Actors Theatre of Louisville including lead roles at the 35th/36th Humana Festivals. She can also be seen playing guitar in Young Adult, a film starring Charlize Theron.

As a composer and/or lyricist, her work has appeared in productions with The Civilians, Target Margin Theatre, the Spkrbox Festival in Oslo Norway, and Branden Jacobs-JenkinsGLORIA at Woolly Mammoth. Internationally, she has performed at the National Theatre of Oslo (Sprkbox), the Yarmouk Cultural Centre in Kuwait, and the Town Hall Studio in Galway, Ireland (original solo musical produced by the Druid). She has toured extensively in Ireland (though it’s been a while) at venues like Whelans, the Project Arts Centre, the Roisin Dubh, and Cyprus Avenue. Her original solo show ‘Jazz Desert: The Life & Death of an American Band’ was presented by the Druid at the Town Hall Studio in Galway. “The Magician’s Daughter,” her recent album, was produced by acclaimed cellist/songwriter Ben Sollee in Louisville KY and by Ben Arons (also her band’s drummer) in NYC.

Q: How is this year’s set different from last year’s?

RH: There will be some similarities for sure; I like tradition. NYC burlesque legend Jonny Porkpie and I will do our annual holiday comedy song. We’ll be doing material from The Magician’s Daughter for sure. But this band has been playing together a lot since then and I’ve written a bunch of new material. Also, there’s some cross-pollination happening such as a song written by Matt Gelfer, and one from a rock musical that David Kornfeld and I wrote for The Civilians Theatre Company R&D Group.

Q: This looks a little like a different band …

RH: Same band but we finally named ourselves — Rebecca Hart & The Wrong Band — after the Tori Amos song. They are great. Right now it’s a five piece: myself on guitar/lead vocals/primary songwriting, Kornfeld (keyboards, laptop, melodica and vocals), Gelfer (fiddle, mandolin, guitar and vocals), Chris Nattrass (upright bass), and Ben Arons (drums). We are joined occasionally by Nick Stephens on trumpet and our ‘unofficial’ bandmate Mr. Jonny Porkpie, the Band Disruptor or sometimes Court Jester. It’s a fun mix of people varying widely in age and influences (David and I share a background in theater and in ‘70s rock; Matt and I share a love of twangy Americana; Ben and I had a great time emphasizing the electronica elements of the album and looking for ways to bring it out more from different parts of my life…

unnamed 4Nick, David, and I met in grad school at NYU studying writing for musical theatre; Ben and Chris and I play in The Dirty Waltz Band, a folk cover group, and I know Matt from his wonderful ‘folkgrass’ band The New Students, with whom I used to gig a lot.

We talk a lot about how this group came together seemingly effortlessly and we can’t quite remember how but it works. All I know is I made ‘The Magician’s Daughter’ and needed some people to perform it with me and suddenly there they were. It was very much ‘if you build it they will come’.

Q: Will this be a special Christmas show or representative of your general set?

RH: We’re calling this the “annual holiday show” because the theater artist in me loves a theme (light in the dark time of the year)… And, we’ll be doing a nod or two to the season. Also, most of the band is at least half-Jewish so it would never be solely a ‘Christmas’ show. Otherwise, it’s a regular gig…

Q: Of the songs that you’ve composed, which ones best represent who you are and your music’s direction?

RH: I’m enjoying the range of influences from the various artistic things I do, the people onstage and the freedom I feel within that to explore. We are definitely a folk band — with an upright bass, fiddle, etc. — but I don’t always write folk songs. Our sound includes crunchy synthesizers and vocal effects and (upcoming) electric guitar. I like writing one thing by myself and having it come out like something else once the guys are playing it. There’s room for everything, which is why it makes sense to play a whimsical folk duet (“Waltz Home”) and then a haunting epic-ish rock song (“Perfume”)… and then have a burlesque comedian run onstage for a parody song at the end of which he takes off his pants. It’s all part of what I do.

In particular, “The Kestrel Strand” is a song that people seem to really respond to; we always joke about how it’s our most-video’d song… People seem to take out their phones as soon as it starts. It’s a folk tune about being in a bar in Ireland and observing a couple in love. When I wrote it, I remember making a conscious decision to keep it simple musically and emotionally. It’s a waltz with a fiddle solo; I’m usually a lot more smoke and mirrors and imagery. Particularly, I forced myself to just be truthful and vulnerable and not allow myself irony, wordplay or abstraction. On the album there are two versions; one with the Dirty Waltz Band backing it up and one that’s recorded live on producer Ben Sollee’s porch, with just my guitar and him playing tenor banjo. You can hear the crickets.

On the other hand, a song like “Perfume” — about ‘crossing over’ after death and the unfinished business we leave behind — is not straightforward or literal at all. It’s more like a hallucination and the music — electronic samples, digital percussion and slightly otherworldly layered vocals — reflects this.

Now, with the current band, I’m excited about the way different voices are actively shaping the songs. In rehearsal, there’s lots of ideas flowing and the set includes one or two things not composed by me.

There’s also starting to be variations in instrumentation which is fun. We’re working on a new tune now where I play piano (!) and Matt plays electric guitar (though that may not be ready by 12/13). One of the new tunes is definitely just foot-stomping country rock which I’m not mad at. Come hear it!

Q: As to your activities over the last year…

RH: Band-wise: We’ve played some really great shows including regular nights at the Rockwood Music Hall (including our “P’Easter” gig in the spring); have done first time appearances at The Cutting Room and the Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn, the SoFar Sounds Series NY and DC; and various house concerts in Brooklyn and upstate. I played solo sets at SoFar, Hartford Theaterworks in CT, and the NY Songwriters Circle at the Bitter End. We also very memorably played the world famous Kripalu Yoga Center in The Berkshires this November and have been invited back for the Spring.

Q: And as to other non-Band news…

unnamed 5RH: It’s been a big year. My graduate thesis musical “Iron John: an American Ghost Story” (lyrics/book by me, music/ book by my collaborator Jacinth Greywoode), was being produced at NYU’s New Studio on Broadway (Tisch Drama) literally during last year’s holiday show (I had to miss that performance ). Since then, we’ve been honored to have the show presented at the Tony-Award winning Theatreworks’ Silicon Valley New Works Festival. Developed at the O’Neill Center, it showcased at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival at NYC’s New World Stages where it was one of eight shows chosen blind from 219 submissions to be presented to industry from across the country. We are now represented by Abrams Artists Agency and are talking to a few regional theaters about production.

As mentioned, bandmate David Kornfeld and I were accepted into The Civilians Theatre Company’s R&D Group where we spent a year developing a rock/theatre piece about the human brain, culminating in a presentation at The Lark Playwrights’ Center featuring David and I in the cast and bandmate Ben Arons on drums. (Book/lyrics by me, music by David)

I was co-nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Best Sound Design for a song I was commissioned to write & record for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre production of “Gloria.” Nick Stephens produced and played on the recording.

I played the role of Olympe des Gouges in “The Revolutionists” at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford CT; the cast then won the CT Critics Circle Award for ‘Outstanding Ensemble’ and we are up for a number of Broadwayworld awards as well. I think that’s it.

Q: Okay, so who are your favorite artists and why — and who have you met?

RH: I haven’t met any of my music heroes actually! I met James Taylor once and that was exciting but we didn’t talk about music and he isn’t on The Big List.

As to The Big List, it’s the usual list of those who were really formative and influential: Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Sting/The Police, Steely Dan, Paul Simon, and Jethro Tull with the usual caveat that I don’t necessarily’sound like my influences (except Suzanne Vega probably). There are plenty of other modern/recent bands I love, but these are the Formative Ones.

Looking at them all together I guess the “why” always had to do with the intelligent adventurousness of the songwriting… both in the lyrics which were full of imagery and the fantastical/theatrical and the sometimes funny and often weird while still being often super personal and true… I do not get bored listening to these songs.

I also deeply love Irish traditional music and I know that pops up in my work all over the place. ‘The Magician’s Daughter’, an album largely ‘about’ and in the wake of my father’s death is heavily influenced by Sufjan Stevens’ album ‘Carrie and Lowell’ which he wrote about his mother’s death and which I was listening to obsessively at the time.

Spinning Music Drives Master DJ Tony Smith's Life and Love In NYC & Beyond

More recent TS as DJ copy


To fully appreciate DJ and music master Tony Smith, it’s good to know that when Scott Greenstein, President and Chief Content Officer of Sirius XM Radio, had his own special birthday party, it was Tony to whom he turned as the turntablist of record. As anyone knows, Sirius has become the ultimate online radio network. Greenstein was confident that Tony could produce a most substantive set of disco tracks to charm his guests for the party. 

When this New York native wanted the crowd to get up out of their chairs, he chose Cerrone’s “Give Me Love” to kick things off. But, that night’s crowd was not the only one Tony’s been delighting. In fact he has his own group of happily fanatic Facebook followers who call themselves The Smithettes. Listening in from around the country and internationally, they look forward to his weekly posts on Thursday evenings of club playlists based on his time spinning in such notable dance dens such as Xenon, Barefoot Boy, Funhouse, among the many others. They then tune in to Channel 54 -- after Studio 54, of course -- to hear his shows (9pm Eastern, repeated each Monday at 2 am.)Smith has made it his mission and life’s work to celebrate the sound and experience of those “Classic Beats and Rhythms” which is the name of his show. 

His sets have included tracks out of a history of R&B, music from New York’s hip hop community, Caribbean ethnic beats, blasts from the best of 1980s New Wave and so on. Each show represents the latest public culmination of the joie d’vivre that runs through Tony’s entire personal timeline, as well as through his life’s ups and downs.

‘Effervescent” is one word which sums up Smith’s approach to life. Whether he’s waxing enthusiastic about the vast array of sounds and beats he’s played during the considerable hours he’s put into club world DJ career, or in listening to music from his extensive collection, this seasoned professional is always bubbling over with excitement. 

This disco veteran has seen it all as far as the club scene goes. Known around the world for helping disco music become a global force, Smith’s spun records virtually unheard before they were played in such aforementioned Manhattan hotspots, helping them become true hits. 

He even played the opening night of the Palladium with Madonna’s producer/DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez (sadly, the late lamented mega-club is now a massive NYU dorm). During the heyday of disco,  and well before the Internet, social media and digital socializing, Smith was on the scene, creating memorable and moving mixes that kept happy dancers out on the floor.

The seasoned Smith has also been a successful music producer, creating and remixing songs as “Tony’s Soulbeats” with many famous artists from their own musical worlds. He’s also held DJ guest slots throughout the globe having played for diverse crowds in London, Paris and across the USA.

This wouldn’t have been so, however, if he hadn’t listened to his heart instead of doing what was “expected” of him by his parents and community. Instead of graduating from college and getting a master’s degree like his siblings,he discovered his music passion early on in life. By age 15, Smith had formed his own band. By 19, he was a professional club DJ. In 1976, Smith was cited by Billboard as one of the Top 10 DJs in the country. 

In fact, during dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Smith smiled and said with a chuckle, “I guess you could say I’ve always been following my own beat.”

Then he added, “I remember from high school, that famous Robert Frost poem, ‘The Road Not Taken.’ I think of it now as I look back on decades of following the road my heart always seems to have desired instead of the path I was expected to take. Just as Frost wrote about two roads diverging in a wood, my taking the one less traveled by — following my own beat along the way – has made all the difference in my life and for my happiness.”

Growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Smith hung out a block away from Chinatown. “My father had left home the year I was born and I was the ‘baby’ in the family of Elaine Smith, a fiercely hard-working single mom, and three much older siblings — two sisters and a brother. Everyone helped to parent me while each of them — Carolyn, James and Antoinette — earned their master’s degrees. It was understood that, of course, so would I.”

But early on, there were signs that Smith’s life would be different, based around music, notwithstanding a couple of detours. Smith recalls a story his family had often told him. He was just an infant at the time.“On this particular day everyone was dancing to music while I was lying on my sister’s bed. It must have been clear that their movements were joyful and fun, since I felt compelled to find a way to join.

“Even though I couldn’t yet stand on my own — let alone walk — my family still talks about my unfortunate interaction with a rickety wooden desk next to the bed. I was too young to remember it now, but evidently the desk was low enough that – despite my tiny stature -- I could shakily ‘stand’ on the floor by reaching up my arms and hanging onto its top for support.I was just a happy kid wanting to dance along with his family.”

A happy kid of about 10 months old, that is, until a table toppled over. “The heavy manual typewriter resting on it clunked me right in the head. My mother fainted and my sister rushed me to the hospital immediately! Fortunately, all ended well — and here I am today.

“That was my first attempt at dancing, and I’ve been dancing ever since. My brother James was the amateur videographer of the family. It seems that whenever he caught me on camera as a boy, there I was – dancing — even sometimes, at embarrassing moments: still dancing!

“When I was six, I moved along with my brother’s favorites —Olatunji’s ‘Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion)’. With music always in the air, it now seems inevitable that I began using my allowance to amass a giant collection of 45 RPM records.”

Music perpetually wafted through the household. Tony’s mother listened to gospel, James played congas, Carolyn was a soprano and Antoinette was a tenor. “My sisters formed a group modeled after the Chiffons or The Ronettes, calling themselves ‘The Debonaires’. While Ma was out working at a factory hand-crafting jewelry, she insisted on knowing that her kids were safe at home. So instead of visiting friends, my sisters invited people to come over and sing. I was eight when I sang along with them to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love.’

“By my first year of high school, I’d learned to play guitar. I was 15 when I started my own band with some friends. At first, we were five; then we became ‘The Soul Sound Explosion’. Eventually, we won some talent contests and began accepting paying gigs. We never made much money nor did we become the next Kool and the Gang, but I loved it.”

That experience proved to Smith he could, in fact, both earn money and have fun by making music. That defining notion liberated him from some societal conventions. “Something life-shaping came from that experience. When our band would take breaks — and since I was the guy with all the records — I’d play music to keep the crowd happy. I didn’t fully realize it yet, but I was learning how to DJ.”

By the time he was 16, Smith was playing records for free in the park. “I’d plug into a lamppost to get free electricity and loved watching people dance to my selections. Every day was different, with still more new music coming out. My passion — along with loving movies — had become playing music in the park for people to dance to.”

After graduating high school at age 17 in 1972 — and despite being as addicted to music as Smith had become — his attendance at college was automatically assumed. “I succumbed to my family’s expectations. But although I’d imagined going to Brown in Rhode Island, I chose Fordham in the Bronx for one reason only: so I could remain close to the evolving music scene of New York City.

“There I was with lots of music,” Smith enthused as he remembered those early years of disco. “As deeply drawn as I was to the new music scene, it wasn’t easy to explain it to my mother when I gave her the bad news — that I’d be dropping out of college to become a full-time DJ. Ma was worried about my security and future without a college degree, but I couldn’t care less. I simply had faith: music would take me wherever I needed to be. Music was my rush!”

At about that time, he discovered Greenwich Village -- filled with discos of multiple persuasions, gay, straight, black, white. As the 60-something added, “You name it, I was checking them out! I’d listen from the sidewalk without even having to enter — the music inside was that loud!” 

With the technology evolving, DJs went from simply playing one song after another to mixing the two or more together into a single, continuous stream -- sometimes seamlessly and, at other times, altering course in order to surprise. But as the industry standard —Technics 1200 turntables and solid analog mixers — went the way of the discman, complex digital mixers enhanced by sound effects and real-time remixing tools took hold with “deejays” playing digital turntables, CDs and MP3s replaced vinyl . Today, many DJs just show up for a gig with pre-recorded music on an iPod or thumb drive so they simply push a button and the music unrolls by itself.

“That’s definitely not my way,” Smith emphasized. "I like to ‘read’ the crowd — adjusting my choices on the fly as I observe reactions to the different selections I put out there. My goal is to keep people happily dancing and getting thirsty, which bartenders and owners love. When you learn to DJ well, you are truly in charge of the night, directly affecting the mood of the crowd. You can make the entire evening of music feel like your own, single performance.”

As he was starting out, disco was just taking root in the culture. This new musical genre emerged out of jazz, R&B and classical, pulling the heat from rock which had enjoyed such an influence during the ‘60s and on. “Disco” — the Americanization of the French word “discothèque,” (which meant record library) — was also the term for the European dance clubs that served as havens for danceable rock.

By 1972, the newest sounds of disco music were not being heard on the radio but in clubs, where DJs chose what the crowd would experience. No one could hear the complete version of Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” on radio stations. Those DJs were only allowed to broadcast the three-minute “radio version.” But the DJ in a disco could play the full 7:33-length original and better yet, watch the crowd dancing to it. Discos were becoming launch pads for this new form of music, soon leading people to buy them at record stores. DJs were taste-makers. New York was their hub, but cities like Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Montreal, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. followed The Big Apple’s lead. 

Rolling Stone magazine’s Vince Aletti wrote the first report on disco in 1973. He also wrote a weekly column about this new form of music for Record World in which he often reported on Tony Smith’s latest playlists. Many of those were later captured in Vince’s book, The Disco Files 1973-78. By 1974, the new form of music had become such a “thing” that WPIX-FM launched the first disco radio show where, for example, you could hear the full length version of Barry White’s ‘Can’t Get Enough’. 

Recently Tony and Vince were at a theatrical event for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, one of the nation's leading industry-based HIV/AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations. During the intermission, they talked about music, of course — a core connection between these longtime friends.

However, before achieving acclaim from movers and shakers like Vince, and his status in music history, Smith had held boring low-level jobs. He was a clerk typist at a plumbing company and a library page at the Municipal Building library to support what is now his vast accumulation of music.“Back then, Warren Brown, my only gay friend at the time, told me about The Village Voice — a weekly newspaper with pages and pages of print ads. There was a want ad for a DJ at Barefoot Boy — a gay club that hadn’t even opened yet. Warren felt I should audition — an idea I thought was ludicrous. I was just a black kid from The Projects. But he pressured and motivated me into giving it a shot.

“So I packed up a crate of music -- heavy crates of vinyl 33 and 45 rpm records -- and jumped into a taxi to 39th St and Second Ave. Along the way I realized that the name I’d been born with -- Harvey -- simply didn’t seem cool. In 1950, there’d been that Jimmy Stewart movie, ‘Harvey’, with a tall, invisible rabbit. The title character’s name wasn't exactly sexy in 1975. So during the cab ride to my first audition, I renamed myself, Tony -- inspired by my sister’s nickname, ‘Toy’.

“I can still picture the club manager who pointed to the DJ booth and the ladder I needed to climb to get there. Up I went, scared out of my mind -- with a new turntable I’d never worked with: no pre-set playing speeds. It was up to me to adjust the speed with each song and vibe I wanted. Even as I studied the mysterious equipment, I was faking a sense of confidence. ‘It’ll take me a few minutes,’ I said. ‘I'm just getting my records ready!’

“I don’t remember what I played. Surely, some Gloria Gaynor. One thing I’d begun to realize was the way that different types of crowds have different musical tastes. Gays, as I already knew, had a weakness for female artists and songs with lots of melody – like ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’. James Brown’s ‘Give It Up, Turn It Loose’ would not have cut it with that crowd.”

Whatever Tony did, it worked. “The manager said, ‘You’ve got the job, – 25 dollars a night, seven nights a week.’ The first thing I thought was, ‘YES! I can buy more records!’” (Disco DJ’s didn’t start getting free music from the Labels until 1975.) “The club succeeded, to put it mildly. Next thing I knew, DJs who were my idols were coming to hear me – David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Richie Kaczor and Steve D’Acquisto. Barefoot Boy was packed every night.  By 1976, Billboard magazine had named me one of the Top 10 DJ’s in the country.

tony smith  curtis urbina Screen Shot 2019-10-12 at 1.40.34 PM copy“I will always consider 1976 one of the best years for music in my lifetime and, certainly, for disco. By now there were at least 400 discos in the city! I was being courted by promoters like Ray Caviano, Issy Sanchez, Billy Smith and Curtis Urbina. They gave me all the free music I could handle. The gold and silver record awards, hanging now on my walls, hale from that special era. I had become very well-known and was hired for guest spots at other clubs and private parties. Disco was a major force and DJ’s like me were no longer paid cash off the books.”

Studio 54 had opened and a new, well-funded competitor, Xenon, was looking for a DJ. Barefoot Boy had only 200 people on the dance floor, but Xenon was major, aiming for 700 or more. There was a lot at stake for its management to make the right choice. “Each of us — there were seven DJ candidates — had one week to show our stuff. As was true for Studio 54, white DJs would get the chance to try out first, something I understood and accepted at the time. But I could tell from my visits that the DJs auditioning before me were playing gay music for a straight crowd. While those colleagues were good at their craft, I saw that they were clearing the dance floor — playing sounds that they personally enjoyed, instead of taking their cues from the crowd. We’re talking about two different musical planets. 

“When it was my turn to play, I avoided new songs or personal preferences. I had one goal in mind: keep people on the floor and make the management give me the job. I concentrated on playing popular songs and was hired.”

Xenon and Studio 54 had become the 900-pound “gorillas” of the business — spacious former theaters with lots of room for dancers. Popularity came from word of mouth; there were no big advertising campaigns back then. After one year at Xenon, it seemed that everyone knew: Tony Smith was its resident DJ.“After I got the crowd ‘trained’ — and they knew I was paying attention, keeping their pleasure in mind – I was able to introduce them to new songs that other clubs weren’t playing. I could intersperse my personal ‘finds’ with tried and true hits I knew they would love. 

“I’m an extrovert and a natural-born entertainer. My booth was often open and I’d step out onto the floor with the crowd. Famous people stopped by -- actors like Richard Dreyfus and Farrah Fawcett; singers like Neil Diamond and Stevie Wonder; athletes like Reggie Jackson and even NYC’s Mayor Koch

“I got local press coverage as a ‘celebrity DJ.’ For example, the New York Post did a story about me in 1978 (‘The Men and Their Music’.) It paired me with Bill Lombardo, nephew of Guy Lombardo of New Year’s Eve ‘Auld Lang Syne’ fame. We were paired as two separate musical planets, each with a deep commitment to the music projects we led.” 

In 1979, although disco was still very big, the rock faction of music -- bitter that a different style of music had replaced them -- started the “Disco Sucks” campaign. It did have some impact, but New York City mostly remained strong. 

After Xenon came Magique — an East Side club that mostly appealed to what Manhattanites call the “bridge and tunnel” crowd from other boroughs. This crowd had a narrow taste range wanting to hear the same song, like Laura Brannigan’s “Gloria”, two or three times a night. “Frankly, that got boring and after a long get-away vacation to Mexico, it was clear that Magique wanted more of a ‘formula’ DJ, so we parted ways.”

By 1982, music was moving toward the “new wave” sound of such tunes as “I Ran” by Flock of Seagulls. Said the now-veteran disc-spinner, “Music was evolving. I enjoyed playing songs like The Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ so I moved to The Palace — a new club with a new wave flavor. Rock was interspersed with disco for its diverse crowd. I was there for a year, having a ball. I love learning and now I was gaining the experience of playing different sounds for yet another kind of crowd. Every once in a while, I would go to the Fun House where Jellybean Benitez was playing. Sometimes he’d sneak out for his dates with Madonna and I’d play in his stead. Neither management nor the audience knew the difference. 

“The crowd was mostly teenaged kids and when Jellybean left to focus on music production, he talked them into hiring me. I continued to observe the differences between one clientele or another including those in a lesbian bar, Network, and another one, Garbo’s. For me, it’s always fun to play for new audiences by studying people’s responses. When House music became big, however — check ‘Move Your Body’ by Marshall Jefferson — audiences wanted (just as the lyrics say) ‘house music all night long.’ The same steady beats and not much melody. Sorry: I like variety but ‘house heads’ just wanted house.” 

As a result, Smith turned to his other passion — movies. He went to technical school to learn how to repair VCRs, since video cassettes had become huge. “Eventually I became, I was told, the first black owner of a Manhattan video store. Friends in the music business (then and now) – Danny Krivit, Claudia Cuseta, Bobby Shaw – kept me in touch with the latest music.

The store was successful for a decade, from 1989-1999. “But, by the time my lease was up, my beloved mother had suffered a stroke along with other serious health issues. I moved back into her apartment and became a full-time caretaker — the least I could do for the woman who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much. During some of those years, I kept myself in the game by DJ’ing on weekends at the Union Square Lounge in Manhattan.”

Elaine Smith passed away in 2007. Even though Tony had taken a decade-long hiatus in order to care for his mother, his passion for music still gnawed at him even though he had taken this decade-long hiatus. “I’m back to music full-time and loving it.” He proclaimed, “I’ve trademarked my brand — “Tony’s Soulbeats” — producing and remixing songs for artists like Kimberly Davis, Jason Walker and Shara Strand. I’m working with music icons in their fields like dance producer, Tony Moran; choral composer, Jim Papoulis and musician-composer, Paul Guzzone

“And thanks to my old buddy, Jellybean, I have that classic disco show on Sirius XM radio. Music remains at the center of my life. I'm still doing guest spots and private parties like those that have taken me to London and Paris, and back to New Jersey, Brooklyn and Manhattan. But nothing compares to when I was spinning disco music during the hot summers of NYC in the ‘70s. New disco music was released literally every day. You never knew what surprises were coming next.From 1974 to 1980, I was spinning five to seven days a week so I had plenty of hours to fill with music. I even enjoyed the nights when attendance was light. That gave me the chance to experiment with new music, to see what worked so I’d be ready when the club was packed. There were also certain songs that just sounded ‘summer-y’. I loved to DJ on those summer nights, getting screams from the crowd when I played just the right thing!”

Record label owner/partner Curtis Urbina, who’s known Tony for decades, considers him a rare talent. And Urbina describes Tony’s work today on Sirius XM Radio as that of a master music curator since he does so much to help people re-discover disco hits from the past and bring new value to them. If anyone can sum up Tony Smith, it’s Urbina. “If SONY, RCA or whomever were to hire him as a music curator, Tony could take their catalogue and create new playlists and song compilations for music that’s currently not generating revenue. The guy has that much of an uncanny instinct for music. He could revive the whole genre.”

Tony Smith’s top 10 DJ-able tunes of all time (in no particular order): 

  • “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” — Eddie Kendricks
  • “Love Is the Message” — MFSB
  • “Relight My Fire” —Dan Hartman
  • “Love Hangover” —Diana Ross
  • “Dreaming A Dream” — Crown Heights Affair
  • “Disco Party” — The Trammps
  • “Native New Yorker” — Odyssey
  • “Love In C Minor” — Cerrone
  • “I Feel Love” — Donna Summer
  • “Cherchez La Femme” — Dr. Buzzard's Savannah Band

Artists of all time:

  • Michael Jackson
  • Prince
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Elvis
  • Madonna

Music producers of all time:

  • Quincy Jones — Simply the best
  • Gamble & Huff — Philly sound
  • Holland & Dozier — Motown Sound 





Wendy Stuart Kaplan's Endless Conversation With New York and The World


Festooned with tambourines around her neck and elsewhere, raconteur Wendy Stuart Kaplan darted through the cavernous main theater of the famed La Mama performance complex. No one could ever call Kaplan shy, let alone at a loss for words. At Brian Butterick’s memorial, this author/personality was one of the speakers who celebrated the late gay activist/founder of the famed Pyramid Club and shared her memories of him.

Memories. Kaplan has been writing her memoir, “She’s The Last Model Standing,” all her life; it’s that she’s lived her life to be memoir-worthy. By the time the willowy bon vivant met and married renowned photographer Alan Kaplan, she had already carved out her perch in New York as a bona fide scene maker and observer. Born and raised in the Bronx, she exited her suburban confines to embrace many bold faced names such as Andy Warhol and became a regular at such NY haunts like Studio 54, Elaine’s, Area and Xenon.

Kaplan was already famous for photographs that graced the pages of GQ and Italian Vogue when he met the free-spirited Stuart. He encouraged her to become a model and advised her to travel to Europe for work and maybe, fame and fortune. What she found instead was a season of misadventure, so she returned to the States and she did what any Jewish mother would love a daughter to do, she got married — in Wendy’s case to Kaplan. Their partnership flourished as they began roaming the globe filming and established “Model with a Mission Visual Journeys” which documents unique stories of indigenous people and endangered species through Alan’s keen eye and Wendy’s quirky way and compassionate heart as the on-camera host as well as series producer. They also released “She’s The Last Model Standing” which garnered praise and finished “Whisperers and Witnesses,” a film which won the Best Documentary award at NYC’s Chelsea Film Festival.

Q: How long did it take to get the book done?

WSK: I’ve been writing this book my whole life. This book is about my life from the time I came to NY in the late ‘70s all the way up to now. But it was hard getting it together because a lot happened over that time period. I had to go back through photo albums, I have over 250 photo albums. Pictures of everything that came down the pike from the late 70s up to now and all the things I did. So I started looking at the pictures and started writing paragraphs and there was no timeline, nothing made any sense. It was almost stream of consciousness, like James Joyce. I showed somebody the draft and I was lucky enough to meet David Wallace who ended up becoming the editor and was able to work with me that way.

Q: Was it easy or did you need to get James Joyce involved?

WSK: We didn’t need to James Joyce but I had to beat up Wallace a couple of times because he kept trying to change my words. Those were my words, my life experiences, my voice, nobody else’s.

Q: When you’re writing a book how do you know when to stop from adding new things.

WSK: This is the easiest thing in the world because you know where you start and where you’ll end within the month of doing the book and that’s exactly what happened. It ended on one of my trips when I was making films about people in remote parts of the world. It was easy enough to end the book on one of those projects. You always want an audience to want more.

Q: When did you decide you needed to write this and did you have you to stop your life to write this book?

WSK: I’ll give you an analogy. You got all these bloggers. What is a blog? Half the time it’s someone’s very uninteresting daily memoir. What makes a book different is that you have a story in you. For someone like me it was always a running monologue of “Oh I should be writing this down — this is an incredible story.” I took pictures and knew one day I would share the stories behind them. When someone writes a memoir, that’s a historical record of their life. You’re probably thinking, “what makes your life so special?” It’s just a thing a person knows. You go to cocktail parties and share experiences or when you’re at a job and you tell people what you do. You can tell by the reaction you get. I have to be honest, more than a few people said “you should write a book.” So I did. 

Q: And no one else had those photos to refer to.

WSK: My story is a very unique one. There’s not a lot of people that came out of the whole club scene and are still movin’, shakin’ and can remember what happened.

Q: Uptown or downtown clubs?

WSK: Things have come full circle for me because now the last five years have been spent in the downtown scene, and more recently, the Brooklyn scene; let’s not forget that. But my club culture started out with Studio 54 and everything that went with that. I remember what went on then and the other clubs around then. I went to all of them — Limelight, Roxy, Paradise Garage, and more. The thing is with me, I never stopped going to clubs. I remember being eight months pregnant and dancing on a party boat in New York in a leopard dress .

Q: Where’s this poor child now?

WSK: Actually, the child is brilliant,. She’s 26 years old, and getting her first apartment. She's got a job that can pay her rent, and is really an incredible writer, but totally different from me. She’s been schooled in writing and I’ve been schooled in club culture.

Q: Does the disco beat seem frightening to her?

WSK: It’s not frightening but she doesn’t connect with what I am about. She’s never read my book. She said, “I’m just not ready to do that yet.” Maybe it’s because I’m her mom.

Q: How do her friends react? Do they think you’re cool?

wendy alanWSK: I’m like a goddess to a lot of her friends, they totally look up to me and they do wanna hang out when they’re over. But they’re her friends, I say I don’t want to monopolize your conversation. People came here to see you, not me. The stuff I’ve lived through really interest them. I really interest them. Because their parents, most of them, are not like me. You find a few, because after all, this is New York.

Q: You still have your disco clothes?

WSK: Someone asked me to audition for something today based on my fashion background and they were very intrigued that I have my disco clothes. We don’t call them disco clothes though — they’re “vintage”. Vintage is the proper fashion term for them. So yes, I still have my disco clothes and I’m proud to say I’ve carried those clothes forward and mix and match them with what’s going on now.

Q: Do you have a glittery Halston dress?

WSK: I have a glittery dress, I’m just not sure if it’s a Halston. I have every Betsey Johnson thing, and a lot of Haute Couture. That’s when Couture was a size 8 and not 0 or 2 or whatever. I’m proud to say I’ve maintained the exact same size and body weight as I had back in those days. I have a lot of no-name brands as well, from stores like Rainbow.

Q: How about from Fiorucci, the very fabulous Italian brand?

WSK: I love Fiorucci. That’s collectible, the shoes are above and beyond.

Q: I knew the club-tastic Joey Arias whom I met when he was working at their legendary midtown store.

WSK: I love Joey. He had a Cabaret act at 54 Below. I adore him. He had a retrospective with polaroids from back in the day and writings and photographs from [the late] Klaus Nomi [Both of them performed with David Bowie on SNL].

Q: Who else is memorable to you in a profound way?

WSK: The other day I had lunch with Rollerena. She’s still a major icon, just that she ain’t rolling anymore [smiles].  But still so fabulous. We talked about how you didn’t have to become anything in those days, you just were. Rollerena was a Wall Street broker by day, fairy godmother by night. She’d roll around the dance floor at Studio 54. After work from her Wall Street job, she’d go uptown, get into her Fairy Godmother outfit, and roll from 6th Avenue and 57th street down town on 6th Avenue. She’d roll against traffic so everybody noticed her. People in those days really went against the grain. They were the real deal. 

Who did I know in those days — Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Calvin Klein, Joe Dallesandro. It’s in my book; Andy offered me a role in one of his movies with Joe, but it never came to fruition. I’m just a kid from the Bronx and there I was, rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Warhol. I remember going to a Halloween party with Cornelia Guest. C.Z. Guest, Cornelia Guest, those are names you don’t hear a lot of anymore. But in those days, Cornelia Guest was a big deal. There was a Halloween contest at Studio 54 and I was a finalist and she was a judge. I came out and people were applauding and I heard her say, “Ugh, she’s tired.” I hated her, HATED her for saying that.

Q: Who else did you hate?

WSK: Honestly, not that many people. There’s no room for hate in my life.

Q: Who do you love the most from those days?

WSK: I love the purely creative people like Andy Warhol. I know there’s been a lot of stuff in the negative said about him. I never had to deal with him on that level. He was a creative genius. His exhibit at the Whitney, it was above and beyond. Debbie Harry was in some of videos. I knew Debbie then and I know her now. I have such incredible respect for her transcending the decades. Unfortunately Warhol never got a chance to do that and maybe that’s what was supposed to happen. People had put his films down, put his actresses like Edie Sedgwick down, they put down the Campbell Soup cans, and just about everything else. Now look at it. When you go to the Whitney and see his body of work, my god, this guy was such a visionary. I wish he lived longer. Calvin Klein was a guy I used to see out a lot. I admired him because he never seemed to age. Ironically now you don’t see him out much anymore. I used to think he slept with intravenous embalming fluid because he was so handsome and always looked the same. 

Unfortunately the times that we’re talking about is when AIDS wiped out everyone. It wiped out Halston and some of the brightest most creative people that existed. I was on the board of an organization that took care of the pets of people who had AIDS; it was called POWARS: Pet Owners With AIDS Resource Service. That was a very empowering time for me because it was the only way I felt like I could do something. I lost everybody and so did so many other people too. Three phone books I went through of people who died.

Q: How many phone books did you have in total?

WSK: Probably 12 from back in the day. The rest are from after what I call the Holocaust, cause that’s what it was. There are two things that impacted New York; you can’t talk about all this without talking about the AIDS epidemic and 9/11. Those were big game changers. For me personally, nothing was the same after that. 

But you always have to repackage, reinvent, and move on. I’ve had a whole life of reinvention. Still modeling, still acting but now I do brand ambassadoring for clients and have moved into a whole different area. 

I was auditioning for travel shows. Maybe it was the impetus for the book, but I went up for a show called “Ms. Adventure” — it was either Nat Geo or the Discovery Channel that was doing it. I had all the qualifications. I had lived in the Amazon and had leeches on me, lived in Nigeria, my book opens in Nigeria where I was living in a village up in the area of Nigeria where the Boko Haram were. They were there then under a different name. There I was, blond hair down to my waist, free as a bird, thinking absolutely nothing can happen to me. 

When you’re in that age group, you don’t think those things can ever happen to you. All these things led up to me auditioning for this show, but I didn’t get it. Not only that, but I didn’t even get called up for the audition. That’s when I started to understand the way things work. I had all the qualifications and didn’t even get to audition. I had to reinvent myself, get my brand out there, and let people know about it. 

So with my husband, a brilliant videographer and photographer, we started combining our work and going to remote places around the world and I wrote these very loosely put together scripts. They were very reality based; we called the project Model With A Mission. We told the story of elephant rescues in Thailand. Our most recent film, “Whispers and Witnesses,” —  which is about Rachel Hogan from Ape Action Africa and Dr Sherie Speede from Sanaga Yong Chimpanzee Rescue, who are both saving primates from the bushmeat trade in Cameroon — won best documentary at the Chelsea Film Festival. It was made because I became a member of the Explorer’s Club so I met these two women who have rescue centers which are working in Africa to stave off primate extinction. 

Q: You’re involved with the Explorer’s Club, aren’t you?  It’s a curious place.

WSK: I do the tours, I’m a docent there. My tours are different from others. My tours are based in history but there’s an awful lot of juicy stuff about our explorers, including the polar bear. I encourage people to take a selfie in front of the polar bear. That was the impetus behind the film, I heard these women speak there. There was a fundraiser to bid on this trip. I was making these films two years ago and didn’t have a project. I thought Cameroon sounded interesting. I looked at the bid sheet and no one else’s name was on it. I won the trip and they called me a week later to tell me I had won it. 

Within three days I used my frequent flyer miles and then they called me and said they’d give me some dates and I said I was going to come there to shoot a film about these rescue centers for animals. They said you need a letter from the government so I’m like ok, when can you get me one? When I have a vision I go through with it, nothing stops me. The women said they have to get me a visa, I didn’t know what no tourist infrastructure really meant. You think they have your name on a sign. My name was on a sign, held by a BEAUTIFUL man,  about six foot four, completely dressed in uniform. We get there, we’re exhausted, this man is gorgeous, has an enormous gun and a sign with our names and I say “Hi I’m Wendy Kaplan and this is my husband.” He said, “My name is Kennedy, my English not so good.” I thought to myself, don’t even talk, just let me look at you. He had to be the most handsome man on the face of the earth. 

Nobody spoke English but everybody spoke French, so it forced me to use my high school French. I said where is the super market in French, and he took me right away to the one supermarket. I bought 50 bottles of water for drinking, bathing, washing hair. Do not use local water for anything. Even if they tell you the local water is purified, there’s that 8% and that 8% is gonna get you. It was an experience but I managed to get as close as I am to you right now with gorillas and chimpanzees. I got to tell the wonderful story behind what the women are doing there.

Q: It’s a feature?

WSK: It’s 42 minutes. I call it a “shlong” because it’s between a short and a long. I came up with that. If you know film festivals, they’ve got these categories that are so confining.

Q: How does your husband keep up with you?

WSK: I fell apart in Africa. Alan actually did much better than me. He doesn't keep up with me easily because all I need is five hours of sleep, I read all the time, and love meeting people. But Alan is very grounded and when I was in Africa I was freaking out thinking I was gonna die there. One guy I interviewed said he was recovering from typhoid and malaria; and I heard about things that crawl under your skin and lay eggs. By day eight, I thought I was going to get all those things. But I got through scot free.

Q: What’s happening now?

WSK: I’m working on getting an expedition going. I’d like to go to Madagascar. Patricia Wright studies the lemurs there. There’s a leech expert I know from the Explorers Club who is there. I begged him to take us. The Explorers Club has these great experts from all over the world about everything. I want to make films about them but you can’t put just an academic film out there. I can find the hook to bring it into your living room. Alan shoots amazing video and I’m the comedic relief freaking out in a foreign country.

And “Whispers and Witnesses” is at the Africa, Women, and Arts Festival in Tanzania. I would love to have gone there… And I’ve got the African Film Festival coming up in Dallas. I also run panels for them. 

Plus, I’d like to do a follow up to my book “She’s The Last Model Standing.” I’m a baby boomer and I’m up for us to be as fabulous as possible. 40 to 50 is the new 20, yes it is. We’re all aging backwards. I have the fashion background and I’d like to work with fashion designers who aren’t designing things for 20 year olds that are size two. Boomers are the ones with the money. Women come up to me all the time and say they can’t find clothes. And I then find them what they need. That's what I am -- a connector.

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