Jim Dale: a life on stage


HUDSON, N.Y. -- When is it time to call it a day? Consummate entertainer Jim Dale wouldn't know.

After a 60-year career in music, theater, film and broadcasting, at age 78, Dale has opened a new chapter in his transatlantic adventure with a one-man show, "Just Jim Dale," revisiting his extraordinary, unpredictable -- and hilarious -- life through stories, dancing and songs.

On Sunday -- the eve of a 12-week New York run -- he will perform with piano accompaniment by Mark York in the "Helsinki on Broadway" cabaret series at Club Helsinki in Hudson.

"The showbiz tree has many branches off it," he said, "and the joy about being in it as long as I have is that I've managed to explore ... a lot of those branches."

Trained as a dancer, Dale cut his comic teeth in the waning days of British music hall. At 17, he toured variety houses on a weekly changing bill with jugglers, acrobats and magicians, once dodging razor-sharpened pennies thrown from the upper balcony in Glasgow.

He keeps one "just to remind me it's not all full of roses when you're an actor," he said.

As a young pop singer, he recorded for legendary Beatles producer George Martin and toured throughout Britain. He wrote the lyrics for the Oscar-nominated movie theme, "Georgy Girl," which sold millions of records.

He hosted BBC pop music shows and portrayed the love interest in a dozen saucy, slapstick "Carry On" films before embracing live theater.

Drawn by his youthful talent and fame, Sir Laurence Olivier invited him to join the prestigious National Theatre, where Dale played Launcelot Gobbo opposite Olivier's Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," and shared the stage with Anthony Hopkins in an epic four-hour, two-handed play.

Despite modest pay, Dale knew watching other actors develop characters and perform would enhance his knowledge of the industry.

"I wanted to learn how to stay in this business," he said. "You can't be a pop singer when you're 80, unless you're Mick Jagger."

After taking Broadway by storm in "Scapino" and appearing in a trio of Disney films, Dale relocated to the U.S.

"I realized this was where the work was, where I enjoyed working," he said.

He created the Tony-winning Broadway role of "Barnum," singing and walking nightly on a tightrope 8 feet high. "The first thing you're taught is how to fall off," he said -- which he did for three straight weeks before triumphantly crossing the stage on opening night.

In America, he reveled in anonymity.

"I came purely to work in the theater, knowing that if I went out of town for 20 miles, nobody would know me," he said. "Unlike most people who want be big film stars or recognized in the streets, I've already had that embarrassing experience of being mobbed by screaming hysterical teenagers."

He has earned numerous Tony and Grammy awards and nominations, as well as an MBE from Queen Elizabeth.

More recently, Dale inspired a new generation of fans by bringing to life hundreds of characters in the Harry Potter audio books.

"The kids recognize my voice, but don't know who I am." he said. Some youngsters once heard him order a coffee in McDonald's, he said, and asked, " ‘Can you order me a hamburger like Dumbledore?' "

He avoided long theatrical runs that separated him from his growing family. Playing Fagin in "Oliver" in London in the ‘90s "took me away from my lovely home and wife for over a year," he recalled. "And I hated it."

As an intimate, eclectic venue more used to rock and roots music, Club Helsinki's cabaret series attracts "a whole different crowd," said owner Deborah McDowell. Many ride the train from New York to see shows by stars like Alan Cumming and Linda Lavin, curated by impresario Lee Tannen.

"People get to meet the artists," McDowell said.

The audience includes many theater professionals who call the Hudson Valley home and linger after the show.

"It draws everybody out of the woodwork," McDowell said, "Everybody knows everybody else."

She admires Dale's work. She has two children.

"For how many years was Harry Potter just abounding on the tape recorder in our house," she explained.

He shows no interest in retiring.

"What's to stop me?" Dale said. "I feel pretty fit, I'm still running in the park and walking the dog for 3 or 4 miles every day. I feel as if I'm about 35 years old."

If you go ...

What: Helsinki on Broadway presents "Just Jim Dale"

Where: Club Helsinki, 405 Columbia Hudson, N.Y.

When: Sunday, April 6, at 7 p.m.

Admission: $50 (reserved seats with dinner reservation only), $30 barstool

Information: (518) 828-4800, helsinkihudson.com


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