A Funny Life: Jim Dale In Solo Show At Long Wharf Theatre

Jim Dale guides his guests into the study in his Park Avenue home, pointing out memorabilia filling the walls and shelves: album covers from when he was a British pop star in the late '50s; pictures of him from the "Carry On…" comedy films in the ''60s; posters when he starred in "Scapino" and "Barnum" on Broadway; Grammys for his "Harry Potter" audio books.

Tucked away on a top shelf is a small, well-worn book, "How to Be Funny," a childhood manual that helped shape his destiny.

How so?

"Ah, that's in the show," he says, not wanting to give away some of his best material from his still-in-development solo show which will play Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II starting Thursday, June 14 to June 24. "Just Jim Dale" is the modestly-titled, 90-minute show which spans an extraordinary varied 60-year-plus career.

On a recent afternoon in Manhattan with his black Doberman "Georgy Girl" stoically seated beside him (he wrote the lyrics to the the Oscar-nominated song), Dale, 76, told jokes and showed off his remarkable gift for vocal mimicry (Dame Edith Evans, Michael Caine). But mostly the Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor talked about his life-long love, dedication and curatorial passion for comedy.

"What was important to me was not to be well-known," he says of his life in film, theater and music, "but to learn more and more about laughter."

In developing the solo show, which received a workshop production at the Eugene O'NeillTheater Center in Waterford last summer, he was essentially defining who he was.

"That's what it's all about, Alfie," he says. "Who is Jim Dale? Am I still searching for him? I'm not quite sure."

What he is sure is that it all began with his love of the English music hall — and comedy.

Began at Age Nine

Dale, the son of an iron foundry worker father and a mother who worked in a shoe factory, grew up in Rothwell, England, a working class town Northamptonshire, in the dead center of the country.

"I went to night school to study shoe design waiting for my big opportunity to get into show business," he says.

He had been performing since he was 9 as an amateur singer in family-type regional social clubs which featured such social talent as a wavering soprano, a hometown ballerina and a man who played spoons.

When he was 17, he turned pro and became a comedian, touring in every major and minor city in England playing to all sorts of audiences. "I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to explore comedy."

But he was open to anything and when an opportunity to do something else that was interesting and challenging came his way, he seized on it.

When warming up a TV audience for pop star Tommy Steele, he grabbed a guitar and started singing. That led to him at the age of 22 being tapped to be a pop singer under the guidance of George Martin, who would later go on to fame as the recording manager for the Beatles. Over a two-year period Dale had a series of pop hits in theU.K., including "Be My Girl," "Crazy Dream" and "Sugartime."

"But because I had a background in comedy I said, 'Let's record comedy songs.' He [Martin] said, 'I don't think it's the time.' But I did. And they didn't work. So I thought, 'OK. I've done some pop singing so now let's move on — and I went back to comedy.' In his bookGeorge wrote, 'If Jim Dale stayed on as a pop singer, he could have become a big name.' Well, if I did I would still be stuck singing the same hits now. So I looked at [pop singing] as just another stepping stone to something else."

Throughout the '60s, while continuing as a song writer, Dale often played the romantic lead in the series of "Carry On…" British film comedies,

Dale's next turn in his career was being invited in 1966 by stage director Frank Dunlop to play the clown Autolycus in a production of "The Winter's Tale" at the Edinburgh Festival. When Dale hesitated about the task of tackling the Bard, Dunlop shot back, 'Who the [expletive] are you to say you can't play Shakespeare!"

That began a professional relationship with the director. In 1970, Laurence Olivier invited Dale to join the National Theatre he was forming and the young actor subsequently played manyat the Young Vic Theater Company in the early '70s.