Don Reed's first one-man show at the Marsh Theater was called East 14th. It was about moving away from his Jehovah's Witness stepfather to live in Oakland with his real father -- who he didn't know was a pimp. The show got extended 21 times and played for two and a half years.
Reed is a stand-up comedian, actor, producer, and writer who lives in Los Angeles (he warms up the audience for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno). He is back at the Marsh Saturdays and Sundays with his second show, Kipling Hotel. It's something of a sequel, in that it covers his adventures as a live-in waiter at a retirement hotel in Southern California after he left Oakland to attend UCLA.
Reed sat down with SF Weekly before his show opened to talk about dancing by himself, 1970s decor in 1920s architecture, and finding support in unlikely places.
East 14th was about your father. What's the story in Kipling Hotel?
It's about having the support system pulled from under your feet. I was in Oakland, living with my stepdad who is in that religion that rhymes with Tehovah's Sitnesses, and then moved in with my father who I didn't know was a pimp -- but who also pushed me toward college and higher ground.
When I left Oakland and went to UCLA, I realized I didn't have the support system anymore. So it's about coming of age without having anybody to lean on, anybody to say, "Baby, be yourself," or to say, "Yo yo yo, I'm your brother." It's about finding new people to have your back, and finding them in the least likely place you can expect -- a low-rent retirement hotel. The thing that is interesting about the story is juxtaposing those older folks with the younger folks, and the '80s thing that was going on -- the bright colors, the big hair, the Jheri Curls. You're juxtaposing ages and cultures.
So you've got an old person up the hallway listening to (sings) "I'm Singin' in the Rain" and down the hallway you hear (sings again) "Purple Rain, Purple Rain," So it's both rain, but they're so different. Or someone in a room is doing coke and cooking it up and you smell cocaine vapors, and you go down the hallway and it's Vick's VapoRub.
You have done a lot of different things in entertainment. Why did you want to do one-man shows?
It allows you to do everything. In stand-up, it seems like you can do whatever you want, but there are some things that are confining about it because it's stand-up, so people don't expect you to go to some dramatic beats. It's like, "Wait a minute, I thought this was a comedy club. Does it say dramedy on the front?" They're expecting just raucous comedy. Whereas one-man shows allow you to bring raucous comedy, dramatic beats, and you can dance, act, use music. It opens up the door much wider than stand-up.
What do you love the most about performing your show?
The chance to dance. I would say to my wife, "Guess what I get to do tonight? I get to dance." When I am at home during the day, I will turn on music and dance hard for like 25 minutes by myself in the house. My wife knows I'm so into it that she will call me if we have plans to go somewhere and say "Listen, here's the thing. We need to be somewhere at 7. Don't be dancing around the house, partying by yourself. You need to get ready, so we can leave." She does that, she actually calls and says that. She knows that otherwise I'll be there forever, partying by myself.
How did you get the job at the Kipling Hotel?
It was sheer desperation. I was going to UCLA and people were suggesting ways to make money. I looked in the paper, and I saw a job where they were looking for male strippers. They were trying to do a Chippendale's type thing to make the ladies feel all hot and bothered. I went down there and I weighed eleventeen pounds at the time, and I tried out to be a stripper. The audition is in the show, and it's quite a spectacle. I left that audition, and I went to a friend's house, and I looked in the newspaper and they were looking for college students to move into a upscale hotel and serve breakfast to the elderly. Live-in waiters for room and board. They should have left "upscale" out of the description of that place. It wasn't quite downscale either. It was like a great 1920s architect and smothered in '70s décor. The building was built in 1929, and then it was like someone came in and said, "Hey, we need this brorange carpeting" -- that's brown and orange mixed together -- "and wood paneling!" So it was '70s and 1920s. Like us. People in their 20s with people in their 70s.
I didn't know my roommates were going to be borderline serial-killer looking people. There was also this one guy who stayed drunk, and another guy I called Roller Coaster because he would be high and he would laugh and cry at the same time. So he would be like, "Man, we're going to a club tonight, (starts to laugh) it's going to be amazing! Oh, my God, it's going to be so much fun (begins sobbing) I gotta get my life together!" It was like, "Dude, you are on a roller coaster!"
Were able to deal with these different kinds of people because of having grown up the way you did, living in your dad's and stepdad's place?
My father was very accepting, so I walked into the dynamic very open. My father opened my eyes about my interaction with my brother who was gay. My father didn't judge that. I think he took off a bunch of layers of prejudgment I might bring. My father was like, "That's not what a person is all about -- there's a number of layers to them." My only introduction was acceptance. The first thing I saw was, "Come on, baby, it's all good," so that's how I am with people.
Anything else you want to say about the show?
I had one reviewer who said my show ran the risk of being simply a collection of stories. And I want to say, that's what my shows are. They're a collection of stories. By design, not like, "Oh my God, I screwed up, it's a collection of stories." It's a collection of stories woven together that play the role of a play, and I'm happy with that. I used to worry about that a lot -- I'm not playing by the rules! But I stumbled onto a style via East 14th that is a hybrid of stand-up and storytelling and theater and dance, and I'm just going to do it that way.
Kipling Hotel plays Saturdays and Sundays at the Marsh through Nov. 13. Admission is $15-$50.