Telephone: 604 444-4889
Outside Vancouver: 1 888 445-4176
Fax: 604 444-4119
by Richard Burnett
I vividly remember a blustery winter day back in the mid-1980s when Montreal radio and TV icon Douglas “Coco” Leopold – dolled up in the biggest fur coat I’d ever seen – cruised me as he was leaving the glorious old Four Seasons Hotel (today the Omni Hotel) at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke streets.
It was also at the Four Seasons in the early 1980s when bitchy Montreal enfant terrible, playwright and screenwriter Steve Galluccio, then all of 22, met Leopold.
“Douglas had put an ad in a magazine looking for an assistant,” Galluccio, now 50, recalls. “So I called the number and he answered the phone! I was a huge fan of Douglas – he was such an icon for us at that time – and he said, ‘I’m getting a pedicure this afternoon so meet me at the Four Seasons. In the end I didn’t take the job because I didn’t know what he wanted me to do! But having a job interview while he was getting a pedicure was the most brilliantly bizarre thing I’d ever seen in my life! Tell you the truth, I don’t know if he was playing a role or if he was really like that.”
I bring up Douglas because – in addition to coining the Québécois term “C’est flyer!” – he was one of the main inspirations for Funkytown, the just-released, Montreal-made $8 million feature film Galluccio scripted about Montreal’s famed 1970s disco scene, when this city’s Lime Light ranked up there with Studio 54.
“The place really was better than Studio 54, and that’s [mostly] because it was a fun place for everybody – men, women, black, white, straight and gay,” says legendary Montreal DJ Robert Ouimet, house DJ at the Lime Light from when it opened in 1973 until 1981. “A lot of international stars also [partied] or performed at the Lime Light. I saw Alice Cooper. Grace Jones used to come often. The Ritchie Family played there, so did James Brown. I hung out with David Bowie and Iggy Pop there one night.”
Funkytown‘s eight-character half-English/half-French narrative includes two movers-and-shakers (Jonathan Aaronson, portrayed by Paul Doucet, and Bastien Lavallée, played by Patrick Huard) who are loosely based on Leopold and his equally iconic Montreal radio and TV colleague, Alain Montpetit.
(Douglas Leopold would die of AIDS in 1993 after moving to Hollywood to become advertising manager at Universal Studios in Hollywood. When my friend and colleague Francine Grimaldi revealed in her La Presse column that Douglas had died of AIDS, she was widely criticized. But if Francine hadn’t done it, then I most certainly would have. As for Alain Montpetit, NYC police in 2002 concluded he murdered 24-year-old Montreal model Marie-Josée St-Antoine in 1982. Montpetit would die of a drug overdose in a Washington, DC hotel room in 1987 at the age of 36.)
“You can’t write about disco in Montreal without writing about Leopold and Montpetit,” says Galluccio. “We did a lot of research and people have such vivid memories of the [Lime Light] that it wasn’t difficult to piece together. Every detail, every corner, how you felt when you [entered and] walked up the stairs. But this film is not a doc about the Lime Light – it is a work of fiction.”
Steve also co-wrote (with Jean Robitaille and Kim Richardson) the film soundtrack’s hook-heavy dance track, Waiting for Your Touch. The hit song is sung by one of this country’s great soul divas, Montreal singer Kim Richardson, whom – with her Mom, the powerful Jackie Richardson – I call the Whitney and Cissy Houston of Canada. In fact, in 2004, when the Montreal Expos needed a great singer to sing the Canadian and American national anthems at the last-ever Expos game at Olympic Stadium that September, the Expos called me for Kim’s number.
After that historic game, Kim told me, “I was prepared for the booing [of the American anthem] because you knew the fans would be pissed the team was moving to the States. So I was able to sing through it. I didn’t expect [most] fans to start clapping and cheering – that was a classy thing. Then singing the Canadian anthem I started getting choked up.”
Kim also co-stars in Funkytown and Montrealers will have fun spotting their friends as extras (like fab Montreal Tranie Tronic drag queen Atif Siddiqi), as well as Montreal landmarks, like the scene filmed inside the famed greasy diner on the southeast corner of De Maisonneuve and Lambert-Closse, across the street from the old Montreal Forum.
After Funkytown screens at the Berlin Film Festival in February, it goes into wide release across Canada on March 4.
But Steve Galluccio – his 2000 breakthrough play Mambo Italiano about a closeted gay Italian couple was translated into French by none other than Québécois gay literary icon Michel Tremblay, and the 2003 English film adaptation starred Ginette Reno and one of Martin Scorcese’s favourite actors, Paul Sorvino – isn’t sitting on his laurels. The week we blab, Mambo Italiano, one of the most successful Canadian plays ever written, was being mounted in Brazil and it will also have a run in Germany later this year.
Steve has also just submitted the third draft for the Mambo Italiano film sequel to SODEC (“Nino and Pina are no longer in the movie and Angelo goes to L.A. to pursue a career and falls in love with an older man”) and he has just secured the French Canadian rights for the hit Broadway play 39 Steps.
“[Producer] Denise Robert and I saw the play together in New York and absolutely fell in love with it,” Steve says. “Our next trip to New York we negotiated the rights for French Canada. So we’re bringing it to Montreal in 2012. We got two other [business] partners and we’ve already hired a director.”
And what about that planned Broadway musical based on Mambo Italiano with renowned NYC producers Jean Cheever and Tom Polum, whose rock musical Toxic Avenger did boffo business off-Broadway?
“It’s supposed to go for the 2012-2013 season but it’s very hard to get something done on Broadway right now,” Steve explains. “I don’t think we’ll break the show on Broadway. It takes a lot of time and patience. Not to mention the average cost of a Broadway play now is around $2 million to $2.5 million. The reality of doing theatre in New York on Broadway is so different than the reality of doing theatre here where everything is spoon fed to you. You get money from the government, you put your play on for four weeks and then you go on to your next play. In New York you have to find investors and it may close after three weeks. There are so many plays that close in New York that it’s such a big gamble for everybody. So when it comes to Mambo Italiano, I’ll believe when I see it onstage.”
Galluccio famously got his playwriting start at the Montreal Fringe Festival in 1991 (his several Fringe plays in the early-‘90s included spoofs of The Brady Bunch and Batman and Robin). Word on the street is he may be back at the Fringe as honourary festival spokesperson – a festival Godfather of sorts – for the Montreal’s Fringe’s 21st edition this summer.
“It all depends on the dates they need me,” Galluccio says, then adds, “I’m proud to be a Montreal Fringe alumni. It’s a great place to start your career, an amazing platform to learn how to do it all. I was there the first four years, from 1991 to ’94. I learned how to put on a play with no money; I learnt that sets aren’t important – it’s what you put onstage that counts. I grew up in front of an audience. Sometimes they’d like something, sometimes they didn’t, and I’d make changes. I learned to sell myself, which is so important, and get people into the theatre.
“But it’s also important to remember the Fringe is not the real world and at some point you have to get out. You have to go elsewhere and close the door on that period in your life. You can do Fringe tours all over Canada but you’ll always be known as the Fringe artist who basically puts on plays for his friends. The Fringe is a good school but you need to know when to get out.”
In fact, another blustery cold winter day a couple of years ago I was putzing around Montreal with my friend and colleague Michael Musto of NYC’s Village Voice newspaper. Downtown in the underground city we stopped at a Dollar Store (“Oh my God, they’re like porn for me!” Michael exclaimed) and then afterwards in the HMV superstore where Michael picked up a DVD of Mambo Italiano. “Hey, this is by that guy Steve I met last night!” Michael said.
When Mambo opens on Broadway one day, I expect Musto will be there. So will I one day too, especially since Steve hopes they can sign Broadway legend Patti Lupone to star as Maria Barberini (the role played by Ginette Reno in the film version). Can you imagine?
“I’d love Patti Lupone in the role of Maria!” Steve sighs. “We’ve already talked about this with the producers. Now that would be a dream come true!”
Funkytown has opened in Quebec and opens on March 4, 2011 in the rest of Canada.
This article was first posted by hour.ca.