Closeup/Show Business

The reluctant star

Valri Bromfield insists on doing it her way

Judith Timson June 12 1978
Closeup/Show Business

The reluctant star

Valri Bromfield insists on doing it her way

Judith Timson June 12 1978

The reluctant star

Closeup/Show Business

Valri Bromfield insists on doing it her way

Judith Timson

It is a Monday night in Los Angeles and Valri Bromfield is busy being Bill. There she is, a comedian’s comedian, up on the stage of West Hollywood’s Studio One Back-Lot theatre, giving her audience a stomach ache with her near perfect rendition of Male Chauvinist Pig, Type A: Champion of the working class, king of the road, head of his house. A pretty girl drifts by â construction site and Bill will be the one making kissy-kissy noises: “She don’t

turn around or nothin’, she just kept goin’. Whatsa matter, gals goin’ deaf today?” Poor Bill. In today’s world, where the new woman would just as soon push his face in as respond to a sleazy whistle, he is badly confused—and that makes him likable. At the same time, you can tell by the jaunty way he wears his oversized plaid sports jacket and by his alarmingly noisy gestures that Bill has a kind of blind confidence in himself—and that makes him ridiculous.

Home from a hard day’s work, he whistles, stomps, claps, sings and shouts for his wife : “Honey, I’m home! Your man’s home, honey, I’m home! Get down here! (and he whistles the kind of whistle that will get you a dog, or if you’re lucky a cab, but seldom a wife) Where the hell is that dame?

. . . I’m a fern libber man, eh? I believe a woman’s got to work and have equilibrium, but when it’s time for her man’s meal, she’s gotta be home."

Home. Bill’s castle, the place where he taught his son “how to eat like a man ... I said to him son, you take your meat and potatoes, never salad, salad’s fag food . .. and you wash it down with a beer... what a guy, I’m tellin’ you. What a kid. Funny he had to run away from home so soon though.” Home is also, when it’s empty, a place that makes Bill extremely nervous. He slumps into a chair, beating a tattoo on an imaginary table, stomping his feet, talking out loud, anything to reaffirm his place in the universe. Finally he resorts to reading a book: “Whadda we got here? Ah,

here’s a book I like—Life Goes to War. Hey jeez what a grisly state of affairs, (whistles) Whoa look at those guys—flat through the mud, fightin’ for our country, keepin ’ it safe! (claps) Those guys, dressed in our colors, carry in’ the flag, yes siree they’re good men, marchin’ together men\ March in uniform! (stomps feet) March, march, march, march, march\ Marchin’ in uniform. March! March! March! March! Men! Fightin’ men! Guerrilla men! Air force men! Men marchin’, men fighting, men trading—I’d like to kiss those guys on the lips\"

The look on Bill’s face—a classic

oops!—is well rewarded by a laughing, clapping, cheering audience. Their delight in he-man Bill’s embarrassing epiphany is no doubt heightened by the fact that the performance is taking place at the theatre that’s not only a good place to be seen in L.A. these days, it’s also one of the city’s largest gay clubs where, only 10 steps down the hall, the boys in their snake-tight jeans and just right plaid shirts are dancing together.

A year ago, when Valri was a regular guest on CTV’S Alan Hamel Show, some deep-thinking executive declared that

Canada was not ready for a female in drag. (Consider today’s curiosity that two talented young Canadians—female impersonator Craig Russell, star of Outrageous! and Valri Bromfield are both making their mark in show business prancing about on stage in someone else’s gender.) But this night in this town, even the staff creep out from behind the bar to stand and gape not only at Bill, who after all packs an appropriately potent political message, but at all of Bromfield’s characters: Baby Angel; Tomboy Terry (“first doll that don’t eat its cake gets her head ripped off”); Edna Cheevers, an unattached, less than stunningly attractive lady who’s game for just about anything; Blanche Pink, a senile grandmother; Ina Allcock, a classically fascist teacher (“I’m a teacher! I was born to teach, and I have only one thing to say to you and that is that most of you are very, very stupid”); and Debby Teen, a revolting

little junior prom queen.

With a terrifying amount of energy, with a style that is almost otherworldly and with a piercing authenticity, Valri Bromfield disappears out of one character and into another, leaving no doubt as to why—despite her lack of a national reputation in her own country—she is the darling of showbiz talents who have worked with her. In some cases—a typical showbiz story— they considered her their mentor before they passed by her on the road to success. Take Dan Aykroyd, now enjoying star status as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on NBC’S runaway comedy hit Saturday Night Live. If comedy is, as some cultural pundits have been telling us, the New Rock, the new focus for a generation of kids who can recite a Steve Martin comedy routine more faithfully than they can the lyrics to Rod Stewart’s latest hit single, then Saturday Night Live is at the centre of ft all, creating as much stir with its black humor and inspiring as much slavish devotion to its winning cast as did the original Laugh-In of the ’60s. Years ago, Bromfield and Aykroyd, whom she met in a tunnel at Ottawa’s Notre Dame high school, set out to be the Canadian challenge to Nichols and May. They didn’t make it. Now Aykroyd tells a reporter that Valri is “a rare and unique talent. If it hadn’t have been for her guidance, I woulda been a cop.”

Lome Michaels, yet another Canadian who is now the producer of Saturday Night Live, once told Lily Tomlin that Valri Bromfield was the funniest woman he had ever worked with. “Of course,” says Michaels, “Lily did not want to hear this.” Eventually the two funny ladies, their talents not dissimilar, met at a Mexican restaurant in L.A. and immediately began improvising. “We had a four-hour comedyoff,” says Bromfield. Bromfield performed on two of Tomlin’s award-winning specials. “If the show had gone to series,” says Michaels, “Valri would have been the second comedienne. She would have been a star today.”

As it happens, it didn’t and she isn’t. And this wasn’t her first and only near-miss with fame. Some people have trouble understanding why she turned down an offer of a regular spot on Saturday Night Live. Just think! Valri instead of Gilda Radner could have been grinning inside a huge heart on the cover of New Times magazine, identified as “Saturday Night’s Sweetheart.” In strictly showbiz terms, it was indeed a classic mistake. But Valri Bromfield does not quite think in strictly showbiz terms. She goes her own way—and some say that is what makes her comedy so good. Besides, New York would have been no place, she decided, for a dog like Pal, her dainty mongrel sidekick. “And who needs all that attention anyway? Gawd I had lunch with Gilda the other day and it was terrible, all these strangers pawing her in the restaurant. I couldn’t stand it.”

Hollywood cynics could murmur reallyl

to that remark until they hear her continue with an authentic anticipatory laugh: “My favorite thing is to be a nobody in a roomful of actors and comedians and then to blow their f—ing minds.” Certainly there is some evidence to suggest a few minds were blown that night at Studio One. Some of the “right” people—producers and talent scouts—showed up, and all of them laughed. Now, presumably, all she has to do is sit back and wait for the offers.

When she was a little girl growing up in the rural reaches of Toronto’s suburban cliché, Don Mills, Valri Bromfield wanted to be Alice in Wonderland. Her parents, nonconforming artist types, figured why not? They curled her soft blonde hair and called her Alice and let her step through the looking glass any old time she wished. Their more conventional neighbors were aghast. You let her go on like that, there’s gonna be trouble . . . The trouble came when Valri discovered she could bend her sweet little face to look like a demented chihuahua, or a friend of her parents or a million other people. Ab and Mary Bromfield were fascinated by their daughter’s ability to mimic anybody—and a bit horrified by an accompanying mean streak. “She used to pull the legs off insects, that sort of thing,” says her mother. “Once in Ottawa we had a garden with a lovely little garter snake in it. Valri skinned it and dried it and made a belt out of it and I never could understand why.” (Some people who have been mimicked by Valri feel they’ve gone through a similar experience.) Bromfield thinks her mean streak has been absorbed in a healthy way into her comedy: She never mocks her characters; she once said, “I just want to be that person for a little while.” That analysis falls a little short when you see her do an 85-year-old hag spitting out a cheese curd.

Bromfield began improvising comedy skits during high school and then lasted a year at the Banff School of Fine Arts before setting off for England, where, at the age of 19, she worked as an au pair girl in a “spooky” mansion in Mayfair and learned “how good it feels to take care of yourself.” She ended up staying in Europe 2Vi years, progressively doing “crazy English girl dancing at the Circo Price in Madrid, working as a chauffeur for an eccentric Englishwoman, and demonstrating, on tour, 99 things you could do with American rice.” Bizarre and wonderful experiences were filed away, to pop up later in a skit here, a character there, providing more texture for her comedy.

When she got back to Canada, she and Danny Aykroyd found themselves snowed in for four days together in an Ottawa house. “Man, were we snowlocked,” remembers Aykroyd. “At the end of it. she had totally changed my head around.” Bromfield remembers Aykroyd actually running out of the house, standing by the side of the road and crying when no cars would come. At any rate, whatever she did

to him worked—and the two set off for Toronto, determined to make it. “We did some good stuff,” says Aykroyd. “Other groups are still imitating us today.” Among other things, they invented the School of Stupid Dance.(“All right pupils, you have your stupid uniforms on ...”)

Around this time, in the early ’70s, she also met Gilda Radner who says that Valri “makes me laugh my guts out. She also taught me that in comedy you have to give everything.” They worked together at Toronto’s Second City revue, the sister troupe to the original improvisational theatre group in Chicago until “one day,” says Gilda, “Valri told me I was a milquetoast Canadian—and that I would never leave Toronto.” Notwithstanding the fact that Gilda has always been an American, she took the advice to heart—and left.

Valri Bromfield is not a milquetoast Canadian. In fact, she decided to take out her “green card,” the official permit that allows her to take any job in the United States. She does not think you can write comedy in Canada—“unless you called it The Political Hour and did it from Ottawa, no one would watch.”

The first time she went to Hollywood, it overwhelmed her. When Lome Michaels called to ask her to do the Lily Tomlin show she had replied: “I can’t do that! She’s my hero, my idol.” But she went anyway, lived for a while in a beach house, and fell in love with California and its possibilities. “It was what it must be like when you’re on acid. Everything was real big to me. I remember the smells so well, the smell of my shampoo, the smell of the soap I was using, and the sounds—I used to phone home and put the phone up to the ocean.”

But after she had done the Tomlin shows and some Bobby Gentry shows and Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin, things went sour. After a legal dispute over who would manage her, Valri packed everything up and headed to a cottage in White Rock, outside Vancouver, where she carried on her career, appearing in several Vancouver productions, doing the odd television spot—and giving newspaper interviews telling everyone how horrible Hollywood had been.

Now, two years later, at the age of 29, she’s back, and this time, she’s not just blissing out on her soap. She has returned armed with a new outlook and a firm resolve to stay away from the Day of the Locust mentality of Hollywood that had frightened her so much first time around. “You don’t have to stay in town and go to parties. All you have to do is work hard and be good and go to all the interviews and be really on, and then you will always have work.”

You don’t even have to hang out at the Improv or the Comedy Store, those smoky, cramped desperate clubs where young hungry comics try out their acts before doing “Johnny” or “Merv” or “Mike”; where they showcase their one-liners for

agency pooh-bahs who file out en masse just as the guy on after the one they came to see figures he’s going to get a break. Valri found the Comedy Store “real ugly, a lot of performers there are bitter and hostile.”

Valri has been spending her time “paying her dues,” as the showbiz people like to say. On the day following her show, she was at her desk in a tiny office cradled away in one of the fantastic old Hollywood studios writing a skit for an ABC television comedy special That Thing. “You may not be a star,” says Bromfield, “but you will always have work.”

Valri Bromfield’s friend Paul, who is black and a comedian, says there are worse things than being black—being homosexual for instance. “At least when you’re black, you don’t have to worry about telling your parents.” Valri sent her parents a telegram. And unlike some of her more successful friends in showbiz, she does not let herself worry that an avowed disinclination towards men could hurt a woman’s chances in Tinsel Town.

A friend of Valri’s living in Vancouver says Valri has always wanted to “make the world perfect for women to live in.” On a professional level, she and others like her—Lily Tomlin, the Saturday Night women, stand-up comic Elayne Boosler— have begun to open up the world of comedy for women by giving them something familiar to laugh at. Men may find it mildly

funny to watch Gilda Radner freak out at a slumber party or listen to Valri’s Debby Teen come right off the wall when she discovers her sister has been in her room (“now I’ll have to sterilize everything!”), but women have been there. The humor moreover is intensified by the horror of it all—very few women would ever want to step back into the stereotype they see before them.

Valri Bromfield says her personal life is more important to her than success. To that end, she has chosen to live in splendid isolation—with girlfriend Lyn Johnstone and their three dogs—high up in the hills of Topanga County, outside of Los An-

geles, in a funny little house shaped like a hot tub. The distancing from Los Angeles is deliberate—and symbolic of her own ambivalence towards success. She makes the plunge, moves to L.A. and then, every day, gets as far away from it as possible.

Her old partner Dan Aykroyd guesses that she just may prefer, as he puts it, “to stay hungry with her creativity.” But Lome Michaels, who pushed Valri into new situations before and may do so again, figures that success is about to come looking for Valri Bromfield. “By now, all the people who have to know about her already do know. She’ll get her shot—sooner than anyone thinks.”«^?