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GUEST BLOG: Jim Wann Remembers Pump Boys

GUEST BLOG: Jim Wann Remembers Pump Boys

Jim Wann, the principal author and composer of Pump Boys and Dinettes, writes about the creation of the popular show.

PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES began with nary a thought of Broadway. I was a scuffling songwriter/guitarist and Mark Hardwick was a piano player/actor. We had performed in a production of my first musical, DIAMOND STUDS: The Life Of Jesse James, in which the James Gang held up banks and trains with guitars and mandolins. It was the beginning of what the critic Clive Barnes later dubbed “musicians’ theatre”, which now has a lineage stretching through a number of successful shows, but at the time Mark and I were unemployed and happy to take a job playing five nights a week in the Cattleman Lounge, attached to a restaurant on one of the darker blocks west of Grand Central.

Our mission was to play country standards to entertain the “tired businessman” who had come for the drinks, the steaks, and the waitresses in classic Western saloon girl attire. On slow nights we’d play original songs I was writing for Mark’s emerging comic persona: “Farmer Tan” and “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” among them. Mark came in one night wearing a matching dark blue twill shirt and trouser outfit. He was so smitten with this fashion combo that I went out and bought one just like it. By and by we had oval patches over the pockets with our names in them. For about a week we pretended we were exterminators, and then I started thinking of a gas station in Chapel Hill, NC, that had old wood floors, a potbelly stove, and music on Friday nights. So we became guys who worked at the gas station. Another week went by and we owned the gas station-why not? Our imaginations were taking over and our Pump Boys repertoire began to grow. The Cattleman management soon grew tired of this nonsense and showed us the saloon door.

John Foley and Paul Ukena, Jr. joined the band and we played clubs like Cat’s Cradle down South and Folk City in the Village, as well as a party for Ruby Lerner at Manhattan Theatre Club during which Ruby dubbed our guest singers, a couple of “waitresses” who owned a diner, the Dinettes. Cass Morgan and Debra Monk had so much appeal we asked them to join us officially, and Pump Boys And Dinettes was born. But as what? A band? An act? A show? No one knew for sure. Paul left for a real job acting in California; minus a bass player, we saw John Schimmel walking in the East Village and said, “You’re it.”

We were hired to play at 11 PM during July of 1981 at the West Side Arts Theatre on 43rd Street, going on after a musical called “Heebie Jeebies” about the Boswell Sisters. About 10:45 the Sisters left their New Orleans set and we moved the wrought iron pieces out of the way and put two oil drums in place with handmade signs: “Eat” and “Gas”. Our first night in the 200-seat space the entire audience consisted of the press agent (now producer) Jeffrey Richards, his guest Derek Jacobi, Derek’s friend, and three winos who had come in off the street. Only the winos stayed for the whole show. But Jeffrey scored for us-a Marilyn Stasio review in the Post led to lines around the block, limos, and Liza Minnelli, who beamed and said: “We don’t know what to think and you just lead us down the garden path…”

We partnered up with friends at Dodger Theatre-Michael David, Ed Strong, and Sherman Warner-and a few months later the garden path was winding past Macy’s as we became the first off-Broadway show to have a number in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was below freezing that year and we all wore long underwear beneath our uniforms, including the Dinettes, who served coffee to Ed McMahon after he nearly fell off an elephant. In February 1982 we moved to the Princess Theatre on Broadway, a warm informal space that had been the Latin Quarter nightclub, beginning a long run of 577 performances highlighted by a Tony nomination for Best Musical.

But it was another nightclub that played a crucial role in the Pump Boys cast recording. Willie Nelson came to see us at the Princess, met with us after the show, and said “Nothing but hits!” He wanted to know who was recording us and we said, “Nobody yet,” so he put in a good word with Dick Asher, then president of Columbia Records, Willie’s own label. Although the show was running on Broadway, Dick wanted to hear us in another setting. We were booked at the Lone Star CafĂ© on 5th Avenue and 13th Street, the mecca of country music in New York then, whose rooftop sported a giant iguana and the banner “Too Much Ain’t Enough.” After our show at the Princess that night we hustled downtown to the crowded joint, a sea of boots, hats, jeans and longneck beers, to open for Bobby Bare, one of my heroes from his recordings of “Detroit City” and “Drop Kick Me Jesus, Through The Goal Posts Of Life”. Dick Asher was there in pressed jeans and a lavender cashmere V-neck sweater with a neatly stitched “CBS” logo in the pocket position. He stood out in the crowd-he was The Man. We drank quick beers and roared into our set, the highlight of which was the Dinettes’ bawdy “Tips”. Dick put something in the jar-a record deal. He told us we could record for any label in the company, Columbia, Epic, take your pick. We chose CBS Masterworks and soon found ourselves in RCA’s legendary Studio B where the ghosts were good, just like the Princess. That studio and the Princess itself are ghosts now, somewhere in the air along Broadway, but the PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES cast album is still very much alive as the document of a unique Broadway show. Thanks again, Willie!