Philanthropy is sometimes its own best reward, especially if you get very creative.
Take Broadway’s gypsies. They dream of segueing from the chorus line to the exalted ranks of director-choreographer. Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett did it. Most recently, former dancer Jerry Mitchell made the jump, having directed and choreographed “Legally Blonde.” As he tells it, his career took a major turn when he performed a striptease at the gay bar Splash for the AIDS charity Broadway Cares.
It all started in April 1992. Mitchell was appearing on Broadway in “Will Rogers’ Follies,” which showcased him dancing half-naked on a big drum.
His thinking: If the auds at the Palace Theater loved it, so would the guys at Splash. Together with half a dozen other chorus boys, he go-go’d for charity with patrons sticking dollar bills into his G-string.
“We all did solo strips,” he recalls. “And I choreographed an opening number. We had flashlights and black hats and it was very Janet Jackson.”
The next day, Mitchell walked into the office of Broadway Cares, which had not yet merged with Equity Fights AIDS, and delivered $8,000 in cash.
As he remembers, “The money was all wet and crumpled in a pillow case.”
That fall, Mitchell did a follow-up production at the Henry Miller Theater, added some girls and called it “Broadway Bares.” This time, Seagram’s came on as a sponsor, there was an open bar, and the show brought in $17,000.
Now in its 16th year, the “Broadway Bares” striptease show raised a record-breaking $743,787 at two June 17 performances at the Roseland Ballroom in Gotham. The event’s total tally over the years has put $4 million into the coffers of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
The venture has been so successful that Mitchell and producer Scott Zeiger have plans to retitle it “Peep Show” and take it to Las Vegas for a sit-down commercial production at one of the casinos.
Mitchell has also spearheaded junior companies of the “Broadway Bares” franchise, encouraging national tours to do “their own little strip” in towns like Memphis and Dubuque.
“‘Hairspray’ recently raised about $60,000 out of town and sent it back to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS,” Mitchell boasts.
Although “Broadway Bares” began as Mitchell’s very personal response to the AIDS crisis — “All my friends were afraid to go out on a date,” he recalls — it has paid him back bigtime.
“It got me noticed as a choreographer and built my career,” he says. Indeed, the strip show brought him to the attention of director Jack O’Brien, who was looking for a terp collaborator on “The Full Monty.”
As the veteran helmer explains it, “No one knows how to take clothes off better than Jerry Mitchell.”
Mitchell is now perfectly happy to let other creatives take the reins at “Broadway Bares.” His assistant Denis Jones directed the most recent incarnation, titled “Myth-Behavior.”
“I’m trying to offer that opportunity to other young choreographers and directors who are coming up,” says Mitchell. “By giving to the community, they in turn get a new career in the community.”