Garretts heat up 'Beauty Shop'

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- Shelly Garrett can't quite remember his line, but he remembers the audience reaction like it was yesterday. That's when Garrett got "the acting bug."

"I'd been working with a lighting company at the CBS and ABC studios in LA, and I was working on the old 'Chico and the Man' TV program," Garrett said. "Jack Donohue was the director, and I told him I'd like to be an extra on in episode. I wanted to be an actor.

"He called me into his office one day and gave me two pages of script. He told me, 'You're on the second page.' I thought I'd just be an extra, but I wound up having a part as a policeman with an actual line. I remember when I came out and said my line in front of the studio audience, they screamed with laughter. That was it; I had the bug."

It was the immediate reaction of a live audience that sparked something in Garrett. And while his acting career never really took off, he did find a way to replicate that audience reaction thousands and thousands of times over as a playwright.

As author, director, producer, designer -- chief chef and bottle washer -- of the groundbreaking 1989 urban play "Beauty Shop" and its subsequent "sequels," Garrett has rung up tens of millions of dollars in ticket sales and kept audiences rolling in the aisles for more than two decades.

The latest in the line of "Beauty Shop" incarnations will debut Saturday at the Albany Municipal Auditorium when Garrett presents "Beauty Shop 2011." The two-show run (8 p.m. Saturday and a 3 p.m. matinee Sunday, Jan. 16) will be a homecoming for the show's star, Doris Garrett, the playwright's wife.

Doris Garrett is an Albany State University alumna who was chosen queen of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and captain of the university's Royal Passionettes dance team.

"We've always wanted to do the show in Albany, so I'm excited about this opportunity," Doris Garrett, who was introduced to her future husband by a mutual friend in Atlanta, said while in town Wednesday to promote "Beauty Shop 2011."

Shelly Garrett said he'd been trying to bring his play to Albany for the last couple of years, but he couldn't get officials at the Albany Civic Center to return his calls. And he said when he contacted a city official, he was discouraged from bringing his show to Albany.

"We were told the play wouldn't do well here," Garrett said. "I was amazed, because my wife has ties here. But we tend not to concentrate on the negative."

Albany audiences will witness a show that influenced such noted African-American auteurs as Tyler Perry and David E. Talbert.

"Tyler Perry told me he saw 'Beauty Shop' three times when we took the show to New Orleans, and David E. Talbert told me he'd seen the show and felt compelled to do something similar," Shelly Garrett said. "People have asked me why I don't do movies like Tyler does, but it's not something I'm interested in doing.

"If there's a movie out there, why would anyone pay a higher price to go see the live play? Besides, we've done all right. The play made $33 million in its first 3 1/2-year run."

After his one line on "Chico and the Man," Garrett became something of a rising star in Hollywood. He landed roles in McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, GMC and Dr Pepper ads, and from those he was able to get bit parts in TV dramas like "Baretta," "Rockford Files," "McCloud," "The $6 Million Man," "Police Woman," "Quincy" and other procedurals.

But the process of doing small TV parts and ads did not excite Garrett.

"You'd have to be on the set for makeup at 5:30 a.m., and you might not be on camera until 4 that afternoon," he said. "Most of the actors just read books or sat around, but I went out and watched the director, the sound people, the camera crews to see how they put everything together."

Garrett got his last conventional role after answering an ad in the casting periodical "Drama-logue." He was cast as Dootsie Williams, the real-life owner of DooTone Records, in the entrepreneur's production of "Earth Angel."

"It wasn't a very good play, and when we performed there might be 10 people in the small theater ... and they were usually friends or relatives of the actors," Garrett said. "If an actor made a mistake, Dootsie would call out from the audience, 'I didn't write that.' It was hilarious.

"I went to him one day -- since I was playing him -- and suggested a different line at one point in the play. He started yelling at me, telling me, 'You don't change my script. If you're so smart, why don't you go write a play of your own, You're fired!'"

While Williams may not have been offering literal advice, Garrett took him up on the challenge. He wrote his first play, "Snuff and Miniskirts," which sold out a 300-seat LA theater for a six-week run.

Soon after, Garrett wrote "Beauty Shop." With it came the live audience reaction Garrett had grown to crave.

"It just clicked," the playwright said. "Audiences loved it. It was the first stage play at the Wilshire-Ebel Theatre in Los Angeles, the first to play at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.c., and the first to play The Beacon Theatre in New York City."

In fact, "Beauty Shop" was at the famed Beacon for 13 weeks, and each of the eight weekly shows was a sellout.

"People need and want to laugh," Garrett said.

Garrett wrote other plays -- notably "I'm Doing the Right Thing With the Wrong Man," the first play in which he cast his future wife -- but audiences kept demanding more "Beauty Shop." He acquiesced, updating the original in "Beauty Shop -- Part 2," "Beauty Shop -- 10 Years Later," "Beauty Shop -- Under New Management," and "Beauty Shop -- The Original Stage Play," which was recorded by Urban Works Productions during a 16-night run in Dallas for DVD production.

Now comes "Beauty Shop 2011."

"It updates the story again," Garrett said. "Instead of Chris -- the flamboyantly gay character whose been in all of the plays and who everyone loves -- owning the beauty shop, it's now owned by the lovely Champagne Miller, who happens to be played by Doris.

"It's her first starring role, but I think she's going to nail it. From the first time I put her in one of my plays, I realized that she was born to do this. She just takes over the stage when she's on it."

Garrett, who was forced onto the stage when his lead actor was grounded on Sept. 11, 2001 after the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks, also has a role on the "2011" production.

"Funny thing about acting in the play, I wrote it but I didn't know the lines," Garrett laughs. "When I had to replace Larry Blackmon at that 9-11 show in South Bend, Ind., I had post-its hidden all over the stage. I'd put them where the audience couldn't see them and read them.

"Everyone in the crew was dying laughing at that."

Garrett said his team of actors and his production crew are ready to wow Southwest Georgia theater buffs.

"People here will be totally entertained," he said. "They'll laugh, there will be some tears, and there will be a lot of singing. I guarantee it's going to bring goosebumps to their arms and neck ... and that's by intermission.

"When they meet up with friends in the lobby during intermission and they're asked how they like the show, I don't want them to say 'It's OK.' I want them to feel like they've already gotten their money's worth. I want them to tell each other, 'I can't wait for the second act.'"