When Lee Tannen takes the stage as emcee at Helsinki on Broadway, the popular cabaret series at Helsinki Hudson, there is ample reason for his ear-to-ear grin; in his sixth decade, the veteran urbanite has found his niche upriver.
The locale seems unlikely; the native New Yorker's previous careers were rooted firmly in Manhattan and Los Angeles, where he was a musical theater actor, stand-up comedian, theater ad copywriter, consultant for celebrity projects, author of I Loved Lucy: My Friendship with Lucille Ball, and playwright of a regional stage adaptation of the 2001 memoir. (He's currently recording an audiobook version, due out this summer.)
But Tannen thrives in his new role as Mid-Hudson Valley showman. "Seriously," he explains, "it puts together all the stuff that I love to do: I get to write press releases and copy for posters, I get to produce, and I get to emcee, which brings out the Borscht Belt in me. It puts all my talents into one Sunday evening."
Moreover, he has lured big names to Hudson for one-nighters, including Alan Cumming, Dee Hoty, and Linda Lavin. Faith Prince plays Helsinki Hudson June 9 and Terri White appears August 18.
Sitting on the sundeck of Greene County hamlet of Smith's Landing recently, the witty, snide, and endearingly neurotic Tannen spoke via telephone about his transformation from Manhattan macher to country-based impresario—and why he believes old pal Lucy has guided his every step.
You have such a varied career in show business. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An astronaut. No. I'll be serious now. I'll put on my serious face. Because you're recording all of this, so God knows anything I say is on the record. I know this type of interview! I've always wanted to be a writer. When I was seven years old, I would write poems and parodies of songs and stuff like that. Writing always came naturally to me.
When did your love affair with Broadway begin?
I remember when I was seven or eight years old—this is a great question because I haven't told anyone this story in 50 years—my parents went to a musical called "Say, Darling" on Broadway. It wasn't a very good musical; I think it starred Johnny Desmond. And they brought home a Playbill. And I just devoured the Playbill. Holding it in my hand and reading the articles and the opening night credits, I knew Broadway had to be somewhere in my destiny.
You've worked with Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, and Joan Rivers. What is the most important tip for dealing with stars?
Four words: Do it their way. Have a hissy fit on your own. Rant and rave and hit the wall. And kick the cat. But when you're with them, if they're stars, do it their way. It'll make your life much easier.
I Loved Lucy is a loving memoir but also a very honest one. You offer some hard truths about Lucy. Was there any blowback by any of Lucy's inner circle?
In the book, there's this love letter on the back from Lucie Arnaz. She said something like, a more candid or realistic portrait of her mother she could not have been painted. So, it was warts and all. But anybody who knew Lucy knew that's who she was. And what I'm most proud about the book in general is the fact that everything, everything—and I really want to underscore and italicize everything—is the truth.
For a lifelong New Yorker who swore he would never move out of the city, what brought you and life partner Tom Wells to Smith's Landing in 2011?
Yes, I never went above 96th Street unless I absolutely had to—with Xanax. I was living on the East Side. I was over it in a way; the rent was getting very, very high in our apartment. They were building a Second Avenue subway and the noise was deafening. We moved to [the Mid-Hudson Valley], where the two guys who introduced us live. We're in a carriage house on the property. I'm sitting here talking to you and the silence is deafening. We were going to use it as a weekend thing and find a small place in New York and now it's just the opposite; we go to New York when we have to for work. I was the guy who grew up in the big city and just felt like I'd had enough opening nights and gone to enough restaurants.
You say you've had enough opening nights. But suddenly you're creating new opening nights at Helsinki on Hudson.
What I'm doing there, I wanted to do in New York for 20 years and didn't have the money and the wherewithal or the power to do it. And then I move up and give up on that and say, "Oh, I'll do some writing and maybe find a local theater company to get involved with." And now all of the sudden I'm bringing stars like Alan Cumming and Jessica Molaskey and Linda Lavin and Christina Ebersole and Faith Prince up to Helsinki on Broadway. You see, I really believe—as long as Lucy is involved in this conversation—that she is my guardian angel. And one has to be dead to [be] a guardian angel. I think she is really very involved in all the shitty stuff and all the great stuff that happens to me. I think [Helsinki on Broadway] is her doing.