The man of 200 (or more) voices heads to Garfield Theatre


By David L. Coddon

Expect Rich Little to be paying close attention to the presidential debates this fall. Not because he’s trying to decide whom to vote for in November. The truth is, he wants to get his “Mitt Romney” down.

“It’s not going to be easy, because he looks like the typical all-American guy,” said Little of the GOP candidate. “He looks like ‘Leave it to Beaver’s’ father. I’m hoping that the debates will change things. Maybe he’ll get angry or we’ll hear something different, because he isn’t terribly exciting.”

Little, the most famous impressionist in show-biz history, isn’t excited about Democratic incumbent Barack Obama’s voice either. “I think Ron Paul would have been better for me,” he confided, then immediately impersonated the Texas politician. “He’s a whiner,” Little whined, spot on.

Little, who’s been doing impressions of and jokes about Hollywood and Washington’s biggest luminaries for 50 years, will perform Saturday, June 30, at the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre as part of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture’s “Look & Listen Performing Arts Series.”

He’ll be alone on stage, but it won’t feel like it. The comedian’s repertoire includes more than 200 impressions, voices that he’s been doing on television, in concert and on nightclub stages since he was a young performer in his native Canada. His TV resume alone includes appearances on “Ed Sullivan,” “Laugh-In,” “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and even Judy Garland’s CBS variety show.

He’s performed countless times in Las Vegas (it’s also been his home on and off for 40 years), and it’s there, at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, that he’s honing his one-man play, “Jimmy Stewart & Friends,” for an anticipated Broadway run.

“I was a personal friend of Jimmy’s, I spent a lot of time with him,” Little said by phone from Vegas. “We used to socialize a lot and did a lot of shows together, and I had a pretty good knowledge of his life. I thought that if I was going to do a show that involved a lot of other impressions he would be one of the best to do because he worked with so many people that I do.”

That list includes presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, Cary Grant, John Wayne and Henry Fonda. Little has also worked a few more contemporary voices into the show: Dr. Phil, Andy Rooney, Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson. He does 28 impressions during each performance of the play.

Little acknowledges that most of his impressions are of celebrities from an era foreign to younger audiences. “You don’t see many people doing Don Rickles and Robert Stack and Walter Matthau,” he said. “If you’re going to be an impersonator today, are you going to do your act and do Brad Pitt and George Clooney and Matt Damon? Is that going to work? Even if you did them well? I don’t know.”

But Little says young people enjoy his shows. “I find that the young people who do come and are laughing and enjoying the show always say to me ‘I have no idea who you are impersonating, but I like the jokes.”

Among his favorite voices, besides Stewart, are Ronald Reagan, and the man who was known as the “King of Late Night.” “It’s amazing how many people still remember ‘Carnac the Magnificent.’ I even say to the audience, do you miss Johnny Carson, and they all yell out yes.”

Voice impressionists are a rare breed these days, but Little, 73, has some advice for aspiring impersonators: Choose people you admire and watch them all the time. “You get to know their mannerisms, their quirks. It helps if you’re a fan. You tend to gravitate to people you like. When I was a kid, I did John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny and George Burns.”

Then, when asked if he ever thinks about retiring from show business, Rich Little morphed into George Burns: “You’ve got to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, or you’ve got to have a reason to get into bed. At my age, they’re one and the same.”

Good night, Gracie.