While doing research for his play "The Red Skelton Story," playwright Sal St. George was touched when he learned how the late comedian had dealt with the death of his son, Richard, from leukemia at age 9.
"He felt that his son's illness was a message to him, that his purpose in life was to make people laugh. Everything he did in life was for his son," says St. George.
St. George, who is 64, believes he also has a specific purpose -- to bring history to life, whether it's dramatizing the stories of celebrities such as Skelton, Lucille Ball, Audrey Hepburn and Bob Hope, or re-creating chapters in American history.
The Medford resident began his company, St. George Living History Productions, from his home in 1983. One of his most successful presentations has been "Running Scared, Running Free," his play about the plight of slaves seeking freedom via the Underground Railroad. It has become an annual offering for Black History Month at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization in Stony Brook.
St. George's partner in life, Mary, his wife of 33 years, is also his partner in business. "I do the creative end, and she does the business end," he says, although he's always open to Mary's opinion.
"When I read Sal's scripts, especially his plays about comedians . . . I usually like to push him to add more jokes and bits of business to make the play funnier," Mary St. George says.
Act one for St. George
In the early 1970s, after a stint in the Army, St. George went to college, where one of his assignments was a term paper on famous comedians. He chose Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and did extensive research that led him to talk show host Joe Franklin.
One of Franklin's contacts was Richard Lamparski, who wrote the "Whatever Became Of" series of celebrity books in the 1970s. "He had written about Bud Abbott, so Joe [thought he] gave me Richard's phone number," St. George says. "He didn't realize he actually gave me Bud Abbott's phone number."
St. George called and says the comedian was flattered and told him to come to California for an in-person interview. He spent three weeks there, interviewing Abbott and others who knew him, including comic Steve Allen and co-stars including Joe Besser and the Andrews Sisters. "I got a nice grade on the paper, but I probably had enough material for a book," he says.
After earning his bachelor of science degree in theater arts in 1973, St. George initially got jobs that had little to do with writing. He started as a magician and a standup comic, where he got to meet many top comedians, including Don Rickles, Jackie Mason and Henny Youngman. His comedy background and love of old-time show biz came in handy when he got his next gig, writing and directing shows at theme parks, including Walt Disney World.
"When it comes right down to it, theme parks are the last vaudeville stages," says St. George. "Their comedy is based on old vaudeville routines, so I fit right into that world." He also wrote shows for Busch Gardens, Six Flags and Sea World, and still works as a consultant for Disney World shows.
St. George's magic skills were a back door to his re-creations of history in 1992. "We needed a magician for one of the programs we were doing, and I just looked him up in the Yellow Pages," says J. Lance Mallamo, former head of historic services in Suffolk County. "That was one of the best Yellow Pages finds I ever made," says Mallamo, who is now director of Historic Alexandria in Virginia.
But it was St. George's skill as a playwright that sealed their working relationship. Mallamo had wanted to create an interactive historical program during the Designer Showcase at Deepwells Farms County Park. The park's historic mansion in St. James had been home to former New York City Mayor William J. Gaynor.
Mallamo and St. George collaborated to create a three-character playlet featuring Mrs. Gaynor, one of her servants and a famous person who might have visited St. James. "I started doing research and found in the legend of the St. James general store the names of people that had visited, like John Barrymore, W.C. Fields and Harry Houdini, so I figured we could legitimately bring them on as a guest," St. George says. "It was a way of teaching people history and creating some entertainment to go with it."
St. George adapted that format, which he's been using for the past 15 years for his "Biographies on Stage" programs presented by the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (wmho.org) in Stony Brook. The shows, which focus on the lives of entertainers, are built around the setting of a fictitious talk show, hosted by singer Gisele MacKenzie. She and her announcer sidekick, Rosie, welcome a special guest for the 90-minute program that's peppered with musical numbers. A high tea follows.
One of St. George's greatest pleasures in doing the entertainers' biographies is in introducing performers of yesteryear like Eddie Cantor or Jack Benny to new generations. It's a mission he first began with his own children, Dana, 23, and Darren, 28, when they were kids. "When they went to sleep, I would slip a cassette in their Fisher Price player, and they went to bed listening to Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, Edgar Bergen," he says.
His shows also have been important to descendants of the people he's written about. When the story of Madam C. J. Walker, a self-made millionaire who created a line of hair-care products for African- Americans, was presented, her great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles was in the audience. "She said this was the first time someone got the story of her great grandmother's life right," says Mallamo.
St. George says he usually does about three months of research before putting pen to paper. "I try to read as many different books about the person as I can," he says. "With someone like Desi Arnaz, he wrote a book, but he's putting his own spin on it. So you want to read books by other people to figure out the actual story."
More stories to tell
When he's not dramatizing, St. George also does lectures about the history of comedy as well as other entertainers. In August, he's scheduled to do a four-session series called "The Girl Next Door: Doris Day" at LIU Post's Hutton House (nwsdy.li/1jxbQrI). "I love doing lectures. I could talk about these people for hours on end," he says. "Ask me to talk about myself, and I don't know what to say."
On Aug. 21, Ward Melville Heritage Organization will present "The Spy Next Door!" a family-friendly interactive historical play by St. George about George Washington's spy ring, at three venues: Brewster House in Stony Brook, Thompson House in Setauket and the Stony Brook Grist Mill.
For next year, St. George has been commissioned to write a play about the history of Smithtown for the community's 350th anniversary.
St. George says his clients choose the subject of his programs, but he's always happy about whatever he's offered, whether it's about a person or place. "I enjoy making that story come to life," he says. "And it's important that these people of the past be introduced to new generations. I'm always excited about whatever I do. Every day is Christmas to me."
WORKS BY SAL ST. GEORGE
The Red Skelton Story
When and where: 11:30 a.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 12:30 p.m. Sundays through June 19 (also 11:30 a.m. Friday, June 13); Ward Melville Heritage Organization, 111 Main St., Stony Brook
Info: $48; seniors, $45; reservations required, admission includes high tea luncheon; 631-689-5888, wmho.org
"The Girl Next Door: Doris Day" lecture series
When and where: Aug. 4, 11, 18 and 25, LIU Post's Hutton House, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville
Info: $100 all four lectures; registration required, 516-299-2580, liu.edu/cwpost
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, J. Lance Mallamo's name and job description were incorrect.