Nobody ever put Alan Scharf in a corner.
“I remember being a kid taking a trip to Bear Mountain with my temple,” recalled the 78-year-old Scharf, who’ll be in Philadelphia next week when Dirty Dancing comes to the Merriam Theater from May 16 to 21. “We were on a boat traveling along the Hudson River, and there were a bunch of black kids singing in one spot.
“I left my group and went over to join them, and I remember getting looks from my people. They were asking, ‘Why are you going over there to be with strangers?’
“And I thought, ‘Why is that strange?’ To me it was just a normal part of life.”
Ironically, Scharf’s life has hardly been normal considering the twists and turns it’s taken. After all, you won’t often find the member of a national touring company who happens to be a cantor. He did that for nine years for a synagogue in La Jolla, Calif., even while acting on the side.
As for his singing and acting career, you won’t find many still around who’ve been on the set of The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was the host, as well as The Merv Griffin Show and The Steve Lawrence Show. That was when he was one of The Highwaymen, although not a member of the original group that recorded “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”
And you won’t find many whose career started out playing alongside actors like Tom Ewell (best known for The Seven Year Itch) and Audra Lindley (Mrs. Roper in Three’s Company) in Take Her, She’s Mine.
Besides that, he’s done a bunch of commercials, including for Kellogg’s Raisin Bran and McDonald’s introduction of its Quarter Pounder sandwich.
So at this stage of his life, playing Mr. Schumacher in Dirty Dancing, the man who turns out to have sticky fingers at Kellerman’s, the fictional summer resort in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills — isn’t so bad.
“Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the film, also wrote the play,” said Scharf, who’s been on tour since September. “She added some scenes to it, which made it better for me.
“In the movie, Mr. Schumacher doesn’t have any lines and is married. On stage, I have lines, I’m not married and I’m kind of a ladies’ man. And Eleanor gave me a song in the second act, which usually gets an amazing response.”
This won’t be Scharf’s first time in Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia is very special to me,” he said. “My mother [Rose] was born and raised here. I used to go here a lot, because my cousins were there. One of the shows we’re doing, I’ll have some of my family — nieces and nephews — there.”
Rose eventually moved to New York, where she met Martin Scharf. Their second child, Alan, was born in Brooklyn, where he was raised in an Orthodox temple and got his early training to be a cantor. He attended Brooklyn College, ventured into some off-Broadway productions, then joined The Highwaymen in the late 1960s.
“The original group wanted to finish college so they went their separate ways,” Scharf said. “But Dave Fisher, the musical director, wanted to keep the group alive, so he re-formed it.
“We sang all over the country and appeared on TV. We did chats with Merv and on some of the other shows, but Johnny only talked to comedians, rarely to singers. We stayed together for about five years.”
Since then there’s been a bit of everything for Scharf, ranging from his cantorial work — which he continued on occasion through 2016 — to his acting to commercials. He reunited with former Highwaymen sidekick Roy Connors in Florida where, as 2 GUYS, they recreated some of their old hits. And that doesn’t factor in the time spent raising families through two marriages, which includes four children and six grandchildren.
But for the past several months, the man who’s performed in such Broadway classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Sugar Babies, films like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Scavenger Hunt, and who played alongside such legendary names as Dustin Hoffman and Martin Sheen, has been Mr. Schumacher.
While his character is a minor one, he said those playing the roles made famous by the late Patrick Swayze (Johnny Castle), Jennifer Grey (Frances “Baby” Houseman) and the late Jerry Orbach (Jake Houseman) are “better than the originals.”
And he thinks the show, which downplays the Jewish theme of being in the Borscht Belt in favor of references to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and integration, still sends a message.
“It’s 1963, and Kellerman’s is the first hotel to have Negroes and whites swimming in the same pool,” Scharf said. “That’s why they added the MLK theme.
“And I don’t know if I’d consider the story a Jewish message other than freedom and being the person you think should be. That’s really a major message in the show.”
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