By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
Well before he wrote lines for television characters Laverne and Shirley, penned jokes for Chevy Chase, and screen-wrote the movie The ’Burbs—starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Carrie Fisher—a young Dana Olsen entertained an audience of two at home.
Older sisters Virginia and Jane.
“They told me I was funny,” says Olsen, a Northwestern University graduate who attended Maine South High School in Park Ridge. “I was the youngest in my family. The youngest kid always likes to act out to get attention.”
Li’l Dana is now 65-year-old Mr. Olsen, but the delightful kid in him hasn’t aged a bit. The actor/film producer/screenwriter has been rehearsing at least three times a week this month for Practical Theatre’s highly anticipated “Ho-Ho-Holiday Revue,” and he can’t wait to act out professionally on Studio5’s stage in Evanston before audiences of 130.
The classic variety show—think back, Baby Boomers, to SNL and the sketch comedy- and music-laden TV fare of the 1960s and early 1970s—stars Olsen, Practical Theatre Co-founder Paul Barrosse, and Barrosse’s wife, producer/actor Victoria Zielinski. They’ll be backed by The Studio5 All-Stars, a jazz quintet led by keyboard virtuoso and Studo5 Co-founder Steve Rashid. Also appearing are blues and soul vocalist Ms. Maura and stand-up comedian Emilia Barrosse, whose writing credits included HBO’s Veep and truTV’s Tacoma FD.
Show dates are December 28 to 31 and January 4 to 6.
Expect about 18 comedy sketches— heavy on sophisticated adult fun—and six musical numbers, Olsen estimates.
“Topics will be topical,” says Olsen, who called Wilmette home before his move to Evanston. “You could call me semi-retired, but I’m working hard on the script; I’m a perfectionist. We’ll try to include the audience members at each show to help them get into the holiday spirit.”
Olsen’s start in the field of variety shows goes way back. In each of his junior and senior years in high school, he served as head writer of the variety show at Maine South, home of the Hawks. For the school’s newspaper, he created a six-panel comic strip, “Mighty Hawk.”
“I wanted to tell stories,” Olsen says of choosing not to limit the exploits of his superhero to one or two panels.
The son of the late World War II veteran Bob—“He had a dry sense of humor like I do,” Olsen says—entered a statewide forensic competition (Original Comedy category) as an upperclassman. He traveled to Peoria and did all he could to make judges cry and suffer debilitating rib injuries— from laughing too hard.
Tissue boxes remained sealed. Judges did not have to dial 9-1-1.
Olsen finished in fifth place.
“I guess that made me the fifth-funniest teenager in Illinois,” he says.
Olsen, while still in high school, debuted as a stand-up comic at the Pickle Barrel in Chicago. But he couldn’t buy much with what he made that night ($0).
Olsen majored in Radio/ Television/ Film at Northwestern and performed in the school’s tradition-rich Waa-Mu Show, which began as a musical revue and became a full-length musical. He also contributed as one of the show’s writers.
“I appreciated that opportunity,” Olsen recalls. “(then-Waa-Mu Director) Tom Roland trusted me.”
The Practical Theatre was founded at Northwestern in 1979 by Paul Barrosse, Brad Hall, Robert Mendel, and Angela Murphy as a nonprofit theatre company dedicated to the production of improvisational comedy and plays. It launched the career of 11- time Primetime Emmy Award-winner Julia Louis- Dreyfus.
Olsen moved to Los Angeles in 1979 and wrote for the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” for two seasons (1980- 1981, 1981-1982). The show aired from 1976- 1983. Garry Marshall created it, and his sister, Penny Marshall, portrayed Laverne.
“Garry was the world’s funniest man,” says Olsen, who lived in L.A. for 17 years. “He was hilarious and really good at what he did.
“It was challenging, and sometimes tough, keeping the writing fresh for the same characters,” he adds.
The movie The ’Burbs was released in 1989 and made close to $50 million at the box office. Joe Dante directed it. Olsen wrote it and became a Tom Hanks fan faster than it takes a director to bark “Cut!”
“Tom can do anything,” says Olsen, whose other writing credits include George of the Jungle, Inspector Gadget, and who co-created the Nickelodeon comedy television series Henry Danger with Dan Schneider. “Tom Hanks is as classy of an actor as there is. Very instinctive and wildly talented.
“I watched the Band of Brothers series (created by Hanks and Steven Spielberg) during Veterans Day weekend.”
Olsen has three children—33-year-old Lindsay DePaul and 30-year-old twins Andy and Kristen—from his first marriage and two grandchildren. The twins live in Chicago, and Lindsay is the girls’ varsity cross country coach at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.
“Fatherhood … it’s everything,” Olsen says. “It’s an amazing ride, and I get to enjoy more of it, in a way, with my grandchildren.”
Olsen has been married to his second wife, Linda, for four years. They first met at a tailgate party before the start of the 2010 Michigan State-Northwestern football game in Evanston. She has earned two master’s degrees, one from St. Louis University and another from Washington University in St. Louis and is on pace to set an unfathomable record that should end up on the “Unbreakable Marks” page in that Guinness book.
“I’ve never heard Linda complain about anything in all the years I’ve known her,” Olsen, forever grateful and still stunned, says. “Not a thing. She’s the most positive-minded person I know. She’s a go-getter.
“Linda,” he adds, “is stuck in one gear— forward.”
Studio5 is located at 1934 Dempster Street in Evanston. For more information about The Practical Theatre’s “Ho-Ho-Holiday Revue,” and for ticket information, visit studio5.dance or call 847-328-6683.