We interview Frank Conway of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
BC/EFA was founded to be the theatrical communities response to the worldwide health crisis of HIV/AIDS. Since its founding in 1987 it has raised over $130 million through events like “Nothing Like a Dame,” “Broadway Bares,” and “The Broadway Flea Market.”
Frank shares stories about how BC/EFA was founded and also some important information about volunteering.
You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 104. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.
Broadway Bullet Interview: Frank Conway, BC/EFA
BROADWAY BULLET: Frank Conway has been working with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS for eight years as a full time employee; but also two years, he worked for the dark side as a Walt Disney employee.
Frank Conway: I want to go on the record first off as saying that I really enjoyed my time at the Walt Disney theatrical productions, and it's given me great, great contacts because you can't swing a dead cat anywhere in Times Square without hitting somebody who's been in a Disney show.
BB: I was kidding there.
FRANK: Oh, I know. I have so many friends in the shows; and it's great though, because doing what I do at Broadway Cares, I can just knock on a stage door – or call people up on my cell phone – and be like "Hi, Felicia Finley, can you do this?" or Andrea McArdle, or Christopher Seiber. I'd say a good quarter of my friends in New York are from working on Disney shows, but they've also made that transition to working for Broadway Cares while working in the shows. And we still call them all the time for the stuff we do, which is great.
BB: Well now many of our listeners in New York are probably very familiar with all your offerings, but some of our listeners outside of the area might not be as; you're constantly putting on many benefits and auction, and galas, and fundraisers. Actually you've raised millions.
FRANK: Since 1988 we've raised over $130,000,000. And that money is then granted back out across the country. One of the things I like to let people know about Broadway Cares is that it's not just Broadway. The money is raised on Broadway, Off-Broadway, the National touring companies, cabarets, it's raised from all across the country and comes into New York to the Broadway Cares/Equity fights AIDS offices, and then we grant it back out to over five hundred AIDS service organizations across the country.
It goes to the Actors Fund of America – where we support the AIDS initiative, the women's health initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, which I'll talk about soon, because we have an event coming up, we have the Aurora House and Palm View House which are two supportive housing units. And we have the Al Hirschfield in New York City for people who are uninsured or underinsured. And then we do two grant rounds, one is once every six months and then those applications that come in for those grants the money is granted out to AIDS service organizations across the country. So when I do an event, and I do a lot, around the country, I like to tell people when we're in Wisconsin or Illinois or whatever, how much money is going back to that community, so that they know that it comes in and it goes right back out to the people.
BB: And it's an amazing organization, all the causes you support and attention. You know there's a month, during the month of December every year, you go to see a Broadway show you can't miss all of the actors –
FRANK: Right, exactly. The six weeks before Thanksgiving and six weeks before Easter each year is when we do our Gypsy of the Year and now it's going to be Easter Bonnet collections coming up again March 8th. The Easter Bonnet competition and it's fantastic. It works so well for us when we have the support of the star of the show, which the people who come out for us are fantastic, but when you have people like Lauren Bacall when she was doing Waiting in the Wings and making her speech, everyone wants to give money because they love Lauren Bacall. Last year when we had Wicked and we had Ana Gasteyer, usually people say "it'd be great if everyone here could give a dollar", Ana said "if every person here gave twenty dollars, we'd be doing…" it's amazing the difference. The power of suggestion from the green girl, and suddenly there's twenty bucks going into the buckets. We love that kind of stuff, we love the support we get from the community.
BB: But I imagine it's going to be kind of new to everybody is learning about a little bit more about what goes on behind the scenes in making Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS run, in gathering all the talent and putting these shows together. So do you have any particularly interesting stories of assembling these…
FRANK: Oh yeah. Well, the most interesting thing is people will know us for one thing – maybe two – they'll know 'oh you're Broadway Bares', and will call our organization Broadway Bares because that's one of the better known. This June, June 17th, we have Broadway Bares 17. It was originally conceived and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell who is going to be huge coming up with Legally Blonde, I have a bunch of friends in there and I'm always plugging my friends. You can tell I used to do publicity and marketing. But Jerry Mitchell started that, and so many people think of us as Broadway Bears that when they come to the event and find out other things we do, like the Fire Island Dance Festival, or last Sunday night's ABC Daytime Salutes Broadway Cares, it's amazing because they know us for one, and what they don't realize is that we do a major event every single month and a minor event every single week.
So just in the month of February we did the Broadway Teddy Bears Auction, where we auctioned off forty one-of-a-kind handmade costumes that are placed on North American Teddy Bear bears, and they went from anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000 this year. The highest we've ever gotten for one bear was $30,000 which was a bear after 9/11 in a fireman's costume. So we're doing events all the time, and sometimes you're running so fast from doing one that you finish and sit down, we finished the Daytime ABC event and now we're jumping into Dames. But to get back to your story about the backstage things; so the ABC Daytime thing this week was great because for us it was the third time, but for others it was a fish out of water kind of thing because the actors are used to going into the studio, learn their lines and do their thing. This was a great way for them to flex and do different things. We had six gorgeous girls, three from One Life to Live, and three from All My Children doing "The Cell Block Tango" they changed the lyrics to match their characters and it was fantastic.
But my favorite thing of all had to be Tony Geary who is Luke Spencer from General Hospital, he and Steven DeRosa did "Timeless to Me" from Hairspray. And we did the full thing. We went over on Saturday for a full costume and make up fitting, and put them in the full Edna drag, in the little shmata – the house dress, the curlers and things. And so we're there on Sunday and by the time we were supposed to get them back, the event was at 7:30, and he was scheduled to come in the stage door at seven, we're standing downstairs at the Neil Simon theater, and I'm working with these great people who have put everything together. And I look up, and he looks fabulous, but I thought, "how are we going to get him in the stage door?" this guy is like 6'3" and now he's in drag. So I said, "We need a scarf" and Megan says "We don't have scarves we don't do wardrobe here" and thank god for Steven DeRosa, he said "Wait a minute, what about one of the Ultra Clutch scarves?" because if you've seen the show, the girls do their Ultra Clutch "Hairspray" number, and they've all got like three foot beehive numbers on.
So we get this giant scarf, we wrap it around his head, I'm not kidding you like the French lieutenants woman, and we pushed him in the SUV. By this time it's snowing, we get to town hall and it is a mess. There are so many people there, they see a black SUV with black tinted windows and start crowding around. I jump out, and I'm playing Mr. CIA and move around and we've got three security people moving people back, and they're going "Who is it? Who is it? Is it Susan Lucci?" and I go "Oh God no". So we open the door, and he comes out in the Edna drag with his coat over it with the giant scarf covering his head, and I'm holding the suitcase over his face so you can't see him. And people are going "Who is it? Show us her face, show us her face!" and security opens the door and we go running in. I put the suitcase down and laugh my head off. It was just one of the funniest things I have ever done, trying to bring Luke Spencer in, in drag, without having anyone see him. And when he showed up on stage about an hour later, it took the audience about ten minutes to realize, "Oh my god, that's Tony Geary!" It was great, it was really, really fun.
BB: You do a lot of crazy things at these events.
FRANK: And I've subjected my friends to some of the worst things. Christopher Sieber, who is one of our favorites at Broadway Cares, was hosting the Fire Island Dance Festival for us about three – almost four – years ago. And we were doing a live auction to spend the day on his upcoming new show, It's all Relative. So he was doing it and I was doing it, and I kept grabbing the microphone away from him because I was doing the auction, and I said "If it gets to this level, he'll take off his shirt. If it gets to this level, he'll take off…." Well, I eventually had Christopher up there in his underpants on the stage at the Fire Island Dance Festival. But we raised a hell of a lot of money for us, and we appreciate everything he does for us.
BB: What are some of the other crazy things that have raised a lot of money on the stage?
FRANK: We have done, it's really interesting, one of my favorites was when we had The Dinner Party here, and we had John Ritter and Henry Winkler. Every night, after the show was over, the audience would stay in their seats because John and Henry would put on another whole show for us. John and Henry would auction off the handkerchief Henry used in the show, and they had a whole shtick going. And it was about ten minutes, and nobody would leave because it was just those two onstage doing this for Broadway Cares, bantering back and forth, the whole cast would chime in, and we raised thousands of dollars. As a matter of fact, that year The Dinner Party beat all of the regular musicals. Usually a play, because it's a lot smaller audience and a lot smaller show, would make less, but the dinner party beat everything. As a matter of fact, we brought them onstage to recreate their little schpeal to celebrate and sell that handkerchief each night. And if that wasn't enough, and each night after that, they would go and stand in the lobby and pose for pictures for $20 a shot for Broadway Cares. It was just a, it's amazing the level of commitment we get from people for these kinds of things.
BB: Well I imagine it's also a good outlet for, you know Broadway seems to be so appealing for so many people, but the reality is for some of these actors is that for years they are doing the same role.
FRANK: Exactly! This is great, because when we do our events, a lot of times it gives them a chance to step out. Sometimes with Broadway Bares or the Easter Bonnet or Gypsy competition; performers love to be involved with those for instance with The Lion King cast, Garth Fagan did a great job choreographing the show but they don't need a choreographer any more, but the people in the show who are interested in choreographing will choreograph a piece for us for the Easter Bonnet or Gypsy of the Year and get to have their creative juices flowing and get in an audience of about 6,000 people. So it's fantastic, it's great for them and it's great for us.
BB: With all this going on, what was the impetus, this was before you started with Broadway Cares, but how did Broadway Cares come into existence?
FRANK: There were actually two organizations, one was Broadway Cares which was the producers' aspect of it, which was their original answer to the AIDS and HIV crisis; and there was Equity Fights AIDS. Then they merged and decided to come together for the economy of scale to become Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
BB: The monopoly, a master charity!
FRANK: But ours was very friendly, so they looked to each other and decided they could do this better together. And since then, we've been taking other organizations under our umbrella like Dancers Responding to AIDS which was started by Hernando Cortez and Denise Roberts Hurlin; and Classical Action. So it's not just Broadway Cares, it's Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, DRA, and Classical Action. It's really great because it feeds the thirst of anything you want in the entertainment world. We've got Broadway, we've got dance, we've got classical music and opera, and it's great it gives you a great vocabulary for the whole performing arts field. If you just want to come to every Broadway Cares event, you'd get it all.
BB: So you've got a couple great events coming up, you kind of hinted briefly at you've got There's Nothing Like a Dame coming up.
FRANK: Nothing Like a Dame, again, is coming up. It benefits the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, and it's just an amazing event. It means a lot to me because I lost my mom to cancer, so it's one of those events I work so closely on because it's an amazing night. These women come together and donate their time and talent. And it's everything from spoken word, to dance, to music, to comedy, and it's just completely theatrical all the way through. Can I give some of the highlights?
BB: Oh definitely!
FRANK: We've got Stephanie Block from Pirate Queen, Mary Poppins' Ashley Brown, we've got Liz Callaway, Vicki Clark – I don't know if I should be telling this, but I will – she's going to be reprising her fabulous number she did in Follies "Losing My Mind". We've got Kate Clinton, we've got Jill Eichenberry, and we've got the gorgeous Melissa Errico. We've got Sutton Foster Jenn Gabatese, Wicked's Ana Gasteyer, Melina Govich, and there's so much more I could go on to the end of the alphabet, so it doesn't sound like I'm losing people. Oh we've got Miss Jennifer Holiday, who got a shout out at the Oscars the other night.
We've got Maureen McGovern, Julia Murney, Lea Solonga, Julie White, and of course Phyllis Newman and Bebe Neuwirth. And all of the money raised goes directly to the Women's Health Initiative. I love the comradery behind stage, there are no egos – nothing. My first event I worked at as Nothing Like a Dame in 1999 I was actually dressing Donna Murphy and Faith Prince, I was still a volunteer at Broadway Cares; and they said "can you sew?" and I said "yes", so they sent me downstairs, and suddenly I was dressing and hemming the pants with the ladies, I was fixing their coats and things.
And you know, it's just whatever you need to do. It's a bit like summer stock, putting these things together. I worked in the corporate world with Disney where everything's really specific. You do this, you do this, you do this, and that's great and very structured. At Broadway Cares, when an event happens if you need something, like this weekend for the ABC, I was running around doing everything from getting cabs for people to getting Tony Geary in drag, to knowing everything is running smoothly, it's just what we do. Which is kind of a great thing, everybody just works together.
BB: So when is Nothing Like a Dame happening?
FRANK: Nothing Like a Dame is going to be Monday March 19 and it's at the Marriott Marquis Theater. Tickets are available at www.BroadwayCares.org.
BB: Another thing that impressed me that we were talking about just before the interview, that I think our listeners might be interested in is how much are you spending?
FRANK: It's really tough to keep your costs reined in. And part of the fact is that we've been around for so long that people know us. For instance, when we do Broadway Bares, it would cost more than we ever took in if we actually had to pay for so much of the stuff. I mean people donate their time, they donate the sets and the costumes, and the work behind them, and the people. To see Broadway Bares put together backstage, is unbelievable because there are a hundred to a hundred and fifty dancers, there are twenty to thirty Mac makeup artists, there's hair flying all around that look like Cher's wardrobe room, there's so many wigs you can't believe it. There are costumers who have spent weeks putting these things together, but aren't finished until that person goes onstage, and I am not kidding you, they are gluing extra sequins on, they are putting more Swarovskys crystals on, fixing a zipper, to the moment they are rushing up the stairs because every body there is a perfectionist. And it all works, it's amazing.
Being backstage at a Broadway Cares event is like something you've never seen before. And, for anybody out there interested, we do have a special VIP package Broadway Bears is on sale right now, but there's a special VIP package for $10,000 per couple. You'll have dinner with Jerry Mitchell, you'll get to go backstage, you'll get to see both shows, you'll get VIP tickets, and go to the cast party afterwards, something pretty special.
BB: And on the flip end for people who can't afford $10,000, how easy is it to get involved with your organization as a volunteer?
FRANK: You know, it's great, because that's how I started at Broadway Cares as a volunteer. It was 1998, I had just moved to the city a few months ago, and I wanted to see Broadway Bears and I thought "I can't afford that ticket" my friend Jason said "why don't you come and work?" and I said, "what do you mean?" he said "work the event" and I said "what would I do?". And I came, and I still remember Kim Russell who was stage managing at the time and she gave me my first assignment, I remembered I was so thrilled and so excited to be working on a Broadway Cares event, it was something I had wanted to do for years. And it was such a great experience that Monday I went back in the office and said "what can I do next?" and I worked on a Sweet Charity concert with Bebe Neuwirth and Gwen Verdon and just about everybody else around, and it was fantastic. And then we did another event, and it just started rolling and I worked on almost every other Broadway Cares event I could get my hands on until they finally brought me on full time. So what you do is you either call our office, or speak to Scott Stevens. We also have volunteer information on the web that you can find out about how to volunteer.
BB: Well I definitely thank you very much Frank for stopping by to talk to us and our listeners about your organization, and some entertaining stuff.
BB: Do you think there's a chance, I know you've got less than a week, but do you think you can get one of the Nothing Like a Dame ladies in here sometime this week?
Frank: I will talk to our producer, Ariadne, I think it will be a great fit.
BB: Thanks for coming down, we'll talk more.
FRANK: Thank you!
You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 104. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.