Gene Duffy brings his dreams of Hollywood to the stage.
Gene Duffy went to Hollywood to become an actor. Doing the seemingly impossible was nothing new to him, since he was a football walk-on at Penn State who started at tight end for three years for the late Joe Paterno.
But the acting gig never took off. Not like Duffy didn’t give it a chance. He tried to make it for 10 years.
During that decade, he worked at a Jewish deli in Los Angeles. What he saw there inspired him to write a book that will become a musical this weekend.
“As the Matzo Ball Turns” is the name the book and the musical share.
Duffy returns to his alma mater, Jim Thorpe Area High School, to debut the musical tonight at 7. Additional performances are slated for Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
The musical takes place at the fictitious Johnny’s Famous Deli, a variation on the name of the place he once worked.
“It started as a joke,” Duffy said of the book and musical. “I worked at a Jewish deli in Los Angeles for 10 years — 1999 to 2009. It was a pretty interesting 10 years. Monthly, something big would happen. I absorbed it all.”
Duffy waited on a lot of celebrities, including Jerry Seinfeld.
“I waited on Jay Leno for take-out food,” he said. “Sharon Stone, Adam Sandler, Steve Carell, Nicolas Cage, and Gene Simmons from (the rock band) KISS all came in. Tom Arnold came in on a night when I was busy, but he was very polite and generous.”
The stories Duffy tells are funny and interesting.
“There was a drag queen bar next door, and on the weekends, their patrons came in,” he said. “There was a hitman who was talking about his last assignment. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by police. One time, we had a runaway kid. We sat him on the counter, and the first thing you know, the police and television news cameras were there.”
Although he didn’t make it as an actor, Duffy ended up working in other areas of the entertainment business.
“I became a writer and producer by default,” he said. “We did a little film, and got a little award at a festival. The film made it to DVD. From the time my feet hit Pennsylvania in 2009, until 2012, it was the book. The musical took another five years to now. So I’ve put two decades of my life into this musical.”
The award was from the Park City Film Music Festival in Park City, Utah. Duffy was also recognized with a Maroon and Gold Quill Award in 2014 from the Friends of the Bloomsburg University Library Association and was a finalist for humor book of the year by Forward Reviews.
For help with the score, Duffy turned to longtime music man Dan DeMelfi, who has run the DeMelfi School of Music in Hazleton for 40 years and serves as well as music instructor at MMI Preparatory School in Freeland.
“I was looking online,” Duffy said. “I had these melodies in my head. I wanted to find a place to record. I found this guy, Taylor Sappe, who was working out of Danny’s studio. I met Danny, and asked around about him. He had a good reputation, and after talking to him, we agreed to work on a couple of songs together. We have a good working relationship.”
DeMelfi, who is co-composer of the music, said it took him 11 months — from January to November of 2015 — working with Duffy to compose the music for the play.
“Gene went into our studio, and recorded bass (guitar), and sang,” DeMelfi said. “He recorded snippets of songs — what we call scratch vocals. Taylor also recorded bass guitar, and I did keyboard and organ. I structured songs from what they gave me.”
DeMelfi composed the songs with the help of a computer, he said.
“It was a three-step process,” DeMelfi said. “I had to make sure the music was in time, and that the melodies flowed. Second, I got together with him (Gene) to make sure what he wrote is what I gave him. He then emailed the songs to California, where a friend of his added more. The third step was actually recording the songs, by putting all the parts recorded together. Instead of having a ‘pit’ orchestra, he has these recordings.”
DeMelfi is looking forward to seeing the finished product.
“I think this production will be successful, because Gene has been so dedicated,” DeMelfi said. “He has been so focused, and has shown such passion for this show.
“His writing reminds me of Dave Barry,” the humor columnist.
Duffy recruited actors from all over the region, but found most of the cast members in one place.
“We have a great cast of 19 people ... mostly from the Allentown area,” he said. “The musical has a lot of special effects and props. We have a 12-foot stage car that can be broken down to get on stage, and an 8-foot firebreathing owl.”
After Duffy graduated from Jim Thorpe High School in 1986, he attended Penn State University, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He is now a part-time corrections officer at Carbon County Correctional Facility in Nesquehoning and a waiter at Shenanigans bar in Lake Harmony.
Duffy wrote the book under his pen name Jozef Rothstein, but will direct the musical as hinself.
Assisting with the production are Sara Viteri, assistant director; Jane Longazel, production coordinator; Sebastian Paff, music director; Harry Adams, vocal harmonies; Shari Kennedy, choreography; Linda Bassett, hair and makeup; and Lavender Lady FX Group, special effects.
Tickets are $21.62 in advance and $26.50 at the door, cash only.
Tickets and the book are available at asthematzo ballturnsthemusicaltickets.eventbrite.com.
For more information call Sara 484-687-3341 or email Sara@laprincesaproductions.com.
Promotional poster for "As The Matzo Ball Turns," a musical by area native Gene Duffy, which opens tonight in Jim Thorpe.