The Fezziwig Party” scene from the clown vaudeville ‘Dr. Hamm’s Christmas Carol’ – with Ted Davey and Chamblee Ferguson attempting to perform all the characters while Edmund Coulter narrates. Hand-held video shot by Jerome Weeks in 1991.
The Balcony Club owner passed away Friday, December 22nd, his widow Lorena announced on her Facebook page. He’d been in hospice care for two weeks — after having struggled against abdominal cancer for more than a decade.
Poignantly, Ted Davey’s last publicly-viewed performance was singing on a pre-taped WFAA ‘Good Morning Texas’ Christmas segment that was recorded in October but broadcast the morning of his death. Davey delivers a moving rendition of Nat King Cole’s ‘A Cradle in Bethlehem’ – made all the more touching by his apparent thinness and frailty from the cancer.
Even so, a few weeks after that October taping, Davey was out performing a “North Texas tour,” singing Frank Sinatra standards in front of a big-band, 40-piece orchestra in McKinney, Frisco and the Eisemann Center in Richardson.
Three weeks ago, in his room at the Baylor Cancer Center before he went into hospice care, Davey said the tour nights were some of the greatest he’d ever had.
Which is saying something, considering Davey’s remarkable, if not to say highly unusual career on stage — from acting in an avant-garde basement theater in Deep Ellum to singing in Las Vegas clubs and lounges to returning to Dallas and running perhaps the city’s most venerable late-night jazz and blues club.
In the mid-’80s, Davey became a member of the Undermain Theater. He regularly appeared in the company’s signature dark comedies and absurdist dramas: David Rabe’s ‘Goose and Tomtom,’ Howard Barker’s ‘The Possiblities,’ Len Jenkins’ ‘Poor Folk’s Pleasure.’ He stood out, playing buffoonish lowlifes, foolish peasants and menacing, mumbling figures.
He was, says Katherine Owens, co-founder of the Undermain, “a classic character actor, the most important kind of actor a theater can have,” able to fit into all sorts of roles. “And then we heard him sing. My God, that voice. It sounded like he was born with it, like he’d always been that good. He could sing anything and make it sound gorgeous.” Owens laughs. “So we started working in musical numbers for him any time we could.”
In particular, though, Davey was a seemingly effortless, fearless comic actor, utterly committed to the most ridiculous, most stagey ploys. In one of my reviews of Davey for ‘The Dallas Morning News,’ I called him “a miniature Jackie Gleason. Many performers would kill for his elfin ability to pluck laughs from a gesture, a look, a pause.”
At the Deep Ellum Theatre Garage, he once played a character named “Porpy,” while wearing a rubber shark mask over his head. He starred in the classic Italian commedia farce, ‘Two Cuckolds,’ at the Addison Centre Theatre (now the WaterTower). At the same theater, he performed in ’21A,’ a one-man show in which he played eight demented characters getting on and off a city bus. These included a middle-aged woman in hairnet and curlers who chatters to no one as well as a man who wears a beer carton over his face and proclaims himself “Captain Twelve-Pack.”
During a clown training session at the Undermain in the late ’80s, all the Undermain company members had to don a red nose, often called ‘the world’s smallest mask.’ The simple nose transformed many people’s faces. It signaled “I’m a circus clown! I’ve entered a silly world!”
The red nose made no difference at all to Davey’s face. It just seemed a natural extension of his comic self.
Davey topped out this part of his stage career by, more or less, hitting the North Texas big time: He was cast in a series of comic roles at the Dallas Theater Center in the early 1990s including the 1937 screwball comedy ‘Room Service’ and Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It.’
But almost immediately after — having spent 12 years on North Texas stages — Davey moved to Las Vegas in the early ’90s and recreated himself as a club singer. He’d been singing solos since he was four, his widow Lorena says, and he’d always enjoyed the old-style glamor of Vegas in its Rat Pack heyday – with its tongue-in-cheek swank but also its appreciation of the Great American Songbook from swing jazz through Broadway and pop. Over a decade, Davey formed two different singing trios, first the Las Vegas Tenors and then the Voices 3. With them and on his own, he played such venues as the Stardust and the Venetian Room, and he and Lorena first sang together onstage at the Las Vegas Hilton. In 2007, Davey was named Vegas’ Entertainer of the Year.
Davey had a classic velvety voice, reaching up into an Irish tenor but also comfortable down in a warm baritone. It made him a natural crooner, covering standards made famous by Sinatra, Mel Torme and Tony Bennett. Having first worked in Vegas as a singing gondolier, he could even foray into opera.
Here he is in 2009, singing ‘Just in Time’ with Tommy Deering on the piano:
Davey was born in 1953 in Alton, Illinois, to a large, Irish-American Catholic family — which Owens says, may explain his easy ability to work with acting companies: “If there was a party, Ted didn’t just bring the chips. He brought a dozen bags of chips.”
He first attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, but earned his BFA in acting and performance from UT-Austin. After that, he was Dallas-bound.
In 2012, Davey returned to Dallas from Las Vegas — the area had both a lively music and theater scene and his wife Lorena and her family could live here. In 2013, after protracted negotiations, Davey purchased the Balcony Club from long-time owner Tommy Stanco. The club is situated on the second floor of the old Lakewood movie theater and had become a local institution in the 25 years Stanco ran it. But the club also nearly closed or was sold numerous times.
Davey said he always wanted to be a ‘singing saloon owner,’ and delighted in being at the club. He transformed it into a favorite late-night hangout for musicians and singers. With actor-singer Liz Mikel, he made Monday night at the Balcony – typically a club’s slowest evening – into a popular showcase for Mikel and other local talent. Davey also enjoyed joining the band on stage, sometimes singing with Lorena. The two also returned to Vegas on occasion to perform and visit friends, as well as singing in cabaret nights at the Sammons Center and performing on cruise ships that took them to Spain, Greece, Turkey and France.
At Baylor In addition to Lorena, Davey is survived by his previous two wives, Meghan Saleebey and Liz Piazza Sleeth. Three weeks ago at the Baylor Cancer ward, Davey said arrangements had been made for Lorena to continue running the Balcony Club. No word yet on arrangements for a memorial service.
We’ll go out with Ted Davey singing “One for My Baby” in a Cabaret and Cabernet evening at the Sammons Center: