When I was 16 years old, I was eager to start a career in the entertainment business. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so motivated to get such an early start – as opposed to doing the kinds of things that 16 years old usually do for fun – but I learned of an internship opportunity in hometown through my friend Howard Davis. And ultimately that internship would have me writing album reviews, reviewing comedy shows and interviewing entertainers for a newspaper called Long Island Entertainment.
My boss at Long Island Entertainment was the publisher and owner John Blenn. While most publishers tend to be more concerned with advertising revenue than the quality of their publication’s content, John was actually the driving creative force behind L.I.E., himself still writing a lot of the articles. When he sold the newspaper a few years later, he recommended that the new owners promote me to Editor-in-Chief, which happened to me at the “veteran” age of 19 years old. John’s new gig would entail running Westbury Music Fair – now called The Theatre at Westbury – where he would later help me get an internship. So to say that John Blenn was instrumental in me finding a place in the entertainment world would be an understatement.
Beyond the newspaper and venue management roles mentioned above, John has extensive credits as a writer within the film and theatrical worlds. He also has taught a lot of courses at Five Towns College over the past 15 years, where he has been their official Playwright In Residence. He’s developed more as an actor within the past few years, most recently appearing in this year’s The Bronx Bull, as screened at the Long Beach International Film Festival. And that’s without going into his forthcoming books, stand-up, or other teaching.
All of that said, John is an ideal subject for the “Really Busy People” column. He not only works steadily on a variety of projects, but he’s known for keeping up relationships with people for decades at a time. In turn, it was an honor to conduct this Q&A with everything having come full circle.
You’re a playwright, a comedy writer, an actor, a musician, have run publications and have run concert venues. Any titles I’m missing?
John Blenn: College professor at Five Towns College for 15 years. I’ve taught Artist Management, Convert Production, Music Business Careers, News Writing, Theatre, Contemporary Issues and even English [at Five Towns]. When I pause to look at all of that, I realize how blessed I’ve been to have worked in a lot of areas and how interesting the journey has been. I never had a plan to teach, but when I was invited to do the work, it made me realize how important several of my teachers were over the years to my journey. I also have a couple of screenplays in development with Sunset Pictures and I’m working on two books covering various portions of my journalistic career. I’m lucky to be at a point in my life where I don’t have to take work I’m not passionate about.
Given all of those titles you’ve had, when someone asks what you do for a living, how do you usually respond?
J: Depends on who I’m talking to. If I’m talking to a musician, I’ll probably mentioned that I’m involved with the Village Of Valley Stream and helping them to transition a courthouse into a performing arts center. If it’s an actor, I’ll probably bring up a play or screenplay I’m working on. If it’s the average person, I’ll talk about artists that I’ve worked with that they show interest in. Teaching has taught me to have a sense for who you’re talking to and what they’re interested in. Bottom line, I suppose you can take the boy of writing, but you can never take the writer out of the boy.
In running Middle Class American Productions, you wrote, directed, produced and often acted in a lot of your plays. What was the impetus for you to be hands-on and proactive instead of waiting for other people to make things happen for you?
J: We just celebrated 20 years of MCAP, two decades as Long Island’s ONLY all-original theater company. When I gave my first two scripts to other Long Island theater companies in 1995, one told me I needed to rewrite 75 percent of a script and the only one “loved it” and was ready to roll. The one chomping at the bit, informed me that if I could direct, we could get it up three months faster. Freshly off of producing, directing and acting in a sitcom pilot I wrote, I was comfortable with directing. It quickly became “can you cast it?” I realized in short order that by making me do everything, if it bombed, THEY could distance themselves from ME. When X’s & O’s sold out four shows, got great critical feedback and people had fun, they shared their elation that “HEY!! THIS WAS FUNNY!!” I quickly figured out that they hadn’t even read the script, they just figured as the editor of the area’s top entertainment paper for more than a decade, that I was likely to draw a crowd to my first work, good or bad. The upside is that I got battle-tested and knew I could do things for myself. All the way back to childhood, I was always a leader and if nobody wanted to do what I wanted to, I’d just go do it by myself. People have gravitated to me because I make things happen rather than wait for them to happen.
Is it true that over 60 of your plays have been performed?
J: Actually, I just passed 80 self-penned plays being done. That’s a combination of full-length works and one-acts. I really prefer full-pieces to short ones, there’s a bigger challenge to maintain laugh and interest over 90-plus minutes, but it also affords greater space for deeper characters and more intricate story-telling. I didn’t have a plan on a second play when we were prepping the first one, so the opportunity to make people laugh for so long and create such a body of work has really been a gift.
What was your biggest take-away from working with Eddie Money on the Two Tickets To Paradise play?
J: Working with Eddie Money, twice, on his autobiographical musical, Two Tickets To Paradise, was neat. I remember sitting at the Nassau Coliseum, as an 18-year old in 1977, watching Eddie on a bill with Meat Loaf when he had his first album. I was always a huge fan. To call him a brother, a kindred spirit, a collaborator, has really been satisfying. He gave me the chance to branch off into directing a musical AND do an original work. He’s quirky and a rollercoaster, lovable and infuriating, crazy and huge-hearted. And, in the end, it’s been an honor to be a part of it and to help bring it to life.
When it comes to being creative, how do you usually get started? Is there a routine you get into, or particular music you put on?
J: My creative spark usually comes from the people around me inspiring me. I lost my best friend to cancer this year, Mark D’Agostino, and he was my sounding board, my filter, my cheerleader and my brother since 1980. When I work with a new actress or actor, they may spark my imagination to write my next piece with a character in mind for them. Movies, theater, stand-up comedy, music…they all trigger inspiration when done well, so the motivation could come from anywhere. My wife, Joni, is incredibly supportive and the reason I took a shot at playwriting and producing. The better the talent, the smarter the minds and the funnier the personalities you surround yourself with, the more creative you feel.
Is there a field you haven’t yet worked in but one day hope to?
J: Other than finishing the books, I think I’ve had a chance to do everything I dreamed of. I just want to do film and TV more often, on a higher level, and eventually be able to just concentrate on writing and acting.
Do you have a professional accomplishment you’re most proud of?
J: There are a few things I’m most proud of. Selling out a play and a fundraiser to help out Mark back in January was a magical moment in time. How often do you get a chance to fill a room with people that remind someone you love as much as anyone on the planet how much THEY are loved. It was a beautiful parting gift in deeply sad journey. I am thankful that Kevin James and Rock Reuben gave me face time in Here Comes The Boom. I think it’s a wonderful movie with a lot of heart and a message. It was an honor to be part of it while leaving the proverbial “footprints” in the sand in cinematic history. Seeing my mom’s face on closing night of my first play, in 1995, seeing her pride when she was always the one to encourage me to follow my heart and be creative was magical as well.
What was your first paying gig as a writer?
J: Good Times Magazine was the first place I ever got paid to write. As you know, it’s a pretty good magic trick to get any money at all for your writing. The reason I stayed with it wasn’t the salary, it’s all the free stuff I got while I did the job.
Of the hundreds of interviews you’ve conducted with entertainers, is there one that you look back at as a favorite? Or someone you interviewed several times and especially liked talking to?
J: Being on the interviewer side, I was always an editor so I could almost always pass off talking to someone I didn’t want to chat with. I’ve always loved talking to “Weird Al” Yankovic, not only funny, but a sensitive and kind human being. Comedians have always been a favorite, especially when they get serious and move away from their material and bare their souls. My favorite interviews in general, though, tend to be struggling artists who need and appreciate the help. I wish I had a few dozen more “me’s” over the years…I’d be farther along career-wise than I am. Kevin James, Martin Guigui, Christopher Guest…love talking to them, always inspiring year in and year out. Ultimately, over a thousand interviews in my career, almost everybody left me with something positive.
You nearly moved to Los Angeles at one point to pursue your writing career. What is it that keeps you in New York after all these years?
J: Family issues have kept me in New York, family comes first. I think you go to Los Angeles from New York when you’re “summoned.” I learned on a few trips out west that it is magical if you’re there for a project, and lonely and cold if you’re trying to get discovered. I like L.A., but I think as I get older, I prefer New York life to L.A. In a perfect world, I’d have enough work to spend months in both places. When you’re younger, Hollywood is a magical dream. When you’re older, you realize Boston, St. Louis or rural Texas are every bit as nice if you’re there working on a project with creative, passionate people.
Are there any upcoming projects for you that you can talk about?
J: Re-doing a play for two nights, Nov. 10 & 11, in my hometown at a restaurant I grew up frequenting called Borelli’s. It’s called The Table. Just a couple of nights of live theater, bonding and fun. Next year I’ll be concentrating on a movie I wrote called George Bailey, some of which will shoot in Valley Stream with some brand name actors. I have a couple of other film roles coming, too, with director Martin Guigui. One is Sweetwater, about NBA legend Sweetwater Clifton and the other is Nine Eleven with Charlie Sheen. Beyond that, I’m ALL EARS. We’ll see what opportunities present themselves.
When you’re not working, how do you usually spend your time?
J: When you’re in the arts, you’re ALWAYS working, which is okay. I’ll go see friends’ movies, plays, concerts, etc. I support those who support me and I’ve stopped running out to see people who don’t keep the scales balanced. I don’t have any time for takers anymore. The older you get, the more you’re able to shed politics and take back more time for yourself. Since I only dabble in journalism these days, I don’t have to sit through things I’m not interested in because of advertising considerations. Makes everything I do get to much more enjoyable these days.
Finally, John, any last words for the kids?
J: They say do what you love, the money will follow. Not always true, kids. DO what you love…it is an unpredictable world. People get sick and life suddenly ends. The new reality is that we can blow ourselves up at any minute. Enjoy the ride, the company you keep, the moment…it’s always fleeting. I wish everything in my life happened quicker than it did, but I can’t complain about the experience as a whole. I’m at the point that I appreciate every bit of kindness I’ve been afforded and every blessing I have experienced.
-by Darren Paltrowitz