Dallas — Wendy and Willy Welch have been regulars in the Dallas theater scene for the last 25 years, having worked with Shakespeare Dallas, Theatre Three, Casa Mañana, Water Tower Theater and Lyric Stage, just to name a few. But some might not know that Willy is a prolific songwriter and that Wendy is a native Dallasite with a deep connection to Dallas theater. Locals are probably also unaware that Wendy and Willy spent many years as regulars in the folk music scene in New York City. It turns out there’s much more to this happily married couple than meets the eye.
TheaterJones: Where are you from?
Wendy Welch: I was born and raised in Dallas.
Willy Welch: I grew up in Wisconsin for the first 12 years and then Natick, Mass. for the next 12 years.
When and how did you start performing?
Wendy: My parents were musicians and singers and when I was a child they would give concerts all over town. My father performed on stages throughout the area and my mother became THE go-to voice teacher for local actors. There is even a memorial plaque dedicated to her in the lobby of Theatre Three. It was a natural fit for my brother Michael and me to perform from an early age. Richland College had a fantastic theater program and at 19 I was lucky enough to be directed by Bob Dyer. I spent a semester in New York City at the Chelsea Theater Center, which had spaces at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in Manhattan. I finished my Bachelor’s degree in theater at Southern Methodist University.
Willy: I started in junior high school where I was active in local drama groups. I took piano lessons from the age of eight and started guitar at 14, which is when I started playing folk and rock. Not long after that I started playing at school dances and folk clubs. As an actor I interned with Boston Shakespeare, which was in residence at our high school my sophomore and junior years and then I went to Boston University College of Arts in Acting.
Where did you meet?
Willy: We met at the wedding of a mutual friend on a farm in Amenia, N.Y. ...in the food line.
How did you both earn your Equity Cards?
Willy: I got my card a couple of months after I moved to New York City. I was cast at an open call for a national children’s theater tour of The Jim Thorpe Story.
Wendy: I earned my Equity Card when I was hired to work at Casa Mañana the summer after I graduated from SMU. I was hired for the season when it was summer stock. I’ve never worked in a non-Equity show.
Have either of you ever been mistaken for a celebrity?
Wendy: When we lived in New York City I had a short haircut and was sitting on the subway one day next to a young man who kept staring at me. I thought, “Oh great. A crazy!” The train pulled into the next stop, and as I was getting ready to step onto the platform he said, “Excuse me, are you Julie Andrews?” to which I replied, “If I were Julie Andrews would I be riding the subway?
Willy: My mother came to visit me in New York and after four days was lamenting that she hadn’t seen anyone famous. Just then, in my own neighborhood on the Upper West Side, a fellow stopped me on the street and said “Aren’t you...?” I nodded, and smiled, and he said, “I thought so,” and walked on. I have no idea who he thought I was, but my mother was impressed.
Wendy, I hear you used to sing blues with two old blues guys who called themselves “The King and I.” Is this true?
Wendy: It is true! My last year at SMU, and for a year after that, I was a waitress at a place on Hall Street called Jason's. There were two older African-American men who called themselves The King and I who played blues and Dixieland jazz. After hours they would hand me a mic and coach me in singing the blues ’til three or four in the morning. Every now and then they would call me off the floor when I was working and have me sing a song for the customers. The tips were good. Then they moved to the Greenville Bar and Grill and I'd pop in from time to time and sing with them. This started my fascination with Bonnie Raitt and Billie Holiday, both of whom I listened to ad nauseam.
I also hear that you witnessed a secret Zuni Pueblo dance.
Wendy: Also true! As a teen my family spent time every summer for several years on a ranch on the Zuni Reservation in New Mexico. We stayed in our host’s adobe house, which her husband had built in the early part of the century when they settled there. The floors were covered with overlapping Navajo rugs, and she made fires of piñon wood. We rode horses all over the ranch and mesas. The cowboys who worked the ranch would build a fire in the middle of nowhere in the evening and we would ride our horses to the site where we'd cook dinner over the fire and listen to them sing songs and play guitars.
I swear it could have been a John Wayne movie, or Blazing Saddles. Once we climbed to the top of the Zuni Pueblo to watch the harvest dance in the inner courtyard, something outsiders were banned from seeing, but the tribe loved our hosts and allowed it.
Willy, how did you start writing songs?
Willy: It just came naturally, I guess. I couldn’t NOT write songs once I began playing instruments. And once I played a love song I wrote about Emily Rosenthal on the piano during a break in drama club. The reaction of the girls around the piano got me totally hooked.
Then I worked with William Finn making music in high school. We were a duo for a couple of years and also a trio with a girl named Sue Stolberg. He and I kind of pushed each other to create songs that we could perform together. We had a very inspirational writing teacher named Mr. Murphy who emphasized getting the audience to “feel the tingles.”
I recently found a mimeographed advertisement for a musical Billy Finn and I co-wrote called The Frog Prince. So I actually gave Finn his start—hahaha!
Tell me about your time in New York City performing as the duo Wendy and Willy?
Willy: First off, I fell in love with Wendy’s voice. I was smitten! We sang together for fun in my living room for a couple of months, then we began playing for friends and for our church “family” at Grace Episcopal. The friend at whose wedding we met had a restaurant/club in Greenwich Village called The Cottonwood Cafe, and we did some of our first gigs there.
Wendy: Kathy Bates was one of our early fans and a very nice lady. After that, we became regulars at the West Bank Café Downstairs Theatre Bar where the comedian Lewis Black was the M.C. He comes off as very crusty but he’s really a big teddy bear.
Willy: We opened for Townes Van Zandt at Gerde’s Folk City where all the folk music greats like Judy Collins, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez played and had autographed the walls of the dressing room. We played The Bitter End, The Bottom Line, The Speakeasy. All the joints where they folkies of the ’60s played.
Willy, how did your song “Playing Right Field” happen and how did it come to the attention of Peter, Paul and Mary?
Willy: I wrote the song one Sunday in 1982. Didn’t think anything of it until Wendy and I needed more songs in our repertoire. I took it out of the drawer and played it for her and she said I should try it the coming Saturday night at the West Bank. I played it that night and it brought the house down. I was stunned, but pleased.
A while later we were jamming with one of the priests at our church, a fabulous man named Bobby Massey who happened to play banjo. He asked me to teach it to him. I did, and it turned out he was close friends with Noel Paul Stookey and taught the song to him at a party in Maine. Noel liked it and began performing it as a solo, then Peter, Paul and Mary got back together and put it on their next couple of albums.
Willy, you do a lot of performing for children as Mr. Willy. How did this come about and what is it you like about performing for kids?
Willy: I went to audition for Jac Alder at Theatre Three for a folk musical, and played “Playing Right Field.” He said he couldn’t use me for the show but did I know about a group called Young Audiences (he was on the board). He suggested I put together a show for them, and arranged for me to pitch it to them (a panel which included him). It was a show called Song Craft, which I wrote for Wendy and I to do together. I discovered that I loved playing for the kids.
Shortly thereafter I met a children’s entertainer who called himself Mr. Guy. He took me with him on a day’s work, going from day care to day care, and showed me what he did and how he did it. I followed his model and began pitching myself to daycares around the area. That was around 1992, when my own kids were 2 and 6. Writing for kids came naturally with that built-in audience.
Then I had an opportunity to pitch to Barney & Friends, and they hired me. I wrote three dozen songs for that show between 1996 and 2005.
I love the look on the kids’ faces. Just this afternoon I was watching them as I presented a puppet singing one of my songs. The open jaws and eyes of wonder just made my spine tingle. They can be the best audiences.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Wendy: Be a good employee: Learn your stuff without complaining. Get to the theater on time, Don't gossip or cause problems back stage. Just get along with people and do your job to the best of your ability.
Believe me, this goes a long way. And in the small community of theater locally, and even nationally, people all know each other and talk. If you're a problem, a gossip, unpleasant, late, the word gets around. No one is immune to this.
Willy: Professionally: "Don't be 'cool.' Connect with the audience" — Word Baker; Personal: "Never draw to an inside straight." — my dad.
What do you miss about New York City?
Wendy: The energy of the city, the availability of culture, public transportation, my wonderful NY community, the teachers.
Willy: Public transportation and being able to walk to places. I did an off-Broadway show a couple of years ago and was there for a month. I was reminded of how much easier it is to get around there.
What is the key to good performance?
Wendy: Preparation, preparation, preparation. Honesty. Vulnerability. Communication, oh and did I say preparation?
Willy: Being in the moment. That's probably the key to a good life, also.
What are you planning for the show on April 22?
Willy: Wendy and I will do a number of original tunes that we did together when we played in NYC. I will also do some tunes I’ve written over the last 10 years that haven’t had much of a chance to be heard because they are not kids’ songs. We also might do a couple of covers. My main goal is to tell stories—stories that make the audience smile in recognition, or laugh out loud, or get a wee chill down their spines.
Wendy: There might even be a sing-along, keeping in the folk tradition. We hope people will hold hands and sway!