Mimi Hines Dishes About Ethel Merman, Paul Lynde, and Those Strippers in Alaska
The show-business legend is celebrating her 80th birthday at 54 Below.
Mimi Hines is returning to New York City to celebrate her 80th Birthday at midtown cabaret venue 54 Below. Best known as half of the comedy duo Ford & Hines, she has a storied career that includes numerous television appearances and taking over for Barbra Streisand in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl. Like most working performers her age, Hines' life is the story of show business over the last century.
TheaterMania spoke with Hines about her big NYC homecoming, her favorite career memories, and some of her earliest work in America's frozen north...Alaska.
What can we expect to hear at your birthday show?
If I tell you then it won't be a surprise, will it? I went through one thousand pieces of music to render down to twenty. It was very difficult.
Who do you expect to show up?
The Dos Equis man would be nice.
You've worked in show business for over half a century. Do you have any favorite memories?
I started singing when I was two years old and I hit the nightclub circuit when I was 14. My favorite memory was meeting Phil Ford, who became my partner and husband, in Alaska. Being in Funny Girl was extremely exciting. We played three theaters with Funny Girl. We started at the Winter Garden and then went down to the Majestic. We ended up at the Broadway. I asked Ethel Mermen which one was the best. She said, ‘They're all toilets, honey, but if ya gotta love one, it's the Broadway.'
Do you have a favorite venue you've played?
I used to love the Waldorf and the Plaza. The Persian Room at the Plaza was just a lovely jewel. I came back to New York to visit it and it was a ladies' clothing store. All of those lovely hotel showrooms are gone, unfortunately.
What else has changed?
People don't dress up for a show anymore. You go to a show in Vegas and everyone is in flip-flops. The only audience I saw come dressed was to see Tony Bennet at the Pearl at the Palms. They give Tony a lot of respect.
How long have you known him?
Our first big starring venue was opening at the Copacabana for Tony Bennett. He's the voice of my heart. I adore him.
You mentioned you met your husband and partner Phil Ford in Anchorage, Alaska. How did that happen?
We met in an after-hours club in Anchorage. They sent me a bottle of champagne. I was eighteen years old. I saw Phil from across the room and I waved him over to help me drink the champagne. Well, I got sloshed on the champagne and I went to the ladies room. I was sitting on a table in the ladies room swinging my feet talking to another girl, full of champagne. I swung my feet so hard I threw my body right through the stall door and my head went in the toilet and I knocked myself unconscious.
Oh, yes. I woke up in the top of a bunk bed. I didn't know where I was. I heard all these girls swearing and using foul language. I thought, ‘Oh my God, my mother was right, I've been shanghaied.' She warned me that girls could be abducted in a place like Alaska. It turns out I was behind the strip joint down the street, where they put all the girls up. Nobody knew where I was staying, so Phil had carried me there. All these nice stripper girls bought me coffee and got me a cab home. That's the way I met Phil.
Without those strippers, you may never have met!
Well, they got a hold of Phil to rescue me. That's how it all happened. Phil called me later and asked me to be in his act. I said, ‘I'm not a comedian, I'm a singer.' He said, ‘No…you're a comedian.' That's how we started our act together and it never stopped.
How does a teenage girl end up in Alaska?
My agent sent me! I had been working in clubs since I was fourteen. I lied about my age. They thought I was eighteen, but I was really much younger. I died my hair blonde like Peggy Lee or Marilyn Monroe.
Will you be sharing a lot of your memories on stage?
I have no idea what will come out of my mouth. I haven't planned anything. I'm going to wing it.
Does that make you nervous?
Not really. I've been spilling this garbage for years. I know my own stories by heart. I identify with each of the songs I've chosen is some fashion.
I saw a clip of you on the TV game show Password.
Oh, that's a riot. We did Password and Hollywood Squares with Peter Marshall and Paul Lynde, who was my dear friend. I toured with Paul. I adored him.
Do you have any memories that you can share of your time with Paul Lynde?
I have some funny personal stories about him...some that I cannot tell. Once we were all in Milwaukee. Wayland Flowers was with us. We were like the three musketeers: Paul, Wayland, and me. We were waiting for Paul in his hotel suite one night because we were going to go see Manhattan Transfer. It was our day off. Wayland says, ‘Come on, Paul, we're going to be late. He doesn't come out for the longest time. Finally, he comes out of his room wearing a pith helmet.
I said, ‘Paul, that's a great hat.'
He said, ‘Yes, darling, it's the only one I could find without a veil, and chiffon is too hard to iron.'
Will you catch any shows while you're back in New York?
I'm going to see Kinky Boots. Billy Porter and I were in Grease together. We took that show to Vancouver, where I'm originally from and I was really happy because my uncle was there. He was a tenor who worked at La Scala. He got to hear Billy Porter sing and he told me, ‘That's one of the finest voices I've ever heard in my life.' Shortly after that he passed away. That's the painful thing about being old. Sticking around is great, but losing all your friends is not. They say, however, when you're remembering someone, you keep them alive. I try to do that.
Here's a clip of Mimi Hines singing "Broadway Baby" from the 2007 Encores! presentation of Follies: