All photos by Kristen Blush
2019’s Doris Dear Christmas Special may have ended just a few short weeks ago, but creator Raymond DeForest is already hard at work dreaming up his show for Christmas 2020. This is the fifth year for the special, which features host Doris Dear, played by DeForest, joins a cast of performers to share diverse holiday traditions and stories. For us at Downtown, it is a favorite annual treat.
Each year, the show has raised money for “The Longest Day” initiative with the Alzheimers Association, selling custom-made enamel pins and cookies. The character of Doris Dear was inspired by DeForest’s mother, who passed away a few years ago from Alzheimer’s.
As the new year passed, we got a chance to learn more about the Doris Dear Christmas Special with DeForest–Ms. Doris Dear herself–and a peek into the creative process behind the show.
Downtown: How do you prepare for your infamous holiday show?
Raymond DeForest: I start thinking about my next show in January after I have had time to relax and come down from the absolute enjoyment I feel from doing my three-night run of “The Doris Dear Christmas Special.” It starts with an idea, usually sparked by a memory of growing up in Staten Island with my family that I then run by my director, Lina Koutrakos. I am usually inspired by a certain moment growing up like when my sister and I would lay on the floor, staring up through the Christmas tree at the lights. Then I start looking at music and songs; I try not to repeat what was done the year before. That’s not easy. It’s a holiday show, and there are some songs like White Christmas that, for me, seems to say “Merry Christmas” better than anything. There is always a balance between giving my audience a nostalgic feeling through songs and stories mixed with more modern takes on the holiday to keep current.
DT: Who were your guests for this year?
RD: This year’s guests were, as one audience member exclaimed to me, “AMAZING!”. Lina Koutrakos, my director, has a permanent spot. She is a bluesy rock gal that does a song like no one I know. “Those Girls” are a girls group that brings a nostalgic, yet modern take on some great songs (“Jing-A-Ling” is an audience favorite). Patrick DeGennaro, my musical director this year, wrote a brand-new song just for us, and it was so wonderful and holiday spirit-filled. Ari Axelrod was a new addition, and he was charming and funny. Not only did he sing a beautiful rendition of “The Nearness of you” but also played the conga and charmed us with his stories of Hanukah. Sean Harkness is another permanent guest in the Rumpus Room. When Sean plays guitar, the audience swoons.
DT: How long does it take you to rehearse?
RD: I start rehearsing myself around mid-summer. I am constantly writing and refining my material as I rehearse the songs, so the stories and songs feel seamless. I don’t stop that refining until the show closes! The cast comes in about a month before the shows, to work with the musical director, director, and I, going over parts and script.
DT: Do you add new guests each year?
RD: Each year I try to change the talent slightly. About 50% of my audience are repeats, so providing them with new talent is important.
DT: Tell us a little about your piano player and his song, which he performed this year.
RD: My piano player/musical director this year was Patrick DeGennaro. We had worked together on my new solo show, “More Gurl Talk,” that I performed at The Music Theater of CT, NYC, and the historic theater in Fire Island. I wanted him to do something special for the show, so he decided to write something for us. The song, “I Know It’s Christmas” was perfect and Doris Dear was in it!
DT: You have a lot of guests at your show. What do you attribute this to?
RD: This was my fifth year doing the show. The shows sell well and attract an audience that is not the usual “cabaret” audience. It has a wider reach, so talented singers and musicians want to be a part of the show. I am very honored that I have that rich talent on my stage. When I sit back on the side of the stage and listen to these artists, I think to myself, “wow, how are you so darn lucky!”
DT: Where does your talent come from, and when did you know that you were going to be a performer?
RD: My talent comes from the very deep pool of amazing singers and musicians that are here in NYC. These are world-class performers. As I said, I am truly a very lucky girl to have them in my “Rumpus Room.”
I stepped on stage in college and new that very minute that I wanted to do this as my profession. I am honored to say I have been a full time working actor/singer for 42 years!
DT: What can we expect next from your work?
RD: I am always looking for ways to bring my message of family and love to a wider audience. At 61 years of age, I only do the work that is authentic and real for me. If I am not going to enjoy the work, I turn it down. The character of Doris Dear has opened up a whole new way of storytelling and performing for me. I am in talks with a major studio about bringing Doris Dear to a wide TV audience as well as bringing my shows to Universities and also teach students about the “art” of character development and storytelling. It’s very exciting for me to share my experience of the past 42 years in the business.
I also work on several committees with the SAG-AFTRA union and can help new actors coming into the business with maneuvering the real world. We live in such a strange world right now. There is so much hate coming from so many places. When my audience walks into my “Rumpus Room,” I want that feeling of a tough world left outside. I want my space to be one where all people can come and have a good time. As one reviewer from your magazine said…“ … I LEFT THE PLAY WITH A SMILE FROM EAR TO EAR AND THAT WARM AND FUZZY FEELING OF A LIFE FAR LESS COMPLICATED THAN THE FAST-PACED ONE OF TODAY. THANK YOU, DEAR DORIS!” – DOWNTOWN MAGAZINE
DT: Every year your show gets us ready for the holidays, and now you are hitting an even younger generation, who know nothing about the 1950s/60s. Does this lack of direct connection and experience worry you?
RD: It doesn’t “worry” me as much as it keeps me aware of what I am writing. I try hard to reference nostalgia without being so “old fashioned” that I lose anyone under 50 years of age!! LOL. This year I had several children come to many of my shows. Many stopped by after the show to tell me how much they loved it and especially the character of Doris Dear. As one beautiful girl said to me …” You are the aunt I always dreamed of having”. That’s the best compliment I could get. So, I guess that makes Doris not only the “Perfect American Housewife” but also the “The perfect crazy aunt”!!!