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Kenny Solms and the Witty Windmills of His Mind

September 2, 2010 By:
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Meet the Solms, er, the Wexlers: From left, Alice Playten, Peter Scolari and Bob Ari Photos by Carol Rosegg

Kenny Solms ... a Jewish Don Quixote?

Tilting at windmills has generated the solar power to outshine others in the TV industry, where Peabody and Emmy have double-dated with writer Solms over the years as Dulcineas accompanying the dulcet tones of his scripted words for such icons as Carol Burnett and Neil Diamond.

Is he our very own Man of La Montgomery County?

Cervantes, take another look: "I Am I, Don Quixote"?

It must be him.

Indeed, it is. Cheltenham High's Solms still has that polished Elkins Park patina, buffed to a gleam by years of Hollywood glory. But impossible dreams still nightmare -- to borrow one of Solms' cool creative vocab concoctions -- as the windmills wind up blowing him off his steed of a steady income.

Whoa, Rocinante! One of the most successful and wittiest writers around -- Kenny's team work with erstwhile New York University colleague Gail Parent birthed a series of successes and included their joint film adaptation of her book, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York -- Solms of late has discovered that aging (he is 68) has its own woeful countenance.

A close encounter of the kibitz kind outside the Peter J. Sharp Theatre before a performance of the theatrical debut of Solms' "It Must Be Him" reveals the witty windmills of his mind are generating heat and light.

Must be kismet because meeting up with the Hollywood hit-man -- writing, producing hit variety shows with names born to be boldface -- the playwright premieres another side of his protean talents in this autobiographical comedy with music and mischief that will never be accused of running on autopilot.

Pilot season for Hollywood is one thing; piloting one's own life on stage another. A tree grows in Brooklyn, sure; but who knew windmills could pop up in your own backyard in Elkins Park?

"I could never have written this while my parents were alive," he says of David and Esther, towering figures in the Philadelphia Jewish community -- David, a banking executive, was at one time president of the Jewish Exponent -- who, along with Kenny's recently deceased brother, Steve, make their unofficial theatrical bows as characters haunting the writer's onstage alter ego (Louie Wexler, portrayed by Peter Scolari) in this searing and, at times, startlingly inventive comedy, directed by Philadelphia native son Daniel Kutner.

Louie "does have a wonderful finale with his parents accepting him for what he is," says Solms of the character whose theme of "keep it gay" is a keeper in the show.

But art was kept at arm's length in his real-life home.

"I didn't have that kind of relationship" with his own parents.

Impossible dreams, stage right? "In my own mind, this play is a dream of making peace with my parents."

Indeed, it's the raison d'être of this entry in his life's work. "That's why I wrote the play."

He has never lacked the write stuff, whether it be co-creating and scripting the legendary "Carol Burnett Show" or writing specials featuring Julie Andrews, Beverly Sills and scores of others who were abetted by his book bets on Broadway ("Lorelei," "Perfectly Frank").

But he is perfectly frank here, as well -- including the sibling rivalry/revelry he had with late brother Steve in a war waged for his parents' affections. (One scene in which the onstage brother argues for attention is reminiscent of the battle between the Smothers Brothers -- "Mom always liked you best!" Tom would yell at Dick -- whose iconoclastic TV comedy hour was written by Solms.)

So not-so nice to have this time together?

"It was a judgmental generation of parents," always trying to impress their friends, with the Ashbourne County Club providing an audience important enough to his folks that Kenny felt obliged to place an applause sign around his neck.

"Ours is much less so," he relates of today's generation. "That is freeing to a degree."

If the past gets the third degree, it is often in a qualitative comic vein, rather than the bloodletting variety. Although Kenny's parents didn't live to see the play staged, Steve -- a major Philadelphia developer -- did live to see rehearsals and developed his own affinity for the comedy.

He "got a big kick out of it," recalls his brother proudly.

But parents and problems with them aren't the only things that get a kick in the behind-the-scenes moments in this intriguing intermission-less comedy with an internecine wedgie. The age-old story of ageism gets some new insights from a writer who discovered that 40 isn't the new 30. It's the same-old old 40 in Hollywood.

That must be particularly painful for Solms, whose kid inside comes out in a playfully potent video he has posted on his MySpace site.

"But theater is more respectful" of age, claims Solms, whose poignantly prickly "It Must be Him" might be the best argument he has going.

And Solms respectfully submits the feeling about theater is mutual. After all, the doors open wide for him now, no ticket needed -- not that he needed one anyway in his Elkins Park days, when "I used to sneak into the Shubert [now the Merriam Theatre] to see all the shows."

Enter laughing? Enter freebie, by way of the fire exit.

In a way, irony abounds: On stage is a hysterical theatrical "This Is Your Life" writ large -- and, at times, larger than life -- from a writer who penned a number of such specials for TV.

And it is also a gender gander at "This Is Your Libido" as Louie Wexler waxes frantic and fun on his search, too, for Mr. Right -- rather than just Mr. Right Now.

Alas, Solms hasn't scripted an answer for his own life. "There's no happy ending yet."

But there are memories of some conflicts that don't need the stage for resolution. What would Kenny's parents think of his new work, in which they play featured roles as Jewish parents with universal concerns?

"They'd be happy if it were a hit," he quips.

And although his father "discouraged me to go into show business," the successful son also recalls "that he was the first to call me" with congratulations "whenever I succeeded."

See, Kenny Quixote, sometimes those windmills aren't embracing you for battle, but, as is evidenced by this new lancing laugher of a comedy on stage, embracing you for success.

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