Hipp's career soars with Buddy Holly's legend

November 27, 1990|By Ann Kolson | Ann Kolson,Knight-Ridder

NEW YORK -- Few stars have shone so briefly and so brightly as Buddy Holly.

The career of the legendary rocker began in Lubbock, Texas, and ended 18 months later, on Feb. 3, 1959, in a fiery plane crash in a snow-covered Iowa cornfield when Holly was 22 years old. Since then his life and, even more, his music have become myth.

Now Philadelphia-born Paul Hipp is resurrecting this "dead rock star from Texas who wears glasses," as he plainly puts it, in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," which opened on Broadway after a successful London run. The colorful show -- it's a cross between straight biography and rousing oldies concert -- gets the audience wildly clapping and dancing in their seats to such simple, compelling tunes of Holly's as "Peggy Sue," "That'll Be the Day" and "Rave On."

Backstage in his tiny dressing room, an excited Hipp, 25, is smoking cigarettes, jiggling his long legs, bouncing around. The air conditioner is making a death rattle. "I should complain?" he says, glancing up at the noisy machine. "This is Broadway!" He is still amazed to be here.

For nine months Hipp played Buddy in London, where he was nominated for the London theater's prestigious Laurence Olivier Award. There, devout fans keep the Buddy Holly Society very much alive. (Some of them saw the show 80 times.) Toward the end of the run, Hipp knew he'd be bringing "Buddy" to Broadway. "That was what the whole thing was about," he says. "That day, some day, in New York."

The 26-member cast played Toronto, then Calgary, Alberta, then San Francisco. But the first night of previews in October, when he finally made it to New York -- his first time on a Broadway stage -- Hipp was a wreck. Between scenes, especially before the final one, a re-creation of Holly's last concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, "I was pacing back and forth like a caged bull."

Hipp hasn't been getting much sleep. He's exuberant and funny and hyperactive . . . and yawning. It is 1 p.m., barely morning for the guy who, before "Buddy," was living the "bat life" in downtown Manhattan, playing with his own rock band, Paul Hipp and the Heroes.

Hipp says that offstage he is nothing like Holly, whom he describes as "a nerdy guy from Texas who had a sound in his head and a lot of determination." Hipp is cuter.

But both these gangling fellows started in show business young. And both idolized Elvis. After seeing the Pelvis on TV in "Jailhouse Rock," that was it for Hipp, who was maybe 5 years old at the time. "I couldn't understand how anyone could want to be anything but Elvis Presley," he says.

After a few years, Hipp discovered the guitar and has never been the same. The instant he graduated from high school, Hipp headed to New York City, hellbent on a show-biz career. He had less than $200.

He sang for change on the streets. He made sandwiches at a deli on Wall Street until he was fired. Nights he played guitar at open-mike events in Village clubs such as the storied Folk City. "That was real romance to me," he recalls.

There he was, at 3 a.m., playing to almost no one after a host of other guitar-playing hopefuls had come and gone. But in his own mind, "I was taking the torch from Dylan."

After a year or so, he returned home to regroup, where he made his professional stage debut in Sam Shepard's "Angel City," which led him to an off-off-Broadway appearance in "Rockabilly Road."

By then, he recalls, he had moved back to New York and met casting agent Holly Powell. He must have impressed her with his hard-core-punk version of "Happy Birthday" at a party they both attended.

Powell helped him put together -- you might say fabricate -- a resume. "Fattening it out," Hipp calls it.

Soon he landed two films: "China Girl," a 1987 thriller, and "Sticky Fingers," by "thirtysomething" star Melanie Mayron, neither of which became box-office legend.

While doing "Rockabilly Road," Hipp met singer-songwriter Carole King and they began to collaborate. He was performing with her in 1988 at the Royal Albert Hall in London when, on his last day there, his agent told him about the Buddy Holly tryout.

Plane tickets and baggage in hand, Hipp stopped to audition on the way to the airport. The producers had been searching for a year and Hipp was the last person to read for the part. That was a Monday morning. By Thursday the field of prospective Hollys was narrowed to four actors. (All wearing Buddy-style specs.)

"It was nerve-wracking," recalls Hipp, who desperately wanted the job. He'd watch the others' auditions and think: "He's really ugly, he could do Buddy Holly better than I can." Or, "That guy has the edge because he really is a nerd."

By late Friday, Hipp had snagged the part of the rock immortal.

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