Billy Crystal rolled out his solo show, “700 Sundays,” in 2004, in the wake of his mother’s death. The superstar comedian wanted to share vignettes from his family life as part of his own coping strategy. “Sundays” premiered in San Diego before moving to Broadway, where it set box-office records, with $10 million in pre-sales. It also won a special Tony Award.
Nine years later, Crystal is bringing back “700 Sundays” with some different material and a new mood. The show, which opens its only pre-Broadway engagement at Minneapolis’ State Theatre on Tuesday, is all about celebrating a new phase in his life.
Crystal turned 65 this year, and he’s nowhere near retirement. In addition to the play, which has additional material by his friend Alan Zweibel and which is being produced by his wife, he has a bestselling new memoir out, “Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?” The book includes observations on getting older. At a certain age, he writes, people begin to pee in Morse code.
Age energizes him as he prepares a return visit to the Twin Cities.
“Minneapolis has a reputation as a wonderful theater town,” he said by phone during a rehearsal break. “I did one of my first concerts at Orchestra Hall, opening for Melissa Manchester back in ’74 when I was just starting as a single [performer]. I’ve come back for the Starkey Hearing Foundation gala a few times. Minnesota resembles my New York theater world.”
Central to Crystal’s show is his relationship with his father, a record-store manager who died when Crystal was 15 (leaving him with the memories of their 700 Sundays). His father, he said, exposed him to “all the great comedians of the era: Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Ernie Kovacs and Laurel and Hardy. Always Laurel and Hardy.”
“I was 5 when I started getting up on the coffee table to imitate these incredible characters,” he said of his childhood in Long Island, where he was surrounded by jazz musicians, entertainers and ball players and where he played with his two older brothers.
His dream, at that age, was not to perform onstage so much as to become a baseball player. And there was only one team for him: the Yankees.
Crystal won a baseball scholarship to Marshall University in West Virginia, where he stayed for a year before moving back to New York to finish his education there. He eventually graduated from New York University, where he studied under, among others, Martin Scorsese.
Even though the pro baseball thing didn’t pan out like he wished — he was signed to a brief, symbolic contract to the Yankees’ minor-league team later in life — Crystal still has major league dreams. He played a radio baseball announcer in “Parental Guidance,” his hit film with co-star Bette Midler. And he keeps up with the Yankees as well as their division rivals.
“I’m sorry the Twins didn’t have a good season this year. I was hoping that if I were there earlier for my show, they would’ve signed me.”
Nine-time Oscars host
On the phone, Crystal is the same live-wire, many-jokes-per-minute act that we’ve come to love. And, if prompted, he can do those impersonations — Sammy Davis Jr., Muhammad Ali, Fernando Lamas — that he mahvelously channeled for “Saturday Night Live!”
That he has hosted the Academy Awards show nine times — second only to Bob Hope — is a testament to his talent, even if he had to pave the road before he drove on it.
“I think it was my destiny to perform,” he said. “Not to have the unbelievably fortunate success I’ve had, but to do it no matter what amongst all the other stuff I’ve done.”
That other stuff includes post-college work as a substitute teacher.
“I knew that while teaching is a noble profession and all, it wasn’t for me,” he said. “I would come into the class to try my stand-up routine on them.”
Getting away with it
The show is “a bear, emotionally,” he said. “It has so many wonderful, physical, funny, sad moments. It’s life.”
Although he has done “700 Sundays” before — he has performed it more than 400 times in the United States and abroad — Crystal admits to being anxious.
“We’ve added new material and changed it up a bit,” he said.
He paused to reflect on his career.
“I’ve this incredible work streak,” he said, referring to such recent films as the “Monsters University” franchise and “Parental Guidance.” Crystal noted that his book — a stand-up routine between two covers — is second only to Si Robertson’s “Duck Dynasty” on the New York Times best seller list.
“At this age, you don’t anticipate any of this happening,” he said. “I always look in the mirror before I go out onstage. There’s this picture of the little kid that I take with me. I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for 60 years and I’m still loving it. Boy, I’m still getting away with it.”
Yep, he’s still foolin’ ’em.