Allee Willis goes 'Soup to Nuts'
The idiosyncratic songwriter and internet pioneer debuts a new variety show at El Portal Theatre.
A few years ago, Allee Willis had Alice Walker over to her home. Willis, a very successful songwriter, composer, designer and Internet pioneer, was writing for the Broadway adaptation of Walker’s novel of domestic abuse and sexual identity in rural Georgia, “The Color Purple.” Walker dropped by Willis’ home in the San Fernando Valley to help out.
Willis’ home, for anyone who knows her website Allee Willis’ Museum of Kitsch, is a curatorial-grade monument to Americana trash culture and midcentury design, equal parts “Jetsons”-era atomic themes, 1970s blaxploitation artifacts and some truly grim party favors (think Handerpants, brief-styled mittens).
Eventually they started discussing how “Purple’s” character Celie felt when she finally extricates herself from her abusive relationship with her husband.
According to Willis, Walker spun around in her living-room chair and said, “Exactly like I felt when I walked in here.”
Willis’ entire career is a testament to the joy of idiosyncrasy, leavened with a serious devotion to artistic craft. Her new variety show, “Allee Willis’ Soup to Nuts Party Mix,” which played last night at the El Portal Theatre, is both an exhibition of her magpie discoveries and a walk through the catalog of hits she penned, including maybe the most recognizable TV theme of the ’90s, “I’ll Be There for You,” from “Friends”; Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland”; the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance”; and scads more. It’s also an extremely tongue-in-cheek (but also not?) document of an only-in-L.A. life built around surrealist suburban house parties that are their own kind of public art.
“In the early ’80s I started throwing parties to do everything I couldn’t do in my career,” Willis said. “That’s when I realized, ‘I’m performing.’”
Instead, the self-taught writer and arranger concentrated on work for other artists. But, naturally restless, she moved into stage design, contributing to the domestic-surrealist sets of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and, under her alias Bubbles the Artist, a host of paintings and design work inspired by discarded Americana. She wrote a column for Details magazine, where she introduced a trio of elderly vocalists known as the Del Rubio Triplets who became a cult sensation.
Her website from the early ’90s, Willisville.com, made her one of the first musicians and artists to have a significant Web presence. Even more presciently, it was based on a model of user-generated art that could be shared among its audience, a kind of proto-Facebook for Pop Art early adopters. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was once the Willisville chief executive.
“The business potential of Willisville is huge,” Cuban told Interactive Week magazine in the heady Internet days of 1994. “The whole idea is to create a compelling, entertaining, educational reason for people who aren’t ordinarily involved in technology to try technology. This may just become the fourth new form of mass entertainment, in the line of television, film and radio.”
Willis tried to rally her record-business peers to the new technology, only to be greeted with confused stares. More than 20 years and an industry crash later, they aren’t quite so dismissive of the Internet and its file-swapping, social-engagement possibilities anymore.
“And they thought I was nuts,” said Willis. “They were like, ‘Who would want to watch other people’s home movies on the Internet?’”
But it all adds up to a central tenet of Willis’ art — that creativity is fundamentally social. She’s known for blowout soirees in her William Kesling-designed Modernist home. “This place was designed as a party house,” she said, taking a visitor into a sunken basement modeled like a ship’s hull, with a waist-high view of crowds by the pool. But it’s also a serious studio — a temperature-controlled hub houses a floor-to-ceiling rack of top-end computers humming to handle her musical, video and Web output.
But she doesn’t see songwriting as necessarily self-expressive — more as a way to create shared experience. “Soup to Nuts” is her attempt to re-create that bizarre-garden-party atmosphere — right now her home is strewn with items for the show, including mock palm trees, piles of junk food and boxes of absurdist novelties like mustaches for women intended as party favors.
Just as crucially for her, it’s a chance to fill in the last gap in her résumé: becoming a regular performer of her own material.
“All I think about is the social aspect of art,” Willis said. And yet, “I always got: ‘But you don’t perform.’ So I thought ‘What am I waiting for?’”
Photo: Allee Willis, at home, plays hits she wrote and traces an L.A.-specific life in her show. Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times