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Garden Grove’s Steve Martin will be performing in Orange County

October 29, 2009

From the Daily Pilot – A wild and crazy guy is coming back to Orange County.

But it won’t be for a film shoot, a book tour or a comedy show.

Actor, comedian and writer Steve Martin will play the banjo Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center as part of a national tour.

Yes, the banjo. And no, he isn’t a dilettante with a new, trendy interest. Martin is a consummate, Grammy award-winning banjo player who has picked the strings as long as he’s been telling jokes on stage.

Martin said many actors who go into music seek to become a star, rather than a musician.

“And I think that the difference here is, I really just want to play my songs, you know?” he said.

This is Martin’s first tour as a musician. His banjo album, “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” came out in May to critical acclaim and quickly climbed to the top of many charts.

‘Stop that racket’

Few would disagree that Steve Martin is a household name, but it’s a little more personal that that in the Baker household.

While my father was growing up in Garden Grove, his backyard neighbor — a fellow student — had a habit of plucking on his banjo outside.

My 94-year-old grandfather maintains he often told the young Martin to “stop that racket.” Martin said he doesn’t recall ever being harassed by my forebears.

In his memoir, “Born Standing Up,” Martin said when he transferred from Rancho Alamitos High School to its rival, Garden Grove High, he took the opportunity to “reinvent” himself — becoming what he thought was a “countercultural” kind of guy. He managed to draw attention to himself from his first day of school, my father and others have told me over the years.

One story tells of his winning a student election. He created a giant banner that looked like a bra and read, “Thank you for your support.”

Variations on the story abound.

“I remember in high school Steve Martin was a cheerleader, and at one of the pep assemblies he came out and said something like, ‘I may not be out there on the field playing football, but I want you to know — I am a big athletic supporter!’” my father, Tom Baker, said.

“Imagine our surprise in the following years to see his name on the credits for TV shows and an occasional sighting on the shows,” my father said.

From those early “Smothers Brothers” appearances and other gigs, Martin has become an industry powerhouse, achieving fame as a comic actor as well as a writer.

He’s also still pretty handy with a banjo.

Learning the ropes

While working at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, Martin first learned to play the banjo at the home of one of his classmates, John McEuen, who went on to become a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. McEuen also became Martin’s producer on “The Crow.”

“I think I helped get John a job at the [Disneyland] Magic Shop and he helped me move along on the banjo,” Martin said. “I’d finish work at Knott’s Berry Farm at, you know, 10:30 and go to John’s house for a hootenanny. There was a lot of practicing going on in that house.”

Martin said he had no aspirations of becoming a professional musician when he started his comedy career.

“I might’ve thought about it, but I was already kind of established as a standup act,” he said. “So I couldn’t really give that up to go join a band. And so the answer is no, I didn’t really, although I tried to be as good as I could, because when I’d open for the Dirt Band I’d come out and play a couple of songs with them.”

He also began working the banjo into his comedy routines, more out of necessity than anything else.

“When I started doing comedy, I didn’t really have enough [material], so I just put in everything I know,” Martin said. “I did magic tricks. I juggled. And I played a few songs on the banjo. … And that’s how it all got started. And basically the act never changed. It just got bigger.”

Martin said in his early days, while he was performing standup comedy on tour, he practiced the banjo before going onstage — whereas most comedians would focus on perfecting their act.

“I guess it was some kind of zen state that I could put myself in before going on, because the truth was, I really didn’t need to go over my routines,” Martin said. “You know, I’d been doing it every night for 10 years. And I don’t know that the banjo was really — it was important to my mood. But also I felt it was important to the show, because the comedy act looks so ad-libbed that I felt I needed something to show … that I could actually do [something] that was hard. And I don’t know, I always kept the banjo around. But that’s the one thing — the banjo on the road was a crucial friend.”

From hobby to passion

When Martin decided to move forward with a studio album, he was able to bring friends like Dolly Parton to the studio to perform on “The Crow,” which he said turned his music into magic.

“I think it’s a little bit like when a playwright hears his words onstage for the first time,” he said. “The great thing was I never felt like they were doing it because of me. They actually liked the song. And that was a real thrill, too.”

Martin said he also enjoys the collaborative approach he’s discovered with music, as opposed to being alone onstage doing a comedy tour.

“I just had some friends over last night, and we played until 2:30 in the morning,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been up that late in 10 years. … It’s funny; you come out of a social situation a better player, rather than sitting home dryly practicing over and over and over. You can actually have fun and be getting better at the same time.”

By Candice Baker
Daily Pilot

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