In keeping with Nickelodeon’s 40th Anniversary I present to you this interview with Nickelodeon’s male mine, Vinny Verrelli. A very special thank you to Andy Anderson who conducted this interview with Mr. Verrelli and was gracious enough to allow me to post it to my blog. Thank you so much Andy, this was a fantastic interview.
Let me start off by saying that had I any idea that there would have been any interest in my meager contribution to Nickelodeon or that the channel would have grown to what it is today, I would have paid more attention. In 1979 it was a gig.
AA: How did you get into contact with Nickelodeon? Had the channel even started at the time?
I was contacted by Rita Nachtmann whose boyfriend at the time was with Warner Cable. He wanted her to do some channel IDs as a mime for a project he was working on. She thought it would be better to use a male mime and suggested using me and she would direct, and we would come up with the bits. As far as I know the channel hadn’t launched yet. It wasn’t in NYC for several years after they stopped using my IDs.
Rita was one of the original performing members of the Claude Kipnis Mime Theatre and ran the Kipnis Mime School in NYC. At the time we shot the channel IDs I was a performing member of the Kipnis company.
AA: When did your career as an actor and mime start, and who were your major influences on your work as a mime? What sparked your interest in the craft?
In 1971 I was doing post graduate work in theatre at the University of Florida. A group of us drove down to Tampa to see Marcel Marceau’ concert. I was blown away! When taking theatre classes eventually you’ll get a section on mime, but I was not prepared for how powerful Marceau’s performance was and the effect it would have on me. In 1972 I put together a group that performed bawdy mime routines in a bar on the campus. My first paid gig as an actor.
Later that year I started Bacchus Productions and we produced shows (not mime) that we toured in Florida and Georgia. Including a prison tour of a production of Waiting for Godot. After many incarnations Bacchus Productions is still in business today.
Obviously, Marceau was a major influence in my decision to pursue mime. But the style of comedy that Red Skelton was doing during “The Silent Spot” each week on his show as well as the pantomimes that Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca performed on Your Show of Shows would influence my performance style.
AA: Were you the only one to audition for the mime role? Were there any other mimes in consideration, and if so, why were you specifically chosen?
There was no audition. It was a matter of knowing the right person and that person believing that I was the right choice.
AA: Who at Nickelodeon/Warner Cable was responsible for producing these IDs? Who decided on the “mime” these IDs? Who decided on the “mime” concept, as well as using an actual Nickelodeon and related song?
I’m sure I met the producer but don’t remember his name. I think the reason they decided on a mime is there wasn’t much of a budget and mimes work cheap. Also, (you) can eliminate the need for a boom operator. Add to this that the producer’s girlfriend was a mime
AA: Since footage of these segments have been so rare, what acts would the mime do? How long would they last?
A lot of the bits centered around the Mutoscope that was used to represent a Nickelodeon. I remember doing multiple spots of me walking by and noticing the machine, going over to it and looking into the viewfinder. Someone off camera had a card that he waved over a light to create a flicker. I would look down, then look at the camera and beckon to the camera to have a look. Multiple versions of this same scenario were shot to get different lengths for post.
At one time I had all the edited IDs plus dome raw footage on one ¾ inch tape. I used a couple of them on my commercial reel and the original tape is not around anymore. Had I any idea that there would have been any interest in my meager contribution to Nickelodeon or that the channel would grow to what it is today, I would have paid more attention. In 1979 it was a gig.
AA: Who selected your wardrobe? What purpose did it serve for the audience or Nick’s branding identity (orange vest, green-striped shirt, bowler hat)? (Ironically, orange would later become a major part of Nick’s identity!)
At that time, I don’t think they were thinking of brand identity. They weren’t even sure the channel would be picked up or take off. Horizontal striped shirts (a French Sailor Shirt) was a standard look for mimes going back to Marceau’s character Bip. The shirt and shoes were mine and I was asked to get some grey jazz pants. The black ones would not have worked for obvious reasons. The light grey popped out in front of the black surroundings. I was provided with the grey derby which I was allowed to keep and used for over 20 years.
AA: Was the mime intended to be a specific character or branding mascot? If so, was he related to the channel’s early programming? (Nickelodeon already had a mime character on its show Pinwheel). I have read that in some early focus groups, some of the children watching Nickelodeon identified with the mime and believed that he was actually named “Nick Olodeon”!
The mime didn’t represent any specific character I believe that the mime simply represented innocence and playfulness. I wasn’t aware of the “Pinwheel” mime.
AA: Was there ever any concern that the mime would scare young children, as they often have a fear of mimes and clowns?
No concern was mentioned. But as I look at the clips today, even I think I look a bit creepy. You’ll notice the mime wasn’t wearing white face/clown white the traditional stark white look for mimes and clowns. This was the look we used in the Claude Kipnis Mime Theatre. Accent the eyes and mouth as that is where expression is made. Both Rita, the director, and I were products of Claude’s company.
AA: Was there a specific aesthetic or intentional look to these segments (such as the black backdrop)? In the book “Nickelodeon Nation” by Heather Hendershot, Nickelodeon executive Geraldine Laybourne describes them as “artsy” and “loosely-goosey”.
When you want something to stand out you put it in front of a black backdrop. It’s simple and very cheap and is very forgiving if you don’t have a great lighting director. No shadows. “Loosely-goosey” is very descriptive of our process. We start here
AA: Were the segments written, or were you allowed to improvise them? How did the song “Music, Music, Music", by Theresa Brewer (as composed by Pinwheel’s George James) affect your act?
There was some basic scripting but most of them were done with the camera rolling and Rita giving some directions. On other takes I was told to do what I felt like. I was very familiar with the music and Teresa Brewer was one of my first boyhood crushes. Often takes were done without any playback. When the music was there it helped me to be more animated.
AA: How were the IDs with just the hands filmed, and what were the purpose of those as opposed to using the actual mime?
All the hand only spots were done by Rita as her hands were better looking. She had long, slender fingers. Most of the hand shots were taped after I was released for the first day.
To tell you the truth I don’t think they really knew how they were going to use everything. They just shot a lot of tape so they would have a lot to play with. It was explained to me that sometimes there was very little time between “shows” and short id’s like the eye crossing one would be used for that. Sometimes there would be more time between “shows” and they would use a longer one or cut it to fit. There were a lot of different versions of the mime dancing with the broom.
AA: How long were your IDs used on Nick? Do you know why they were eventually replaced with the “Silver Ball” branding campaign?
By the time I ever saw anything on Nickelodeon the IDs I shot were gone. I’m sure once they realized that the channel was going to work, they started spending more money.
AA: Do you have any interesting stories from the Nickelodeon taping?
I wish I could say there were. To be honest it was a gig. I loved working with Rita as she encouraged me to have fun in front of the camera. If you could get your hands on outtakes, you might have something.
AA: Were you ever recognized as the “face” of Nickelodeon? How well-known was the channel at the time?
I had a friend I went to high school with who lived in the Panhandle of Florida who saw the show and asked me If I was the mime. At the time we were shooting the IDs I don’t think the channel had actually launched. They had some buyers who committed, and they produced the IDs to go with the programing that they had.
AA: In your opinion, has the channel changed for the better or worse since those earliest days?
That is so totally subjective, and I’ve read comments where people have very strong opinions one way or the other. It’s hard for me to imagine that this network grew from a tiny cable channel with a couple of hours a programing a day to what it is now. Is the programing better? Production values have certainly gotten better and I’m not the best person to ask. People with strong opinions are those who grew up seeing the shows and now have children watching the network. I was 30 years old when I shot the IDs and had no children. I wasn’t watching a lot of children’s programing.
AA: What other work have you done besides your role on Nickelodeon? Are you still performing today?
I am still performing today but very much scaled back. I have a stage persona, Vinny Verelli, who has taken possession of me and for the last 20 years have been working as a humorous motivational speaker. I worked on cruise ships as entertainer and cruise director. I was in the world premiere production of Tiger Tail and got to work with Tennessee Williams. I also performed with the Claude Kipnis Mime Theatre at Carnegie Hall. But it was the prison tour of Waiting For Godot that had the biggest effect on me.
ADDITIONAL CAREER INFORMATION: The same year I recorded the Nickelodeon spots I started working on cruise ships when I wasn’t touring with the CKMT. On the ships I didn’t call myself a mime, I was a silent comic. And like the IDs I didn’t use "White-Face" to do mime. This was a trait of the Kipnis Mime Theatre. Claude didn’t see the need to put on clown white. We would make our completion paler and accentuate the eyes and mouth to enhance our expression.
In late 1982 I met a woman on the ship who was with the revue company. A year later we were married and living in NYC. We worked up an act together and when back on ships. In 1987 we started a production company in Atlanta and for 20 years we produced theme party entertainment for the corporate and convention business, interactive murder mysteries, costumed characters and musical dance revues.
In 2007 we moved to the mountains of Northeast Georgia and I continued to work solo as a humorous motivational speaker. The character of Vinny Verelli was created in 1995 when a client called and asked for an actor to pretend to be a motivational speaker for his meeting.
Vinny also has a cooking channel on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/user/CookingWithVinny22
Vinny’s web address https://motivatethis.net
AA: I understand that you could not recall the name of the producer at Nickelodeon who was in charge of the IDs. However, I have come across a list of Nick employees from that era (from a press kit), and the (male) employees include Al Parinello (sales manager of Nickelodeon), James Cavazzini (Vice President of Warner Cable), John Lack (another Vice President of Warner Cable) and Nyhl Henson (General Manager of Nickelodeon). Would any of these names possibly ring a bell?
None ring a bell and plus all of the names above were in too high a portion. I got the impression that was given to person low on the ladder.
AA: Nickelodeon officially launched on April 1st, 1979. Could you recall the time of year that these IDs were shot? (I have heard the network was originally scheduled for a February launch)
My best guess is that it was after our (Claude Kipnis Mime Theatre) fall tour. Late October 1978.
AA: The actress who played the mime on Pinwheel (Coco) was Caroline Cox, who has also stated that she got her career started as a mime in New York City. Do you recall working with her in any capacity?
The name doesn’t ring a bell but that doesn’t mean we didn’t cross paths. I went to every mime workshop I could and took at least one class with all of the major mime teachers in the city. Claude Kipnis, Moni Yakim, Paul Curtis, Richmond Shepard master classes with Jacques Lecoq, Etienne Decroux, The Polish Mime Theatre and a one-week workshop with Marcel Marceau
AA: Where were the IDs shot? I believe that Nick's original HQ was at Rockefeller Plaza.
We were in a basement studio off 6th Avenue, which was probably in RP complex. The Center runs from 48-51th St between 5th and 6th Avenue. I remember taking the F train to Rockefeller Center Station.
AA: Would the camera look inside the mutoscope (Nickelodeon) after you walked up to it?
The mutoscope wasn’t functional. There were some takes of me using a finger to beckon the camera to "look." The camera would come in close and there was a flickering light that was created by a grip waving a card over a light quickly. This would dissolve into the start of a program. There were angles of me looking into the machine with the flickering light on my face.
AA: For the question about the look/aesthetics of the IDs, you finished your answer with "we start here". Did you accidentally leave out the last part of the answer?
I went back and read my answer and am not sure where I was going with that. But to actually answer the question of I wasn’t aware of any intentional look. I was agreeing with the "loose-goosey" comment from Geraldine Laybourne.
AA: Thank you for generously taking your time to participate in this interview.