Florida- What do a musical revue of Johnny Mercer's songs and a shelf of pornographic movies have in common?
The answer is Jack Wrangler (and, yes, that's his porn star name.) He starred in some 85 skin flicks with such titles as Raunch Ranch and Heavy Equipment in the 1970s and early '80s. Then, he wrote a cheeky autobiography about his porn career that landed him in an off-Broadway one-man show and eventually led to his unlikely reinvention as a director of concerts and cabaret.
What's that got to do with Johnny Mercer? Well, Wrangler co-conceived a retrospective to the classic American songwriter called Dream, which flopped on Broadway in 1997. It was an expensive lesson for local car dealer-turned theater impresario Bob Cuillo and other Palm Beach investors in the show.
But some Dreams just won't die. Wrangler is now directing a slimmed-down version of the show, which opened Friday at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach, with both the director and Cuillo, its chief investor, hoping for a second chance in Las Vegas or even New York.
OK, that's all very interesting, but you really want to know more about Jack Wrangler's past, right?
It's been quite a life - from being a child actor on TV to a checkered porn career (both gay and straight) to his unlikely marriage to then-60-year-old singer Margaret Whiting, which still fascinates the tabloids two decades later. And is still going strong, by the way.
He was born Jack Stillman in Beverly Hills, the son of a movie producer and a fashion model, and started acting in the early days of television, playing Eleanor Powell's son on an NBC show, The Faith of Our Children.
"Each week, I would get into a situation and get out of it in some moral way," recalls Wrangler, now 58.
In real life, Powell was the boy's Sunday school teacher and when "she saw I learned my lessons well, she asked me to audition for the show. Dad wanted me to be an electrical engineer."
His infamous life in porn was "just a fluke, as just about everything else is," he says with a shrug.
Years after the NBC series left the air, he was cast in a play called Special Friends in San Francisco. "I played an ex-hustler from Arkansas who was now a go-go boy," Wrangler explains.
The role required nudity, and as Wrangler says, "The clothes kept coming off."
For the non-union production, he had to invent a name to avoid the wrath of Actors Equity. So he looked at the label on his work shirt and tried on a new moniker - Wrangler.
The play ran more than a year, bringing him an avid fan base and an opportunity to make the leap to movies. No costume required.
"For me, I felt I needed some true grit in my life, y'know? I felt that I had that this formal, white-handkerchief upbringing and that I was not going to survive in the world unless I got down and did something gritty," Wrangler says.
Looking back on the world of pornographic movie-making, he concedes it was probably pretty tawdry, but he was in denial at the time. "I'm sure there was a real seamy side, but I wouldn't see it," he says. "I just put on blinders. I just sort of floated over it, somewhat to my embarrassment. Because I felt that I was a fraud. I wasn't really that sex machine. It was all a hoax."
Still, where most actors in porn remain anonymous, Wrangler rose to stardom. "That's marketing," he says dismissively. "I mean if I was going to do it, I didn't want to be unknown. I'm sort of an achiever."
Ask him whether he was any good in these movies and he will shake his head, "Oh, I haven't a clue. I never looked at any of my stuff. I was just trying to get out of my shell. Whether I accomplished it or not, I really don't know."
Wrangler's father was more than a little puzzled by where his son's celebrity would take him. "He said, 'I hope you know what your next chess move is going to be,' and of course I didn't. As the years go on, it looks more planned than it was. I didn't realize that the Edinburgh Arts Festival was going to invite me over to show my body of work. So to speak."
He parlayed the public's fascination with the porn industry into an autobiography, The Jack Wrangler Story: What's A Nice Boy Like You Doing? And he wrote and starred in his own off-Broadway one-man show, a "tongue-in-cheek" tell-all about his film career.
One evening, former big-band songstress Margaret Whiting, now 80, was in the audience and a curious thing happened. The sexually ambiguous Wrangler fell in love.
"I couldn't understand it at all," he recalls. "I was shooting two films, one gay, one straight. It was really schizophrenic. So I'm going, 'I think I just fell in love with this woman. How is this going to work?'
"We're been together now for 25 years."
True, there is a 22-year difference in their ages, but over time, even the tabloid papers have come to accept their improbable relationship. "They haven't been as rough on us as they have been on other people," Wrangler says. "Sometimes they'll say something below the belt, but it doesn't happen that much anymore."
"I don't understand why people don't understand our being together," says Whiting. "He has a great sense of humor and he keeps me laughing all the time."
Whiting, the daughter of composer-band leader Richard Whiting, is Wrangler's connection to the world of Johnny Mercer. She was virtually adopted by Mercer after her father died when she was 8. By 18, she had her first hit song with Mercer's That Old Black Magic.
The Savannah-born lyricist has added such pop standards as Skylark, Blues in the Night, One for My Baby and Something's Gotta Give to the public consciousness and earned four Academy Awards for musical numbers ranging from On the Acheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe to Moon River.
Since his death in 1976, Whiting has helped control the performance rights to his song catalogue as head of the Johnny Mercer Foundation. That led to Dream, in which Whiting appeared on Broadway with Wrangler credited with the show's "Mercer visualization," a term even he has trouble explaining.
Both agree that the Broadway version was an overproduced botch job. Wrangler lays much of the blame for its failure at the feet of director-choreographer Wayne Cilento. "It was really beautiful, but it became less about Johnny's lyrics and more about dance," suggests Wrangler.
Now, almost eight years later, he has persuaded co-producer Cuillo, who personally lost $2 million on the Broadway show, to sink more money into a revised Dream.
"It can be charming," insists Whiting of the Mercer revue, which she won't be appearing in this time. "He's a great songwriter. It's got all the ingredients. I think it's something that all Florida would love."
And if so, Cuillo has big plans for the show. "I think Dream could tour the country, but first I'd like to see it play Vegas," he says. "We got off on the wrong track the first time around and it was a busy season in New York, but those who saw it left humming to the music. We're going to do it right this time and when it's right, I could see taking it back to Broadway too."
If Wrangler can succeed where more experienced theater professionals failed, it would be a coup for the man who still struggles to get out from under the cloud of his X-rated former life. Wrangler, characteristically, does not see it that way.
"Whenever anything works right, I always figure it's Johnny's doing," he says. "I know that sounds altruistic, but it's true. I think we have a very entertaining show, but that's easy with all those wonderful songs."
Still, Wrangler wouldn't mind if Dream were so well received that it overshadows his work on, say, A Night at the Adonis or Summer in Heat. But he doubts it.
"I have no regrets. I was never ashamed of anything I did. It wasn't really that big a deal," he says of his film career. "It's just that as time goes on, things that you've done that were somewhat colorful 30 years ago become so much more colorful in retrospect."