To say that Michael McGiveney can pull a fast one is a gross understatement. In Quick Change, his one-man, 90-minute stage show, he makes 57 costume changes while playing 24 different roles, from King Arthur to Superman to a floozy in a bar. Changes average only three seconds. The 38-year-old performer also manages to sing and dance. To establish a character, McGiveney adjusts his voice, gestures and posture in an instant. He even seems to change height, sometimes appearing as tall as 6’6″ and as small as 5′. (Actually he’s 6′ even.)
McGiveney does not use reversible coats, stacked clothing or zippers (too risky). The only trick, he swears, is slick coordination between himself and two assistants and “the way they hold the costumes. Sometimes I literally leap into a pair of trousers.” Observers are not permitted backstage because, the actor says, like the Indy 500 pit stop, “It’s too dangerous.”
The revue includes a skit adapted from Dickens’ Oliver Twist, in which McGiveney plays the muscular, mean-tempered Bill Sikes; the conspiratorial Fagin; delicate Nancy, clad in Victorian dress and shawl; top-hatted Monks, and the stooped Artful Dodger.
Michael is struggling to keep alive a theatrical tradition perfected by his father, Owen, who made “McGiveney” a synonym in the acting lexicon for a lightning-fast costume change. When Owen came to the U.S. from England in 1912 to work the vaudeville circuit, he brought along the so-called “Bill Sikes act,” which he had performed in London’s music halls.
To his delight, Michael, the youngest of his three children, wanted to learn the quick-change business. By the time the boy finished high school in L.A., he was good enough to appear on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. After a stint in the Marines, he performed on Milton Berle and Tonight. But it wasn’t a living, and Michael became a lighting designer and production manager for Johnny Mathis, Vikki Carr, Peggy Fleming’s Concert on Ice and the Ice Follies. There he met and was married briefly to skater Inge Schilling in 1969.
While attending an est seminar in 1975, McGiveney resolved again to make the quick-change show a sustaining gig. “I realized how much I wanted to perform the act,” he says. “It was up to me to figure out how.” He sold his condominium to raise $50,000 for sets, costumes and a rehearsal studio, which for a time doubled as his pad. Private investors were wary. “To be the only person in the world doing this kind of act makes you a dinosaur, which is fine,” says McGiveney. “But what do you do with a dinosaur?”
Television was not the answer—the director can pull a McGiveney by flipping switches in the control room. A live audience helps make the show work, explains Michael, “because while people are wondering what’s going on backstage, they become unaware of the time I’m off.”
McGiveney is planning a fall tour of colleges. Meanwhile, at his rented Van Nuys, Calif. duplex he is perfecting a 15-minute Western skit (above) in which he’s cast as sheriff, Mae West-style saloon keeper, outlaw, prospector and Indian. “With this act I’m breaking the umbilical cord,” declares Michael. “This is my creation, not my father’s.” But the satisfaction with his show goes even deeper. “In today’s computer world we’re all numbers,” says McGiveney. “Being a one-of-a-kind actor adds to my sense of individuality.”