On most of his work evenings, Dallas singer Ricki Derek is the very substance of smooth.
He strides onto a stage in a well-cut suit (and an occasional tumbler of bourbon), and launches into his treatment of the Great American Songbook — the stuff Sinatra, Dino, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Tom Jones, Bobby Darin and Sammy Davis Jr. polished to a high shine.
But on the last weekend of October, Derek dons a wig, sits down for a full face of paint and shrugs into a cape. Suddenly, he’s Grampula — a geriatric vampire who fires goofy jokes during Cirque du Horror, an original Halloween musical created and performed in Denton.
Derek is the son of an Army brat mom who saw Frank Sinatra perform in concert several times. But the influence of his mother’s musical tastes would lie dormant for a while.
“I was in rock bands, singing and drumming,” Derek said. “I came to the big band music later. I’d hear Sinatra and those guys growing up, and I sang it to somebody at a party and people were blown away. It made me stop and think, ‘What is this?’”
Derek put together a set of music from the big band era.
“It started out with me being a show guy instead of being a music guy,” he said. “I started performing solo in any bar that would have me, just singing with back tracks. After a while, it felt cheesy to do that — to sing over tracks — and I didn’t want to do that show anymore, even though people wanted that.”
Eventually, Derek assembled a band and created a live act of music made famous by Sinatra, Dino, Sammy David Jr. and Torme. Now, he’s a partner in a Dallas club and a restaurant.
“I was certainly nervous about that,” Derek said. “You step into the role of producer, and it’s a little scary because everybody is going to get paid even if no one shows up. You’ve got 16 guys who are reading sheet music – I was already working with really talented guys — and you’ve got to come through for them.”
As he built his act, Derek hired Denton resident and composer David Pierce to play trombone in the band. Then Pierce became Derek’s arranger, charting songs from Sinatra and Co.’s catalog especially for Derek’s act.
“I’m not a trained guy, I’m not a saxophone player and I’m not a trained jazz guy,” he said. “There are some nights I look around and realize I’m surrounded by some of the best musicians in the world.”
Derek said he and Pierce have a similar sense of humor. They made a record together, and Derek said he had a Hollywood-style Christmas show — a polished, appealing show that entertainers like Andy Williams made famous — to pitch to Pierce.
“We met at a La Madeleine in Lewisville, and I was like, ‘Hey, I want to do this big Christmas show.’ And he’s like, ‘I want to help you with that, but I want to do a big Halloween show and I want you to help me with that.’ I was like, ‘O.K.,’” Derek said.
That Halloween show was Cirque du Horror. And Derek would play the role of Grampula.
“For years in Dallas I did this show Night ‘Oh’ Cabaret at the Lakewood Theatre – I was kind of sick of the Sinatra thing — I told them I wanted to do this Borscht Belt, vaudeville thing. Me and my partner came up with this idea.
“I came up with a geriatric vampire, but it was more Ben Gay jokes, and how slowly I approached my victims and how I needed a scooter,” Derek said.
He borrowed the character for Cirque.
“What happened with Dave’s show was that there were all these set changes, and we were at Dan’s Silverleaf and there was no room to work around those set changes,” Derek said. “We realized that we needed someone to cover those changes. I dusted him off, and did him for the show.”
Derek changed Grampula up a little. He was more of a direct reference to Dracula — but a little past his prime. Wearing a salt-and-pepper wig worthy of an Elvis impersonator, oversize glasses with yellow lenses and a painted-on pair of fangs, Derek messes with the audience while leaning on a dapper cane, telling groan-inducing jokes to keep the crowd entertained while the stage crew sets up the next sketch.
“There’s this back and forth between me and the audience,” Derek said. “I might find a kid that needs to be messed with. I have this sour puss vibe. I make fun of Dan’s, I make fun of the audience.”
Grampula gets his share of love from the audience. He peppers improvisation with scripted jokes, but mostly, he said he follows the audience’s energy.
“There’s years where they’re so on board, I’m surprised they aren’t wearing Grampula T-shirts,” he said. “I never know what I’m getting...I try to stay super nowhere, if that makes sense. I might get a little bit topical, but I try to keep it completely in the Cirque tent. I have tried little political things a few times and they’ve fallen flat.”
Pierce and Derek don’t shy away from adolescent humor, either. Among Grampula’s problems — arthritis, grumpiness and a short fuse for youthful nonsense — he has gas. A recurring bit is a blast from the brass section followed by an apology from Grampula and a wave of his cape.
“I’m not sure where the noise came from — I’d definitely talked about being gassy because that’s an old person thing,” he said. “There’s bad vision, blood pressure problems and all the things old people talk about. The noise, though, definitely came from Pierce.”
Derek said he plans to be part of Cirque du Horror as long as Pierce produces it and needs Grampula to antagonize the crowd with more than a hint of fondness.
“I love what he’s become in the show,” Derek said. “It’s all Pierce’s show. I love Grampula and how much the audience has really accepted him. They love him. They want to get a picture with him. It’s a lot of work. During the show, and at the end, when we’ve had a great time and pulled through, if Pierce is happy, we are. When he comes backstage and is cracking up, it’s a great feeling.”