Robert Burke Warren talks Buddy Holly, Uncle Rock and The Dumb Waiter

Robert Burke Warren and Clay Tyson in The Dumb Waiter.

Robert Burke Warren is a married, working dad who makes a solid living (I wish…maybe “works steadily”) as rock star for the sandbox set as Uncle Rock; he’s a journalist who finished two “warm-up novels” and, at the end of the month returns to his acting roots in a PAW revival of Harold Pinter’s first hit “The Dumb Waiter.” Having just completed his weekly morning Uncle Rock set at the First Steps Preschool, RBW catches up with me at Maria’s for cappuccino fueled chat.

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TW: I seem to recall you’ve been doing a lot of stuff all at once for a while now, Robert, but —begin at the beginning if you would?


RBW: Sure — I grew up in Atlanta, raised by a single mom. I went to Performing Arts High School, majored in theater, minored in music. I started playing bass at 15; at 18 I played in a band with Ru Paul, the now world-famous drag queen…one great front man. I was primarily a bass player and sideman until my early twenties, around then I started focusing more on guitar and songwriting. I am still most comfortable as a bassist.

TW: And your first acting job came with?

RBW: At 18, I auditioned and was cast in a small role in a Gary Busey movie about Bear Bryant, which made me SAG eligible — and I’m still a member. In 1985 I moved to Manhattan and replaced the original bass-player for The Fleshtones and toured a few years.

TW: They had quite a following…

RBW: They did — they never had a lot of radio success but they were very popular in Europe as a touring band. And it wasn’t a lot of money but it was almost a living wage, especially for somebody in their early twenties. I met Holly (his wife, writer Holly George Warren) while I was in the Fleshtones. She was an editor at American Baby magazine by day and playing in — get this — a punk rock polka band by night. We fell deeply in love and got married in 1989. She wanted to go freelance and write about music, I wanted to be a famous songwriter/performer, and in addition to the usual vows, we pledged to help each other in those pursuits. That was 23 years ago.

TW: Wow!…And — I believe — you studied acting in New York?

RBW: Yes, I did–I studied at Atlantic Theater Co. Classes taught by Bill Macy–

TW: Before he was William H. Macy…

RBW: Right. He hadn’t done anything big yet.

TW: Before “normal looking people” had become huge actors?

RBW: Pretty much, yeah. We also had an occasional class with David Mamet, Giancarlo Esposito, Felicity Huffman. It was a great experience, which fired me up again. I started auditioning because I’ve always done music and acting side by side, and writing too, although in the last five years or so, I’ve done more writing.

TW: But back then…

RBW: So let’s see…got cast in a couple short films that got broadcast, some black box theater plays, some paying gigs. In 1994 I got cast as Buddy Holly in the London production of the jukebox musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.

TW: Tell me a bit about that…

RBW: Buddy was written by a couple of Englishmen and was a huge success in the West End and in regional theater and on tours throughout the world. It opened in London in ‘89 and ran for 22 years. The only place it ever flopped was Broadway, where it ran in 1990. By the time I saw the casting notice, it had been running for six years in the West End and on a UK tour. So I got the gig and went to the UK for a year, where I did the role on the road and in the West End. I learned 17 Buddy tunes and sang, played a Strat and acted in a three-hour play on an average of five times a week. Holly (wife, not Buddy) came over several times during that year. Back in New York City, she’d taken a plum job at Rolling Stone, as the head of their book publishing division Rolling Stone Press. After a year, I quit and came home. Someone was waiting in the wings to replace me.

TW: And you were already part-time up here by then?

RBW: Right. In 1990 we rented Jeremy Wilber’s Deming St house as a weekend getaway and lo and behold we fell under the spell of the Hudson Valley. We purchased a cabin in Chichester in ‘91. After Buddy, I decided I’d leave off chasing the White Stag of Fame for awhile. I just dropped it all and became a full time dad — which was really the most focused time in my life. I mean, you always hope to be paid for what you love to do. And occasionally it happens. I make a decent wage as Uncle Rock…

TW: Which came as something of a surpise.

RBW: Totally — if someone had told me that I’d be doing this and enjoying it when I was in my

twenties, I would have said they were crazy…We had just moved up here and I got a job

as a teacher’s assistant at the School of the New Moon. Ages two to five.

TW: Wow! Was that a humbling experience or a neat fit?

RBW: I loved it! And yes it was a humbling experience. But it was also a life-changer. I’d already been a stay-at-home-dad for four years — the happiest years of my life, actually…So Christine Oliveira hired me just as my son Jack was leaving the school. And I worked there for four years, which was quite an education for me.

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TW: So how old was Jack when you did the first Uncle Rock.

RBW: Jack was seven.

TW: And I’d guess a lot of the music was written for him.

RBW: It was — it was father/son project