James Darren shares memories and melodies


James “Jimmy” Darren will be in flight tonight, heading from the West Coast back to his native Philadelphia for the first time in about two years.

His last performance near his hometown was at Lancaster’s American Music Theater about five years ago. But that will change 8 p.m. Friday when he takes the stage for “An Evening with James Darren” at the Landis Theater in Vineland, N.J.

“I just hope the people are very receptive. I hope they can’t get enough of me. And I love when an audience is vocal,” the Lower Moyamensing native said, noting a fan in Las Vegas yelling, “‘I love you. I love you,’” during a performance last month, as well as his offering another fan his glasses jokingly after she proclaimed, “Oh, you look better than you did before.”

“I do talk to the audience. I don’t just come out and sing songs like a zombie. I communicate with the people. That’s one of the joys of performing.”

During his show, he will play video selections from his movie and TV career and perform classics like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “Night and Day,” as well as his own hits, such as “Gidget” and “Goodbye Cruel World.”

“It’s a mixture of tunes, but it’s got a great flow,” Darren, 76, said last week from his Beverly Hills home where he resides with his wife of 52 years, Evy Norlund. “It seems to go by in no time at all. Even when I’m on my last song, I think, ‘My God, that was short.’”

Although his time on stage might fly by, he hopes to make his few days back home count by speaking at a veterans’ home in Vineland Saturday before visiting relatives still residing in South Philly and Jersey and hitting up his old South Philly buddies, like singer Bobby Rydell, originally of 11th and Porter streets, and disc jockey Jerry Blavat, a 17th-and-Mifflin-streets native.

“I need that fix now and then and I miss it,” Darren, who grew up on the 2400 block of South 10th Street, said of South Philly. “It’s just I’ve been busy here working on projects. I’ve directed TV shows, like I’ve been working with a friend who is putting together a low-budget film and talking about me directing it.”

While in town, he also plans to eat at Ralph’s Italian Restaurant, 760 S. Ninth St., and consume a few Philly cheesesteaks.

“I got to go to Jim’s Steaks, [400 South St.,] Geno’s [Steaks, 1219 S. Ninth St.,] and Pat’s [King of Steaks, 1237 E. Passyunk Ave.],” he said. “I go to all three because I love all three.”

The food, along with a stroll through his old stomping grounds, causes Darren, who owned a home on the 1200 block of Wolf Street until about 10 years ago, to reminisce.

“I love walking the streets where I did when I was kid around 10th street,” Darren said. “A lot of places are gone, like the Colonial Theatre, [1025-1031 W. Moyamensing Ave.]. … I just like walking the streets there. It just brings back so many memories.

Known for his roles on the big and small screens, the actor/singer/director could not pinpoint a highlight when looking back on his career thus far.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve had a great experience,” he said. “I can’t think of one thing I did where I did not have a blast.”

But he admitted that belting out the tunes has been his favorite passion.

“Only because it’s what comes totally natural to me. I just — I sing,” he said. “When I do acting jobs, it takes a lot of extra work to find the character I’m playing and hopefully I make the right selections, the right choices in the scenes I do. Directing is the same thing only a million times more severe because it really takes a lot of preparation.”

His love for singing will shine through on his follow-up to his 2001 release, “Because of You,” which he expects to finish in about three months.

“They’re older ’60s and ’70s tunes with a new kind of twist — not the old standards like ‘Because of You’ or ‘Night and Day,’” he said of the album’s content, adding song’s like “Spanish Harlem” or “You Send Me” could make the cut.

As a boy, Darren, born James Ercolani, sang for his grandmother, Clara DiJosie, who would pay him a dime a song, with her favorite being “Bésame Mucho.”

“It was my first paying job,” he said. “Then she boosted that up to 25 cents. She was a big supporter.”

Starting at age 14, he gained more experience when his father arranged unpaid gigs at bars and clubs across the city. Darren recalled one such night at a North Philly watering hole called The White Elephant.

“There was a stripper and a sax player on the bill,” he said. “I sang with the sax player unfortunately.”

In his late teens, he began to take acting lessons in New York City and earned a contract with Columbia Pictures. He shot to stardom with “Gidget” in 1959 and went on to appear in more films, such as two “Gidget” sequels and “The Guns of Naverone,” in the early ’60s. He compiled numerous albums since ’60 and moved to the small screen with shows, such as “The Time Tunnel” in ’66, “T.J. Hooker” in ’82, and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” in ’98.

But he was one of many talents to hail from South Philly in that time. One inspired another, he said, noting the late Eddie Fisher, a singer from Fifth and Porter streets who found success in the ’50s, motivated him.

“If they can do it, I can do it,” Darren said of his mindset at the time. “If you have a love for the arts, this makes you pursue it with more determination. That plays a big part if you know someone who lives by you and they become popular doing what you dream of doing.”

Darren will continue his dream tomorrow night and hopes the audience will welcome him home with open arms.

“Hopefully they like me. Hopefully they enjoy the show. I’ll do my best, I’ll put on my best suit and I’ll be there,” Darren said. 

Visit the event page for ticket details.

Contact Managing Editor Amanda L. Snyder at asnyder@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117. Comment at southphillyreview.com/news/features.