In Buzz Bellmont’s world, the play isn’t just the thing. It’s the only thing.
by Donalevan Maines • Photo by Mark Hiebert
Buzz Bellmont might be ubiquitous today, but just last summer his theater reviews seemed to be lost in some Internet no–man’s–land.
Even he couldn’t find them.
He had written three pieces for the Houston Chronicle’s chron.Commons online collection of reader blogs, he says, “when I called the blog editor and asked why I couldn’t find them.
“He kind of chuckled! He said, ‘Do you realize how many hundreds of thousands of bloggers there are out there?’”
Bellmont was advised that the key to a successful blog is consistency, so he should keep going to shows, submitting reviews, and hope that his efforts eventually got noticed.
“I was consistent at producing a huge number of reviews. I wrote 20 pieces a month,” he says. “Before I knew it, all of my pieces were highlighted on the chron.Commons lead page. Everything just kind of took off.”
It gets even better. Today, he’s featured smack dab in the middle of the Chronicle’s online entertainment page.
Want to know the buzz on theater in Houston, around the state, and even on Broadway? Go to “Ticker,” the paper’s latest blog posts on pop culture, music, art, and food. There’s a link to Bellmont’s latest review. His work “could not be better displayed,” he says.
The secret to Bellmont’s quick rise in the blogosphere? “I believed it was important, as far as promoting theater, that the more voices you have, the better. There needed to be more than two or three voices out there. It was finally a combination of consistency and me being brought to [Chronicle editors’] attention and finally realizing that I was that voice.”
Buzz Bellmont was born on June 25, 1953, at Hermann Hospital. He grew up on Brentwood Drive, and attended River Oaks Elementary, T.H. Rogers Junior High, and Lamar High School. He started piano as a child, and sang in choirs in junior high, but steered clear of music and theater at Lamar. “Somehow, it didn’t seem to be cool,” he laughs. “Only nerds were in the choir.”
Bellmont entered Emory University in Atlanta as a pre-med major, but those classes paled in comparison to the enjoyment he got from his extracurricular
activities, singing in the Glee Club, playing Hero in the campus production of A
Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and tap-dancing as a sailor in Anything Goes.
After two years, he transferred to the University of Texas in Austin, where his father had grown up on W. 31st Street, and a 10-story addition to the Longhorns’ football stadium was named after his grandfather, L. Theo Bellmont, the school’s first athletic director. (Prominent relatives on his mother’s side of the family include Bellmont’s cousin Hugo V. Neuhaus Jr., the late Houston architect who had been chairman of the Texas Commission on the Arts. In 1987, the Alley Theatre named its arena stage in honor of Neuhaus.)
At UT, Bellmont concentrated on English, Spanish, and art history.
“My first job after that expensive education, I was a piano player and singer at the Driskill Hotel. You know I was doing show tunes,” he winks.
However, after six months, he returned to Houston where he worked briefly for his father, a real estate broker, before getting the wild idea to move to New York.
“It was fabulous!” he says. “I was a waiter at Ted Hooks’ Backstage restaurant, next door to the Martin Beck Theater on W. 45th Street.” (It’s now the Al Hirschfield Theatre, re-named in 2003 after the caricaturist famed for drawing Broadway celebrities.) “Everyone who was in a show on Broadway came in,” he beams. “I could give you a list of 50 stars I waited on.”
Bellmont also took acting and singing lessons, worked as a model, and appeared in several off-Broadway showcases. “I actually got very close to being in a Broadway play in a featured role,” he says. “I think I was well on my way, and if I had stuck with it, I might have pursued my show-business dreams.”
What he couldn’t bear, he says, was the casting couch. “I thought, ‘If this is what it’s all about, if this is what I need to do . . .’ I really struggled [before deciding that] ‘I simply cannot do this,’” he says.
Bellmont packed Miss Bag and was back home in time for the ’80s.
New York theater’s loss was Houston’s gain. Bellmont not only acted in a number of local productions (“I was the first person naked on stage in Houston,” he says of his role in Bent), but in the late ’80s he began reviewing theater for Public News, a weekly newspaper headquartered in Montrose. “I knew every actor in town, and I knew the inner workings of theater,” says Bellmont, “so people loved that about my critiques, I think. I feel that most critics spend too much space on the synopsis of the show and too little on criticism and opinion.” Also, having enjoyed reading Broadway reviews by Brooks Atkinson, in particular, and Liz Smith, “who had a great slant that made her column so interesting,” Bellmont developed an inimitable style of accentuating the positive while often revealing his personal connection to the material.
In addition to acting, Bellmont’s life in the theater has included writing original music for shows, including a one-act musical at UT. He’s also tried his hand at writing a novel and a play.
Perhaps his most ambitious project to date is a screenplay based on a murder that rocked Houston’s LGBT community in 1986. On April 3 of that year, the body of a woman found in Lake Livingston on March 23 was identified as that of Patrice LeBlanc, roommate of Clifford Youens, a female impersonator who performed in gay clubs as Brandi West. LeBlanc had been stabbed 39 times, bound in a comforter, and chained to concrete blocks.
Prosecutors claimed that Youens killed LeBlanc after she rejected his romantic overtures. In December 1986, a jury in San Jacinto County found Youens guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
Bellmont traveled to Huntsville “four or five times” to interview Youens in prison. “He has always maintained he didn’t do it,” says Bellmont, who copyrighted his script in 1987 with the title Murder at Tiffany’s. Youens’ character is fictionalized as Tiffany East, a nod to both “Brandi West” and late entertainer Tiffany Jones. “It’s now a period piece of 1985,” says Bellmont, hinting that Murder at Tiffany’s might surface someday as a film or stage adaptation.
But for now, Bellmont’s gift to local theater fans is reviewing shows with the same commitment he gives back to the gay community as a weekly resident caregiver at Omega House, a residential hospice for those in the final stages of AIDS.
Both activities are labors of love.
“Theater, number one, needs promoting, especially little theaters,” says Bellmont, who often is accompanied at show openings by Randy Puddu, his partner of seven years. “I’m a theater critic because I love the theater and I want to promote it,” Bellmont says. “And there’s so much great theater in Houston.”
Donalevan Maines is the author of two plays that have been performed on the Neuhaus Stage at the Alley Theatre. He is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.