Neal Marshall

StageNotes: The Flamingo Kid

Neal Marshall

From Long Island Cabana Boy to Hollywood Screenwriter and Producer, Neal Marshall reflects on The Flamingo Kid with Hartford Stage Artistic Associate Rachel Alderman

Neal Marshall“That long drive…going from Brooklyn to the beach club, that was a real journey,” said Emmy-nominated producer and screenwriter Neal Marshall from his home in Los Angeles. Marshall co-wrote the screenplay for the 1984 movie The Flamingo Kid, famously starring Matt Dillon as Jeffrey, a cabana boy, with the late director-screenwriter Garry Marshall (no relation), known for such classics as Happy Days, The Odd Couple, Pretty Woman, and The Princess Diaries. Less known, however, is the intimate connection between the movie’s main character and his real-life inspiration—Neal Marshall himself.

Back in the early 1960s, Marshall related, traveling from Brooklyn to the beaches on the south shore of Long Island felt like venturing into another world. And, while his parents made the move from the boroughs to the suburbs, as was common for many Jewish families at the time, they were never part of the “showy” and “glitzy” world of Long Island—having survived the Depression and World War II, they were just proud to own a house and have a car. Other members of the family stayed in Brooklyn, like Marshall’s Uncle Arthur, who became the basis for the upright, working-class father in the movie. Arthur, Marshall recalled, was a man who wanted nothing to do with the upwardly-mobile nouveau riche. When Marshall landed his first real job as a cabana boy on Long Island, his summers were spent serving scotch and coke to the wealthy gin players who perched at tables in the sand from morning until midnight. He even managed to pay his college expenses with tips from patrons who would “give you twenty bucks and never ask for the change.”

Marshall arrived in Hollywood in the late 1960s as a junior writer on variety shows and as a producer of small music shows, but he never forgot those pivotal summers, and the moment when the values of his more modest upbringing clashed with those of his glamorous surroundings at the beach club. He started taking screenwriting classes and keeping “something that could resemble a diary” about his summer experiences. Ten years after Marshall wrote his first draft, the screenplay of The Flamingo Kid was picked up as a movie. Noticeably, although the Jewish experience had been central to Marshall’s original conception, the movie studio decided that the script would have more universal appeal if the Jewishness of the family at its center was removed. Jeffrey’s family in the film, originally the Weinbergs, were renamed the Willises, and at one point, they even say grace at the dinner table.

Now, as the movie becomes a musical, 35 years later, Marshall feels that the musical has evolved beyond his personal story to become something greater. “I just love the way that the story really has been written [to focus] on the family,” he noted, while praising the “added value” of the show’s music and dialogue. The musical has also embraced the story’s Jewish roots—the Willises of the movie are now the Winnicks in the theatre. And for all the differences between screen and stage, the heart of the story remains the same. “For me,” Marshall said, “It wasn’t as much a coming-of-age story as an 18-year-old boy who has his value system tested for the first time…When it’s tested, that’s when you really have to hang onto it.”