Hello, Hello Conrad!

One of my favorite musicals happens to be BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963). George Sidney’s film satirized America’s obsession with the burgeoning pop culture of its day and lampooned the perpetual and (often) manufactured hype surrounding music idols like Elvis Presley and bands like The Beatles. The jokes occasionally fall flat, but the lively musical numbers more than makes up for any of the script’s hiccups, and it’s a film I like returning to again and again. Following the media onslaught of Grammy Award stories this week, it seemed like a good time to revisit this pop music spoof. So let’s forget about Justin Bieber for a moment, and let me introduce you to Conrad Birdie.

The cast of BYE BYE BIRDIE is terrific and includes stand-out performances from funnymen Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde, as well as Janet Leigh and the real-world teen idol Bobby Rydell. The beautiful red-headed tornado known as Ann-Margret is often rightfully singled out for her star-making performance, but today I’d like to turn the spotlight on Bobby Wayne “Jesse” Pearson, who plays the raucous music icon Conrad Birdie. I’ve always found Pearson’s audacious performance as the confident rock star who seduces the entire female populace of a small Ohio town with a few swings of his hips and strums on his guitar to be one of the highlights of this madcap musical. But while doing a little background research on the man, I was surprised by the lack of information available, so I started to dig deep into various news and history archives in an effort to learn more about Pearson. What I found really surprised me, and some of the facts seem to contradict information that can be found on sites like IMDB and Wikipedia, which is worth sharing.

The film began life as a stage production, and the part of Conrad Birdie was originally played by the Tony-nominated actor Richard Gautier. I don’t know why the part was recast with Jesse Pearson, but I applaud the decision because Pearson’s animated performance has become one of the reasons why I return to BYE BYE BIRDIE so often.

To really appreciate Pearson’s portrayal of Conrad Birdie it’s important to understand that the character wasn’t solely based on Elvis Presley. Birdie was an amalgamation of two popular musical figures from the late 1950s, Elvis and one of his most fierce rivals at the time, Conway Twitty. Today the idea that Conway Twitty posed any threat to Elvis tends to generate loud guffaws, but back in 1958 when the play was originally written that wasn’t the case. After Elvis was drafted into the U.S. Army many worried that he’d be forgotten by his adoring public, which was mostly made up of fickle teenagers, and some up-and-coming recording artists tried to muscle in on his fame. One of Elvis’ biggest competitors at the time was Conway Twitty.

Before Twitty carved out a name for himself in the country music world, he released some very successful rock-n-roll records such as “It’s Only Make Believe” and “Lonely Boy Blue” (a song originally titled “Danny” and written for the Elvis’ film KING CREOLE. Some thought Twitty sounded so much like Elvis in his early recordings that they assumed the King of Rock and Roll was releasing new material under an assumed name. Twitty undoubtedly held a lot of appeal for the more conservative country and western fans who may have found Elvis’s hip-swiveling performances too threatening but enjoyed his singing style.

To his credit, Jesse Pearson was able to humorously incorporate gestures and quirks from both Presley and Twitty into his spirited portrayal of Conrad Birdie, but he additionally brings a more threatening element to the character that’s reminiscent of Larry “Lonesome” Rhoads as played by Andy Griffith in A FACE ON THE CROWD (1957). Birdie is all suave smiles and suggestive winks, but he’s also sleazy and manipulating. When he leers at young Ann-Margret with that tousled mop of greasy hair, it’s easy to imagine fangs protruding from his mouth. He wants viewers to find the character of Birdie both strangely appealing as well as dangerous, and we do. But Pearson is also having a blast, and that’s what makes him so fun to watch. With a thrust of his pelvis and a curl of his lip, Pearson turns Conrad Birdie into a Loony Tunes version of an American pop idol. He’s pure cartoon in a gold lamé jumpsuit and seems to have stepped right out of a Frank Tashlin production. His rubber face and 6’3” frame are perfectly at home in front of the camera, which makes it difficult to understand why his career seemed to flounder after making the film.

“…When Jesse Pearson in the riotously gross and gilded role of a hip-swiveling, rubber-lipped jive-crooner bounces into the young people’s midst and tears the girls (and some of their mothers) to tatters with his howling of “Honestly Sincere” the picture reaches the high point of its satire and cinematic speed.”
– Bosley Crowther for the New York Times

Pearson went on to appear in just one more film, the underwhelming Civil War comedy ADVANCE TO THE REAR (1964), and narrated two other films, MANSON (1973) and THE NORSEMAN (1978). But the tall actor and entertainer spent most of his short life working in television, where he was often asked to revive the character of Conrad Birdie. One of his most noteworthy appearances was on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, where he played another singing sensation.

Pearson also recorded a couple of good singles for RCA and narrated two albums of poetry by Walt Whitman and Rod McKuen, who considered him a friend. On MCkuen’s website he shares some stories about working with Pearson, who he hired as his assistant in-between acting jobs. McKuen glosses over questions about Pearson’s sexuality when someone suggests he may have been gay, but the poet expresses genuine remorse about his friend’s short career, which came to an end in 1979 when Pearson died after contracting cancer at age 49.

“He (Jesse Pearson) was a kind, sweet, handsome and more than a little complicated man. In the hands of the right agents and managers, his charm, acting ability and lanky good looks should have made him a natural for film and TV work.”
– Rod McKuen

During the last years of his life, Pearson did find some success writing and directing adult films, including PRO-BALL CHEERLEADERS (1979) and THE LEGEND OF LADY BLUE (1978), which garnered him a number of AFAA (Adult Film Association of America) Awards but today he’s best remembered as the unforgettable Conrad Birdie.

On numerous websites, Bobby Wayne “Jesse” Pearson’s place of birth is cited as Oklahoma, but I question that assumption. Pearson may have come from Oklahoma to Hollywood, but census records suggest that he was actually born in Louisiana’s Union Parish on August 18, 1930 where he may have grown up on a houseboat near the bayous. A 1963 interview he did with Jeannie Sakol that I recently unearthed seems to confirm this discovery. In their exchange Pearson describes his early years helping his parents hunt alligators in Louisiana and claims that it was his grandfather, a “fiery evangelist preacher,” who encouraged him to start singing.

Pearson apparently found himself in Texas in 1949 because I came across a yearbook for the Baptist Baylor University in Waco that includes a picture of him as a college freshman, but in the ’63 interview he claims that he was forced to drop out of high school at age 15 and avoids offering up any more details about his childhood. This suggests to me that he was a troubled youth who was eager to forget his past.

In the interview, Pearson goes on to express his immense love of traveling, painting, and reading while mentioning some of his favorite authors, including Ray Bradbury, J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, and James Joyce. And he has some advice for young men reading the interview who may be jealous of their girlfriend’s interest in pop icons, much like the teenage boys in BYE BYE BIRDIE.

“Like the girls in the movie, most young women live in two separate worlds: the tinsel land of make-believe where someone like Conrad Birdie carries them away on a gold-plated motorcycle and the everyday life of school, family and a nice young man to help with homework and take them to the prom.”
– Jesse Pearson

It’s a shame that a skilled director like Frank Tashlin didn’t come along and take advantage of Jesse Pearson’s comedic talents, but at least we have his bold, brash and colorful performance in BYE BYE BIRDIE to enjoy. The film’s received plenty of mixed reviews over the years but I agree with my fellow TCM Morlock Jeff Stafford who wrote that “BYE BYE BIRDIE really captures the irresistible appeal of rock ‘n roll, particularly with Conrad Birdie’s first appearance in the film.” In Jeff’s write-up for TCM he goes on to quote musician Marshall Crenshaw who calls Pearson’s screen debut “one of the all-time classic movie entrances: hauling ass on a motorcycle flanked by his two lieutenants, each with a candy-apple-red Fender Jazz Bass strapped to his back. The three of them screech to a halt as the two sidemen dismount and raise their Jazz Basses over their heads to form an Arc de Triomphe through which Conrad slowly walks. Wow!”

Wow indeed!

By Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for TCM.com on January 30, 2014