In the small town of Clinton, NY sits a quaint little restaurant called Jeanie Bean and Family. Built within an old former general store, it is a popular eatery for both locals and diners driving through the hamlet of Clinton’s Corners. Currently owned by Jennifer Bean Cahill, the restaurant was opened by her parents, David and Jean (Jeanie) Bean, and has been a staple of the community for over four decades. Although now semi-retired, David Bean still comes to the restaurant every day, where he can be found helping with different tasks throughout the restaurant, but primarily greeting and entertaining guests. But while he may seem like just another whimsical gentleman from a sleepy small town, David Bean has lived an extraordinary life. Constantly changing directions and challenging himself, David has had 26 different careers in his lifetime, which has brought him in contact with historical figures and legendary entertainers and given him a lifetime of stories. But out of all his careers, the most notable and interesting to the public is David’s life in musical theatre where, amongst other roles, David was a Lost Boy in the original Broadway production of Peter Pan, and a Jet in both the first London production and film version of West Side Story where he played Tiger, a member of the Jets. Although he’s lived many lives since, both of these experiences have stayed with David for over 60 years.
A master storyteller, David has collected the events of his life in a new book, When You’re a Jet: A Dancer’s Extraordinary, Ordinary Life. In it he chronicles his stories, from his early days tap dancing as a child in Los Angeles dance studios to his adventures on Broadway, the London stage, Hollywood and all the way to that restaurant in Clinton Corners. It’s a fast and fun read, filled with surprises that keep the reader wondering what will happen next. Whether meeting with Helen Keller, dining with Noël Coward, dancing with Marilyn Monroe,The Story or meeting Steven Spielberg on the set of the brand-new West Side Story remake, David Bean’s stories are always interesting and refreshingly positive.
I was excited when I discovered a copy of David’s book in my mailbox with a lovely handwritten note from him, and once I began reading it, I couldn’t put it down. With a lifetime of stories to tell, I knew that we would have lots to talk about when I finally was able to talk with him, and he did not disappoint. David Bean is as delightful to talk to as read.
Sam: I wanted to thank you so much for sending me your book, which I thought was just an absolute delightful read. I absolutely loved it.
David: Well, how wonderful that is. The reviews on the book have been just spectacular. Far more than we ever expected. I can’t say how much it has changed our life. It was a wonderful thing to have done.
Sam: In what sense? How has it changed your life?
David: Well, I’m 82 years old. I spend a lot of time in my garden, and I’m not dancing anymore. But now, because of the book, we are very busy. Tomorrow I have a book reading at one of the local libraries. We spent a few days in New Jersey a number of weeks ago just signing books and photographs. It just made us very busy, which I really wasn’t expecting.
Sam: One of the things that I loved about the book most is how your focus is on all the good things that has happened in your life. It’s a very positive read.
David: That’s indicative of how we live our life. It really is. Jean and I just had our 60th wedding anniversary and It’s been unbelievable. We spent 30 years on Broadway and in the theater and television, and we did a couple of movies. I retired 40 years ago, but people ask if I miss it. Well, when you’re in it, that’s all we’d do. We’d wake up in the morning and our whole life was the theater. You just don’t stop when you retire. This is what I know. So, it’s understandable that we continue doing what we’ve been doing all our lives.
Sam: So, performing stuck with you in all aspects of your life then.
David: Well, that goes right back from when I was a child. I took tap lessons as a child, and I got to the point where my dance teacher said to my mother, “I can’t teach him anymore. You have to send them to North Hollywood to go to Eddie Gay.” Eddie was the top tap teacher at the time. So, my mother drove me to Hollywood three times a week, and it was through her school that I got the audition for Peter Pan. I auditioned to be one of the Lost Boys in Los Angeles for the New York Broadway show, which was unusual. I wasn’t sure what an audition was, but I was told if I knocked it out, I’d get to Broadway and get rich. So, I knocked it out and luckily for me, it was Jerome Robbins who was directing Peter Pan. He loved it, because there wasn’t anything that I wouldn’t do at 180%, which is how I was raised.
Sam: In your book you write a lot about the 180% philosophy which has been part of your success in life. Can you explain its origin and how it works?
David: It’s one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me. As a child, my dad was a junk man. There were six of us in the family and I was the baby. Well, my father would say to me, “David, I’ve got a job for you.” Now, I’d compete for these jobs, but not because we were getting paid. There was no money. But you got a chance to please dad if you did this job. So, he’d say, “I have this job for you to do,” and I’d go, “What is it?” Then my dad would say, “Well, before I tell you what it is I know you’re going to give me 100% on this job.” Well, right away I would reply, “No, I’ll give you 125%. I can do the job.” And then he’d say, “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear, but you know, I’ve been thinking. This is really important. I may need 150%.” Well, I’d reply, ”Dad, I’ll give you 180%.” That started the 180 rule. I don’t think I was more than 11 years old, but the 180% rule has been with me for life. If you find a passion coming from your heart for something, and you’re willing to put 180% into that passion, I guarantee you’ll have success. That’s been our family motto. My daughter has a restaurant that is just absolutely going berserk. It’s doing so well. But she’s not doing it because of all the money she can make. That has nothing to do with it. What’s important is that people love going there because all of the girls on the other side of the counter really want to be there. It’s wonderful, but everybody does the same thing with whatever project they’re doing. It has a lot to do with discipline. If you can find the passion for something and you give it your all, it affects the rest of your life. For instance, I’ve changed careers 26 times.
Sam: Yes. I was surprised how many different things you write about in your book. You constantly changed directions throughout your life, and you’re so multifaceted.
David: We did it for no other reason than the passion of doing it and we were always successful. We would sell one business just to do another one. We didn’t sock away a billion dollars, because that wasn’t the point. The point was that we could do it. If my wife said, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be fun to do that,” I’d listen to her, I think ”Really, how much is there to really do this?” I would do the numbers, and I’d write it down on paper, and I would figure out how to build that company and how to make money on it. After a year, if I felt that we could make $1, we did it. If I can make $1, I can make $100. If I lose $1, we didn’t do it. That’s the difference. I can tell you, it was fun, and half the time we really didn’t know what we were doing.
Sam: It sounds like it was just a natural progression of life and a different type of adventure.
David: It’s so exciting, and our grandchildren are basically doing the same thing now. They work for their mother, they’re going to college, and one’s in the Marines. They all know how to work and it’s just very exciting. So, if you can get that excitement in the things you do, there isn’t anything you can’t do.
Sam: Your book is a real page turner because it never gets boring. You never know who’s going to show up and you never know where you are going to go next. So, you started your career at age 14 in the Broadway production of Peter Pan. That was like starting right at the top, working with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard. Your stories about them in the book are very lovely.
David: Well, I don’t think there was anybody who ever worked with Mary Martin that she didn’t adopt. When I was in another show, Mary came to see it. When I graduated from high school and when I was in West Side Story, Mary knew about it. Mary had to know when I got married. When my daughter was born, Mary had to have pictures. She was absolutely incredible. Once Joan and Jennifer and I took a trip to Chicago just after Thanksgiving to see Cyril. Well, we found out Mary was in town, and we were invited to visit her at her hotel. We knocked on the door, and Mary answered. She knew me and Cyril, but she’d never met Jean or Jennifer before. She didn’t say hello to any of us. She just grabbed Jennifer, who was 11 years old at the time, and brought her into the suite, sat her down, and she opened a scrapbook that she had, and was showing her photos and clippings of me in Peter Pan to her. I remember that she called me when I was trying to get out of high school in California, and she was in New York, and she’d say, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I just finished doing a show in Hollywood and I’m not doing anything from Tuesday on.” Well, she asked if I could be in New York on Thursday night for dinner at the penthouse at seven, and I was to escort her daughter Hilary, who was a year younger than me at the time, to the opera. So, I flew to New York and saw the opera. It was magic. Mary was just the most beautiful person to work with.
Sam: Now you had a very close and beautiful friendship with Cyril Ritchard. He became like a mentor to you, and you two were more like family than just friends. I think your stories about him are very beautiful.
David: Well, I also knew his wife, Madge Elliot, because she was alive during Peter Pan, and she was in rehearsals all the time. When we got to New York, she would invite me back to their apartment for dinner between shows on Wednesday and Saturday. Well, we developed a relationship. Unbeknownst to me, they had a child who was born the same year I was born that died, and in a way, I was unknowingly taking his place. That was the relationship Cyril and I had. He was a lot like a father to me. But he also got to know my parents. My dad actually worked for him as a dresser at the Winter Garden Theatre. But when I came to New York when I was 15, I’d come and stay with Cyril while I was doing a TV show or a commercial. An interesting thing that happened was, when I was 17, that Madge invited me to join the ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera where she was working, and I worked with Vincent Warren. Of course, I’m not ballet trained, but I am a strong dancer. I’m not a Fred Astaire dancer. I’m more of a Gene Kelly dancer. But it was fun.
Sam: When did you become involved with West Side Story? Weren’t you one of the first performers being sought after for the show?
David: Well, what happened was West Side Story was being developed and Jerry Robbins, who knew who I was, called my agent and said, “Where’s David? I want to see him.” Well, my agent said, “David’s in LA right now and he’s getting his high school diploma. He’s not doing any shows until he graduates.” Without asking anybody, my agent turns down the offer to audition for the original cast. If I could, I would have flown to New York and auditioned. but I didn’t know about it. Well, West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 and it’s a big success. Jerry, and the producers, Griffith and Prince, decided that they’re going to take it to London right away and they arranged with Chita Rivera, who originated the role of Anita, to leave the show in New York and go to the new production in the spring. Well, during that time, I was under contract with the Met, and I wouldn’t have been able to go get a contract. But guess what happened? Chita got married in December, and by spring she was pregnant, so they postponed it. So, Jerome called me…. well, he didn’t actually call me. He called my mother and asked her if I graduated. My mother said “Yes, he did,” and Jerome said, “Good. I need him here in New York. I’m holding auditions for the London company for West Side Story. So, I flew to New York, and got a part in the London company. I was 17 at that time. We rehearsed in New York for two months, and moved to Manchester, England. We opened in London, December 12, 1958, and by that time was 18 years old.
Sam: I loved reading the stories about your time in London doing West Side Story. It just seemed like such an interesting time for you. You’re growing up, you’re living on your own for the first time, you’re meeting interesting people, you’re part of this great group of talented young performers and, of course, you meet Jean in the production and you fall in love. It seems like it was one of the most important times of your life. How long were you in London for?
David: About 18 months, but I eventually left the show to go back to New York to work, because I didn’t want to be in London for year after year, and it would run for years. So Eddie Verso, who played a Shark in the production, and I took a car and we travelled through Europe for six weeks, and then came back to London. But Eddie got a call from Jerry Robbins to go back to New York for a screen test for the film version of West Side Story. I didn’t get one, so I stayed in London for a couple of more weeks with Jean before coming back to New York on the SS United States. But once I was back in New York my agent said, “Where have you been? Jerome Robbins wants you in LA to do a screen test.” Well, for the next year, I was doing the movie of West Side Story. Once we finished with the movie, and they were editing it, I started thinking about going back to London again and rejoining West Side Story. This was when Robert Wise, who was the co-director of the movie, called me and said, “Now that you’ve finished the movie, what are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’ve been offered a job in London to go back into West Side Story. What do you have in mind?” “Well, I’m doing two movies,” he tells me. “One is a Western.” I stopped him and I said, “Bob, if you’ve ever seen me on a horse, you’ll see I look like crap. What’s the other movie?” He says, “Well, it’s a war movie I’ve got with Steve McQueen. It’s called The Sand Pebbles.” I said, “That sounds really good. But, you know, I’m going back to London, but thank you anyway,” and I turned them down. Obviously, I’m thinking of my hormones, because it would be an idiot not to take a good part in the Steve McQueen movie. But I went back to London to be with Jean, and I spent the entire rest of 1961 touring England with West Side Story. That was our courtship. We got married in 1962. Last month we celebrated our 60th anniversary. Wow.
Sam: When I was reading the cast list for the London production, I was impressed how many names I did recognize from the final film. A lot of you ended up in the movie.
David: Well, George Chakiris played Riff in the London production, before playing Bernardo in the film. He was like a big brother to me in London. When I left home at 14, I had three older brothers, so it was kind of natural for George, who was about five years older than I am, to step into that role. He and I shared a house in London. It was just a spectacular time for us. I love that guy to death. We did everything. I mean, we studied Shakespeare, we took singing lessons, we took classes, we went to all the Sunday night melodramas, we went to every museum, and I actually really learned to read. I could obviously read, but my comprehension wasn’t very good. As a result, auditions were hard for me and I had to go and memorize the script, because I couldn’t read it and comprehend what I was saying. So, I read “From Here to Eternity,” and I’d read them out aloud to myself at night when I was in my bedroom. I would just sit up and start reading out loud and I became a really good reader.
Sam: When West Side Story made its debut on Broadway in the late 50’s, and then hit screens in 1961, nothing like that had come out before. For the first time, youth culture had never been handled with such sensitivity. Juvenile delinquency had been a trope for trash B films, but now it was being taken in a very serious and realistic manner. West Side Story was really revolutionary at the time.
David: Well, it wasn’t the first. Blackboard Jungle had just come out. We were given copies of the book and were required to read it. I still have my copy of the book. Jerry Robbins was involved with the Stanislavski method, so basically, it wasn’t way out for him to teach us to stay in the mood, and to stay in the group, so we could make it real.
Sam: One of the fun things in your book I found really enjoyable is your stories about the incredible people you met through your life, and especially in the theatre. Out of all the people that you mentioned, the story that fascinated me the most was when Mary Martin introduced you and the other Lost Boys to Helen Keller. I’ve met a lot of people, but Helen Keller is just next level.
David: Yes. Mary said to us, “Ask her anything you want,” and we knew that she was blind, and she was deaf. We knew that. So, I said, “You were sitting in the audience, and you can’t see, and you can’t hear, so how did you know what was going on?”
Sam: That’s a pretty good question.
David: Well, she put her two fingers on my lips while I was talking to her, and then she brought her hand down and she said she could tell by vibrations. She was radiant. I’m not kidding. Meeting her was a good moment in my life. She waseverything that everybody had taught me that she was.
Sam: You write about visiting high schools and small theatre productions of West Side Story. When you go to these shows and visit with the cast, how do the kids react to you?
David: It’s great. Every class in every high school in this country teaches Romeo and Juliet and then they show West Side Story, so I can come up to a teenager today on the street and say, “Do you know what a Jet or a Shark is?” They’ll go “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.”
Sam: Now that you mention it, we watched West Side Story when I was in high school. It’s true.
David: So, when I go to the high schools, they know who I am. They might not literally know David Bean or Tiger is, or anything like that. But they know that if I was a Jet in West Side Story, which they’ve seen. Now, when we’re lucky enough to be able to help the kids that actually do productions of West Side Story opposed to Mamma Mia or another play, you should see Jean. Jean is a brilliant dancer, and she teaches them that passion. I mean, when they do America, and you do it with 180%, your body just explodes. These kids, they’re not stupid. They get it, they see it, and they do it. It’s just so exciting.
Sam: You were one of only a handful of original performers who had a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s new production of West Side Story. What was that like for you?
David: Well, I was called for a costume fitting on a Saturday morning up on 138 Street in Harlem. They had already done measurements, so my costume was ready for me in a dressing room on the street. So, we did the costuming and then they did the makeup and they were playing around with my hair, and I looked up at the mirror and I said, “Oh, my God, you parted my hair.” The hair stylist said, “Well, it’s a mid to early 1950s look. It’s appropriate for your character.” I was playing an owner of a fabric store in the America number. I told her my hair hasn’t been parted since 1947. Well, after we were done filming, someone came to me and told me that Mr. Spielberg wanted to know if I wanted to go down and see them film a segment of the prologue on 137 Street which was just below us. So, I got escorted down and was put in the tent where they had all these monitors up. The difference between them dancing in the street compared to when we were dancing in the street in New York, was that we had speakers almost the size of a house behind us. They could hear our music all the way down to the Bowery. I mean, it was loud. Spielberg’s kids had ear monitors on, and it was silent. You just saw them dancing, but you couldn’t hear music or anything. It was absolutely wonderful to see. When they said “Cut, that’s a wrap,“ I walked out on the middle of the street, and it was like I was a rock star. All of the guys playing the Jets and the Sharks knew who I was and flooded me with questions. I was bowled over. Steven Spielberg came through the crowd and poked me in the chest with his finger. He said, “You’re David Bean – Tiger, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, we have a problem now. We’re going to have to call you Old Tiger because have a new one now.” We all laughed and then Steven said, “You did Peter Pan back in the 50s with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard. I did a movie called Hook with Dustin Hoffman and we fashioned his character after Cyril. I think he was the best Hook ever.” I said that I knew him well and I told him I’ve just written the manuscript of my autobiography. Well, Steven Spielberg says to me, “You send me a copy of your manuscript.” So, my publisher sent a PDF to Spielberg of the book as it was going to be printed and Spielberg sent editing notes for Chapter 15. Isn’t that wonderful?
Sam: You know, when you go through your life, you’ve had so many wonderful encounters with amazing people, from Helen Keller to Richard Nixon to Marilyn Monroe, and all the way forward to Steven Spielberg. It’s like you radiate this positivity and love out into the universe and it attracts all these people like insects to a light.
David: That’s the strange analogy, but it’s correct.
Sam: Well, you are the light.
David: I can’t say anything more than what you just said, because it’s true. Every day I go into the little restaurant that my daughter owns. We can fit 50 people in her little restaurant, and they come in, and they just love being there. They say, “Mr. Bean, what do you do here?” and I say, “I work the crowd.” I wake up every morning, my feet hit the floor, and I tap in, and I get this rhythm going. You will never ever see me or hear me say, “Oh, crikey. how am I going to get through this day?” I think by the time I get that rhythm going, I actually stand up and my day starts. It’s so much fun.David Bean is the type of person I just love to talk with. I love being reminded that seemingly ordinary people often have lived the most extraordinary lives, and that people in every little town have an incredible story to tell. But the greatest thing about talking to David is his positive energy and optimism. His love for his wife and family, and his thankfulness for the life that he’s lived is endearing, and it proves my belief that good things come to truly good people. You can purchase David’s book, When You’re a Jet from Amazon.