SANDWICH, N.H. — It was the question on everyone’s mind. At least it was on my mind.
Why, of all places, did John Davidson — singer, actor, affable game show host, and staple of 1970s variety shows — opt to open a club in a New Hampshire barn. It’s not just any barn, but a barn in an exceptionally rural town of 1,200 people.
“I really wanted to get back to my roots,” he explained to the crowd at a recent show in his Sandwich barn when the question was raised by an audience member. “I grew up in West Bridgewater [Mass.]. I like the New England thing. I like the trees. I like that New Hampshire people are in your face. They tell it like it is. I’ve met a lot of interesting people here. There are authors and painters and psychologists. Very vital people live in Sandwich.”
Before Davidson came to town, Sandwich already experienced a few brushes with pop culture fame. The biggest was the 1981 film “On Golden Pond.” Much of the production took place on Squam Lake in nearby Holderness (which served as a stand-in for Belgrade, Maine), but some scenes were filmed in Sandwich, which is also on Squam Lake. Footage that was never used for the film of a car driving through Sandwich became the opening of the CBS sitcom “Newhart.”
More than 30 years later, those 1980s moments remain points of pride in Sandwich. While I was having dinner at the Foothills Café & Curio, one of the employees cued up “On Golden Pond” on the restaurant’s TV. It was not the first time that weekend “On Golden Pond” had been played in the restaurant.
“No matter how many times I see it, I cry,” one woman said as I sipped dandelion wine from a local vineyard and realized how much I loved the movie, too.
But “On Golden Pond,” wasn’t Davidson’s reason for coming to Sandwich. The trees, scenery, and the opinionated people may have played a part in his decision, however the real reason seems to be his unflagging work ethic. Davidson is a man whose career began in the 1960s on television and film while he simultaneously released a string of easy listening pop albums that featured the hits of the day. He crooned tunes by Dusty Springfield, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beatles while appearing in Disney films. Since those early days, the 79-year-old Davidson has never stopped.
“I was discovered by Bob Banner, the television producer who did ‘The Garry Moore Show,’ and ‘The Dinah Shore Show,’” Davidson tells me after his performance. “He discovered Carol Burnett on Broadway and brought her to television. He was trying to find the male version of Carol Burnett to develop as a variety show host, and he thought I would be that guy.”
Davidson is essentially starring in his own variety show every weekend in his Sandwich barn. He opened the venue, called Club Sandwich (naturally), at the end of June, and it has been going strong ever since. It has a capacity of 40 and the audience sits on a higgledy-piggledy collection of old sofas and chairs as Davidson sings and hams it up from the postage stamp-size stage. He has a mane of snowy white hair that flops to-and-fro as he mixes recollections of his life with self-deprecating zingers. Despite the fact that he might forget a lyric or two — or perhaps three — the man is a pro.
He was funny and quick on his feet. His show was sentimental without getting syrupy and his singing voice seemed stronger than it was when he was covering Bee Gees tunes in the 1960s.
Club Sandwich is open seasonally and will finish its 2021 run at the end of October. Davidson says he plans to reopen the club next summer. Because of the limited capacity, the sofas are full most weekends. The audience is an eclectic mix of individuals who are drawn here because they’re familiar with one part or another of Davidson’s career. They might recall him from the 1980s show “That’s Incredible!” Or perhaps they know him from his stint hosting “Hollywood Squares,” or his self-titled talk show. They might remember him when he filled in for Johnny Carson 87 (!) times. He also hosted an incarnation of “The $100,000 Pyramid” and a short-lived game show called “Time Machine.”
It’s easy to forget that Davidson is that guy. The guy who has done almost everything, which is why the fact that he’s performing in a barn in rural New Hampshire should come as a surprise to no one.
He made the rounds on “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.” He was a guest on “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and “Love American Style.” He starred in a sitcom with Sally Field. But it also seemed as if he was game for whatever was thrown his way. He guest starred on “The Streets of San Francisco” in 1974, playing a homicidal, schizophrenic drag queen. He even posed nude in a Cosmo magazine centerfold. But perhaps the bravest thing he’s done in his career, even more so than posing nude or opening a club in a barn, was playing an alien space captain in “The Carpenters ... Space Encounters” television special. Along with co-captain Suzanne Somers, he beamed into Richard and Karen Carpenters’ recording studio in a poly-blend jumpsuit zipped down to there. Just use your imagination. On second thought . . .
“A producer told me that you don’t want to do just one thing,” Davidson told me after his show. “You don’t want to just be a spear. You want to be a Swiss army knife.”
His Swiss army knife skills began in West Bridgewater. He is the son of a pair of Baptist ministers, put on display every Sunday after services. He learned that his smile, and those dimples, would take him places. He says that when he’s not smiling, people tend not to recognize him.
He seems to welcome Club Sandwich and this new chapter of his life with a mix of happiness, relief, and resignation.
“The beauty of it for me is that I don’t have to travel,” Davidson said. “I’ve been a gypsy all my life. Now in the winter I can spend a couple of months on my boat in the Sea of Cortés cruising. I can have a little bit of a New Hampshire winter, but not the whole thing.”
But upon further reflection, he appears slightly more nostalgic.
“My career is nothing like it used to be,” he said. “I had great years. You know, every career has its high time and I’m . . . no I can’t say that. I miss having a more active career. It was fun. But this is my life.”
I’m ready to settle in for more showbiz stories. I want to hear what it was like to sing with Mama Cass and interview Catherine Deneuve. I think Davidson can sense these questions are imminent because he wisely looks at me with his familiar blue eyes and tells me that I probably have more than enough material for my story (he’s right), and with that, sadly, we call it a night.
Club Sandwich, 12 Main St., Sandwich. 617-468-8512, www.johndavidson.com/clubsandwich.