Dick Van Dyke puts on a happy face

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Dick Van Dyke and The Vantastix, from left, Bryan Chadima, Mike Mendyke and Eric Bradley. The group sings a cappella on the new children's album "Put on a Happy Face." Photos by Larissa Underwood

The longtime entertainer and Malibu resident, with The Vantastix, releases a new a cappella children’s album, with favorite childhood songs and standards.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Anyone of a certain age who hears the whistled, opening bars of the old “Dick Van Dyke Show” can probably finish the riff, immediately recalling the visual of Van Dyke tumbling over an ottoman as he steps through the front door in the opening credit sequence. It was part of the populist, cultural zeitgeist of the ’60s.

But perhaps a little known fact is that Morey Amsterdam, Van Dyke’s co-star on the show, put words to the tune. The lyrics to the “Theme from the Dick Van Dyke Show” and many others, can be found on the new a cappella CD, “Put On a Happy Face,” by Dick Van Dyke and The Vantastix, a group composed of Van Dyke and three West Coast musicians, Bryan Chadima, Eric Bradley and Mike Mendyke.

The 82-year-old Malibu resident and song-‘n’-dance man is not hoofing it lightly into retirement. Van Dyke regularly appears at charity fundraisers and concerts, has a new TV series, “Murder 101,” distributed by Hallmark, and is in production for a sequel to one of 2006’s top-grossing films, “Night at the Museum.” His new family-friendly album started as a lark.

“I ran into Dick one day at Starbucks in Cross Creek mall,” Mendyke, a former NASA engineer who also has a degree in music, said. “We started talking music and before you knew it, we would meet up to kick some ideas around Dick’s piano, have some pizza and work on tunes.

“We developed a medley of songs with Dick and first performed for the wrap party of his TV show, ‘Diagnosis Murder,'” Mendyke said. “We started getting requests to appear at all kinds of events and then Dick said he was open to the idea of producing an album. I told Bryan Chadima, one of our group, to go do a cappella arrangements of all Dick’s songs now.”

Mendyke, who believes the similarity of their last names fated him and Van Dyke to meet, sang with the Contemporary A Cappella Society when he was studying aerospace engineering at MIT.

His dual engagements with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and The Vantastix kept him busy in Los Angeles until he moved recently to Portland. But he returns regularly to appear with Van Dyke at charity events (their next gig is at a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity in October) and to sing with the group.

The group’s CD, recorded and mixed at Chadima’s Venice studio, has 12 songs familiar to Van Dyke’s fans, from “Mary Poppins” favorite “Supercalifragilisticexpialic-odious” to the eponymous “Put on a Happy Face,” from Broadway’s “Bye Bye Birdie.” All are sung in perfectly blended a cappella arrangements, with no instrumental backing.

“We also have a couple of bonus holiday songs,” Mendyke said. “One was completely off-the-cuff. I threw a copy of the old Christmas poem, “A Night Before Christmas” into the recording booth and asked Dick to read it. He did. It was perfect. We put together an arrangement of Christmas tunes behind it and there you go.”

Arranging for the group presents its challenges. Mendyke described the process: “It’s kind of funny. Bryan is a tenor, so we always know what to do with him. But Dick, Eric and I are all basses, so we have to be creative. Normally Dick is on lead, Eric is on baritone and I’m on bass. Sometimes, if Eric or I have a melody line, the other one sings bass and Dick gets whatever note is left. If Dick is singing bass, as he does on ‘Lover’s Question,’ then Eric and I are both signing falsetto tenor parts while Bryan signs lead. Confused yet?”

Mendyke concluded, “While it’s always a thrill to sing backup for Dick, imagine how we feel when Dick Van Dyke sings backup for us!”

Van Dyke is equally complementary to his band mates. “They’re all highly trained musicians and I get such a kick out of working with them,” he said. “You don’t hear much a cappella singing these days, particularly with jazz arrangements, and Bryan’s such a good arranger. I would like to see this album get people used to hearing harmony again.”

Bradley described working with Van Dyke as “pure joy.” “It was heaven to work with Dick,” he said. “He’s gracious. He’s warm. He’s exactly what you’d expect.”

Chadima grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and majored in vocal performance and computer science at Northwestern University. It was in school that he fell in love with vocal jazz, touring with a group called “The Gold Company,” which included 16 voices and a full orchestral band.

“After school, I figured I could combine my two areas of expertise by running a studio,” he said. “I came to L.A. rather than go to New York because I like to play volleyball.”

Chadima echoed his band mates’ pleasure in the Van Dyke project.

“Dick is playful, fun, funny,” Chadima said. “The idea with this album was to do something very upbeat and positive. It reflects Dick’s approach to life in general.”

For his part, Van Dyke is typically modest. “These three guys walked into my life from out of nowhere and turned my Golden Years into pure platinum,” Van Dyke wrote in a message. “It would be nice if they did the same for this album.”

“Put On a Happy Face” is available at The Vantastix Web site: www.vantastix.com