Little Shop talk

Most actors would probably think twice before spending a year playing straight man to a houseplant, but for Lenny Wolpe it’s a sweet deal.

Wolpe co-stars in a new touring production of the Broadway show “Little Shop of Horrors,” which opens Wednesday, Nov. 10, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre for a four-week run.

Based on the nutty Roger Corman movie from 1960, the show was an instant smash when it opened in 1982, and made stars of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. (The two went on to write Disney’s “Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” before Ashman died of AIDS.)

The local production is part of the “Best of Broadway” series. In it, Wolpe plays Mr. Mushnik, a gruff flower shop owner whose nebbishy employee Seymour Krelbourn nurses Audrey II, a man-eating houseplant always looking for her next meal.

“Mushnik takes Seymour in,” says the L.A.-based Jewish actor about his character, “but he’s kind of rough on him.”

It’s hard to picture Wolpe as anything other than the gentle soul that he is. Then again, pulling off those kinds of roles is the mark of a good actor.

Wolpe didn’t show an interest in the stage until relatively late. His European-born parents fled to Russia in advance of the Nazis. Both his sisters were born in a displaced-persons camp after the war, while Wolpe was born raised in Newburgh, N.Y.

“The Holocaust had a huge impact on my life,” the actor says. “Most of my family was exterminated. When I was little, we kept a Jewish home, I was bar mitzvahed and involved with NFTY [the North American Federation of Temple Youth] through high school.”

As a history major at George Washington University, Wolpe first developed a love of acting. He later attended the University of Minnesota where he ended up teaching and performing in the thriving Twin Cities theater scene. On the New York stage he co-starred in such shows as “Sound of Music,” “Company” and “Into the Light.”

He lived in New York for a while before relocating to Los Angeles, where he made a living working in television. He was a ubiquitous figure on shows like “E.R.,” “Matlock,” “L.A. Law,” “Roseanne,” “King of Queens” and “Six Feet Under.”

“I don’t mind L.A.,” he says. “We have wonderful friends, but the whole time I’ve known theater is where my roots are.”

So after he and his wife send their last kid off to college, they plan to move back to New York where he can devote himself to the stage.

Meanwhile, as Mushnik, Wolpe will be all over the map. “We were in L.A. the last couple of months,” he says, “and now we’re moving up the West Coast to San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. Then it’s on to Texas.”

But even as he takes on this and other roles, Wolpe remains mindful of his Jewish past — a past that often impacts the present in unexpected ways.

For example, his mother’s sister survived a concentration camp, though he didn’t really know that growing up.

“Because my parents weren’t in a camp,” he says, “they were much more open about their experiences. My aunt was not. A couple of years ago she did an interview with the Shoah Foundation. I finally saw that interview, and that was the first time I heard her story.”

“Little Shop of Horrors” play Wednesday, Nov. 10, through Dec. 5 at the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor St., S.F. Tickets: $34-$81. Shows at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14. Information: (415) 552-7770 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.