Contributor Jim Gladstone chats with the gender bending theatrical force, Charles Busch.
“I alternately feel like Marlene Dietrich at the end of her career and an old animal act,” quips actor and playwright Charles Busch about the nightclub tour—his first in several years—that brings him to Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco on September 25 and 26.
“I don’t like being a downer, but I’m not sure if the majority of young gay people are interested in old Hollywood history or cabaret. That’s not really a new thing though,” says Bush, who turned 60 last month. “In the ‘70s, when I was in my 20s and fascinated with old studio system movies, most of my friends were caught up in disco, more into Donna Summer than Bette Davis. But I’ve always sort of modeled my career on the old female movie stars—I think I’ve cultivated a sense of mystique and emotional remove.”
Busch will discuss that career—which runs the gamut from being nominated for a Tony Award for penning The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, playing a convict in the television prison drama Oz, and creating and starring in the cult off-Broadway hit “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”—two nights before his Feinstein’s run in a live interview at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, where his camp-tastic play Die, Mommie, Die! will have its Bay Area premiere the following week.
Busch says he’s looking forward to meeting San Francisco-based actor J. Conrad Frank—best-known as drag character, Katya Smirnoff-Skyy—who will be playing murderous washed-up pop singer Angela Arden in the NCT production. It’s a role Busch originally wrote for himself.
“A lot of times when my plays are done around the country,” Busch says, “I get pictures, and the leads are like Ernest Borgnine in a dress. Conrad looks like he will be rather glamorous.”
Busch himself will be in full glam at Feinstein’s. “It’s kind of an odd act,” he says, “They introduce me as Charles Busch, and I come out looking like Arlene Dahl. I sing songs by Harold Arlen and Kurt Weill, and I tell anecdotes from my life and my experiences. I could do the job out of drag, but it seems better when I’m in drag. I’m looser and more uninhibited.” While drawing on his own memories, Busch says he uses his life as a source of “fun anecdotes” rather than the self-pitying and self-aggrandizing confessional material that seems to be in vogue among gay cabaret artists these days.
“Elaine Stritch’s act was phenomenal. But she was one-of-a-kind,” he notes, “After that, you started to see a lot of jacking off on stage.
Among the highlights of Busch’s past cabaret performances being reprised on his current tour, are his monologues as showbiz-obsessed suburban matron Miriam Passman. The Passman character was the basis for Marjorie Traub, the lead role in Allergist’s Wife, played on Broadway by Linda Lavin—Tony-nominated for the part—and Rhea Perlman.
While the drag-free Allergist has been Busch’s biggest mainstream success and led to several lucrative writing gigs, he says “I really think my work is the most interesting when I perform my own writing.”
In addition to writing and acting, Busch has recently delved back into his first artistic pursuit. “Film and theater is all collaboration, but there’s something marvelous about making art all by yourself. I started out as a painter. I was an art major at the High School of Music and Art, and for a long time—until I was 30—I couldn’t earn a living in theater. Instead of being a waiter, I worked as a quick sketch portrait artist, working at Renaissance fairs and on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey.”
“I think that for a long time after I made some money, I subconsciously associated drawing and painting with bad times in my past, when I had to do this very commercial, sensibility-coarsening version of visual art to get by. But about three years ago, I said to myself, I’ve got this gift, and I should tinker around with it a little more.”
Busch was one of twenty performers commissioned by Turner Classic Movies to create works of art inspired by classic films. Through that project, he met a longtime idol, fellow thespian-painter Kim Novak.
“We started emailing back and forth about our art work, and I realized she probably didn’t know who I was. To her, I was a nice gay boy who worked in pastels. I have very high standards and I’m not quite meeting them in painting yet, so I wrote to tell her about my career as a performer. I mean, I knew she liked me, but I wanted her to know that I was really talented.”
A Conversation with Charles Busch
September 23, 7 p.m.
Charles Busch at Feinstein’s at the Nikko
September 26, 8 p.m.
Die, Mommie, Die!
October 3 – November 2
Take a peek of Charles Busch as his alter ego, Miriam Passman:
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.