Channeling the Celebrity Spirits

Channeling the Celebrity Spirits

A noteworthy charity hosts a hilarious series of skits on showbiz lives

It was surely the first time in his life that Charles Busch ever got a laugh just by saying “Chapter 43.”

Actually it went this way:

Brilliant playwright/screenwriter/actor/drag-man Busch, in black duds and a Nehru-esque black cap, advances to the mike, displays the book from which he is about to read a few pages, states its title and author: “‘Ginger: My Story,’ by Ginger Rogers.” Long pause. “Chapter 43.” And the joint breaks up.

The joint was Fez, that big dark underground (literally) club beneath the Time Café&Mac226; on Lafayette Street. The occasion was the January 5 renewal of the “Cause Celeb!” series of readings from the autobiographies of showbiz luminaries that had made a happy stir last summer at the Marquis on the Bowery.

“Our maiden voyage at Fez,” co-conspirator Nancy Balbirer proclaimed. “We’ve rounded up the usual suspects.” It was wicked, willowy actress Balbirer who with fellow actress Charlotte Booker had first thought up the whole idea of these readings.

The suspects on this new year’s launching of four or more Monday nights of “Cause Celeb!” were Charles (“Die, Mommie, Die!”) Busch; playwright Doug (“I Am My Own Wife”) Wright; gossip columnist Michael Musto; actors Shane O’Maley, Marylouise Burke, Edward Burke, and Mesdames Booker and Balbirer themselves.

The theme of the evening was “Viva las Divas.”

The divas were:

Ginger Rogers (as selected and parsed by Busch), Diana Ross (by Maylouise Burke), Joan Collins (by Doug Wright), Esther Williams (by Michael Musto), Tallulah Bankhead (by Edward Burke), Elizabeth Ashley (by Nancy Balbirer), Hedy Lamarr (by Charlotte Booker), and––thematically tying them all together––that dear old nancypants arbiter of Worst Dressed glamour and fame, Mr. Earl Blackwell (by Shane O’Maley).

God only knows what Ginger Rogers, that good Republican, would have thought of “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” the early-Busch chef d’oeuvre that ran five years on MacDougal Street, but she didn’t think much of “Hello, Dolly!” I can tell you, even though she starred in it on Broadway in 1965 as an unwilling, disdainful successor to Carol Channing.

From the reading by Busch (in a mishmash of accents from hoity-toity to W.C. Fields), we learn that what had most outraged Miss Rogers was the red wig that arrived late on her opening night at the St. James, along with some unnamed young dancer of the chorus who’d been sent to install it in place in the absence of a real hairdresser. Oooops! The young dancer plopped it atop Rogers’ head… backwards.

When you think of all the gorgeousness and humor and sexuality and vitality that a younger Ginger Rogers, herself dancing just like Fred, but backwards, had pumped into generations of adolescent males morphing themselves in their dreams into Fred Astaire, the anecdote isn’t so funny.

Not truly funny either, I’m afraid, is Hedy (“Ecstasy and Me”) Lamarr, broke, in debt, caught shoplifting “some minor objects” as, at 51––“but not through yet”–– she weirdly seizes the moment to remark that in her experience “matadors are always impotent, or close to it, I wonder why that is.” And remembers the scenery grip on some movie set who quietly came and slipped a $100 bill into her hand.

Also lost in translation, somewhere in the reaches of Fez, was the manifest irony of Joan (“Past Imperfect”) Collins reliving the drive in her golden Mercedes to the unemployment office on Santa Monica Boulevard, where “with evident delight” the desk clerk will shriek: “Joan Collins! Didn’t you use to be her?”

And yet of course this material, with all its pretensions––processed from first to last, one supposes, by ghostwriters––is, or can be, when camped aloud, howlingly funny, and there was plenty of howling there at Fez, not least by the shaved-headed guy just to my right who guffawed his guts out at every “the” and “and” throughout the 90-minute show.

And I? I also laughed, if guiltily, un-PC-edly, at Esther (“The Million-Dollar Mermaid”) Williams’ notation after she’d stopped screaming after walking in on boyfriend Jeff Chandler cavorting around in his bedroom in a flowered chiffon dress: “I mean, I had seen that dress in Vogue.”

Funnier still is the moment when a maid inadvertently walks in on Earl Blackwell standing naked in front of his mirror as he speaks the magic words “I am Joan Crawford!” which he heard Crawford herself (not naked) say over and over again into her mirror the night before.

All well and good, but there were two above-average readings in which real acting––intrinsic to character––came into force. One was Edward Burke in fine control as Tallulah Bankhead putting down a critic (George Frazier) who’d said she’d “lumbered” across a room. “I’ve slithered across a room, cartwheeled across a room––never lumbered!”

The other was Nancy Balbirer as the very much still-among-us Elizabeth (“Actress”) Ashley, starting low and dry with: “This book is dedicated to everyone who ever bought a ticket to anything,” and ending in a volcanic explosion of: “In the carnival there’s very little grace when you’re low… We’re all in this together. Hah! That’s the part that sticks up everyone’s ass… I’ve been fucked by the Devil! I’ve fucked the Devil…”

Scary. Good and scary.

Elizabeth Ashley’s “Actress: Postcards From the Road” was in fact one of the showbiz autobiographies that teenaged Nancy Balbirer, a nice Jewish girl, would read aloud as she was growing up back in Weston, Connecticut. Another was “Lauren Bacall By Myself.”

Little did the Connecticut teenager then know that “in a parallel universe, Charlotte Booker, traveling with her parents from air force base to air force base, was also reading all those autobiographies, beginning with Hedy Lamarr’s.”

The two young women met in Los Angeles as actresses in 1997, and discovered their mutual interest. The result is “Cause Celeb!” Ms. Balbirer has also written a play, “I Slept With Jack Kerouac,” which hopefully will see production one of these days.

“Since I was born in 1965 and Kerouac died in 1969, we couldn’t have slept together. It would have been worse than Michael Jackson,” says the tongue-in-cheek Nancy Balbirer who lives with lawyer husband Joel and “Ira, a beagle, and Fosse, a cat,” in the West Village.

“It’s curious,” she says, “how these stars all seem to talk to one another.”

Read on, oh Fezzites. Keep talking, stars.

The line-up for future weeks: Jan. 19: “A Burt in the Hand Equals Two in the Bush,” readings by Mindy Kaling and others from the autobiographies of Burt Reynolds and others; Jan. 26: “Porno Politics,” from the autobiographies of Linda Lovelace, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others; Feb. 2: “Sex, Drugs, Rock n Roll,” from the autobiographies of Marianne Faithfull and others.

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