Eileen Fulton, a soap opera legend at Iridium; Yiddish theater tales
People kept chattering about Endymion and Bacchus. Where was I? Mount Olympus? Mykonos? Nope.
Although one should ideally be college age to fully enjoy the mindless drunken revelry of Mardi Gras, I decided to put myself through the party paces anyway. And I can report that, coinciding as it did this year with the Super Bowl, it pretty much represents exactly where America is right now.
I wanted my N’awlins experience to be cinematic, like the delicious “Saratoga Trunk,” with Ingrid Bergman as a triumphant Creole courtesan, “Jezebel,” with Bette Davis shocking the old guard with her red dress at the all-white Olympus Ball or even Blanche Dubois, prowling the French Quarter, terrorizing young collection agents.
It was more like “Pigs Gone Wild,” a testosterone-fest the likes of which I haven’t seen since my last Black Party, with hordes of howling, horny males, draped in more cheap beads and faux pearls than Coco Chanel herself ever wore in her lifetime, staggering about the French Quarter in search of tits, dick and sometimes both.
The gay bars were full of the usual elevated pursuits—Big Dick/Wet Underwear Contests and completely nude go-go boys being openly fondled by patrons. Amusingly, those beads seemed to bring out the inner drag queen in otherwise seemingly 100 percent hetero guys, constantly fingering, carefully arranging and fondly admiring their freely gotten plunder.
“Amazing, what currency these beads can be,” one bi-curious neurosurgeon—in town for a convention, don’t you know—confided to me. “That’s all it took on Bourbon Street, and in five seconds I was sucking this girl’s titties.”
Indeed, the entire atmosphere seemed to elicit candor of the most eye-popping sort, with a Cajun go-go boy saying, “Mah dick’s raw from being manhandled so much. Ah haven’t come fer a week—keeps mah wood up. And feel how hard mah balls are!”
One guy was wearing a T-shirt that made me laugh out loud—a woebegone old woman’s face—think Dame Edna’s Madge—with the words “She Fried for You.” He told me it all had to do with another New Orleans tradition. Every year, on St. Patrick’s Day, a big party is held in honor of Maria Rubio, the New Mexico woman who discovered Jesus’ face in a tortilla she was cooking and subsequently enshrined it. People are urged to bring their own homemade miracles, all of which verge on the lewd. My T-shirted friend had a picture of the Jesus tortilla, but to me, the image looked more like an armadillo.
Caught on a traffic island on Canal Street in the middle of the Bacchus Parade, I watched countless high school marching bands—all playing Britney Spears’ “Toxic”—and garish floats filled with costumed bead tossers. There was even a humongous “Queen King” (I always thought that was just a vicious nickname for a certain top Vogue editor).
The floats are manned by age-old, mostly male, social organizations called krewes, who simply live for all this. There are some strictly gay krewes, but, as with all gay cliques, the stress can be great, as I heard one poor dear agonizing over which one to join: “Armeinius wants me, but I heard they’re all bitches. Then there’s Amon Ra, and the Lords of Leather have approached me.” His friend cautioned, “Don’t join them unless you have a serious leather conviction.”
Exposing “Junior and the Boys” could have you in cuffs in seconds, a Mardi Gras crackdown sadly in evidence in recent years. Women could jiggle jugs with propinquity—one of them even laying them down on the hood of my stalled cab—but below-waistline exposure was strictly verboten. And what could feminists make of the spectacle of women eagerly bonding with men on those balconies urging their sisters to doff their tops? It all reminded me of those wives and girlfriends who slavishly embrace the sports obsession of their guys, who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a fashion show with them.
As an escape from all the endless booziness, I went to the wonderful new Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The watercolors and sculpture of Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-65) glowed in the show “Everything I See is Strange and New,” introducing me to a true American master, aptly dubbed “the van Gogh of the South.” Like van Gogh, Anderson was inspired by nature and suffered mental illness, once escaping his family to live in a tree house. Born in New Orleans, an entire room was devoted to his city impressions, including more than one rendering of women boarding streetcars, any of which might easily be named Desire.
Back in New York, I caught “Picon Pie,” on February 8, which tells the life of Yiddish stage great Molly Picon. Although physically as different as can be from the elfin, waif-ish Picon, June Gable gamely takes on this legend in a very haimishe, rambling show, filled with pungent song, very ably assisted by an astonishingly versatile clarinet. My companion for the evening was Frankie Rexite, wife of the late Yiddish theater actor Jack Rechtzeit, whose papers have just been donated to the Harvard University Library.
“I changed the spelling, because I didn’t want to make people crazy,” she told me. “Molly’s husband, Yonkel, who managed her, always wanted Jack to perform with her. But Jack’s ego was too big; he wasn’t about to be billed below her. He was a big star in Europe, so when there was no work here, he just went there. He was in Vienna the day Hitler marched in, but luckily he was an American citizen and was able to—just barely—get out in time. He was in Beth Israel Hospital at the same time as Yonkel, who was then dying. After work, I would always show up with cocktails, which Molly loved. There was nobody like her, not beautiful at all, but when she was onstage, she would be transformed and you couldn’t take your eyes off her. She was at the hospital every day and would pester Jack constantly, ‘When is Frankie coming?’”
Designer Frankie decked out Eileen Fulton beautifully for her singing engagement at Iridium on February 10. In head-to-toe black sequins Norma Shearer might have sported in “Riptide,” her hottest film, Fulton delighted the crowd with a rock-flavored “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and her own sprightly charm. She reminisced about the first of her four marriages: “Among the congratulatory cards was one from his first wife: ‘Does this mean I am really divorced now? Because I need to know, so I can get on with my life.’”
Fulton talked about the soap opera “As the World Turns,” on which she has appeared for 40 years, complaining about the tiny story “line-ettes” they give her, because, as they tell her, “I have no family. I have a family! There was Chuck, who died, and Tom, and his children, my grandchildren, whose names I can’t remember because they keep changing the kid actors!”
In the course of her monologue, Fulton also mentioned that the character Julia died, a plot development that actually won’t occur until this March’s airing of the show. That’s our Eileen!
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com
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