Charles Pierce Interview

The following interview by Ronald L. Davis with Charles Pierce,
was conducted in his Los Angeles, California home on July 22, 1989 and
published as part of Southern Methodist University's Oral History Program  (No. 456).
Publication information courtesy of Liz Tobio.)

D: I'm curious how a fellow from Watertown first became interested in performing.

P: Watertown, NEW YORK. I just had a letter from a friend who said, I'm going off to Watertown," but that's in South Dakota. We should make sure it's Watertown, New York. (Chuckles.) Well, I think it started when I was a very small child, dressing up in my grandmother's attic. My aunt had been in vaudeville. She had trunks of clothes up there with her costumes and all kinds of hats and things.. As an eight-nine-year-old child, on rainy days I would play up there and create my own fantasy world. And then that led to going off to Thompson School, the elementary school, on Halloween as Mae West. (Both laugh.) With those clothes from the turn of the century of my aunt's and grandmother's, in Watertown, New York, it was a chance to escape and be somebody else. I was always prepared to do a character from the movies that I'd seen; I never just actually dressed up to be a woman. I dressed up to be Mae West or Bette Davis or W.C. Fields or whoever, and then one thing led to another.

D: Do I understand correctly that when you were in school you worked at a local radio station?

P: Yes, that's right. I was sixteen. This friend of mine, Alma Judes, a high school friend, was working part-time at the Hotel Woodruff as a chamber maid. But in the hotel was also the radio station, WWNY. Alma was vehement about being on radio or writing or doing something theatrical in her life, so she became friendly with the announcers. She didn't become that friendly, but she became friendly with the announcers. What happened was, she became friendly with Bob Mowers, who not only had his announcing duties but also a kiddie's radio show from the Avon Theater on Saturday mornings called Kiddie's Carnival. I remember that I was home listening (I have total recall) to the Rudy Vallee radio show, and the phone rang. It was Alma, saying that she talked to "Uncle Bob" Mowers, as he was called on Kiddie's Carnival, and Bob wanted me to read a speech on the show. It was Patrick Henry's speech, "Give me liberty or give me death." Why he wanted that on a kiddie show with an act coming up like Baby Jane Hudson's, singing and dancing . . . but he did. I remember it was a rainy Saturday morning, and as I was leaving the Avon Theater I got a telephone call from the manager of the radio station, Tommy Martin. He heard the show and asked me if I would come over right there and then to audition to be an announcer. You see, World War II was on and they were having a hard time getting voice. So I read, did the audition, and I was hired right there and then. I remember running home, opening the front door and saying, "Mother, I'm a radio announcer for twelve dollars a week!" And I worked full-time that summer, I'd just turned sixteen. And then in the fall I took my four high school subjects in the morning, would go home for lunch, catch the bus and go back to the radio station from about one-thirty until seven at night. I guess I was actually more than part-time, because I did weekends. So I was going to school and working as an announcer at the same time.

D: Did you feel that was good experience for you?

P: Oh, yes. At that point I didn't care one hoot about Watertown High School and the subjects. All of a sudden, the radio station and being an announcer became primary. Although I did graduate. That would be two years later that I graduated. But all through that time I was still at the station and embroiled in that.

D: When you came out to the Pasadena Playhouse, what kind of career did you envision for yourself?

P: Well, of course, at that time I had no thought whatsoever of being a nightclub performer. I was going to be an actor, and that's what I was looking into, character acting. Never wanted to be called a star; I wanted to play the Richard Haydn parts, the character roles. I was always interested in that are and that's what I did at the Playhouse. Even as a student I did character roles. And then after I graduated, I came back two or three years later and did Marley's Ghost in A Christmas Carol and also The Imaginary Invalid on main stage. But, see, nothing much was really happening to me during that period. I had seen Arthur Blake, who was a great comic and impressionist, and I got involved in his act, saying to myself, "I would like to do that, because it looks like fun."

D: Were there exciting people around the Playhouse at that time?

P: Oh, yes. People in my class were George Nader, Alan Sues, who went on to Laugh-In and Broadway shows; Carolyn Jones; we had Leonard Freeman, who ended up as a producer of Hawaii Five-0; Bernie Wiesen went on as a television producer for Julia. As a student I would see the character actors of Hollywood who came to play on the main stage: Zazu Pitts, Florence Bates, Laird Cregar--great character actors, but really not stars.

D: Were the talent scouts around often?

P: Yes, but they missed me (Chuckles.) No talent scouts for me. Well, I'll tell you who was in my class was Peter Hansen, who did many years on General Hospital. It's all coming back now. And Robert Telford, who is acting on The Judge and General Hospital, he does all those shows. A lot of them made it, and of course a lot of them didn't make it.

D: After Pasadena you worked for a time as an actor in Newport. Was that a good experience?

P: That was as an apprentice. I was an apprentice with Charles Nelson Reilly, whom you've interviewed. You know, many of the people in your Oral History Collection have seen my show: Paul Bogart, who just directed me in Torch Song Trilogy; George Chakiris; Patricia Morison; Anna Maria Alberghetti came to see me in Los Angeles, Betty Garrett; Phyllis Diller. They've all seen the show.

D: What initially took you to New York?

P: I was in the Playhouse, and then there was a two-year hiatus from my acting career when I went back to Watertown and they took me back at the station. The year was 1948. I worked there for two years, then went to New York on a cold winter's day in January of . . . I think it was 1950 . . . yes, 1950, to make the rounds, to be an actor in New York. Well, nothing happened. (Chuckles.) No talent agent said, "Come and join us." So I saw an ad that they wanted apprentices in summer stock, Newport, Rhode Island. I went. I was interviewed by Sarah Stamm and I went to work for her as an apprentice. No pay, just lots of flats to paint. I think Charles Nelson Reilly was the second season. He and I painted flats together. So that's what happened there. What was interesting was, on the second year Sarah Stamm hired me as an assistant stage manager with pay. But in those days the managers would say, "Now turn your pay back to me, and you in turn will get your Equity card." Well, I went through the whole summer not being paid. Then I went to New York in that fall, again to make the rounds. I was down to about five dollars. I was staying at the Pickwick Arms Hotel. I remember Alan Sues was on the next floor, and we used to make the round together. So I was down to five dollars. I got a call from Sarah Stamm that Equity had found out what she had done, and that if I would come to her office she would pay me my summer salary. So I went to her office and she counted out whatever it was, $350, probably $75 a week. But that was a windfall in those days. When you're down to five dollars: "Oh, good, I can stay in New York for an extra two or three more months!" And then from there I went back to the radio station again (they always took me back) for a couple of months. And then I went back to the Pasadena Playhouse. I lived in Pasadena and just was around the Playhouse doing roles, I was not a student in any way.

D: What convinced you to put together a nightclub act?

P: Well, we're back to explaining about seeing Arthur? It was during that period that I saw Arthur Blake at the Bar of Music, which is now a parking lot. But the Bar of Music was wonderful. He had twin pianos in the background, and Barbara Stanwyck would be in the audience or Bette Davis. They all came out to see Arthur. He worked in a tuxedo, and he would add a prop or two, like a hat or a pair of gloves or a feather boa. So got the idea from seeing Arthur that maybe I could work up a nightclub act and get paid once a week instead of, at the moment, not being paid at all as far as acting. So I started collecting little props and things and working up "The Return of Norma Desmond"from Sunset Boulevard. What if Bette David had played Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind? What if Eleanor Roosevelt was coming back from Mexico with her big serape and hat? "Ole! Ole!" All that sort of thing. The jokes came from friends of mine, just sitting around on the beach at Santa Monica or out driving the car. We'd see things and jot down routines, make up things to say for the characters. That's how that started. I would do those at parties. See, at that time I had it in mind to do a nightclub act, breaking in the routines at parties. And then a place called Club La Vie in Altadena, California asked me to do a Sunday afternoon. I did. I got five dollars. I did Tallulah Bankhead's grandmother, Pocahontas Bankhead.

D: (Laughs.)

P: She was visiting her darling granddaughter, and she went on and on about Tallulah in Hollywood. So then the owners decided, why don't we put in a show with Charles? Next door to the club was a coffee shop. They had to buy that, knock out walls, and put in a stage--which meant three or four months before the showroom was ready. So I went back to Watertown again, back to the radio station, and worked all through the summer. And then on September 28, 1954 I opened at Club La Vie, and I've been working the nightclub act ever since. I got $75 dollars and my evening meal, which was a cheeseburger. (Both laugh.) And was very happy. I was working in a tuxedo, with a box of props. That was it.

D: How did the changeover in wardrobe come about?

P: That was about two years later. After Club La Vie, which was the fall of '54, at Christmas time I was engaged to go to the Echo Club in Miami Beach, Florida to do the act down there. There were other people on the bill. I worked there through that season--in a tuxedo again, with the props. I did have a pianist at Club La Vie. Jimmy McDonald played for me there, and down in Florida I had an organ accompaniment. So I worked that season. Then I went to New York and worked at Jimmy Kelley's Heaven, a supper club there, during May, June, and July, Then I got a call from the owner to return to the Echo Club. I knew that I couldn't go back with that same tired tuxedo-and-box-of-props act. So a friend if mine brought over some Charleston dressed that he had in his closet. (I did say "he.") At that time The Boyfriend had just opened on Broadway with Julie Andrews, and I had the album. So that's how I started working record pantomimes plus live material. I did numbers from The Boyfriend in those dresses, but I still rolled up my pants legs, I wore pants and a black turtleneck sweater. I would put the dress on over that, which was humorous looking, and then a Charleston hat. So one thing led to another. I added more pantomimes, I added more dresses, I added more black turtleneck sweaters through that season. And then Rio Dante, who had been a patron of the Echo Club all through my first season, played for me and was in my shows the second year. That began a long relationship. He was in the show from '55 until 1972. Rio would do pantomimes, then he would go to the piano and play for me. So we would always sign our shows off "live."

D: I'm curious, as this galaxy of stars developed for you, how you went about creating those personalities.

P: when I was in Pasadena during that period where U was at the Playhouse, I was doing plays, but also working at different jobs. I was a department store Santa Claus at The Broadway for a couple of weeks; at Nash's I was a record salesman. The Bette Davis album of Two's Company had just come out, so not only did I have the memory of Arthur doing Bette Davis, I could listen to her on the album. She was having health problems at the time, some kind of jaw problem, which affected her voice. And I had a cold, so I was able to match my voice with Bette's. So that came about. Katharine Hepburn I've always been able to do. Tallulah, of course, is easy to do. I've never actually studied these people, I just watched them on film or listened to them on records. As long as I could think up material for them, which would be adapted to their voices, then it all came easy.

D: So the voice really came first, and then the physical appearance--makeup and so forth--came later.

P: Oh, much later when I went, we'll say full-length, into drag. You see, in Miami Beach in the early fifties when we where all there, it was against the law. There was a law that no man could dress up on stage. I figured it out: they didn't want to tease the customers. They didn't want the male customers to think that was a woman on stage. That's why we had the pants that we rolled up and no makeup. As the years went by that got less and less. Finally they threw that ordinance out. That's when we were able to . . . well, I'm trying to think if in Miami Beach I ever did work in full drag. If I did, it wasn't like today. It might have been a glamour dress, but I don't remember wearing too much makeup. It was all done for fun in those days. Now everybody's very serious about it (Chuckles.) They're serious about their drag.

D: I was glancing at your books, and I'm curious if in addition to the physical aspects and the voice and so on, you also tried to actually absorb some of the personality through research.

P: Well, I've read them all, most of them, of the characters I do. I've got the four books on Bette and her picture books; Katharine, too. Now, oddly enough, Carol Channing is the only person I do that's come to see the show. Bette never saw me, but she had heard about me. Katharine won't go out.

D: And what was Channing's response to it?

P: Well, she's seen the show about four times. She says, "Charles, you're more Carol Channing than I am."(Both laugh.) She saw the show at Freddy's Supper Club, and once at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas when she was touring with Mary Martin. She brought Mary to the show, and James Kirkwood, they were all there that night.

D: Why do you think these people that you've just mentioned--Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Carol Channing, Tallulah bankhead--why are those the personalities that are most often imitated?

P: Well, probably because they themselves are bigger than life and can be imitated. They're almost female impersonators themselves.

D: I've heard Channing, for example, referred to exactly that way.

P: As a female impersonator, right. Their voices. They appeal to certain people in the audience that love all that kind of bitchy humor. Certainly Bette and Tallulah can get bitchy if you ever hear the dialogue I have for them where they carry on at a party. (Demonstrates.) "Tallulah, if you ever become a mother, may I have one of the puppies?" "Bette, you are one of the puppies." "I've never been so insulted." "You should get around more often." It's one thing right after the other. Or they dish people, you see. Carol Channing can dish Betty White (speaking as Carol Channing), "who came backstage when I was touring with Mary Martin. I was wearing this beautiful white fox stole in my show, and Betty said, 'You know, Carol, I would never wear a dead animal around my throat.' I said, 'But, Betty, I have to, because the live ones claw at my neck.'" It's that kind of humor. And then I also do my own self. I have my own character at the top of the show and at the end of the show. She is the hostess who brings on Joan Collins and all of them. Once I leave that character, then I go into Joan Collins, into "the turban ladies of Hollywood,"bringing back Maria Montez and Norma Desmond and Maria Ouspenskaya--a rather obscure bit--then Katharine Hepburn, then Bette, who turns into Joan Crawford. And then later, with a wig change and fur coat, Tallulah. Then Tallulah ends up bringing back Bette for their cat fight. Then I come back at the end, recreating that character at the top of the show, in a different costume.

D: Judy Garland, of course, is often imitated. Why don't you do her?

P: Well, I don't do the singing ladies. See, I don't do Diana Ross or Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand. The original premise, way back in 1951 or '52, was "what if Bette Davis was Scarlet O'Hara?" "Where has Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, been since they took her away at the end of Sunset Boulevard?" She was in prison, so the routine was that she was told all about her time in prison: "My prison sun suit was designed by Edith Head, my ball an chain by Cartier, and my prison cell lined in black tile. Valentino came in and we tangoed for days." All that.

D: Did you do your own writing?

P: A lot of it, yes. Or if I hear a joke on TV or something, I'll adapt it to the show. I heard one the other day that gets a good laugh in the show: What does Barbara Bush do with her old clothes? She wears them. (Both laugh.) Then she gives them to Delores Hope. My agent gave me that. It hasn't gotten around much, and it gets a good laugh in the show. And then I do things like: Tonight our show is absolutely fraught with mystery. Inquiring minds must know where the voice of Colleen Dewhurst comes from. Well, look where it's been. (Both laugh.) It's all stuff like that. Why did Joan Collins turn down the part of the Virgin Mary in The Last Temptation of Christ? As she herself says,"Oh, darling, it was too much of a stretch." (Both laugh.) You know, I was in Dallas at the Fairmont down there.

D: And also Granny's?

P: Oh, God, how did you know that? Did you see the show at Granny's? I've got that on tape.

D: Yes, I loved it.

P: And the stage turned, remember?

D: Have you made quite a study of makeup?

P: No. Over the years of putting it on night after night I would see something here that I didn't like, correct that, and that's just been on-the-job training more or less. Because I started with no makeup. I kept adding a little through the years, and now it's a two-hour process. I always arrive about two-and-a-half hours before the show.

D: But you do you own makeup?

P: Yes, I do my own makeup. On some occasions, like TV or my greeting cards, they make me up. But I prefer to make myself up and then have someone come in and correct it. I don't like people working over me too much. Remember Judy Garland in A Star is Born where they're putting on the little dots? Made her so nervous.

D: What about the gowns? What makes an effective theater gown?

P: A lot of glamour, a lot of glitz--if it's Joan Collins. If it's Bette Davis they still like my copy of the black Edith Head cocktail gown from All About Eve. That's just plain black, with a brooch right here on the shoulder. Katharine Hepburn I've had several costumes for. First of all, I'd like to say that the lighter the costume the better. For a while there I was working with a friend who insisted on doing heavier wardrobe so that it would last. But I don't feel good in it. I don't want to know that I am wearing anything on stage if it's a costume. I want it light. Katharine Hepburn's robe in Lion in Winter, that's fine. Then for a while I've been doing her On Golden Pond slack outfit, with the coolie hat. The costumes are adapted for the character, naturally. And, as I say, make them as light but as durable as you can. Now the opening and the closing are the glamour gowns, so there it's got to be very glitzy. But not overpowering, so that they're looking at that more than they're listening to my comedy. That's the most important. And it's also very difficult if I'm off for two or three months. Now I haven't worked since May. I took June off, and now we're getting into July and August. I still have to sit down with my tapes of my shows and listen and, "Oh, yes, I remember. Oh, that line goes in there. Oh, that word changes that line." I still have to rehearse, after all these years. I talked with Hal Holbrook, and he'll go to the beach if he is away from Mark Twain too long and walk on the beach and do his show, or in his car. People that do one-man shows, when they're away from them for so long, they must rememorize. I find it very difficult to get the show back together again. And yet, once you're introduced and you're out there, it flows. But you keep thinking, "Oh, God, I've got to know an hour-and-a-half of jokes and dialogue and remember where to go and what to do." When I leave the stage there's a microphone in my dressing room, and I'm making an announcement about the next character while I'm making my costume change. So once the show starts at nine o'clock, I'm talking until ten-thirty.

D: Are you constantly changing wigs also?

P: Oh, yes. Every character has wig and jewelry changes. And lately, on some of them, we've been changing shoes. So it gets pretty hectic. I have one dresser. It worked very well recently when we were in a situation where they had TV monitors, and I was able to throw on two minutes of Mae West from an old show, video tape. That was luxury to be able to have two minutes to make a costume change.

D: Interviewing comedians, I've been told time and again that timing is most important.

P: The timing of your material, yes. Of course.

D: So you find that to be the case?

P: Oh, yes, absolutely. If you don't have your timing, then you don't have your laugh. And to keep it rolling, you can't rely too much on that laugh. You've got to come in on the down-laugh part and go right on. I think it's an instinct, it has to be natural. I don't think you can learn timing.

D: Were you a musician by any chance?

P: I play the piano. Once in a while I, as Bette Davis, will go to my pianist and we play "Tea for Two" as a duet. But that's as far as it goes.

D: I remember in the interview I did with Phyllis Diller she said she felt that the great comics had been musicians, and that her musical training had definitely helped her in her comedic sense.

P: Well, I did play the piano, but I never thought of it as helping me with the spoken word. But if Phyllis said it, it must be true. I wonder how she'd explain this: For fifteen dollars I bought an old pump-organ, which was down in our cellar for years. I was pumping on that, playing and singing. (Laughs.)

D: I've also been told time and again that the foundation of any comedy is believability. And yet it strikes me that your approach to comedy almost is based not on believability but on that suspension of belief.

P: Almost unbelievability. It's more vaudeville, I think, rather than the comics today that tell about their lives and you laugh at what's happened to them. I've been doing it for thirty-five years, and I don't think I've ever gotten in that area. It's always more jokes that I do, like the Barbara Bush line. You need jokes to make the people laugh.

D: And do you particularly like topical lines?

P: Oh, yes, to update the show. Sure. I had the last words of Mrs. Swaggart: "Thank God that was a girl!" (Both laugh.) Topical, as much as I can. I'm doing San Diego next week my first time out in the nightclub act since May. So we do that bit about "Inquiring minds want to know if Zsa Zsa Gabor was read her Carmen Miranda rights," something like that. And then I was going to add something about when she went from bitch to butch, because she ended up slugging the cop. So anything topical that I can I'll put in.

D: How about ad-libbing? Do you do much of that?

P: A lot of ad-libbing. More in the past, when people could see the show for a beer and no door charge. I'm going way back to the fifties and into the sixties. In the clubs where I worked you got a lot of people who couldn't see the show today, because it costs twenty and twenty-five dollars cover charge. When I was playing to those people I'd get hecklers, and I used to love that. I used to love to lay the hecklers out.

D: A number of great comedians have specialized in a poignant quality--Chaplin, Keaton. Do you think that works for you?

Is there a poignant element?

P: There's one part in the show where Katharine does "Always Mademoiselle," the number from Coco. That's the one dramatic number. Having done it for fifteen years, on my last engagement I went back to what I used to do, Katharine Hepburn's original "calla lily" speech from Stage Door. I sit on the piano in a spotlight, and that's the one poignant moment in the show. Also, if the audience is in the mood and I'm in the mood, I will do the All About Eve speech when Bette was in the car, as Margo, about her career: "Funny business, a woman's career, the things you drop on your way up the ladder." I'll do that dramatically, take a puff and blow it out, slow curtain, the end. It's very dramatic. The hand comes to the right as the spotlight follows me down, so you just see the hand, my pianist plays a note, blackout. And then we're right back to the comedy bits.

D: Do you feel that your goal is to imitate these people, or to caricature?

P: Probably caricature. I use them almost as my ventriloquist dolls. I more or less express myself through them. Maybe it's because I've been doing them so long. I think they started out rather authentic, an authentic reproduction of Miss Mae West and Miss Bette Davis. And nowadays my characterizations are a tad broader--pardon the word. I can't get Joan Collins in. She's off somewhere everytime, so she's not available to come in and see me. As I said, Katharine won't. I don't know what they would say. They might be upset or they might not. But, you see, it's nightclubs, and we're using their character to enhance this material that I'm using. It's as if they were doing a nightclub act.

D: Since '54 many of these people have become caricatures themselves--of themselves.

P: Right. Like Tallulah became a caricature, and Bette.

D: I think even if a Broadway performer stays in a role too long they almost become a caricature of what they started out as.

P: Well, then, that's what's happened to the show. Now, with these breaks in between engagements, I'm ready for a long run--and by that I mean at the Henry Fonda Theater, where I was two years ago--a long, theatrical run. Because as the nights go on I get more relaxed and I have more fun. Now we'll be doing three nights in San Diego, and I'll just be starting to get warmed up. I don't want to have to think on stage about the line, I want to just flow out. And that's what happens after the third or fourth night. But once you start up, that first night is very difficult. And yet it can flow. You get out there and the audience turns you on, they're many of my friends, and so we just take it easy and I take my time with the costume changes.

D: Do you see yourself in the tradition of the great female impersonators, like a Julian Eltinge?

P: I think they have more than I did, in the fact that Julian was surrounded by his own costumers, his own production company, he had his own theater, and he did all those plays. I think he was more a straight female impersonator, in that he played roles. Did he ever do a nightclub act?

D: I don't think so.

P: He played roles. Lynn Carter was more of a nightclub performer. Are you familiar with his work?

D: No.

P: Toured with the Jewel Box Revue, had his own show, like a one-nighter at Carnegie Hall. He played New York quite a bit, the Bon Soir, the Blue Angel. Danny LaRue, you see, has the advantage of his own production people. When he does a show there's a full orchestra in the pit, and the Londoners flock in to see Danny--in a role, rather than in a nightclub act. So I've just sort of been on my own. I never had one person who did all my costumes exclusively. I've had probably ten or twelve different ones as the years have gone by.

D: Have audiences changed since 1954?

P: Well, I'm still getting the laughs, so I don't know. Yes, they've changed in one way: they look different, very different. It's very strange, I've got lines in the show (and on my face, too) from 1954, and the lines are still getting laughs. Like, "If you ever become a mother, may I have one of the puppies?" gets a laugh. Of course we've updated the material through the years, too. So that's a hard question to answer. Of course everything has changed, but if you can laugh then you're still laughing at my material. So then I can say they haven't changed, but they've gotten different.

D: Well, let me make it maybe even more difficult, because my next question is: Do audiences vary from city to city? Is a New York audience radically different from a Dallas, Texas audience?

P: I only had a little trouble at the Fairmont in Dallas, mainly because we weren't playing to really full houses. I haven't done that much television, so people in Dallas and the outlying districts of Dallas or Denver might sit there wondering, "What is he talking about? What is that woman doing on that stage?" That's why I've concentrated all my life on Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Chicago. So I've never been in St. Louis, where I think, "Oh, my God, how are these people going to take me?" I play the cities, and have always been well received. Miami Beach, too. And it's always been gay/straight audiences. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion here in Los Angeles I did one engagement, a one-nighter, in 1974 with Sally Rand, the fan dancer. And then I came back in 1982 and did a show on a Monday night, then Tuesday evening it was filmed for the Playboy Channel. That's been on quite a bit. It's an hour-long show called "The Legends of the Silver Screen." I think earlier on, in the fifties, I hit a "bad" audience: "God, where do those people come from?" But that could be anywhere. As the years have gone by and I've worked up this act, which is supposed to be line-laugh, line-laugh, it's been more successful. But if someone said, "Do you want to go to Anchorage, Alaska and do the act there?" then I'd start biting my nails off. But I might say, "Let's go and see. Maybe it'll be a bigger hit up there." I will say that people told me for years, "Oh, you should go to London. You must go to London, they'll love you there." Fine. I did go to London and had my one-man show at the Fortune Theatre under the auspices of Harold Fielding. Well, some theater audiences there would be hysterical: then the next night I'd think, "Where did those people come from?" Then two years later I went back to London and played Country Cousin, which was a cabaret situation. And there it was much better, the reaction. So my act works better in a cabaret situation than it does in a theater situation. Because my material is cabaret, it's risque, double entendre.

D: This may be more feeling than anything else, but over the years have you gotten any feel for who is your most appreciative audience? I'm thinking men versus women, gays versus straights, intellectuals versus ordinary persons.

P: Well, I think it's always been a smattering of them all. One time I appeared before a gay motorcycle group in San Francisco. This was in a theater . . . I'm trying to think why . . . it was a theater situation where they were doing awards. I came out and did fifteen minutes of material, but it lasted forty-five minutes. That's one show that I'll never forget. That was a reaction! They were stomping and screaming and yelling, so it took me all that time to do what usually took fifteen minutes. And that was strictly motorcycle guys who were out for a good time. One spectacular show was when Angela Lansbury was touring in Mame in San Francisco. I was at the Gilded Cage. That was a long engagement. Rio Dante and I were there for six years in that club. A lot of pantomimes and live material went over the dam during those six years! So I had sent to Hollywood and rented Till the Clouds Rolls By, where Angela does her swing number. It was all arranged that she and Anne Francine, who played Vera Charles, and other members of the cast would come in on Saturday night. So it was like those scenes from movies where we're peeking out from the curtain--"Is she here? Is she here?" Someone ran back, "Oh, Angela's coming in the door! Quick!" So we played her theme from Mame, she arrived, and the audience screamed. It was mostly men, but there were some women there. She and Anne stood up on their chairs and acknowledged this great ovation. And the minute that calmed down, our curtain went up and there was the screen we went right into the film clip of "How'd You Like to Spoon With Me?" She told me later that she was so taken aback by all of that, and then we did d fifteen-minute take-off on Mame. I'll always remember that night. I even had a nine-year-old boy in a little sailor outfit doing "You're My Best Girl." I brought out this kid and put him down on the stage and he pantomimed "You're My Best Girl." Angela told me she's never forgotten that night. It was just one of those evenings that made up for a lot of the other ones where, "My God, where did those people come from?" But I think I've been pretty lucky through the years in having some very good audiences, very good. If we're going negative and bad, I did an opening act for Ann-Margret in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace, and that wasn't right for me. I didn't enjoy that at all. So I never went back to Caesar's Palace. So there. (Chuckles.)

D: Let's talk about your films for a moment. Was Rabbit Test an interesting experience for you?

P: Yes, I enjoyed doing Rabbit Test. That was just a day's work. I was the Queen of England, with Billy Crystal. Billy Crystal was kneeling at my feet. I'm the Queen of England and I'm about to knight him: "I, Queen of the British Empire . . . on and on and on. And the Queen 's purse ran down my arm and onto the blade, that broke, her purse fell onto the floor and opened up. There was a shot of a half-eaten sandwich, big keys to the kingdom, her Kotex. (Laughs.) And then her line was, "Oh, shit!" Well, I just saw it on TV. Now that Billy Crystal's a big star they're bringing back Rabbit Test. It makes no sense at all. The purse breaks open, but you can't even see what's in it on the TV set. I think you hear, "Oh!." That was it. I've heard a lot worse things on talk shows, on Donahue, the subject matters they discuss. But they couldn't leave in that four-letter word, "Shit!" But I was going to say, my mother was visiting me at that time, so off I went early morning to be the Queen of England and came back about five in the afternoon. We had to go shopping. (She always remembers this story.) Whipping through the supermarket with the shopping cart, I stopped and said, "Two hours ago I was the Queen of England; now I'm pushing this shopping cart through Von's. It's not fair." (Both laugh.)

D): That should have been in the movie!

P: Some of my friends are in the movie: Alice Ghostley, Paul Lynde, Richard Deacon. Oddly enough I never met them, because their scenes were shot on different days.

D: Was Joan Rivers good to work with?

P: I enjoyed her very much, yes. She's totally different from what you get on the screen. I was in makeup and I had the Queen's wig on, the dress, the crown. Everybody in makeup thought it would be funny if the crown was slightly askew. Now I'd never met Joan at that point, but she walked into the makeup room, took a look at me, didn't say hello, "nice to have you on the set with us," nothing; she looked at the crown and said, "You don't do a joke on a joke," and she made the crown totally acceptable, flat on my head, and zoom, away she went. Then we went from that makeup room to the soundstage, and she met me at the door: "Oh, it's so wonderful to have you with us." And she went on about the fact that Ruth Buzzi had been suggested for the part, but she wanted me. On and on. Strange?

D: Did you work well with Paul Bogart on Torch Song Trilogy?

P: Oh, we had a wonderful time. I love Paul Bogart. He was just great. That whole four weeks . . . I didn't work the full four weeks; I had my calls for different days. But absolutely no tantrums, no Paul saying, "No, you can't do it that way." He let me put in a couple of my own lines. Harvey [Fierstein) did too. I was sorry when we had to say, "It's a wrap." I had a good time.

D: How did Bogart work as a director?

P: Well, he'll tell you where to go and let you do pretty much what you want. There wasn't anything like, "Oh, I want you to do it this way." Everybody got along just fine. I enjoyed Paul. I hope we can work together again.

D: Did you get to know Anne Bancroft well?

P: Well, you see, our scenes weren't together. We had a reading of the play at the William Morris office, I met her there. Then a week later we were at the David O. Selznick Studios. We were there on a sound stage, another reading of the script. So I never really got to know her too well. But she and Mel Brooks had come to see me at Studio One, with Dom DeLuise and his wife, Carol, a number of years ago. So we exchanged pleasantries, but with reading and everything there wasn't time to say, "Let's get together and have a drink."

D: How have you felt about the television work you've done? Is that something you enjoy?

P: I've enjoyed it, but I haven't enjoyed it. A friend of mine, the actor George Rose, who was murdered you know a year or so ago, George and I were talking, and he said, "I'm never happier than when I'm walking away from a sound stage." As an actor, he didn't really like television. What I don't like about it is there's absolutely no time to rehearse. When I did Designing Women we read on Monday morning, went directly to the sound stage and started blocking. Then on Tuesday the high officials from CBS come in to see how you're doing. And you've had three hours of rehearsal! So if they don't like you, or they don't like an actor who isn't doing what they think he should be doing, he's dismissed. So then there's only Wednesday to rehearse, and then they shoot on Thursday. So that's what I don't like about television. I like the exposure of being on television and I like some of the roles I've played. My favorite was . . . well, I liked Wonder Woman, that was a good role. I was the villain that had to dress up as a WAC Major and crawl along this air duct with a bomb made out of hair curlers. I had quite a few scenes on Wonder Woman. And I loved Fame, where I was a bag lady. But the bag lady had a wonderful entrance into this restaurant. I clomped down these stairs with my shopping cart, it was raining outside, I was dripping. And then I say to the maitre d', "Oh, I just want to go over and sit down and fix my soup." Cut. When you see it, I'm already seated. She's making her tomato soup with her crackers and things, saying, "Oh, sonny, pass me that salt and pepper, will you, honey?" Then the wig came off and I grabbed a gun from my shopping bag and held up the restaurant. "Put your jewels and wallets on the table," and all that stuff. So that was good. But they missed the entrance. They cut a scene from Torch Song Trilogy where I come into the nightclub late at night when Arnold and Murray are playing strip poker with the chorus boys. It's very late at night, everyone is gone. I come in and announce: "Who was that certain person I saw getting out of a certain cab," and on and on about having seen Alan move his luggage in with Arnold. And that scene was cut. So all of a sudden in the picture Alan and Arnold are living together. But I'm not the only one. When I read my books on the stars and celebrities, they're always complaining about "That scene was cut," or "I wasn't even in the picture." Eddie Fisher was cut out totally from All About Eve. He was supposed to be the stage manager. I complained about that one scene from Torch Song, but there was an actor who played the principal whose scene with Arnold was cut totally, so he never got on the screen at all. So I have my pros and cons, my yeas and nays, about television.

[End of side one of tape.]

[Side two of tape.)

D: What is the difference between cabaret and nightclubs?

P: Well, I think it wasn't until the film Cabaret came out that we started calling nightclubs cabarets. But there is a difference. Because in films that we see . . . Broadway Rhythm had the greatest nightclub set. Who was in that? George Murphy. I don't know why we can't get Broadway Rhythm on video. Anyway, that was the nightclub scene there. See, a nightclub usually shows people dancing, there's a band, there's a singer, lots of waiters running around with trays of food, and of course the cigarette girl, plus the star of the show, or maybe stars. And then of course the camera goes backstage and you see lovely, spacious dressing rooms. Now when we're talking cabaret, then I see a small, dingy, smoke-filled room with patrons grouped at tiny tables, a makeshift stage, no food served, and one singer--always a woman singing obscure show tunes. See Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair. She does her numbers in the epitome of a European cabaret. Because of that picture, because of Marlene, I sing her song "Illusions" as my ending theme for my show. Now, Blue Angel in New York, the Bon Soir, Number One Fifth Avenue, Jimmy Kelly's Heaven, all were cabarets. Nightclubs I think of are the Persian Room of the Plaza, the Waldorf-Astoria had large rooms that were nightclubs, and one of the greatest nightclubs of all, Bimboes in San Francisco. It's still there and is still maintained exactly as it was in the forties.

D: Have you found dressing rooms for the most part commodious?

P: Odd that you asked that. I've got that written right here. Now when you play the small supper clubs or cabarets, you are lucky to have a broom closet where you can put your makeup on and dress. Freddy's Supper Club in New York, East Side, I always love playing the East Side of New York. I always felt it meant something, even more than Broadway. I loved the East Side. I had a large closet next to the boiler room. If I had an engagement during the winter season, no matter how cold it was outside I still had to have a fan on while I was making up in that dressing room. I remember once when the water pipes broke I had to slosh my way through the hall and up the stairs. We're talking show biz now, aren't we? And then one night the air-conditioner went out. This was at Freddy's on an opening night. I was doing the Queen of England in a red wool coat. After the sketch when I ran backstage to change, my dresser had to pull with all his strength to get me out of that coat, which he then wrang out, then toweled me off. Sticky as it was, we still had to go on to Bette Davis and her All About Eve costume. All the while the audience fanned themselves with menus and napkins. I remember, too, right down front that night were Maureen McGovern and Elizabeth Franz. Miss Franz was appearing in Brighton Beach Memoirs. She came back later and brought the entire cast, which included Matthew Broderick and Joyce Van Patten. She called and was assured that the air-conditioner was on full at Freddy's. (Both laugh.) So you really have to put up with a lot.

D: What have been the most satisfying moments in your career? Moments or experiences.

P: Well, you're talking of performing on a nightclub stage?

D: Any stage.

P: The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion show with Sally Rand, 1974. I felt cheated, because we only did it for one night. Again, I was warmed up; I would have loved to have gone back and done two or three weeks. Again, the night with Angela Lansbury. At that point I hadn't dealt too much with celebrities who came to see me. When they did, I was thrilled--still am. I remember when Ingrid Bergman came to the Village Gate in New York. She signed her program from the Maugham play, The Constant Wife, and for weeks I tried to figure out how she signed it. I finally got a magnifying glass. It says, "To Charles, with wig, Ingrid Bergman." (Chuckles.) It's always nice when a great star comes to see you. Claudette Colbert has seen my show two or three times. We've had all "the Golden Girls" in at various times--Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan. We've had "the Designing Women" in, Dixie Carter with her husband, Hal Holbrook. And people from your Oral History Program have been in: Imogene Coca, Martha Raye, Kaye Ballard, George Chakiris. The greatest moments are when (forget who's out there) I know I've done a good show and it's been a hysterical evening for everybody, then I'm totally satisfied. But there have been some high points. The opening night at the Fortune Theatre in London, Danny LaRue was in the audience, Peter O'Toole and his wife, Tommy Steele, many of the actresses and actors of London. The actress that introduced the song "Only a Glass of Champagne" was out there, too. Her name was Evelyn Layne. In 1975 my mother was in the audience, and she'd never seen me perform in drag. It was at the Village Gate, and she'd come all the way from Watertown, New York. Now I had a signature piece in those days which was Jeanette MacDonald singing "San Francisco" on the swing. Wherever I go people from the past say, "Are you still doing Jeanette on the swing?" I would get on the swing, swing out over the audience, the lights would come on the swing, the bubbles would come down from overhead, then I'd go circular with the swing. Well, of course the audience was screaming and yelling and ducking. When it finished, my mother jumped up on stage and hugged me. That was a very touching moment. It was prearranged that she was to get flowers, but they didn't know she was going to be on stage. They were going to hand them to me and I was going to hand them to Mother. Everybody ran up to the stage with the flowers and presented her and myself with them. We have pictures of that. So that was a memorable evening.

D: Does the road get to be tiresome?

P: Well, I've been off it now you see, for about a year. I did five years in a row every summer, in the fabulous Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel with an orchestra. So after five years I thought, "Oh, I guess I don't want to do this anymore. I think we'll take a break." I had intended to retire the act last summer, but people keep asking me to do it here, do it there. I think, "Well, I'm just sitting around here, I guess I might as well do it." I did announce in San Francisco that that was my final nightclub engagement there. Then I went on to New York to The Ballroom and announced that was my final nightclub engagement in New York.

D: Do you feel like your professional life has contributed to your personal development?

P: Yes. I've been able to be independent, in the fact that I'm my own boss, I book myself. If I don't like the engagement, I don't take it. I have employees that I pay from my engagement salary. I'm self-employed, I do what I want. Especially now. In the seventies and the earlier part of the eighties I was working on the road quite a bit. I had ten engagements at Freddy's Supper Club in New York. That's a lot of suitcase-packing. I would do four or five weeks there then I'd come back to California for a couple of weeks. I'd relax, see friends, then off I'd go again to San Francisco. So that's been very pleasant. But then I decided, "No, I don't want to do this anymore." Consequently, I'm off to San Diego next week. (Chuckles.) But that's only for three days. People say, "Would you do a show for us down in Atlantic City?" They wanted me to do a play down there. I said, "Well, what does it involve?" "Well, four weeks of rehearsal and six weeks of performance." "Well, I'll have to think about that. I think I'd like to just be here for a while."

D: That was going to be my last question: What would you like to do now?

P: Maybe a little more television, if I can get a little bit more rehearsal out of the people.

D: Good luck with that.

P: Yes, good luck. I'd say forget it. (Both laugh.) Just something that isn't too much of a hassle. I'm not going to do it unless it's fun. If it's too involved, no. "Oh, we'd like you to do this horror picture. But you have to have this mask made, and I hope you don't have claustrophobia. There are two characters; one has to look like you, and he'll wear a mask. So we have to do that." I didn't say no, but I haven't heard one word from them since. I get all these offers:

"We're going to present the Charles Pierce Show on Broadway." Never materializes. "We're going to do the Charles Pierce Show as a television sit-com." So there are people out there working on it. In the meantime I'm just sitting here.



D: Let me ask you about Adrian Hall and knowing him.

P: Well, Adrian Hall and I were roommates in 1946 at the Pasadena Playhouse. I've known Adrian since then, and we keep running into each other from time to time. He keeps saying he wants to do a show with me, but like the Broadway show and the television show we haven't gotten to it.

D: What was young Adrian Hall like?

P: Well, in 1946 Adrian Hall was hell-bent and determined to be an actor. I don't remember him ever discussing being a director. But he was very involved in his studies at the Playhouse to be an actor. After the first two or three months of that first year at the Playhouse, Adrian left and went back to Galveston. I think he went back to Galveston, worked a while, and then returned to the Playhouse a year later. The year Adrian was away put him behind me and of course I graduated before he did. I have been in touch with him all these years. Whenever we can get together we have great fun, and I hope that fun continues for along time, as I hope my act will also continue to amuse and entertain audiences wherever I play.

{end of interview}

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