Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Matthew Martin


The down-to-earth diva

Matthew Martin dances as Victoria Grant in "Le Jazz Hot" from Victor/Victoria, at a film screening night that honored actress Leslie Anne Warren. photo: Jim Norrena
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He's performed as more iconic female film actresses than the most devoted pop culture fan could name, and yet remains humble about his decades-long performing career. His new cabaret act, Matthew Martin Goes to Hollywood, premieres the new nightclub Oasis on January 18, and promised a colorful array of divas, plus other performers as special celebrity guests.

With hundreds of performances on stage and screen as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, even fictional characters Helen Lawson and Mamma Rose among his repertoire, this upcoming Oasis show is a bit of a reunion for the native San Franciscan.

"I remember going to the old Oasis with a fake ID, and using the pool," said Martin, 51, in a phone interview during a break at his day job with a downtown law firm.

"To see the landscape of nightlife change, with so many places having gone by the wayside, it's exciting to kick off a show in a new space," he said.

Oasis has a lengthy history as various other bars, from The Leatherneck to even a sex club. Its initial incarnation as Oasis included an upper outdoor deck and a swimming pool.

Martin offered praise for the lighting and stage professionalism at the new Oasis, where he also just opened in the revival of Shit & Champagne , D'Arcy Drollinger and Laurie Bushman's raucously comic spoof of exploitation films. As Dixie Stampede, Martin's villain character plots an evil plan as part of a drug cartel disguised through a Wal-mart-type chain store.

"You kick ass and get your ass kicked for the show," said Martin, who only weeks ago finished another sold-out run of The Golden Girls , the popular drag performances of scripts from the senior ladies' sitcom. With Heklina, Pollo del Mar and Cookie Dough, Martin returned as Blanche Devereaux (played by Rue McClanahan), the sultry Southern senior with slutty tendencies.

"It's always fun to work with people you've known for years," said Martin of the shows, which he counted among his favorites.

His current favorite, Shit & Champagne, is packed with what Martin calls "low brow potty humor, but executed by such excellent actors with a sophistication, that it's silly but smart."

Martin said he enjoys diving into his role. "Villains are always more fun. You just expunge all of your bile onstage. It's very therapeutic. That's why I'm such a lovely person offstage!"

Matthew Martin as Dixie Stampede (with Seton Brown) in the 2014 production of Shit & Champagne. photo: Steven Underhill

The sheer number of previous shows which have featured Martin are so numerous that the performer can't recall them all. "It's surreal," he laughed. Some early shows include Christmas With the Crawfords and Baby Jane? at the Victoria Theatre.

But Martin's first significant performance was with a show business icon, not as one.

"I was hired at age 20 as a vacation replacement dancer in a 1983 local production of Sugar Babies," said Martin. "What a thrill to spend time with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney."

Martin first performed in drag in 1984 at the Alcazar Theatre in After Dark , which he described as "a wild drag show from Sweden, very sophisticated. I was the American replacement actor. I had done drag at Halloween for years, but that was my first professional engagement."

Matthew Martin.

As one of few drag performers who uses his real name, Martin isn't concerned with labels.

"I consider myself an actor," he said. "People say, 'Is your drag name? Your stage name?' I always want to be me, and it's me as Joan or Bette. I'm not married to one character, and hope to even play a wider range of characters. I'm a ham. Call me what you want, but just call me!"

A singer and dancer since his high school days at St. Ignatius College Preparatory, and as a theatre major at San Francisco State University, Martin keeps his family ties close, with supportive parents who figured out their son, the youngest of six children, was a little bit special.

"My parents [now in their 80s] have always supported me, even taking me to tap dance lessons. It was very Billy Elliot," said Martin. "They came to see The Golden Girls this year. We introduced them after the bows, and they got a thunderous ovation. They got a roar! One of my cast mates joked, 'Your parents got a bigger hand than you did!' I'm very grateful that they're alive and well."

Despite his worries about the very scatological humor, his parents even came to see Shit & Champagne.

"My mom said, 'I don't know what you're so nervous about. It's so silly.'"

Matthew Martin with Katya Smirnoff-Skyy in Billy Clift's film Baby Jane?

Martin's mother was also a performer in local commercials, and even played Martha in a 1984 San Francisco State production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

"I thought I got my talent from my Croatian mother's side," said Martin. "But my dad's a retired attorney, and lawyers in the courtroom are sort of on stage as well."

Martin recalled a moment when the seed of his drag career was planted.

"I must have been ten years old," he said. "All About Eve was on TV, and I was compelled to get a tape recorder and capture the sophisticated dialogue, half of which I didn't even understand."

Martin also made collages of images from vintage movie magazines of Judy Garland, Barbara Stanwyck and others actresses.

"I realized years later that this art from my childhood became all of the characters I would portray," he said. "Learning a great old musical theatre song is like learning one I already knew."

While it may not take ESP for a parent to realize their tap-dancing Judy Garland-loving son is gay, Martin never forgets how lucky he is, compared to those who didn't enjoy such supportive parents.

"So often, after a show, a guy will come up in tears and say, 'I wanted to perform, but they wouldn't let me.' I guess being from San Francisco, the ramifications or reasoning that people take on drag names is they don't want to be associated with their family lives. They assume another identity. But I don't have to."

Mathew Martin, with Jane Russell and Jordan L'Moore (as Marilyn Monroe). photo: Marc Huestis

Martin also maintains a sense of wonder about his fans. "Audiences remember my performances," he said. "Someone will say a line to me that I did 20 years ago."

That's because so many of them are memorable. Along with shows like Baby Jane?, Martin starred as Margo Channing in Eve , a musical version of All About Eve in 1998, which, he said, "really threw the screenplay out the window."

A 2004 faithful stage version of the film script is among his many Bette Davis incarnations. In his Oasis show, he'll sing one number from the other musical adaptation, Applause .

Two other Davis-derived roles are in Billy Clift's film adaptation of Baby Jane?, a sardonic satire of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte, which is nearing completion. Both costarred other local drag talents like Katya Smirnoff-Skyy and Heklina, and were filmed at the Victorian home of actor Mike Finn.

Matthew Martin as Peggy Lee at The Rrazz Room. photo: Steven Underhill

In an email from Los Angeles where he's in post-production for Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte , director Clift praised Martin as "completely professional and a delight to work with. He knows his lines and is prepared, and even if he's not completely prepared, he quickly figures it out. He's also amazing at continuity, so it's a delight to edit. I can jump to a close-up shot and he will have done exactly the same thing as he did when we shot the master. Often, I can even use another take's dialogue and put it on top of another take and it fits perfectly. He also is a supporter of his fellow actors, and makes them feel comfortable. I've used him in all of my features so far, and when possible I'll continue."

Martin compliments his collaborators easily. "Anyone who knows me knows that my forté isn't hair, makeup or costumes. This is why I respect these other art forms. I can do my makeup. But I know other people can do much better. I'm more of an actor than a drag artist."

Asked about the variances in female impersonation from stage acting to film and a nightclub act, Martin said he strives for a balance.

Matthew Martin in another Victor/Victoria moment as Norma at the Castro Theatre. photo: Steven Underhill

"If you get it just right, the audience falls on the floor," he said. "The first time I did Bette I was nervous. I didn't want to make it a caricature, waving my arms, repeating, 'Petah, Petah.' I understood her changes and how her characters were each different. When audiences get what you're doing, there's nothing more gratifying. I never want to get too self-serious about it."

From film close-ups to big venues like the Castro Theatre, Martin's acts have wowed audiences. Impresario Marc Huestis, who has produced countless film screening tribute nights to great actresses, has worked with Martin on more than 20 productions, which inspired Martin's performances as Mamma Rose (Gypsy), Helen Lawson (Valley of the Dolls), and Victoria Grant (Victor/Victoria).

"He's one of those performers who, once they're onstage, you know they own it," said Huestis in a phone interview.

Huestis mentioned some highlights, including Martin's two performances as Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls screenings (with guest-interviewees Barbara Perkins in 1997 and Patti Duke in 2009).

Other Castro Theatre highlights include Martin's 'Mamma Rose' in a Gypsy Rose Lee tribute night and two other events, and a disco night with Thelma Houston at a screening of Can't Stop the Music where Martin sang "I Will Survive" as Bette Davis.

Matthew Martin as Blanche in The Golden Girls. photo: Gareth Gooch

"He's also done Judy Garland Christmas shows with Lorna Luft, a bunch of Bad Seed events, where he played Mrs. Daigle," recalled Huestis. "We did a Carrie White Christmas with Piper Laurie, too. The thing about Matthew; he goes by his given name, which takes a lot of guts. Whether he's Ann Miller, Jane Russell or Judy or Katherine, he's always Matthew."

Huestis even rented floor-microphones so the audience could hear Martin's tap dancing at the Ann Miller tribute night.

"I wanted her to hear me tapping," said Martin. "It was her last public appearance, so that was a thrill. Getting to play the Castro Theatre, it's like a temple."

But even the smallest of audiences can enjoy a full serving of Martin. He recalled a Halloween night performance of Eve with Theatre Rhinoceros, which had a mere four people in the audience.

"Months later, one of those people told me what fun he had," said Martin. "The audience isn't counting heads. They're not thinking about that. I'll go on for one person. It's all a once in a lifetime experience. Never again will the same chemical compounds of people be the same the next night. A throwaway line one night will get a giggle, and the next night the audience is laughing their asses off. You have to trust yourself. Of course it helps to have a big audience. But you give as good as you get. You want to be as great on your closing night as your opening night."

Matthew Martin as Mamma Rose outside the Castro Theatre. photo: courtesy Heklina

That goes for his most known portrayal of Bette Davis or 'Margo Channing.' Asked to explain the popularity of sometimes vicious characters, Martin said that he looks for the humanity in any role.

"You want to find something redeeming in the most hateful of characters, like with Baby Jane. Why do people love her so much? Maybe there's a little Baby Jane in everyone; an utterly ugly pissed-off bitch in all of us."

For his Oasis show, Martin will also share monologues as Katherine Hepburn and Judy Garland, and songs galore, including his understated yet hilarious interpretation of the owlish latter-day Peggy Lee.

"She was doing so much by doing so little," Martin said of his more subtle characterization. "Of course I do it because I love these women with reverence, but I don't want to lose a sense of humor. And I'm usually very exacting and particular about material. But with this show, it'll be more of a party."

Matthew Martin Goes to Hollywood, with the Tom Shaw Trio, includes special guests, table seating and a full bar. $20. Sunday, January 18, 7pm, at Oasis, 298 11th St.

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