Charles Busch goes plush

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday September 16, 2014
Share this Post:

Emotions run high whenever Charles Busch returns to San Francisco. And even though it was more than 40 years ago that he made his local debut at Valencia Rose, it was a transformative experience. "It was the first time both the public and the critics were taking me seriously," said the playwright-performer. "My big dream had been to play San Francisco, and I worked very hard at somehow finding a way to perform there. It turned out to be so affirming."

When Busch returns to the city on Sept. 25-26, he'll find himself in the plusher surroundings of Feinstein's at the Nikko, and now as a performer already held in high regard by critics and audiences. That esteem flows from a succession of his plays, often movie-genre spoofs in which he is the leading lady as well as the author, a list that includes Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, The Divine Sister, and Die, Mommie, Die! (Busch will also be visiting New Conservatory Theatre Center on Sept. 23, where Die, Mommie, Die! is in rehearsals, for an onstage conversation with Artistic Director Ed Decker.)

The cabaret show that Busch is bringing to Feinstein's is "an odd act," he conceded. "I really don't understand it myself because I'm introduced as Charles Busch, and then come out looking rather like Arlene Dahl crossed with Greer Garson, lots of flowing chiffon, and then I proceed to be very honest, telling stories about my career and observations on life, and then singing these beautiful songs from the American songbook with as much honesty as I can. Sometimes I think I shouldn't be in drag, but oddly enough, I think I'm more myself with a little bit of disguise."

The show also contains several set-pieces, such as a point-counterpoint conversation between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in which Busch alternates between separate interviews that the two stars gave about their one and only collaboration on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? And Busch also returns to his favorite alter ego, the middle-aged wannabe cabaret star Miriam Passman, whose banter with the audience grows increasingly personal and emotional.

"My Miriam Passman piece is my more naturalistic contemporary comedy-writing, and in a way it's in the same vein as The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," said Busch of his Broadway hit that did not include him, in drag or out, in the cast. "People congratulated me on going 'mainstream,' and it rankled a bit, like they were saying, 'Thank goodness you escaped that downtown milieu.' I never considered what I was doing wasn't mainstream."

Charles Busch found a receptive audience when he first played San Francisco more than 40 years ago. Photo: Marc Yankus

But when Busch got his first big break in New York's downtown theater scene, it would be hard to categorize the venue and the show as mainstream. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom began as a hastily written sketch presented for one weekend at the Limbo Lounge in 1984, when the Lower East Side was a dicey, druggy zone known as Alphabet City. "When I was a solo performer, a lot of the male characters didn't really interest me, but I had to play them to tell my narrative," he said. "When I finally played just one female character that interested me, and I had an ensemble that could play the other roles, things sort of took off from there."

Busch recently turned 60, and that approaching birthday put him into a bit of a funk. "Turning 60 is supposed to be full of re-evaluations and assessments of where you've been and what you've done, and that can be kind of grim," he said. "So I had a kind of rough year, but I've kind of gotten out of it. I do tend to see the bleak side of things. If something gives me joy, I immediately start pondering it."

Returning to the world of a solo cabaret act "has been a lovely surprise these last couple of years, and I try to keep it in the right perspective or the fun goes out of it, " Busch said. "It all came about out of the blue when I was asked to perform on an RSVP gay cruise on very short notice, and I thought who would be a good musical director who would also be fun to be on a cruise with, and I remembered this friend Tom Judson. Now it just pops up here and there, and off we go. Tom is a former porn star, which I think is marvelous. It gives a kind of gravitas to the act. I had another musical director come up to me and say, 'I'd love to work with you.' And I said, 'Unless you've had a contract with Chi Chi LaRue, forget it.'"


Charles Busch will perform Sept. 25-26 at Feinstein's at the Nikko. Tickets are $35-$50. Go to