Vampire Lesbian of the TV, Screen & Stage
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in New York City and haven’t been able to find a way out. Actually, I was living in the suburbs of New York City until I was about twelve. My mother died when I was seven and my father was something of a free spirit and not the most responsible of adults. I drifted along until I was twelve and when I was about to flunk out and be left back, my mother’s older sister, my Aunt Lillian, stepped in and took me to live with her in Manhattan and truly saved my life. She encouraged everything that interested me, theatre and drawing, and never tried to turn me into something I wasn’t. She really was the most influential person in my life.
At what age did you realize that you were not like most, if not all the other boys in your peer group?
I was totally “Me” by the age of seven. I was born with a rather outlandish romantic sensibility. Also, my father was obsessed with old movies and opera and shared his love of those with me. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a great actress. If I was standing on any kind of balcony, I would immediately pretend I was Cleopatra or Marie Antoinette.
When you were young did you find yourself attracted to the feminine as opposed to the masculine?
I always found the feminine to be more fascinating than the masculine. The women in my family were romantic, noble figures. Fragile and emotional and yet with a wonderful inner strength. Those were also the kind of actresses I loved to watch in old movies on TV, such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Ida Lupino.
Did you go to college and study film and take acting lessons?
I was a theatre major at Northwestern University. Early on I saw that I wasn’t being cast in the University plays because I was thought to be too gay and too eccentric. I realized that the theatre department of a large university was sort of like a microcosm of show business and I worried that I’d have trouble making it in traditional theatre. That’s when I decided that if I was to have a career on the stage, I would have to become a writer to provide myself with opportunities to act. I felt that I had something to contribute and had to figure out a way of giving it.
A few words please about your introduction to the world of TV, screen and stage.
I spent the first eight years of my career as a solo performer. I wrote and acted in plays where I performed all the roles, male and female. I wasn’t in drag. I wore a sort of neutral costume of pants and shirt but indicated the different characters through my body and voice. I booked myself all over the country and performed a lot in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC and New York, among other places. I played in so many different kinds of venues, gay and straight, that it really taught me so much about writing and performing. It was a very long and extensive apprenticeship.
Did you watch a lot of television when you were young and what programs or movies did you enjoy the most?
Like so many gay children, I had a rather solitary childhood and television was a great comfort. I loved old movies, particularly “women’s pictures” starring actresses such as Bette Davis and Norma Shearer. But I also loved sitcoms with flamboyant women stars such as “Bewitched” and all sort of failed sitcoms with ladies such as Juliet Prowse, Tammy Grimes, Imogene Coca and Glynis Johns. They seemed like shows that were almost created for gay children.
Please tell us about the first time you heard that siren call to the stage.
I can’t remember not wanting to act. I was enchanted with anyone who was up on a stage. I wanted to be a child star but there was no one in my family willing to exploit me. I wanted to play the title role in “Oliver” so badly. I was desperate to play Oliver. I was Oliver. I even sent my photo in to the producers of the movie of “Oliver” hoping to snag the starring role in the film. They weren’t interested.
Now tell us about your fascination and exploration with DRAG!
My fascination was necessarily with drag as much as wanting to play great female roles. In college, I had no interest in playing Biff in “Death of a Salesman.” I shocked my acting class by doing a monologue as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. There were no male roles I wanted to play. There were very few gay plays written at that time. I didn’t identify with the straight roles. I wanted to be Blanche DuBois and Hedda Gabler. But then I also loved costume design and creating a costume out of nothing.
Let’s hear about the first time you got all dolled up.
The first time I went out in drag was in Chicago when I was in college. I read in the alternative press about a drag party and my friend Alan and I went. We wore our own long hair (this was the seventies) and borrowed dresses and shoes from our friends. We had a great time and I took to wearing high heels like a duck to water. I wish I still had that beautiful long hair today.
Can you please tell us about your boy-to-girl transformation. Do you have a makeup artist or do you do your own makeovers?
I generally do my own makeup. I have such a specific look based on old movie actresses that I prefer doing it myself. However, on a film, I have a professional makeup artist work on me. The close up camera is unforgiving and you want every line to be perfect. I learn new tricks from every makeup artist I’ve worked with. My friend, Kathie Caff, has been doing my wigs for my entire career. She wasn’t a professional wig designer but grew up in Brooklyn during the sixties and used to tease her hair into all sorts of wild Annette Funicello creations. So she was a natural to work with me. We learned about doing wigs together. When I first started out doing drag, I used my own hair and wore more rather simple makeup. As I’ve gotten older, I have many more tricks to create more of an illusion of true femininity. For the first eight years of my drag career, I didn’t even wear any bust padding. I was so thin and androgynous, I didn’t really need it and the kind of ladies I was emulating, Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, were rather flat chested. Eventually, I realized that the gowns looked better with a bit of padding.
Please share with us a most memorable story or drag-adventure from your one of your early days and or nights on the road pa-lease!
Well, when we first did my play “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”, my friend Andy, who was also in the cast, and I didn’t know that much about makeup. We were doing two shows a day Off-Broadway and for the second show we just plastered on more makeup. Suddenly, by the second act of the second show, our faces literally started cracking and chunks of makeup would fall off like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It was not pretty.
Your roles seem to fit you like a hot pink satin glove and the writing is el dente! What is your barometer for picking a role or penning a story/script?
Often it’s simply a fantasy of who I’d like to play. I’ll just be day dreaming and think “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to be a tough 1940’s nightclub singer” and then I’ll figure out the story to support that character. It’s not intentional but most of the parts I’ve written for myself are about a gal who is running away from her past and has turned herself into a great lady. Transformation has always fascinated me and the difficulty of accepting the role you play and who you really are. Sometimes the role is actually who we really are.
Of all the films and characters you have portrayed. Do you have a favorite film and role? One where it still makes your pump thump to think about it!
I loved playing Angela Arden in the movie “Die Mommie Die.” Despite the melodrama of the story, it was ultimately about a woman who wanted her two children to love her and I found that very moving. I also got to play twins and sing musical numbers, wear forty one different costumes and kiss Jason Priestly. In every way, it was a dream come true.
Can you tell us a few of your favorite films and why they make your pump thump?
My favorite movie is “I Could Go On Singing.” It was Judy Garland’s last film and she gives a truly brilliant performance. I saw it when it first came out in 1963 and I’ve watched it over and over. Like so many others, I think Judy Garland was the greatest star of them all and in my opinion, this movie is her greatest acting performance.
What inspires you to pound the keyboard and create characters and story lines with plot, drama, conflict, humor and all the fixings to come up with a hot screenplay/movie stew?
It varies. Sometimes there is a particular character I want to play and sometimes it’s a period of history, such as Hollywood during the blacklist period or the Spanish Inquisition. Sometimes it’s because I think it would be fun to do an homage to a particular film genre like 1940’s anti-Nazi movies.
A behind the scene story or two from Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and where did you get that name from?
Well, I had been trouping about for nearly a decade doing my solo show, getting rave reviews in places like Indianapolis and Santa Cruz but still couldn’t earn a living. Just when I really was at low ebb, I saw a friend perform in this very decadent after hours bar/art gallery/performance space deep in the part of New York called the East Village. I was so enchanted by the space that I immediately spoke to the owner and booked myself for several weeks later. I wanted to perform something very different from my rather dignified one man show and decided that I should be a glamorous lady vampire. I wrote the play in a few hours while working as a temp receptionist and cast it with a bunch of my out of work friends. I couldn’t think of a title and didn’t think it was very important. This was just something to do for fun over a weekend. My best friend, Ed, who is very verbal and clever, came up with the title “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and I thought “Well, that’ll do.” Anyway, this little sketch we did purely for fun and spending no more than thirty six dollars, really took off and ultimately we moved it to a real theatre Off-Broadway where it got a rave review from the New York Times and ran for FIVE YEARS! I guess one of the lessons to be learned was sometimes it’s best to do something purely for love and not be concerned about where it’s gonna get you.
In 2004 you portrayed Auntie Maine. What’s the skinny and the fatty on this role and production?
I’ve always loved the movie and the novel “Auntie Maine.” I was brought up by my real life Auntie Maine and I’ve always identified with it. Then a few years ago, my partner, Eric, wrote a wonderful biography of the author of the book “Auntie Maine”, Patrick Dennis called “Uncle Maine.” While he was researching the book, we became good friends with Patrick Dennis’s family and friends. I always wanted to play the role of Maine. I did several one night staged readings of the play for AIDS fundraisers. At one reading, the role of Agnes Gooch was played by Peggy Cass, the original Gooch from the 1958 movie. That was a wonderful experience. Finally, last year I got to play Auntie Maine in a full production for a small tour that took us to Oqunquit, Maine and Sag Harbor, New York. We had a great cast and I finally got the play out of my system. Now I’ve got other dream roles to pursue. I am determined to play Dolly Levi.
What is going on in your life at the moment that has you gleefully skip hip-hop flittering and flying from flower to flower like a Spring Monarch butterfly?
I just finished directing my first film and I’m still in the process of editing and scoring it. It’s called “A Very Serious Person” and it’s somewhat autobiographical about a thirteen year old gay boy who’s being raised by his grandmother. She’s terminally ill and I play a MALE nurse who comes to take care of her and becomes a mentor to the boy. It’s been a real challenge playing a male character after having been an “actress” for so many years. The character I play is a very remote, withholding, rather chilly fellow who thaws out during the course of the movie. I had to learn an entirely new vocabulary of acting. We have a great cast including Polly Bergen and Dana Ivey. I’m hoping it will be in theatres by next spring or summer.
I love your website, please tell our readers what they will be treated to when they log on.
My wig stylist, Kathie Carr, also designs websites. She uses my website as sort of her portfolio piece and we’ve had a lot of fun putting it together. It’s endless. I always say trying to get to the end of it is like searching for the source of the Nile. It’s part scrap book and photo album and more than you’d ever want to know about Charles Busch.
You obviously love performing and being totally, insanely creative. What makes you run? What is your favorite flavor of personal happiness ice cream?
I really do love writing. Maybe as much as performing. I love the mental challenge of it and being able to lose myself in another world. It’s not a discipline as much as it’s an escape.
Lets wrap it up with you giving us your advice for young gender benders and drag performers who are considering a career in the Entertainment Industry.
My advice is to try and maintain the silly fun of performing. Not to get too grimly ambitious. Don’t be a snob, and perform any place that’ll take you. And don’t take too much advice. Most people who succeed were told not to even try. Don’t talk about it Just do it! Find yourself a wig and a gown and go, go, go!!
by Marlayna Lacie
Catch up with Charles at www.charlesbusch.com
This article was originally published in Transformation 57 2006