|I am a pale imitation|
PBS was showing My Little Chickadee. Mae West flounced onto the screen. She had blonde hair, a massive grin, green eyes, and a smart assed drawl. I was a quiet kid. Encyclopedias were my friends. Even though she was considered "lame" by modern standards, then she broke all the rules. My dad said, "I know she looks young but she is almost fifty years old right here." My mouth dropped open. It made me like her even more. This was awesome. She was awesome. Apparently she was only five feet tall. The girls in that era, the one she started in, were bone thin flapper types. It was not the shake I was given. In a world where one in put in a box and you are or aren't, she made her own rules and said fuck it. For the first time, as I was a bookish kid who struggled with my weight and myself, I felt a ray of hope.
For as much as I tried to fight it, the stage always beckoned me. I always found the most success when I did my own thing. So did my hero, Ms. West. Even as a young, starving artist in the Big Apple, at the times I have gotten attention are for being myself. When I made my own puppet videos, wrote my own music, staged my own one woman shows, wrote my own book. Although I have yet to go to jail for my artistic expression I know I would be in good company if I did. There have been times I have been called the bad girl of ventriloquism. Why? For telling the truth. I have alienated some of the Christian Ventriloquists. Some of them have issues with the fact my puppets like to party. I think their main issue is the gay puppet. Of course the black puppet doesn't help any. But Mae West liked blacks and gays, so I say screw em.
There have been times I have been guilty of emulating my hero a little too much. In college I had an acting teacher who got upset because I could impersonate her so well. She claimed I was "losing myself as a person." In reality, I think she was always angry she didn't have a career, and was incensed when she found a student that knew themselves so well. Still, Richard Pryor tried to be Bill Cosby before growing into his own skin, and once Pryor found his own skin Cosby was happy for him. I suppose you need to start somewhere great to go somewhere great. But I knew who I was, tough, fast talking, and yes I liked bad boys. So did my hero. So what? Take us to the back and shoot us.
Several years ago I was down on my luck. I had just seen the departure of a roommate who was like my sister. I was also having a conflict of faith because I had a falling out with a friend who would not stop using drugs. A month later, he would die as a result of the disease of addiction. It was a huge storm and I was set to travel to do a gig in Queens. A tornado hit, and the J line was delayed. I somehow got there, and was the only comedian to show up. The place was called Nier's Tavern. I ended up not only performing, but getting all the money in the bucket. After I was done the host explained, "This place is legendary. It's where Mae West used to perform."
My mouth dropped open. What are the odds I would be in the spot where my hero used to do her thing? I remember getting a ride home from the son of a murdered Mexican Rodeo Star, don't ask. As I stepped over the power lines that were down and the trees that were struck, I felt alright. Yes I felt down and out. But I had just performed where my hero had more than eighty years earlier. This was not a mere coincidence. One month later my puppet children and I would appear on national television. My life would never be the same again.
I am different am like my old movie star angel in many ways. For one, we both did burlesque and vaudeville. While hers was more the real thing, I have done the neo version. We both have to create our own work in order to stand out, and have received a plethora of positive and negative attention for it. Not to mention it took her a while to see success, and it has taken me longer than the cookie cutter folks. But when we get it, we get it in bigger and better doses. We are both our own people, and no one censors us. We both aren't afraid to stand up to sexist men or jealous women. She doesn't come with puppets and I do. That's fine. I think we can both live with that.
Either way, I just got news I made my hometown paper. I am working on a one woman show version of my book and a full Broadway musical. I am producing my own content. Life is good. Maybe my boobs aren't as big and maybe I don't speak with a complete drawl, but I sound like a redneck chipmunk when I get fired up. My career is and isn't like hers. However, this morning I saw her picture front and center on my bathroom door. It was a nice reminder that while I am enough without completely copying my hero, I had a good person who gave me a good path to follow. I had a woman who let me know I could be myself, create my own work, and for the unique beings success doesn't always come easy. I had a person who let me know it was okay. I had Mae West, my old movie star angel.
|"I'm no angel but I've spread my wings a bit."|
I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl