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arts

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Pierce, Charles (1926-1999)  

"You can call me an impersonator, an impressionist, a mimic, or a comic in a dress. But not a drag queen! A drag queen is someone who dresses up and goes to a ball! I'm an entertainer," Charles Pierce told the New York Post's Bob Harrington in 1988.

Before gay culture became more visible in the 1970s, this self-proclaimed male actress was a courageous pioneer. In the clubs where he played (beginning in the 1950s), Pierce took a public, aggressive stance against in the conviction that lightening fast wit, a serious attitude, and consummate acting skill could vanquish oppression.

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While this camp vaudevillian's repertoire of jokes often seemed between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, his brilliant delivery and dead-on impressions made his act a non-stop laugh fest.

Often veering unexpectedly into lengthy serious monologues by Katharine Hepburn from Lion in Winter or Coco, or into a stirring rendition of Dietrich's "Illusion," Pierce gave his act a humanity and poignancy often absent in other drag acts. Pierce revered the timing of Jack Benny and Bea Arthur; and many in his audience recognized that beneath the dresses, wigs, and lipstick was a comic mastermind.

As a drag artist, Pierce never aimed for complete illusion in his impersonation of his female icons. Audiences were always aware of the man in Pierce's gallery of women.

In 1990, he called his show "The Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen: All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing . . . All Dead." His targets/homages included "turban ladies" such as Norma Shearer, Maria Montez, Gloria Swanson, and Maria Ouspenskaya, with stopover zings at Mae West, Carol Channing, and Barbara Stanwyck.

Born in Watertown, New York on July 14, 1926, Pierce started his acting training at the legendary Pasadena Playhouse, then split his time between a radio job at home and summer stock in Newport, Rhode Island.

When Arthur Blake (who did impressions of Bette Davis, Charles Laughton, and Tallulah Bankhead) rejected material submitted to him by Pierce, the latter decided to perform the act himself, initially at parties.

His first paying gig was Altadena, California's Café La Vie in 1954. Because of laws against cross-dressing, Pierce performed in a tux with accessories such as a boa, hats, and pocketbooks. Ann Dee, of Ann's 440 Club in San Francisco, saw Pierce and got him started on the cabaret circuit.

In Florida, at Miami Beach's Red Carpet, Pierce met his future show-biz partner, Rio Dante. With Dante as the "straight man," their act consisted of some lip sync and puppets (the Moppettes--headless puppets that Pierce would put up to his own face and then perform outrageous dialogue). In 1962, the duo opened at San Francisco's Gilded Cage, where they played a record six years.

Other legendary gigs included "saving" the Plush Room in San Francisco's York Hotel in the early 1980s, and lengthy engagements at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room and New York's Top of the Gate and The Ballroom.

Dante was dropped from the act, and for the rest of his career Pierce performed solo--dubbing himself "La Suberba of Transvestivania"--frequently joined by the best musical directors/accompanists in the country: Michael Biagi, Michael Ashton, and Joan Edgar, among others. Michael Feinstein accompanied him at the Backlot of Studio One in 1981.

Pierce not only had difficulty with strict cross-dressing ordinances around the country, but he also was sometimes attacked by some members of the gay community. In 1980, all sixty members of the San Francisco Lesbian Chorus walked out of a benefit at the Castro Theater when Pierce performed. They demanded a public apology for jokes such as "Liz Taylor has more chins than a Chinese phone book" and an analysis of why Pierce's show was "racist, sexist, classist, and women-hating."

When Pierce "abdicated" from the stage in the mid-1990s, he no doubt sensed that the audience who would recognize his cast of the stars of yesterday was dying out. He introduced an impersonation of Joan Collins into his act, but admitted he could find nothing comic about younger female performers.

He appeared on numerous television shows (not always in drag), including Fame, Laverne and Shirley, Designing Women, Starsky & Hutch, and Love, American Style. His films include Rabbit Test (1978), Torch Song Trilogy (1988), and Nerds of a Feather (1990).

He also issued several recordings, including Live at Bimbo's (ca 1972) on the Blue Thumb label, and a video, Charles Pierce at The Ballroom (1988).

Pierce also created a successful line of comic greeting cards that featured him in various drag star personas accompanied by witty one-liners.

"The Master and Mistress of Surprise and Disguise," as he was billed, died of cancer on May 31, 1999, having been weakened by an earlier stroke. He was 72.

Charles Pierce wanted to be remembered as an actor who made his living doing "some really good impressions." His pioneering work as a camp gender illusionist paved the way for Charles Busch, RuPaul, and Lady Bunny, among many others.

Bud Coleman

     

    
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   Related Entries
  
arts >> Overview:  Cabarets and Revues

Historically, cabarets and revues have been much more likely to mention or imply same-sex desire than the "legitimate" theater; and same-sex desire has been less frequently condemned in cabarets and revues than in mainstream plays.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Female impersonation need say nothing about sexual identity, but it has for a long time been almost an institutionalized aspect of gay male culture.

arts >> Bankhead, Tallulah

Although Tallulah Bankhead is today remembered mostly as an irreverent wit and volcanic life force, she was also one of the most significant actresses of her time.

arts >> Busch, Charles

Actor-writer-director Charles Busch has distinguished himself through his virtuouso performances of "grand dame" characters and through his writing of dramatic vehicles for these roles.

arts >> Dietrich, Marlene

Actress and cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich scandalized society almost as much by wearing trousers in public as by her numerous love affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Epperson, John

Talented actor and writer John Epperson has had an extremely successful career performing as the glamorous and hilarious drag diva Lypsinka, among other characters.

arts >> Feinstein, Michael

American pianist and singer Michael Feinstein has had a lifelong fascination with the popular music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

arts >> Laughton, Charles

Anglo-American stage and screen actor and director Charles Laughton scored many triumphs in a distinguished career, but nevertheless suffered for much of his life from self-loathing and internalized homophobia.

arts >> RuPaul (RuPaul Andre Charles)

A six-foot five-inch tall African-American drag queen who usually performs in a blonde wig, RuPaul has given drag a new visibility by infusing it with gentleness and warmth.

arts >> Russell, Craig

One of the major female impersonators of the 1970s and 1980s, Craig Russell was also an accomplished actor.


    Bibliography
   

"Charles Pierce, 72, Impersonator of Screen Divas." The New York Times (June 3, 1999): B11.

Harrington, Bob. "King of Queens Abdicates." New York Post (September 27, 1988): 29.

Mintun, Peter. "Charles Pierce dies at 76 [sic]." Bay Area Reporter (June 3, 1999): 1, 17.

Wetzsteon, R. "Private Wives: The Disguises of Sex." Village Voice (April 28, 1975): 90.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Coleman, Bud  
    Entry Title: Pierce, Charles  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 17, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/pierce_c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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