I recently had the exciting, entertaining, and educational experience of performing in Ajijic’s 10th Annual Lip-Sync Show, a fund-raiser for arts and theater improvement. When a show veteran, a lovely, vivacious, and charming septuagenarian asked me to perform with her, I jumped at the chance. We would be performing, she told me, “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” from Annie Get Your Gun.
“Great,” I said. “Doing a Broadway show tune won’t be the least bit stereotypical for a card-carrying member of Homosexuals R Us.”
Most people would not respond positively to my friend’s offer. They might be uncomfortable with or uninterested in performing in front of others because they are shy, acknowledge their lack of talent, or are simply unbitten by the show business bug. I, however, am not particularly shy nor would I ever admit being talent-challenged. Whether I am talented or not has been debated frequently. I have always taken the pro side, my friends consistently the con. I mean former-friends. Their nay-saying, however, has never deterred my need to entertain or show-off.
I believe my interest in and attraction to show business, entertainment, and performing come from my father. Before he came to the United States, during the ten years he spent in Zurich hiding from Nazis, he dabbled in “the theatah.” But he did not do so as a performer, per se. Rather, his role was peripheral, humorously emceeing events or writing skits and comedy material. Through these activities, he met, socialized, and became friends with numerous European celebrities of the time, such as actresses Hedy Lamar and Maria Schell, Oscar winner Maximilian Schell’s younger sister. His social circle also included notable writers and artists.
But this exciting life fell by the wayside when my parents came to the United States. Nevertheless, Dad’s attraction to performers, artists, and talent survived and our home was filled with entertainment. Variety shows and comedies were what we watched on television, not westerns and private-eye crime shows. I was exposed, from my earliest days, to entertainers, “stars,” and celebrity. It is no wonder, then, that as the years passed, I continued being drawn to show biz and opportunities to participate in it in some way.
Therefore, when chances arose to entertain, I jumped. It probably began in elementary school. I probably threw myself into character in Halloween costumes as a child, but I do not clearly recall that. However, when I entered Queen Anne Junior-Senior High School at 12 and saw male yell leaders on the cheer squad, I saw a chance to not only demonstrate school spirit, but to perform. I hitched my hopes to a saddle-shoe dream and made the squad as a senior. I consider that, leading 1500 students in rousing chants of “Two Bits, Four Bits,” my entrance into show biz.
However, because of priorities, social stigmas, other time-demanding responsibilities, and a lack of courage and confidence, I regretfully neither took drama or theater classes in high school or college. They could have taught me memorization, how to take direction, and other skills needed to be a serious entertainer.
Through my adult life, I took advantage of opportunities to perform when presented. They, however, always were minor. For example, soon after discovering Seattle’s gay bar scene, I was approached to perform in a show bar’s Fourth of July Review. I served as a patriotically dressed male dancer supporting several red-white-and-blue clad drag queens. Months later, I performed in serious drag—it was the only time I did that—just to understand the experience and mindset. I was so good and convincing, I should point out, that the next morning I had my first period. At the age of 23.
Prior to moving to Portland, Oregon, where I lived for five years, I rode a float in the Portland Rose Parade. In addition, I competed in a beefcake contest there, which—believe it or not—included a talent competition. I didn’t win; I came in 23rd out of the 11 contestants. I probably should not have portrayed an effeminate fop in a comedy sketch when trying to present a masculine image.
Once settled in Portland in 1985, I responded to a request seeking contestants for a proposed locally produced TV trivia-based game show. Hundreds of area residents responded, far more than producers expected. But after all were tested, I was one of a few selected to appear in taped sample games to show potential advertisers. When On The Spot finally aired, I defeated a four-time champ and won $1700 in cash and prizes. A year or two later, I volunteered to ride the Rose City’s first gay community float in the Rose Festival’s nighttime Starlight Parade. That, obviously, was risky. But I didn’t care. It offered me another opportunity to be an attention hog, to shine in a spotlight.
When I returned to Seattle and became a high school special education assistant, I volunteered whenever staff members were asked to perform in an assembly, wear costumes during Spirit Week, or participate in a Drama Department musical production. The itch to perform, it seems, continued to simmer in my soul through middle-age and to retirement.
But none of this dabbling in the performing arts prepared me for my experience in Ajijic’s Lip Sync Show. Having never attended the event, I expected the cast to consist of amateurs like myself, seniors wanting one more chance to have fun, to act silly, to feel young again, to satisfy a gnawing need for attention, and to give back to the community. Many of them were. Others, however, were seasoned entertainers and professionals, people I had seen in local theater productions and of whom I knew about their professional histories. Unexpectedly, after all the years of tentatively tip-toeing into the spotlight, there I was backstage working with real honest-to-God show people getting ready to put on a show. Watching these professionals was a surprise lesson in theater, performance, and entertainment.
While the majority of the cast was between 55 and perhaps 80 years of age—Lakeside is, after all, a magnet for retired gringos—the discipline, energy, and talent particularly displayed by the professionals was astounding. Many would arrive well before show time, make-up free, exposing their age. Others, I could tell, hoped to hide that statistic by arriving in thick street make-up. But once they donned their professional greasepaint and costumes and immersed themselves in their characters, they became decades younger, both physically and spiritually. I watched seasoned dancers stretch and go through last-minute practices of routines they had rehearsed a thousand times like they had 20 or 30 years earlier. I observed actors exit dressing rooms in costume, find a quiet corner, and gradually let their next character take over their body. From an opera diva to Lucy Ricardo in an instant. From a comedic Broadway songstress to Ricky Ricardo in a Cuban nanosecond. From a boot-scooting country dancer to Joan Jett in a quick guitar lick.
But more important, I saw teamwork, respect, enjoyment, support, composure, helpfulness, happiness, and love. You don’t see the backstage chemistry sitting in front of the TV. You don’t see it from the front row of the theater. I, however, had the privilege to witness it from within the World of Entertainment and I am forever thankful and changed.