Imagine a disco-era Ethel Merman trapped in the body of Pee-wee Herman, entertaining the likes of Liza Minnelli in the Betty Ford Center auditorium.
This twisted character, Pee-wee Merman, is proving to be the strangest star of drag auteur Michael West’s new show, Almost Live from the Betty Ford Clinic , now playing Thursdays at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater on 42nd Street.
During his hour-and-a-half revue, Mr. West, 40, incarnates a slew of faded but not forgotten icons, including Ms. Minnelli, Carol Channing-who does a door-to-door, two-minute version of Hello, Dolly for B.F.C. patients-Liberace, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey.
But Pee-wee Merman is Almost Live ‘s most hysterical visual. Neck up, Mr. West appears the stage diva: giant red mane, eyeliner, ruby-red lips and hangdog jowls. Neck down, he’s the gray-suited, pink-bow-tied comedian with white loafers that beg to do the Tequila dance.
“The funniest thing for me is just the idea of what Pee-wee Merman would laugh like,” the tall, muscular Mr. West said on a recent afternoon at Murray’s Bagels on Sixth Avenue and 13th Street. He proceeded to cough up the throaty Pee-wee ” Ha-ha !” and then drew it into a warbling high note à la Ms. Merman.
Though he plays his characters for laughs, Mr. West said that Almost Live was ultimately respectful of its stars, all of whom lived, as they say.
“I like playing them in their vulnerable place,” said Mr. West. “It’s not like I revel in their downfall. It’s just that they’re more interesting once they’ve lived and have had to be exposed as humans.”
“Michael’s fascination with these people is almost on the brink of some sort of wacky addiction,” explained Carl Schmehl, the show’s director.
Indeed, Almost Live opens with Ms. Minnelli informing Mr. West-up late consuming Merv Griffin reruns-that he’s got an addiction to old-school camp. And in real life, Mr. West truly does.
“I used to have an Ethel Merman and Merv Griffin obsession,” he said. “I would scan TV Guide when I was a kid to see if she was going to be on. There were years in Atlanta when they didn’t show The Merv Griffin Show , but they would show it in Chattanooga, Tenn., which was like two hours away. So I would see what day it was going to be on-and, you know, I was in high school-and drive to Chattanooga, check into a motel and drive back home. I did that three or four times. I wasn’t ashamed of it. It didn’t seem strange to me.”
Mr. West eventually got to see Ms. Merman in concert 12 times. He’s known to attend Merman and Liberace auctions, and he even owns one of Sammy Davis Jr.’s old tuxedos.
As for Pee-wee, Mr. West mourned the recent and not-so-recent trials of Paul Reubens, who is under investigation on kiddie-porn possession charges.
“To me, it’s just so beyond invasion of privacy,” Mr. West said. But he also added: “What’s weird is people being aghast about there being a dark side to Pee-wee. He represented a dark side. Not in a bad way, but just something brewing underneath. It’s really hypocritical that anyone would have expected him to be pure or chaste.”
From the mailing list of One Leg Up NYC, a group “dedicated to promoting the ‘SENSUAL LIBERATION’ of women and men around the world”:
Major Women’s Magazine is looking for cute couples ages 25-39 in the NYC area to participate in an “Orgasm Marathon”. Couples will be given a clicker and for 2 weeks, women must count their orgasms. Couples will be interviewed afterwards on how it affected their relationship, did it strengthen the relationship, was it fun, was what the best part, etc. If interested contact Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
There seem to be no schizophrenics in New York City anymore, because they’ve all bought cell phones. They walk through the streets, speaking into the phones (which are off), and appear normal.
10 Ways to Get Back Time Lost Dialing 1-212
1. Have MetroCard ready to swipe well before turnstile.
2. Do 500 fewer push-ups per morning.
3. Watch Law, not Order .
4. Give all friends one-syllable nicknames.
5. Stop e-mailing ex-romantic partners.
6. Instruct pets to find their own food.
7. Spend two hours less per day at current job looking for new job.
8. Worry about Jennifer, not Brad.
9. Before bed, lay out socks and underwear for next day.
10. Walk faster.
-Stephen F. Milioti