The blazing career of self-proclaimed “male actress” Charles Pierce was launched in the clubs of San Francisco around the time the struggle for gay rights was kicked into full gear with the Stonewall riots on the opposite coast. With his dead-on satirical send-ups of screen immortals such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Tallulah Bankhead, Pierce quickly earned a devoted fan following and it was common to see celebrities of the day (ranging from Lucille Ball to Anthony Hopkins) in his audience. One celebrity admirer, Bea Arthur, became a very close friend and paid tribute to him in her one-woman show. Before his death in 1999, Pierce had also racked up an impressive acting resume with guest spots on popular TV series Laverne & Shirley and Designing Women and in Harvey Fierstein’s seminal queer film Torch Song Trilogy. The late performer is the subject of a fantastic new book, Write That Down! The Comedy of Male Actress Charles Pierce, written by Kirk Frederick. Queerty chatted with the author about how Pierce rose to prominence, how the AIDS epidemic had an impact on his career and his continued influence on drag performers everywhere.
Queerty: When you first met Charles Pierce, did you know who he was?
Kirk Frederick: Yes. I had just moved to San Francisco, and some of my friends told me about this great performer at The Gilded Cage. It was a small, exclusive space. Sold out. I couldn’t get in. I knew he was a comedian who did drag, but I didn’t see that show. Soon after that, I was cast in a new gay play Geese in June of 1969, the summer of Stonewall. We knew what was happening in New York, and we thought doing a positive gay play would be timely. It was a sweet show; its heart was in the right place. Hair was playing across the street, and The Boys in the Band was going to open in North Beach in San Francisco soon enough.
How did you get to know him?
Our producers were fans of Charles Pierce, and they took some of the cast members of Geese to see his show on one of our dark nights. After the show, which was great, we went backstage. Charles was out of drag already. He was attractive and charming. The next night, our producers announced that Charles was coming into the play as my boyfriend’s mother. So I worked with Charles in that show for a year — I saw what a wonderful actor he was. And my then-partner Peter (in the play and in my life) and I became part of Charles’s show on Mondays, doing song and dance, that kind of thing.
How did Charles take his success in San Francisco and parlay it into a larger career?
He played SF’s The Gilded Cage for six years. He got a chance to take the show to Los Angeles. The legendary Sunset Strip club Ciro’s (now the Comedy Store), was getting ready to close, and they offered Charles the opportunity to be their final act. The venue was great for him. A four-week engagement turned into three months. Lots of celebrities came to see us. I tell some of those stories in the book.
Was most of the act scripted?
The beginning, some of the middle, and the end were scripted, but he improvised a lot in between, based on audience, current events, and that kind of thing. He had to make quick costume and prop changes, so we all teamed together to make it work. Very quickly, we decided to video tape the shows so that we wouldn’t miss his off-the-cuff lines. That’s where my book’s title comes from: Charles would get a great laugh and then stage-whisper to us in the wings, “Write that down!”
Did you work with him continuously during these years?
No, I went back to San Francisco, and Charles stayed in Los Angeles. I got involved in the now legendary show Beach Blanket Babylon. That took a lot of my time, so he got a new dresser. For about three years, we did not see much of each other. But then I started working with him again, more as a producer, and that collaboration lasted the rest of his career. And I still stage managed many of his San Francisco shows.
What are some of your favorite memories of Charles performing?
Bette Davis was his best role. He was a comic impressionist; his “Bette” was not an homage, which of course would have been her preference. But he made Bette his own. At Ciro’s we realized that his Bette needed a bigger entrance, so we decided to set it up by showing the famous staircase scene from All About Eve, with the “Fasten your seatbelts” line. We made the screen of Ace bandages, so we could show the short clip and then Charles would step through the screen, in the same pose and costume. His first line, after the raucous applause, would be “Thaaan-kew!” It brought the house down every night. But he also needed a closer, so again we turned to All About Eve and the car speech—“Funny thing, a woman’s career.” Charles did it as a serious moment in the show: you could hear a pin drop. His range was astonishing.
Would you say that his career really took off in the ’80s?
Absolutely. He did a lot of talk shows — Dick Cavett and that kind of thing — and he played venues as large and prestigious as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, where he improvised the line “Who knew that Dorothy Pavilion’s middle name was Chandler?” In 1984, the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel hired him for five summers in a row: he filled the room. This was a high-paying gig, and it gave him great mainstream press exposure in San Francisco, a decade after his earlier local fame. Maybe the most important role was being cast as the drag performer and emcee “Bertha Venation” in Harvey Fierstein’s film version of Torch Song Trilogy in 1988. Harvey allowed Charles to use some of his own material, and it was clearly a chance for Harvey to honor Charles as a drag pioneer. He also had “off stage” moments in the film, which again showcased his acting range.
Did the AIDS crisis impact Charles’s career?
He did many, many AIDS benefits in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Lots of performers would come and do a song or something, but Charles could do one of his characters and bring down the house with laughter. He never made jokes about AIDS; he wanted to take the audience out of that history, even for just a few minutes. That was important to him.
How did his career wind down?
With a kind of perfect symmetry, actually. The Pasadena Playhouse, where he’d gone to acting school in the late 1940s, asked him to do an engagement at their smaller Balcony Theater. This was his show called The Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen: All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing, All Dead. When we closed in October of 1990, he called me to say that he wanted to put away the costumes and take some time off. Turns out, he enjoyed retirement. He had become friends with Bea Arthur, and the two of them put together a show. The last gig I ever did with him was in 1993, with the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus. But that full circle at the Pasadena Playhouse was really his final act.
What is the legacy of Charles Pierce?
He had a forty-plus year career. He pioneered the art of female impersonation. Careers like RuPaul’s, Charles Busch’s and Lypsinka’s owe a lot to Charles. He had a great run. Since I have my own archive of his material, I thought I could create a book that would give Charles credit for what he had achieved. As early as 1973, I wrote a piece for the gay San Francisco magazine Vector, in which I talked about Charles as a cross-over artist. Already, that early in the movement, he was becoming a kind of voice for the gay community. I included that essay in the appendix of the book because it points to his legacy. That was twenty years before his final performance, and, for me, his longevity, the fact that he helped memorialize and even preserve some of the Hollywood legends, and that he made people laugh for so long is a legacy to be proud of. For years, I’d hear late-night comics using jokes that Charles made famous. So in Write That Down! I have been able to share his act with his fans, old and new. On YouTube, there are hours of Charles Pierce performances, and of course on stage is the best way to enjoy Charles’s talent. With the book, I’ve done the best I can to keep his legacy alive.
Watch Charles transform into Joan Crawford in full-blown Mommie Dearest mode below.