The Family Album - Interview
Comedian, Writer, Performer
So, I’m 87 now, and I started doing comedy when I was 70. After I had been performing for a couple years, a young man, said to me have you ever thought of adding music? I have the worst voice, I’m rarely on key, and I'm usually not with the music. I am terrible! I can hear that I'm missing the beat, but nobody ever says a word. Anyway, at that time I’m 73, and I said, well, I have one song, and here’s the story…
When I was eight, during World War Two, the United States put all the Japanese that were living in the West Coast in prison camps, and the only way they could get out of the prison camps was if they were hired as live-in workers. So, most of them became maids and valets, my mother decided to hire someone from the camp to work for us. That was how Masako Nakano came to us as my teacher and my mother’s housekeeper. When she arrived at our house, daddy said she had a beautiful handmade wooden case that her father had built for her with all her clothes in it. She had just graduated from Fresno State University in Education before they put her in the camps and I was her first student.
I think the children don't see race; they don't see it as a determinant. I had never seen a Japanese person before, but I did not see Masako as different from me in any way. She was the most beautiful person in my life up to that time. She taught me party songs and one of the numbers we learned together was Johnny Mercer’s The Strip Polka, which is a spoof that makes fun of burlesque. I didn't understand the words then, but I used to perform it at family dinners. The chorus is “Take it off, take it off cries a voice from the rear”, naturally, I had no idea what the lady in the song was taking off, I was 8 years old!
So, now we zoom ahead to 2005, and this guy says to me, do you know a funny song? And I said, well I can sing the Strip Polka…I was 73, and I really had no idea, what this would lead to, I knew it was a burlesque number, of course I knew that, but I had never seen a nipple tassel. Never. So, I think, yeah, I've got a good song. At that time, I was doing comedy at Winter's Bar in Pacifica, California, which is about 20 miles south of San Francisco. It was a redneck, blue collar bar - I think I was probably the first Jew they ever saw in that place and I thought that it was a good place to try out my new routine.
I decided that if the song says she's taking off things, I'd better take something off. At the time I only wore granny knickers and undershirts. Someone suggested I get a fancy bra, so I went to a corset department and I found what I thought was suitable on a shelf and I handed it to this saleslady, who whose name was Hazel, (of course) and she looked at me and she said, ‘Honey, it won't do a thing for you’! My question was, what was it supposed to do? I am 73 years old!
Then I went to a charity shop and I got something frilly, some camisoles and a couple of robes. So, there I am, singing this thing and taking off stuff - there is absolutely no way that I'm going to be naked in the first place, but I’m taking off clothes and singing this song; there's absolutely nothing sensual in it. The girl in the song is dancing to raise money so she can retire to the farm, (in those days, everybody wanted to retire to the country), and when I started singing this song at my accountant was there watching me rip off these clothes I got at the charity shop and when I get down to my lacey bra, he put a five-dollar bill in it and I thought, “Wow! That's the first time anyone's been in there for a long time. This is fun. I'm going to do this again.
And that's how I got into burlesque. Masako Nakano…If only she knew. I bet she’s still laughing!
I am a comedian and I use burlesque for comedy. I'm a writer, that’s what I am, I've written books. I define my life with words. And burlesque is playing with words and visuals. Comedy is also just playing with words. But I admit I'm shocked when I look at videos of what I do. I have a very expressive face, which I did not realise. All performing, is one step away from an intimate personal relationship. I am convinced that I am terrified of a personal relationship because of my two divorces, and this career has gotten me the love and the recognition which I have trouble handling face to face, I have trouble dealing with the intimacy of it. When I am on stage, I get the connection and the love that I've never gotten in relationships. The comedy community is OK, to work in, but the burlesque community is the most supportive, very loving, very kind. I mean, when I say I'm coming back to San Francisco, the comedy community I worked in for ten years doesn't give a shit, but, the burlesque community! Oh, boy! They all say, “The stripping granny's coming home!” They love me. I am their stripping granny! And the truth is I hardly strip at all! But they advertise it everywhere. The stripping, granny. She's coming! She's coming!
When you had two husbands walk out on you and a mother that tried to demean you until the day she died, (she worked hard at it; she did a good job,) a father that barely noticed you and a sister that hated you, to have that kind of adulation is actually difficult for me because I don't know how to handle it. One of the things that took a really long time to learn is when someone says, “Oh, you were wonderful,” you don't say, ‘” Oh, no, I wasn't that good“, because, I mean, they're giving you a compliment and they're being so lovely, so what you have to do is say ‘Thank you’, that's what you say. I am so grateful.
I mean, I wish I wish you could have been there at my show last night. It was the most amazing night of my life, and I've had some wonderful nights, I did a show at 5:00 at the Phoenix Artists Club, and they went mad, and then I went to the Laughing Labia, which is a lesbian bar, (how do you like that for a name? My labia haven't laughed in years), and I sang a song and they went crazy; then I went back to the Phoenix for my third show, and in that one, I got a standing ovation – three shows, in one night, at 87! Three different shows. And then I walked home. Well, I think it's important to do that. I think it's important to care for yourself. And I think it's important to love yourself. I mean, I know that now I'm 87, but I don't consider myself old, I look in the mirror and I consider myself… a remnant, but I don't consider myself old. I've got too many things I've got to do. I've got plans. I've got plans.
So at I did burlesque at the Edinburgh Festival, and then I started doing burlesque for Hubba ,Hubba in San Francisco. And one of the things you have to accept is that you're all in the same dressing room, there’s men, women, trans, birds, dogs, cats …you're all in the same place. And that was the best experience for me ever, because I'm changing clothes there too. I live alone, and even though I am alone, when I change clothes, I shut the door. Now all of a sudden, I’m getting undressed in a changing room full of strangers! Men and women and some are getting dressed and some undressed, and I'm seeing all these other women with this tremendous sense of community, tremendous amount of love and excitement to meet me and love me. They're beautiful women and I'm really this funny looking old lady and these beautiful women are insisting ‘I can make your costumes’ and ‘I can find you a place to perform’.
So. That's how it started.
When I was seventy-nine, I broke my foot, I had to miss the Edinburgh Festival, I had been doing comedy for nine years and yet only one person from the comedy circuit came to visit me in all the time I was invalided. But the burlesque community…they campaigned to raise enough money for me to get orthopaedic oxfords. They had me onstage, where men undressed me, since I couldn't move myself. People came over and cooked me dinner so that I would have proper meals because I couldn't stand. They supported me. A year and a half later, I broke my arm when I had to move to a new house, and those same girls came to help me pack. It was the burlesque community that were there for me – it’s a comedy circuit, but a burlesque community.
I get hugs and kisses when I do a show, which I love. In the burlesque community you can be less than perfect, and still be loved. And I'm getting something else. I mean, the adulation that I got last night, it was absolutely... three times. It's unbelievable. The truth is I don't really, I don't think of myself as talented. I think I'm a good writer. Not great, good. But I get praise, and a sense of accomplishment every time I perform. That's something Britain has done for me. You know, people talk about British people being so reserved and American people so up front. But I've gotten more sincere caring here from British people, than I ever received in America I had a real British Christmas this time where Santa Claus gave me a stocking and we had crackers, it was the most beautiful thing ever, just ever. So, in the burlesque community, it's the closest I come, to feeling part of something, I'm like a member of the family, and my God, for someone like me, that's gorgeous. I never had that in San Francisco.
Burlesque is about saying I am woman, and that matters! The problem is that in burlesque, women are predominant, we're winning. Just ripping off your clothes isn't what it's about. It's about self-expression of some kind, but if you’re just saying, look, I'm taking off my clothes, that's nothing. If what you are also saying is, I am a woman, and what matters is being me. There's no pattern like me. I am an original. It’s saying what I am doing on this stage is me and ME is worth YOU looking at, you paying for, you applauding. Me. Me, not like that one, not like the act you saw before or the one that's going to follow. Me. One of the reasons that I am a success is there's no pattern, there's absolutely none. That's the point. I did it. And in real life so often we’re ignored, or we’re demeaned because we're trying to be ourselves. But on the burlesque stage, you can do it. Burlesque allows us that deviation that our parents didn't necessarily approve of or that our peers made fun of. What we need is to be brave enough to be ourselves - and in the burlesque community, you can be that and they will embrace you. It’s feminist, but I don't call it feminist, I would call it humanist.
You know, I like myself now, which I didn’t, for way too many years, but I also recognize that I'm still mutating and changing, I'm on a journey. I just like myself on the journey. Sometimes you are so busy fighting to be seen that you don't stop and see the worth in you, all you see is the fight. You don't see the value of what you're doing. But eventually I realized that what I'm doing is valuable, I never did before. I love who I am, I love what I'm doing. I wouldn't always say I love EVERYTHING; sometimes I just accept myself, I'm on a journey and I'm not there. I've got a way to go. I know myself a little better than I used to, now. There is a wonderful line from a Robbie Burns poem: 'O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!' … I'm not there yet, but I'm getting there.
I think the key to success and the key to appreciating yourself, (I wouldn't use the word love, but appreciating yourself) is realizing that we're fluid human beings. Of course, at my age, I'm a bit too fluid, but I mean, human beings are fluid, and if we don't allow ourselves the latitude of change, we're cheating ourselves because, you know, the only thing in the world you have is your life. It doesn't belong to anyone else, doesn't belong to your partner, doesn't belong to your children, doesn't belong to your siblings, and it didn't belong to your mom or dad. We've got to take ownership of it. It takes years before we do it, doesn't it? I finally did that when I was in my 50s, isn’t it funny how long it takes?