After Dark tote bags -- on the phone with Lypsinka


No one knows more about timing than Lypsinka, who could school every MTV video clone of the past two decades on the art of talking silent and saying something. The lady is in town at the Plush Room with her most recent show, The Passion of the Crawford. While Passion draws upon an onstage interview with a drunk, fiesty and almost huggable Joan Crawford for much of its material, Lypsinka's portrayal is still hypnotically scathing, while also appreciative of the star's pre-feminist power. It's completely amazing how Lypsinka can mouth the words of someone long dead more convincingly than just about any stage actor can deliver words using his or her own voice.

Lypsinka as (and in front of) Joan

I recently gave Lypsinka's leading man, John Epperson, a call to discuss matters of great importance: After Dark magazine, Marilyn Maye, Greer Garson, Grayson Hall, Bette vs. Joan, Pepsi, and the glory of The Fury. Click and ye shall find.

Guardian: Could you talk a little about your interest in the Joan Crawford Live at Town Hall recording? In terms of material, it makes for a different approach than your other shows.
John Epperson: Well, first I should say that before I even knew of the existence of that recording I was already interested in Joan Crawford. Exactly why, I don’t know. Why are gay men fascinated with Joan Crawford? Why are they fascinated with any lady like that?
One of the reasons I’m drawn to her is because of her face, which is so graphic, and is sort of beautiful and scary and ridiculous at the same time. It became even more so in the 1950s, and then in the ‘60s and ‘70s got softer somehow.
In 1976 when I had a chin augmentation to make my chin larger I drew pictures of her while I was recuperating, I guess hoping that I would have a jawline like that – which I never got. I don’t think I really look like Joan Crawford, even though I make the attempt, sort of, in this show. She was drop dead gorgeous at certain points in her life and I’ve never been that in any part in my life.
When I moved to New York in 1978, before Mommie Dearest hit, I believe, I remember in the Sam Goody store across the street from Radio City Music Hall this whole window promoting the Live at Town Hall record, with multiple images of her face on the [original] cover. I think the picture they use is from Queen Bee.

G: I’ve been buying old After Darks and there’s an advertisement for it in one. Another issue has a serious discussion of Mommie Dearest, right around when the film opened.
L: By 1978 After Dark had sort of peaked; it wasn’t what it had been a couple of years earlier. I’ve carried an After Dark tote bag for years [laughs].

Photo from After Dark

G: I love Ken Duncan’s photography in After Dark.
L: I love the names of their movie reviewers.
But going back to my story, here was this multiple Andy Warhol-like image of her, advertising Joan Crawford Live at Town Hall, and of course I had to have it.
Over the next 20 years, I would listen to it every once in a while. Then, in 1998, Christina was selling her edited version -- which she edited herself -- of the book Mommie Dearest, and she was traveling around to promote it. Marc Huestis promoted her tour, which started at the Castro Theatre. Marc called me and said, “Would you be interested in recreating the interview that Joan Crawford did at Town Hall in 1963, at Town Hall, with Christina present?” How could I say no to that?
We didn’t do the whole thing, for the sake of time – we had to cut it down to 18 minutes. But Christina saw it and she loved it -- she thought it was very funny. That’s when I started thinking, “I need to do this as a full-length show at some time.”
Finally, in 2004, I did the whole interview just as it is on the record and we got Scott Wittman who is an old Joan Crawford fan – he’s the co-lyricist of Hairspray on Broadway – to play the interviewer. He’s an old friend of mine. We did that at a nightclub, and a year after that, the Zipper Theatre contacted me and said they had some time and asked if I had a show that I wanted to do. I said, “Yes, I do, I have this show The Passion of the Crawford.”
Then we started to deconstruct the interview. Now we don’t do it straight as it is on the record, it’s deconstructive like my other shows. But it’s still, compared to those other shows, a very long and sustained performance. It’s an acting challenge that I set up for myself. I wanted to do it. I wanted people to think that I could do more than this one thing that they’ve seen, that I could do something completely different that was slow and sustained and still funny and still crazy.
They bought it. And the other conceit that they buy is that there’s another person on stage with me who is also lipsyncing.

G: Joan and the interviewer [John Springer] have a funny dynamic.
L: He was her publicist. He was the publicist for all of those ladies, and he did a series of those shows. Myrna Loy was the first one I think, and also Rosalind Russell, and Bette Davis, and Lana Turner. But for some reason the Crawford interview is the only one that came out as a recording. Maybe because it has more of a dramatic arc to it than the others do. The other ladies were accustomed to being onstage in front of a live audience -- they didn’t have to have a camera in front of them the way that she did.
She comes out quite scared. The others probably didn’t; Lana Turner had been on stage, she did Butterflies Are Free and dinner theater -- that’s how much attention she needed. Joan Crawford had never done anything like that. She’s a little tipsy at the beginning and then she gets sort of sexy as it goes along . She’s flirtatious – not necessarily with [the interviewer], but with the audience.

G: She uses some quirky phrases and goes off on tangents. Like when she talks about thunderheads.
L: That’s at the beginning. You can sort of forgive her, because she’s scared and drunk. But later on when she’s less drunk and less scared, she still is loopy.

Joan Crawford, live at Town Hall with John Springer

G: It does show a side to her that’s different from the monstrous one that’s been sold so much.
L: She did have a charm to her. But there’s still this phoniness factor that’s ever much at play. A good example of that is when John Springer reads a question from the audience that says “What can you tell us about John Gilbert. Supposedly he was fired because his voice was no good, but if you see the movie Queen Christina you know his voice is perfectly fine.” She totally ignores that and tells the old story about him being fired because his voice is no good. That’s the corporate version of why he was fired -- the truth was that Louis B Mayer didn’t like him and wanted him out -- he cost too much and was probably screwing around.
Joan Crawford was a corporate gal. After [her time with] Warner Bros, people don’t realize this, but she had a contract with Columbia, and had relations with Columbia up until the day she died. And during the Columbia era, she was with Pepsi, another big corporation.
That was the big difference between her and Bette Davis, in my opinion. Bette Davis hated being tied down to a company and Joan Crawford thrived on it.

G: Do you find yourself responding more personally to Bette or to Joan?
L: Well, my own show is very controlled because it is a recording that never changes and I’m very comfortable with that. In a way that’s like Joan Crawford being comfortable with a company. And yet I would like to think that I could relate to Bette Davis’s rebelliousness and passion. Being a man in a dress is not the most ordinary thing in the world – it’s fairly rebellious in a patriarchy like ours.

G: Sometimes it seems almost inadvertent when Joan does the gender bending, though she does so consciously in Johnny Guitar. That performance is kind of operatic – she’s very solemn.
L: Yes, her own sense of humor was a little square. You hear some of her square sense of humor in the recording. She picked up that phrase that Jack Paar said, “I kid thee not.” She also loved putting -eth at the end of verbs – she thought that was funny.

G: By the time that interview rolled around she would often moralize about the younger stars of the day, though she hadn’t exactly been a pure innocent when she was younger.
L: No, but like all of those ladies she became more grand as she got older. They all become more Greer Garson-like. Even Bette became quite queenly in her irascible way.
With Joan Crawford, a lot of people will say she was a total monster – people still alive who worked with her and knew her. And then there are other people who say she was one of the nicest people you could ever meet. A man named Michael Vollbracht who is now the head designer at Bill Blass, he knew her very well. He had a sense of humor about her, but he said she was a lovely person and I believe him. Paul Morrissey says she was one of the nicest people he ever met.
That’s what fascinates me about her – we all have a Jekyll and Hyde in us, but hers was somehow given more free reign. I guess she felt entitled to be more Jekyll and Hyde-ish because she was a movie star since she was 17, [and thus] coddled and spoiled.

Marilyn Maye

G: In terms of performance right now are there people you find inspiring?
L: Right now I’m thinking about this woman who I saw perform the other night named Marilyn Maye. She had a recording contract in the ‘60s at RCA. That’s what she’s most known for, for singing: “Will everyone here kindly step to the rear?” She’s having a comeback here in New York at a cabaret. I went to see her and she was fantastic. She’s 75. Right now she’s very inspiring to me.
To be honest, I don’t go see many things because I expect to be disappointed by movies and by live performance. I feel that performers and performances and movies don’t satisfy the way they used to, so that’s what I try to do with my work – leave the audience as satisfied as possible. I figure why spend the time and money to go to something when I know I can get satisfaction from an old movie. I’d rather just stay at home.
There is one other performance in New York that’s very inspiring right now – Christine Ebersol as Little Edie [Bouvier Beale, in Grey Gardens]. She plays both Little Edie and Big Edie.

G: Little Edie had her own cabaret show once, didn’t she?
L: She did, yes, at Reno Sweeney’s!

The Edies, big and little

G: I read a review of it in After Dark.
L: Did it talk about the eye patch she wore over her eye with the flower attached to it? When people talk about Ethel Merman in Gypsy, I say, if you didn’t see Ethel Merman in Gypsy, and you probably didn’t, you can at least see Christine Ebersol in Grey Gardens. Very rarely does a role and a performer get matched up that well.

G: The Marble Faun was here recently.
L: What do you mean?

G: I think his name is Jerry Torre.
L: He was where? What does he do?

G: He was at the Castro Theatre being interviewed in conjunction with the documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens.
L: I thought you were saying there was a musical about the Marble Faun. F-a-u-n with an exclamation point.

G: The Mame! Treatment.
L: Right.

G: It’s interesting that you’re most recently inspired by a cabaret performer though, because the Plush Room usually plays host to cabaret performers. The first time I saw you was at Josie’s in the Castro. That was great in its way, but it’s of an era hat is gone in this city, and I’d guess it’s similar with places like the Pyramid and Club 57 in New York – I don’t know if there places like that anymore.
L: You said something about Josie’s being of another time, and isn’t the truth? But it was around just the other day. I could see the end was near in 1997 when I did my last performance there, because there was this new thing called the Internet that kept everyone at home. And Ellen came out on her show when I was at Josie’s. I always had a success at Josie’s but that night [the night of Ellen’s coming out episode] I had eight people.

G: Also, when a place like Josie’s left, there was even less art left in the Castro.
L: When I first came to San Francisco to perform in 1990, there was an electricity on the streets of San Francisco that was stirred up by ACT-UP. By 1997, when I did my last show at Josie’s, protease inhibitors had existed for a year or two and ACT-UP became practically obsolete.
There’s a whole contradictory element to the fact that AIDS stirred everything up, but then the retardation of AIDS ended the [community activism]. That whole exciting feeling on the street left when people started getting well.

G: There was such a huge change in such a short period of time, with so much art produced. I don’t know if we can take stock of that era yet.
L: Enough time hasn’t passed. People still haven’t properly written about the whole East Village scene here in New York. You mentioned Club 57, and the New Museum [of Contemporary Art] did do a show, but it’s still an era that hasn’t been completely explored and understood. That’s fine – it will be sooner or later.
But going back to the Plush Room, my working there seems rather inevitable, and a natural evolution.
I saw Charles Pierce and Jim Bailey at the Plush Room in the '80s, when, to my young eyes, it really did seem plush! I remember Pierce had Bea Arthur in his audience. He acknowledged her and they became fast friends. Apparently that was the night they met. She spoke at his funeral. I was with the ballerina Cynthia Gregory and he also acknowledged her.
Later, in 1991, the Ballroom in New York wanted to have him [Pierce] back there, and he said no, and told them to ask me. And then I had a success there. I'm sure he would have approved of my playing the Plush Room as well. In fact, there is a painting of him backstage at the Plush Room. I'll never forget that he entered the house through the green room door dressed as Bette Davis, walked through the crowd without stopping or saying anything, went into the lobby and looked at himself in a large mirror, then came back. Only a few people could see it (including our table), but it was hilarious. Wouldn't it be great if he were still alive and i could do Joan to his Bette? In fact, he once mentioned to me that he wanted to do a parody of the insipid play Love Letters with a Joan impersonator and call it Loathe Letters!

Charles Pierce
The Plush Room seems very formal compared to Josie's. But, in fact, at Josie's for my performances there were usually no tables in the audience. There wasn't room for them! I prefer working in a theatre because there's more control (there's that Crawford dame again) but audiences love to see me in a cabaret, and the informal setting (as well as the imbibing of alcohol) helps them have a better time. And if they have a good time, then so do I.
Jim bailey did Judy when i saw him there [at the Plush Room], twice during the same run. I never got to know him the way i did charles. In fact, I don't know him at all.

G: If someone writes about the days Club 57 and the Pyramid -- or the history of the Plush Room -- you just hope it will be explored by people who have a feel for what they’re discussing.
L: And that they do it while the people who can talk about it are still alive.

Amy Irving in The Fury

G: I remember reading a RE:Search interview with you in which you talked about movies such as The Fury and Suspiria – you were talking about the latter before a cult really grew around it.
L: Oh, The Fury!
There’s a Tom Stoppard play at the Lincoln Center right now called The Coast of Utopia – this big trilogy that is so dense that no one understands it, but it’s a snob hit because the New York Times tells everyone that it’s great. I bumped into an actor friend of mine today named Andy McGinn who is in the show. I said “Andy, do you have any dealings with Amy Irving?,” because she’s in it. He said, “Yeah, I see her very day.” I said, “Andy! You’ve got to tell her that The Fury is the greatest movie ever made! And you’ve got to see it if you haven’t already – it’s like Carrie with a budget!”
I told him to ask her if she’s ever heard of Lypsinka, and if she has, to tell her that Lypsinka thinks it’s one of the great movies – it may be something that she wants to forget, but it’s fantastic.
You see, this is the second time today that I’ve gotten excited about The Fury.

G: How can you not love Brian De Palma blowing up John Cassavetes?
L: And ripping off Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point at the same time!
Did you ever read Pauline Kael’s review of that movie?

G: Yeah, I love that review.
L: She totally got it.

G: She could be so great.
L: Well, she didn’t like Douglas Sirk very much.

G: I didn’t necessarily agree with her, but I often enjoy the writing. I guess it’s a matter of sensibility, but it’s funny that she didn’t always appreciate camp, because she was friends with Robert Duncan and James Broughton.
L: She didn’t like John Schlesinger. She always took him to task. The only time she didn’t was with Sunday Bloody Sunday and I felt she was probably obliged to say something good because Penelope Gilliat [who wrote it] was also at the New Yorker.

G: That must have been a dramatic period amongst many within the New Yorker offices.
L: How can you denigrate-ingly say that Schlesinger is obvious when De Palma is no less obvious? Blowing up John Cassavetes – that’s rather obvious [laughs].

Slinky death scene in Suspiria

G: Suspiria is great in terms of how dynamic it is visually, and the actresses are like no one else -- seeing Alida Valli and Joan Bennett years onward I nthese dramatic forms.
L: Alida Valli has completely lost her beauty by [the time of] that movie. My god. From Mrs. Paradine [in The Paradine Case] to Suspiria, it’s really shocking.
And I love it when Joan Bennett says, “We’ve got to kill that bitch of an American girl.”

G: I just saw Scarlet Street for the first time in quite a while, and have to say the older I get the more I appreciate her [Bennett’s] performance in that one. The first time around I think I only noticed her plummy voice, but this time I noticed a lot of irony in her line readings.
L: Now you’ve got me starting to think about Grayson Hall in Dark Shadows – Dr. Julia Hoffman.

G: About 10 feet away from my desk I have a biography of her.
L: Of Grayson Hall?! God.

Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman on Dark Shadows

G: Here it is, Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow.
L: A hard actress to follow.
Grayson Hall was to do The Madwoman of Chaillot here in New York with Geraldine Page and Madeleine Sherwood, who played Sister Woman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Mother Superior in The Flying Nun. Grayson Hall got sick, so I did not get to see her, but I did get to see Jane White, who was just as good. She was in the original Once Upon a Mattress with Carol Burnett, and she’s also a madam in the fabulous Jane Fonda movie Klute.
I was just in Washington D.C. doing this Crawford show for 5 weeks, and the Library of Congress is this incredible resource for movies. Not just books about movies but the movies themselves. If you have a valid research reason you can go there and handle the film stock yourself and see all these weird movies.
I saw The Night Digger, with a score by Bernard Herrmann starring Patricia Neal and written by Roald Dahl. I saw Pretty Maids All in a Row, the Roger Vadim movie with Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson.

G: I don’t think he talks about that in his autobiography [Memoirs of the Devil].
L: The first autobiography, with the devil in the cover? That may have been written before this movie was made. He made it in 1971.
Roddy McDowall and Keenan Wynne are in it. And an actress called Joy Bang. Have you ever heard of Joy Bang?
What else can I tell you?

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