1969 San Francisco culture held a passion for “male actress” extraordinaire, Charles Pierce, whose dead-on impressions of Bette Davis, and other strong women of the Silver Screen, caught the attention of the gay and straight press alike. I first discovered Charles Pierce when the San Francisco Chronicle’s star columnist, Herb Caen, quoted one of Pierce’s jokes word for word, after publicly declaring he had been to the “ribald” show the night before and had enjoyed it immensely.
Photo of me (Gale Chester Whittington, right) and my comrades picketing States Steamship Company in San Francisco in May of 1969 (pre-Stonewall)
Well, kind of. What we heard he said was, “I was skipping through the financial district the other day, when I saw a group of homosexuals protesting at a steamship company. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I mean, it was broad daylight. What if their makeup melted?”
Photo of Charles Pierce as Bette Davis in blue sequins from http://www.bochynski.com/charlespierce/
The Gilded Cage was packed as tight as a sardine can, an item I was getting to know rather intimately, considering how inexpensive the nasty things were at Walgreen's and how broke I’d become. After buying a couple of draft beers, we wormed our way through the crowd until we were about fifteen feet from the stage.
Charles Pierce as Charles Pierce photo
A voice came over the loudspeaker. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Master and Mistress of Surprise and Disguise, Charles Pierce!”
“Peetah, Peetah, Peetah,” Charles Pierce began, as he stepped onto the stage, looking for all the world like a haggard Bette Davis the morning after a wild night partying with one of her handsome co-stars. “Peetah, Peetah, Peetah, got to get myself some peetah!” The audience went crazy with laughter.
Photo of Charles Pierce as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the campiest movie ever made
“Welcome to the Gilded Cage, kiddies!” Pierce sauntered over to a piano and ran a white-gloved finger across the top. Raising a smudged digit in the air, he smiled, cupping an ear with the other hand.
The people in the crowd yelled in unison, “Whaaaaat a duuump-p-p-p!”
Although Charles Pierce was celebrated for his Bette Davis impersonation, his repertoire included a bevy of Hollywood stars including lesbian actress Tallulah Bankhead, his right-on interpretation pictured above
“You’re such a good bunch,” Pierce retorted. “I’d kiss ya, but I just washed ma hair.” He marched back and forth across the stage, scanning the audience. He stopped, lit the trademark Bette Davis cigarette, and blew what seemed like never-ending smoke toward the audience. The spotlight hit the particles, highlighting them, feeding them, until they seemed larger than life—more important than they really were. But they defined Bette Davis and Charles Pierce. Perfectly.
Charles Pierce developed a successful line of hilarious greeting cards, like this one which featured a photo of him as Baby Jane Hudson.
Charles opened his purse, flipped the latch on a compact, and proceeded to apply ruby red lipstick to his mouth until his character’s undefined lips doubled in size. “Ya know, some of my best critics say I’m a dead ringer for Bette . . . and they can’t wait for me ta stop wavin’ the damned bell and fall over . . . Think about it . . . I’ll pause while it sinks in. Give ya a clue—’snot a compliment.”
The crowd roared.
Photo of Charles Pierce and comedienne Martha Raye, with whom I once had a beer at a drag charity function in Denver. She loved gay people and they loved her!
“On a different note, I was strollin’ through the financial district the othe’ day, when I saw a bunch of queens picketin’ a steamship company. Could not believe my eyes. I mean, it was broad daylight. What if their makeup melted? I know that’s not much of a joke, but I just had ta throw something out there about it, considering we have a special guest in the audience.”
Ann-Margret and Charles Pierce photo
Oh, my God, I thought to myself. He’s going to embarrass the hell out of me. I need another drink—fast! Oh, God! Where can I hide?
The spotlight wandered through the room until its beam bounced off my face, totally blinding me. I nodded and smiled with quivering lips at people I couldn’t see, while Charles Pierce continued. “Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Rosa Parks of the gay movement, the young man who was fired by Statesmen’s Steamship Company and stood up for his rights! Gary Willingham, take a bow!”
Pierce moved a hand to shade his eyes and looked my way. “I must say, Gary, when I saw your shirtless picture in the Berkeley Barb with the ‘HOMOS DON’T HIDE IT’ headline, I didn’t know whether to pleasure myself or call the paper for your phone number!”
The spotlight homed in on the white-suited actor, as he stood next to an attractive black woman, her ivory linen pantsuit accented by dangling diamond earrings.
Fading into the night, the last thing I remember hearing was Leo Laurence whispering, “Who’s Gary Willingham?”
Buy the book about his life, From Drags to Riches: The Untold Story of Charles Pierce, here. Photo of the book cover pictured above
Photo of the official poster of the documentary Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis by Black Summers Productions, LLC
A new film about Bette Davis recently premiered at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. It’s called Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis by Black Summers Productions, LLC. Visit their website here to learn more about the documentary. Although I’ve not seen it, as I now live in Oklahoma, their press says the 99-minute movie “examines the many aspects of the gay fascination with Bette Davis, featuring film clips of Bette's most iconic moments, juxtaposed with camp burlesques of her by Matthew Martin and others, including Charles Pierce and Arthur Blake; a profile of Martin highlighting his long identification with Davis; and interviews with fans, entertainers, and gay cultural historians.”
Second poster promo for Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis film photo
Producer Carole Summers told me they are working on a trailer, so keep your eyes on this website, as I’ll bring it to you as soon as it’s available. (Update: The trailer is now finished and you can view it at the bottom of this post!) Carole also said the film may be accessible for upload on Amazon and/or Netflicks soon and will definitely be out as a DVD by 2010. I’ll let you know when those things happen, because one can never get enough of Bette Davis, be it through the real thing or channeled through one of her many impersonator devotees. (UPDATE 12-11-09. the DVD is now available for purchase from the Black Summers website).
Photo of the cover of vintage VHS Video of The Charles Pierce Show, part of which is now preserved on YouTube below
Thank God for YouTube! Enjoy this Video of “Charles Pierce at the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1982 Part One” as Bette Davis:
Watch the second Video “Charles Pierce at the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1982 Part Two” as Bette Davis:
Check out this Video of Charles Pierce Mastering the Voices of Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Jack Benny, Carol Channing, & Others from a San Francisco Radio Interview:
Watch the hilarious Video of Charles Pierce Doing the Voice of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in “Turban Ladies”:
Watch this video, “R.I.P. Charles Pierce (1926-1999),” and try not to cry:
To put it all in perspective, watch this video of “The Real Bette Davis in All About Eve”:
Enjoy “The Best Lines of Bette Davis” Video, although it’s not completely inclusive:
And finally, catch this Trailer for Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis:
Also visit http://www.galechesterwhittington.com/ for free humor, short stories, poems, and book excerpts from the award-winning gay author