Sunday, December 29, 2019

Berlin: 1999

As we near the end of another decade, I am reminded that it was 20 years ago this month that I saw in the Millennium in the fascinating city of Berlin, and in the guise of one of Berlin's most famous native daughters: Marlene Dietrich.

Black Market Marlene
I had been impersonating Dietrich for about five years at that point.  My first act, Queen of the World: Marlene Dietrich in Concert, had been followed by Black Market Marlene: a Dietrich Cabaret, my most successful endeavor with the screen siren. The act had been commissioned by the late impresario, Erv Raible, who invited me to create an original show for his legendary club, Eighty Eights.

I conceived a sung-through piece presenting Marlene in her gender-bending signature look of top hat and tails, incorporating pieces she sang in male drag as well as lots of her early film and recorded songs in German, French and English.  Accompanied by brilliant musical director and arranger David Maiocco, accordionist Tony Lauria and drummer Mary Rodriquez, I insinuated myself through the intimate club, weaving an illusion of a bygone Berlin cabaret suffused with smoke and mystery. For a glimpse of my Dietrich work at that time, enjoy Rick McKay's short film on me, Illusions.

The show was a big success, garnering rave reviews and launching a series of tour dates in cities like New Orleans and San Francisco, as well as gay hot spots Fire Island and Provincetown.  A Berlin cabaret promoter, Klaus "Mabel" Ascheneller, who represented several drag acts which he'd had success with in Germany (including drag opera diva Shequida), saw the piece and decided to pitch it to the BKA, an edgy cabaret venue.  Impressed with my rave New York reviews, and the images of me as Marlene, the BKA booked me to perform through the '99 Christmas season, the Millennium festivities and into 2000.  

Thank heaven David Maiocco was hired to come with me, and off we flew to Berlin.  To call the first few days we were there a whirlwind would be an understatement.  The producers at BKA barely spoke any English, and neither David nor I spoke enough German to get by.  We were introduced to our two musicians, neither of whom had much if any English: a female French classical accordionist and a German drummer.  David spoke the language of music to these talented musicians, and set to work getting them up to speed.

Meantime my schedule had been arranged for me, with interviews and press events, culminating in a segment for Berlin Public Television which had me followed around the city by a camera crew to various places significant to Dietrich, including her grave site.  There was a controversy over the giant posters of me plastered all over town: the Dietrich Estate, administered by Marlene's daughter, Maria Riva, insisted that the photo of me used on the posters was of the actual Dietrich and was being used without license.  Staving off their cease-and-desist order, my German agent had to put them in touch with my NYC photographer, Stephen Mosher, who provided proof that the shot was of me.  It was rather flattering in a way, but added to the overall stress of the situation.

The Public TV segment was shot the day of my opening performance.  The concept of preview performances was unknown to the BKA, and unbeknownst to us, they'd invited every television and radio station in Berlin, as well as the national press, to cover my first performance.  Despite the Germans' ambivalent attitude toward Dietrich (she's rather like Joan Crawford to them--simultaneously reviled and celebrated), an American drag performer playing the siren garnered a great deal of interest.

To add to the pressure of the moment, the camera crew whisking me around Berlin got me to the club without enough time for me to do the 90 minutes of makeup required to transform into Marlene.  This meant that my performance went up 45 minutes late.  By the time I emerged on stage to begin the show, a cranky full house of dignitaries and Berlin cognoscenti had been smoking (and fuming) for over an hour.  My first entrance was like something out of Fellini.  The room was thick with cigarette smoke. A row of television cameras in the back was staring me in the face. In the front row, Germany's top drag performers, in full regalia, were seated alongside the German Minister of Culture.  Arms folded, they peered at this drag arriviste American with all the warmth of a firing squad.

The performance happened.  At the end, the audience stamped its feet and demanded encores.  I learned afterward that Germans are very persnickety about genre.  My show was promoted as a cabaret, but the German idea of what a cabaret was bore little resemblance to what I was doing--they expected political humor, satire, improvisation, riffing off the audience.  I was doing a sung-through art piece with virtually no patter. To them, this was a concert and they were going to teach this upstart American a lesson.  My show incorporated no encores.  The audience applauded and stamped until I was forced to roll out three encores of songs I had already performed.  Finally, sweating and exhausted, I was allowed to leave the stage.

The next day, the press lambasted me. From the national newspaper Die Welt on down, the reviews were in and they were vicious.  You see, also unbeknownst to me, there had just been a highly successful Berlin run of Pam Gems' play Marlene starring a famous German television star, who had received raves. I didn't realize that my engagement was a thumb in the eye of this lady's success--and by a Yank, no less!  The press sharpened their knives and drew blood. 

With brilliant musical director, David Maiocco
Funnily enough--although my producers were freaking out, and I was devastated by the notices--I learned another perverse thing about the German public: they love controversy.  Far from dissuading people from coming to the show, the bad reviews made them want to see for themselves and make up their own minds about it.  The run sold out.  Audiences loved it.  People from Marlene's past started showing up and greeting me after performances-- including a little old lady in a babushka who threw herself, weeping, into my arms.  She'd been Marlene's dresser in the early 60s when she'd brought her act to Berlin, amidst controversy far more dramatic than what I was experiencing.

The BKA contracted me to host their New Year's Eve event, a varieté program--sort of like a vaudeville--with me as Marlene doing a few numbers and introducing the various acts, which included a belly dancer, a snake charmer, and my partner Damien--who was a dancer with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo--performing The Dying Swan, en pointe.  It was surreal and sublime to find myself in this strange Weimar-style fun house as the 90s came to a close.

We toasted each other with champagne as midnight struck, people taking to the streets firing guns into the air, as fireworks exploded over the Siegessäule. David Maiocco dubbed our Berlin adventure The Marlennium Tour.  It certainly was a trip.  Twenty years ago.  Seems like another life, and certainly another career.  

Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin...


  1. What a memory, and brilliant legacy of events. Thank you for sharing this, James xo