Monday, October 3, 2016

They're Still Here

In the first paragraph of his 1859 novel entitled A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens famously noted that:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
The youngest among us often lack a sense of history. Wrapped in a blanket of self-importance, it's easy for them to imagine that the world revolves around their needs. But as Shakespeare explains in a monologue from As You Like It:
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."
For performers and politicians, building a career and maintaining a sense of momentum can be a Sisyphean task. Those who started out as blushing starlets or matinee idols and were lucky enough to evolve into beloved teaching artists and character actors can look back on a long career and take pride in their achievements. For others, a song written by Stephen Sondheim for 1971's Follies, "I'm Still Here," has become an anthem of survival. The following clip captures Eartha Kitt's rendition of the song in a 1991 production of Follies at the Theater des Westens in Berlin.

Two gay men who have spent the better part of their lives in San Francisco recently took to the stage with comic monologues about their experiences (one even wrote new lyrics for "I'm Still Here" which he sang during his show). Each charmed his audience while reminiscing about the lessons he learned along the way.

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Looking back on her earliest days in New York, Broadway's Faith Prince recalled her day job waiting tables at McHale's bar. When one of the proprietors complimented her by stating that she was sure to make it as an actor, Prince asked how she had arrived at that conclusion. The woman answered "Because you're a terrible, fucking waitress!"

Among the the many jobs actors take that will allow them the flexibility to schedule voice lessons, go to auditions, and attend rehearsals, one of the most frequently mentioned is cater-waiter. As he begins his monologue, Michael Patrick Gaffney tells the audience the inspiration for his one-man show.
"I was sitting in my therapist’s office on Tuesday…It’s worth noting that this is the therapist I have been trying to break up with for a few months now because he cried during my session TWICE!  And he stood me up once and is quite aware of my abandonment issues. I have been dealing with an anxiety disorder for awhile now and he finally asked me, 'What are you most afraid of?' I sat there for a moment and thought for awhile and finally I said, 'I’m afraid I will become the oldest living cater waiter.'"
From that moment of insight, a show was born. One of the biggest hits at the 2016 San Francisco Fringe Festival was Gaffney's meticulously staged one-man show entitled The Oldest Living Cater Waiter: My Life In Three Courses

Michael Patrick Gaffney stars in The Oldest Living Cater Waiter

Directed by Ken Sonkin, Gaffney's hour-long show traces his artistic leanings from a childhood in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma to several years in Los Angeles (where he managed to get his Actors Equity card). Following his involvement in the equally horrible and hilarious "potato skin incident" of 1989, he moved to the San Francisco Bay area.

In recent years I've seen Gaffney perform in the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson's drama, By and By, at the Shotgun Players; in the Aurora Theatre Company's production of The Best Man, and in numerous revivals of old musicals at 42nd Street Moon. Earlier this year, he co-starred as Herbie opposite Lynda DiVito in Center Rep's production of Gypsy.

Whether reciting some lines from Shakespeare or recalling an ego-deflating conversation with an old friend from Oklahoma, Gaffney's show kept the audience highly entertained. Gently mocking that other actor from Broken Arrow (Kristin Chenoweth) by referring to her as either "the little one" or "the small one," he shows how escaping from a tiny Midwestern town doesn't automatically lead to major stardom and how the "glamour" of wearing a tuxedo as a uniform can help to keep one's theatrical dreams alive.

Michael Patrick Gaffney stars in The Oldest Living Cater Waiter

With a carefully set table for eight as a prop, Gaffney demonstrates what it's like for a decrepit old cater waiter with trembling hands to keep food on a plate as he stumbles through a dining room as well as what it's like to try serving people and tactfully remove their plates as they wave their arms about or interrupt him to make special requests.

The funniest part of his act centers on his work as a cater waiter for high-end social events and private parties, where the guests range from political and Hollywood celebrities to local business icons. Working as a cater waiter has allowed Gaffney to serve such political superstars as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi (he once got to shake President Barack Obama's hand).  Describing what it was like to work a nearly 12-hour shift at a Montecito estate for an outdoor wedding rumored to have cost $5 million, he relates how he had to cope with the increased physical stress from the heat as well as the nagging demands of "a certain famous romance novelist."

Michael Patrick Gaffney stars in The Oldest Living Cater Waiter

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What do gay men like Scott Capurro, Mario Cantone, Billy Eichner, Leslie Jordan, Alec Mapa, and Graham Norton; lesbians like Judy Gold, Ellen DeGeneres, Marga Gomez, Rosie O'Donnell, Wanda Sykes, and Paula Poundstone; and drag queens like Bianca del Rio, Miss Coco Peru, and The Kinsey Sicks all have in common?

It's not just that they're popular entertainers who are part of the LGBT community. Nor is it simply that they've worked as stand-up comedians. It's the fact that, as openly gay stand-up comedians, they have all followed in the groundbreaking footsteps of Tom Ammiano, who started doing stand up in 1980 in San Francisco and is still performing at 75!

Ammiano grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, where he was enrolled in private Catholic schools (including Immaculate Conception High School) and learned that having a quick wit and a big mouth could come in handy. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from Seton Hall University in 1963, he moved to San Francisco where he earned his Master's degree in Special Education from San Francisco State University two years later. During the 1970s, Ammiano became increasingly politically active.

Following Milk's assassination on November 27, 1978, Ammiano's political activism continued to grow.

Now retired from politics, Ammiano recently returned to the comedy stage with a one-man show at The Marsh entitled Mincing Words in which he recalled how he once told Harvey Milk that he would never, ever run for office. With 20/20 hindsight, he joked about the period when gay men in San Francisco were learning to carry whistles as a defense measure in case of a gaybashing and, at the same time, were being encouraged to join the police force. Recalling one eager young recruit who had a uniform fetish, Ammiano joked that the man "got so confused and excited that he sat on his whistle and blew a cop."

As he paced back and forth, Tom delivered numerous old chestnuts that he has polished over the years while describing how he interacted with some of the stranger personalities in the California State Assembly (to whom he applied such nicknames as Mr. Unimportant and Tammy-Faye Bakersfield). He did not hold back while describing some of the hypocrisy and pettiness he encountered while in Sacramento (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's dickishness was given due recognition).

The opening night was packed with friends and long-time fans, some of whom have been following "the Mother of Gay Comedy" since his early appearances at Josie's Juice Joint and the Valencia Rose Cabaret. For four decades, Tom Ammiano has been mixing comedy with political activism, as evidenced in the tribute he gave to a beloved comedian who committed suicide.

Performances of Mincing Words continue through October 15 at The Marsh (click here for tickets).

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