Ethel Loves… Lou Papalas


When I wrote about the puntasticly, fabulously named Barber Streisand recently, it brought to mind a similar – but more Babtastic – wonder that I heard about some years ago: The Barbra Shop. A regular barbers by day (albeit with Babs stuff on the walls and Babs busts for sale) and a Streisand themed museum by night. I mean. You know? I tried to track down Lou Papalas, the fabulous man behind The Barbra Shop museum collection for that article, but didn’t manage to by deadline. When he got in touch after the fact I told him I simply HAD to interview him for Mermania. As a man with the largest Streisand memorabilia collection in the world, he’s Ethel Mermaids material through and through.

Corinna: How did your love of Babs begin?

Lou: In 1963, my Mom called me into the living room to watch this “kooky girl” on The Mike Douglas show.  I was drawn to her for many reasons—among them, her non-conventional looks and atypical candour as well as a plethora of what seemed self-confidence.

After that a friend gifted me with The Barbra Streisand Album – Barbra’s first… LOVED IT!  Then Barbra was in Funny Girl on Broadway. My buddy (he also loved Barbra) and I both purchased the Broadway Funny Girl album. Not only did we know all the songs, but we used lines (in falsetto) from the musical in our everyday conversations. We would always crack up at the applicability of those lyrics to situations in our lives.

C: How did your collecting begin?

L: I began collecting quite by accident. Initially I obsessively cut out any article I found in magazines or newspapers and stuffed them in my bedroom dresser drawer. If I went to the doctor or dentist and Barbra was on the cover or in a magazine in the waiting room, of course I would take it home with me when I left the office. Soon I began looking for articles, scanning periodicals in hopes of finding more.

Once Barbra starred in Funny Girl on Broadway, starred in her own one woman hour-long TV special, the movie magazines and tabloids chose Barbra as “the celebrity.”  It was so easy for me to collect, however, my collection quickly out grew my dresser drawer. I then purchased a foot locker to accommodate it. All through college, while others were listening to the classic rock beginnings, I had Barbra. My college fraternity brothers teased me about Barbra all the time. Fast-forward to the 90’s. EBay came into my life and collecting Barbra got a whole lot easier and a lot more expensive. I purchased thousands of items from around the world. I had many of them framed to preserve them—hundreds of them. My collection now occupies six 10 x 10 X 15 climate controlled storage units, 9000 cubic feet. My quest to have it all became a reality and fulfil my goal to open a non-profit Barbra Streisand museum/performing arts centre seemed a lot closer. With that in mind, as if my collection wasn’t large enough, I started attending auctions to purchase more Streisand items.

 

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C: What led to your setting up the museum above the Barbra Shop?

L: I retired from a management position at Ford Motor Company in February of 2002.  By that time my collection was an obsession totally out of control and had grown into the tens of thousands. I had also acquired thousands of duplicate and triplicate (and more) of the same item. Some of them were purposefully purchased, but most were purchased only because I kept no written inventory and could not remember if I already had one.  I figured that when I opened my museum, I could sell those duplicate items to raise funds to support it.

April 24 of 2002 was Barbra’s 60th birthday as well as the 50th anniversary of the Caucus Club in Detroit. I befriended the owner of the Caucus Club, the first of Barbra’s non-New York venues. I proposed taking over the décor of the restaurant for a half year which culminated with a Barbra Streisand 60th birthday party and for the anniversary of the Caucus Club. I displayed over 100 items. The rich cherry panelling was the backdrop for beautiful professionally framed Streisand posters, articles and mixed memorabilia. I even had the ladies room painted pink with rose floral accessories.  The owner purchased pink linen tablecloths. The restaurant and my Barbra display was featured in articles and front page stories

My wife and I purchased a winter residence in Palm Desert, California. I had all of the “Streisand stuff” relocated to California from Michigan. After seeing the enjoyment people experienced viewing the items at the Caucus Club, I wanted to create a smallish museum. I did just that and my first location was the “BARBRA SHOP” in Palm Springs California …the Castro of Palm Springs. It was a barber shop by day and a Barbra museum by night. The walls were entirely covered from floor to ceiling with framed posters and significant display items. Additionally, mannequins with different Streisand hairstyles from her career were placed throughout the shop. The barbers wore black Barbra Streisand T-shirts and to complete the mood, Barbra albums provided background music and the TV showed Barbra movies. This clever shop became an international Palm Springs tourist destination and during evenings, after the barbers departed, from 6pm to 10pm many display items were added and the barber shop was transformed into a Barbra Shop Museum.

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C: Why and when did that have to close?

L: Our landlord had legal problems and we needed to vacate. Initially the shop moved to a downtown location, not easily seen and seldom patronized. Therefore we closed for good…unless someone wants me to do a Streisand themed restaurant, museum, Barbra Shop in any U.S. tourist spot or European location for that matter.

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C: Tell me about your experience of the Barbra auctions?

L: Initially I attended a Barbra Streisand Christie’s auction in NYC. I purchased several gowns, one of Barbra’s Chinese antique lamps, some china and three large pieces of antique pottery.  I participated in three other NYC auctions, at one I was high bidder on Barbra’s first eight concerts in New York City.

In 2004, I volunteered my service to assist Julien Entertainment in identifying significant items from Barbra’s career as well as personal items when she started to let go of her career items. I even hosted a two week exhibit of extremely significant career gowns at Takishimaya on 5th Avenue in NYC. During that exhibit I decide that I wanted to become owner of Barbra’s most classic and historically significant and iconic “My Name is Barbra” gown. It was the last item offered for bid in the Her Name is Barbra 2004 auction and I was the high bidder. This gown and the eight contracts are the two most important/valuable pieces in my vast collection.

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C: What items were you most surprised about her selling at auction?

L: Actually, it was almost painful watching all of her beautiful career gowns being distribute to others and breaking up what would make a significant career exhibit. I made it a mission of mine to keep tabs on who purchased what by starting the Barbra Streisand Legacy Associates. I requested that new owners of her gowns or other significant items register as associates. Many of those registered items have been exhibited to provide funding for non-profits.

C: What was the thing that got away that you wished you had won?

L: Her Oscars see-through Scassi pantsuit. Scassi won it back for himself. He repurchased many of the items he designed for Barbra.

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C: I adore the busts that were in your museum.

L: Those items were actually on consignment for me to sell. They were and many still are owned by Ken Joachim, the curator of the 1996 Hello Gorgeous museum in the Castro of San Francisco. The unsold were returned to him when I closed my shop.

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C: You’ve lent items to other museums and exhibitions toured with some of your Babs collection. Where is your collection now and how can people see it?

L: All of my collection is now in storage. My long term goal of establishing a Streisand Museum/Performing Arts centre becomes less pursuable as I am soon to be 70 and that goal is rapidly becoming a short term crisis. I do not want to die not having achieved all or part of my goal, leaving the thousands of items for my family to liquidate.

C: Have you met her?

L: Yes I have. After I curated a 1200 piece exhibit at the Hollywood Museum her manager, Marty Erlichman, called me and wanted to tour, film and photograph it. As a thank you he and Barbra invited me to her Arizona concert as a guest. Marty requested that I go backstage after the concert where I was one of very few guests – her sister Roslyn Kind , David Foster and girlfriend, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jay Alexander, Renata, Jane Withers and Mrs. David Rose and of course Sammie.

Oh, I forgot the best part. When I met Barbra, she put her hand on her hip, looked me straight in the eyes and said in her Brooklyneese best “so wher’d ya’ get all my stuff?” I will always remember this as it is etched in my brain.

C:  We’re a little in love with Babs’ dog Sammie.

L: I have also met Jason and  his dog Eli when I again went backstage at the Hollywood Bowl

C: Lucky! What would you most like to see Babs do in the future?

Aside from Gypsy, I would love her to record a simply produced album of old favourites in the style of early Barbra, with a lot of drama and emotion without concern to be perfect and with minimal accompaniment. Purely classic Barbra.

When she and Bette Midler get a little older and before they retire from the screen, I would love to see them to star together in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (I am a little weird that way)

C: That would be the ultimate dream!

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Ethel Talks StreisBAND


When we first heard about Stephen Crowe’s latest project StreisBAND we could not wait to hear the results and to discover just what kind of animal it would be. We weren’t disappointed. StreisBAND are unlike anything we have heard before. Their frantic, affectionate renditions have captured the imagination and spawned an instant dedicated fan base, which includes serious, die-hard Babs fans. No small feat. For years composer Stephen Crowe has been writing ‘little operas’ as well as performing free-improv with the trio Ynd. His latest venture might just be the most fabulous contribution towards Ms Streisand’s cultural impact in a very long time. Some gigs and an album are coming soon.

It’s obvious that StreisBAND is not a gimmick or a joke but instead comes from a place of pure love. How much do you love Barbra Streisand? How did your Streislove begin?

She’s a genius, and she’s funny. Who else can you say that about?

I must have been 20 years old when I first came across Streisand. I was at a car boot sale and there was a copy of Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Funny Girl on VHS. I could only afford one of the two, and though I knew nothing at all about Barbra Streisand, I thought it was worth a try. It was an agonising decision, though I knew nothing about Brahms either. Funny Girl is a masterpiece, I reckon. It sparked an obsession. It’s the ‘thinking voice’ that I love about the Streisand. The ability to act while singing, I mean. I think all musical performance is acting on some level.

What led to the formation of StreisBAND?

I had the idea a few years ago. It was a kind of ridiculous notion that had no chance of materialising. Like saying ‘I’m going to move to Paris and write poetry’. I recently mentioned it to a girl that I was trying to impress. She thought it was hilarious, and so I had to turn it into a reality. You could say she called my bluff.

The first move was to design the logo. I’m not sure how many bands finalise the logo before the first rehearsal, but I hadn’t even met the drummer before I printed twenty T-shirts saying ‘StreisBAND’.

We first heard of the StreisBAND project through your ad for a drummer. Tell us about some of the people who replied – on the whole, did they get it? How did you decide on Barry?

More people ‘got it’ than I had anticipated. I had twenty-five applicants from all over Europe, and including drummers who’ve played for quite big names. I held auditions in London, but Barry (who lives in Ireland) sent me some videos of his interpretations via youtube, and he was my favourite. He was obviously having a ball while he was playing. He’s really funny, too. Which helps.

Does Barry love Babs too?

He didn’t, but he does now! That’s sort of the point of the whole project. Make people realise how great the songs are. They have to be great to withstand this sort of pummelling.

StreisBAND consists of vocals and drums and in your words, ‘no guitar, no bass, no marimba’. How and why did you come to that decision?

It’s just a lot more interesting than having a regular rock n’ roll set up, isn’t it? There are more than enough guitar bands in the world. This is much more direct. No pissing about, as it were.

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How does StreisBAND fit in your oeuvre of avant garde, experimental musics?

That’s a tough question. I’m having a break from writing little operas and experimental music so that I can be more spontaneous and get out of the whole contemporary classical field and all the routine that goes with it. But is it REALLY a break? Or is it a continuation in some way? I don’t really know. Best not to dwell.

How are you choosing the songs?

I have to love the song and it has to work with the StreisBAND treatment. It helps if there’s an emotional tight-rope in the lyrics. Me and Barry struck upon the image of Oliver Reed on the street in his underpants, having been thrown out by his girlfriend. He’s pleading with her desperately as she throws his clothes from the bedroom window. He’s blind drunk and it’s raining. If the lyric of the song can fit that image then we’re on to a winner.

There also has to be a balance of well-known songs and more obscure songs. I don’t want to just do the Greatest Hits, that would be too easy and a bit boring. Besides, more people on this planet need to hear ‘Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking’, hopefully if they like StreisBAND’s version they’ll have a listen to her original. They’re surprisingly similar.

We hear there may be a tour?

There will be a few individual performances, and if they don’t go horribly wrong then there’ll be a tour.

Like us, you saw Babs’ recent concert at the O2. What did you think?

I was stunned! I wasn’t expecting her to be anything like as good as she was, frankly. I love her voice and I love her humour- both of which I imagined were in decline. But she was fucking fantastic. Her song choices were incredible, too, which is vital. The most moving Babs song for me has always been ‘Didn’t We?’, which isn’t an especially well known song, but she sang it and I was thrilled. I think I cried a couple of times during that concert. But then I’m an easy crier.

Babs likes to have some guest boys along on her tours these days. When she chooses StreisBAND for her next tour and to appear on her imminent duets album, what song will you do?

‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’. My tash rivals Omar Sharif’s.

Do you see StreisBAND as a one-album project or does it depend on your voice giving out or not?

HA! Yes, my voice may not hold out much longer singing the way I do. But it’s definitely ongoing, as far as I’m concerned. It might change, it might stay the same. I don’t want to sterilise it by forming concrete plans, since wildness is the best thing about it.

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What is your favourite Babs era/album/film/TV special/hairdo?

I can’t get enough of those early albums and films. I love the album Barbra Streisand and Other Musical instruments, for the sheer range of textures in the orchestration. And it’s really funny. I couldn’t survive for love without Je m’apelle Barbra, either. For TV specials it’s got to be A Happening in Central Park which I use as my secret weapon to convert unbelievers. That performance, with all the schtick and the wit and emotion is complete genius. Great hair in Hello Dolly, but a bit of a superficial character, I seem to recall.

Barbra Streisand offers you a professional residency in her home/s. Do you:

a) choose to turn one of the shoppe’s in her basement shopping mall into a small gig venue, even though no one ever actually goes down there?

b) hang out with her in the ‘Grandma’s House’ studio and jam?

c) become a troubadour, following her as she checks her stocks whilst still in her pjs, demands another quail pizza from her PA Renata, requests you play ‘Smile’ for her coton de tulear Sammie and in memory of bichon frise Sammy (RIP), decides what colour flowers and fish she wants to match up today, and has some afternoon delight with Jim in her purpose-built shag-room?

d) something else?

HAHA! I would put microphones all over the house to make recordings of every word Babs says to Sammie and publish the results as an experimental novel. Or is that too obvious?

Is there a music genre that Babs hasn’t touched that you would love her to?

Glenn Gould wanted her to do some Mussorgsky, but I reckon she would have been staggering in hair metal.

You Don’t Bring Me Flowers with Diamond, Guilty with Gibb, No More Tears with Summer, or I’ve Finally Found Someone with Adams?

Guilty. Hands down. I like I’ve Got a Crush on You with Sinatra, too.

In Barbra Streisand…And Other Musical Instruments Babs sing-conducts an orchestra in ‘a concerto for voice and appliances’. What are your favourite appliances to play?

Corkscrew and bottle opener. I’ve been rehearsing for years.

For me it will be the performance she gave when she won the talent contest at New York gay bar The Lion, the one that launched her career as an actress-who-sings. What Babs moment will you visit when you take a trip in the Ethel Mermaids Time Machine?

A few seconds before she met Elliot Gould. I would swoop.

What next for StreisBAND and Stephen Crowe? 

I’m trying to raise money to finish recording the album, and I’m sorting out a couple of gigs before the New Year. I’m off to live in Berlin for a few months from January. Don’t worry: there’s a very good drummer there for all German StreisBAND performances.

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Hear some StreisBAND tracks

Contribute to the StreisBAND Kickstarter

Like em on facebook

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Related posts:

Ethel <3s StreisBAND

Avant Babs

Ethel Loves StreisBAND


 

The Ethel Mermaids were very excited to read a much shared ad earlier this year recruiting a drummer for a Barbra Streisand metal covers band. StreisBAND has now found its drummers (several for gigs in different countries) and has recorded an album. You can buy it from the StreisBAND Web page and for a limited period can get a StreisBAND t-shirt thrown in to boot. StreisBAND is the brainchild of artist Stephen Crowe, so always promised to be rather marvellous. We cannot wait to attend a gig.

The cover of Woman in Love got me thinking. I had read a few years ago that Babs didn’t like that song and never wanted to record it. When we saw her in concert she did an abridged version of WiL, prefacing it with an explanation as to why she never had sung it in her concerts before. She said she didn’t agree with the lyrics, that it was an ‘interesting time for women’ when she recorded the song. Presumably referring to women’s lib, it seems that her objections as a feminist are that the rights she’d like to defend over and over again are not to get a man into her world and hold him within. However, when she went on to sing My Man later on in the show with no critique of those lyrics, we couldn’t help but feel that Babs was a bit of a fickle fish… Perhaps we should give her a break though: My Man – despite its terrible victim lyric – is an amazing belter and one of her best songs. We adore it. Plus she was putting WiL in a particular historical, social and political context which lends support to her reasoning.

I LOVE Woman in Love. It’s one of my absolute fave Babs songs – perhaps top 3. It’s my ringtone because its slinky intro is perfect and I can’t imagine many people have used the song as such. I will defend my right to love Woman in Love over and over again. However, thinking about Babs, her discussion of the song and StreisBand’s cover, it suddenly occurred to me – just because Babs is straight and so singing it as a woman addressing a man doesn’t mean the song necessarily has to be read as straight. What if the woman in the song is a woman in love with a woman? What if the right she will defend over and over again is actually the right to love a woman? This would make sense in terms of gay lib if she wants to talk historical context. If there was a simple way to contact Babs and tell her of my thoughts on the song, I would. But she’s a hard celeb to reach. You can’t even msg her facebook page. Perhaps she’ll Google herself and come across our blog post. Yes. That’s what will happen. So Ms Streisand? Whaddaya think of my theory?

(Ms Streisand can contact Corinna ‘Merms’ Tomrley via The Ethel’s email: theethelmermaids@gmail.com. Ms Streisand can also ‘like’ the Ethel’s facebook page: facebook.com/ethelmermaids; and follow them on Twitter: @Ethelsmermaids)

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Ethel Loves Todd Brandt


 

Over the years it seems that whenever I’ve Google-imaged a particularly fabulous diva, the best pics would belong to the blog Stirred, Straight Up, With a Twist. I have continually marvelled at the enormous, youarethere clear, unusual images and smiled at the succinct, sharp, witty text that accompanies them. But the author of those words and collector of those pictures remained somewhat of a mystery. Sure there was the thumbnail of a gent as dapper and sophisticated-looking as you’d expect. But apart from the ‘TJB’ next to his photo, there was no further clue as to his identity. Nor – frustratingly for me – a way to get in touch and express my love.

I recently happened across the facebook group Hollywood Babylon. Immediately hit with ‘How on earth have I inhabited facebook for so long and not had a CLUE that this was there?’: I felt home. And amongst the fabulously well-informed trivia-toting wonders was a familiar face belonging to one of the most prolific of HB’s posters: none other than the star of his own thumbnail, Mr Todd Brant, he of Stirred, Straight up, With a Twist. It made perfect sense that someone of his knowledge, wit and detail should be found here. Hurray! I could get more of a fix of the Brandt magic than just the blog and – BINGO! – get in touch with the man and tell him how much joy the blog and its content have given me over the years. I could tell him he simply MUST be interviewed for ‘Ethel Loves…’ and become the Honorary Mermaid he was born to be.

So darlings, with a tinkle of ice over gin and vermouth, the stab of an olive and a splash of its juice (take note: how I like mine), please join me and raise a glass to the wonderful Mr Todd Brandt.

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Tell us about Todd Brandt – what’s your background?

One of my friends calls me “Queenie” — NOT because of any limp wrists, but because of the novel of that name by Michael Korda. That’s my one enigmatic answer, darling, and I promise to not be coy for the next sixteen questions.

When did you first fall for Old Hollywood?

I distinctly remember seeing “How to Marry a Millionaire” on afternoon television one day when I was sick and not at school. I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time. From then on, I was hooked. I would scour the TV Guide every week, highlight the old films that were playing, and if they were airing late at night, I’d set my alarm clock to, say, 4 a.m. to watch Barbara Stanwyck in “The Mad Miss Manton.”
In 1989, I contributed to my middle school paper. My contributions? Memorials for Bette Davis and Lucille Ball. Also that year, our English class final assignment was to write a book — literally, write a book. We wrote them, supplied illustrations, bound them, the whole nine yards. Ever the teacher’s pet, I wrote two: one was a work of fiction which borrowed very heavily from “All About Eve”; the other was what I considered to be the definitive biography of Marilyn Monroe.

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 How did Stirred, Straight Up, With a Twist come about?

I give all credit to the amazing, fabulous, talented “Thombeau,” whose late, lamented blogs “FABULON” and “Chateau Thombeau” are still legendary in all the right circles, darling. Seeing what he was doing completely influenced what I started doing.

Where do you get such amazing, massive pictures?

I don’t necessarily “create” when I blog, but I DO “curate.” It takes me a long, long time to find just the right images which fit the theme or concept that I have for a particular post. Every picture I use is by design, for a specific purpose. And I almost always use high-res images. I think that gives the blog a particular look and consistency.

You have a wealth of historical knowledge and a wonderful way with words yet you use them sparingly on the blog. Was it a conscious decision to have the images dominate on SSUWAT?

It is definitely a conscious decision, and there are two reasons. The first is partially answered in my response above: when I write a longer, more detailed “essay” post, it automatically necessitates, by my standards, very specific photos which are directly related to the text. You may have noticed that I do a lot of “triptych” style posts, with three related images. Those kinds of posts can take hours, just to find three images which carry out the theme I have in mind. (I’ve abandoned some ideas, because I couldn’t find the right image or images.) With an essay-style post, it obviously takes much, much longer, and I don’t always have the time (or energy!) to do so. The second reason is that even though I adore trivia and gossip and all of the minutiae of Hollywood information, I primarily envisioned SSUWAT from the very beginning as featuring beautiful, unique images — not the same tired ones that you can see almost anywhere — with funny or ironic titles/captions. I dream in captions and one-liners, darling. I reserve the essays for “special” occasions, or when I’m feeling particularly verbose and inspired.

 Who are your top 5 goddesses and why?

Joan Crawford: For her unwavering self-discipline and unyielding determination to create herself from the ground up.

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Judy Garland: For possessing more raw talent than any other human being of the 20th century.

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Arlene Francis: For ineffable, unflappable, indisputable charm.

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Marlene Dietrich: For creating the most flawless image possible, and then refusing to spoil the illusion.

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Diana Ross: For inventing the pop diva template as we know it today, and for nurturing what’s essentially a small talent, then developing and polishing it to her best possible advantage.

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You’re having a pool party at your Brentwood home circa 1938-1965. Who do you invite and what shenanigans occur?

Guy Madison, and I’d give the servants the day off, darling.

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What are your favourite star biographies/ autobiographies?

I actually find a lot of the more “scholarly” biographies boring — the biggest exception I can think of is Sam Irvin’s exceptionally well-researched and thoroughly entertaining biography on Kay Thompson. It not only is a long-overdue, scrupulously detailed look at a vastly under-recognized performer, but it’s a great read. Movie star autobiographies can be entertaining, but so self-serving that you must take them with a shaker of salt. Personally, I think that the fluffy, advice/self help/memoir genre (of which “My Way of Life” by Joan Crawford is the Holy Grail) is not only the most entertaining, but probably closer to the true essence of these stars, as they saw themselves, than anything else. I’m letting my philistine side show through, but I’d rather read a tawdry dime-store paperback like “Jayne Mansfield’s Wild, Wild World” (1963) or a silly beauty guide like Arlene Dahl’s “Always Ask a Man” than a lengthy biography with annotations any day.

Your favourite star?

Joan Crawford. Definitely.

I’ve just discovered Hollywood Babylon on facebook and I LOVE the community – I feel like I’m home! What are your thoughts on the campness and queer appeal of Old Hollywood?

Without putting too fine a point on it, I think the queer community — particularly gay men, and particularly gay men of a certain age — completely understand the concept of creation. Creation of a new persona, creation of a new life, a new identity — creation of a community or chosen family. Old Hollywood glamour is all about creation and illusion. We not only understand that, we embrace it. Younger gays understand that, too, but I think the concept resonates more with people who lived through a less liberated time — when smoke and mirrors were the order of the day.

Do you ever take your martinis dirty?

I like a lot of things dirty, darling, but never my martinis.

Gin or vodka?

Gin. I never quite understood the vodka martini. It has no balls.

Bette or Joan?

Joan, of course. I adore Bette; I just happen to often champion the underdog. Joan was tough in her own way, but also insecure and running from her demons. I feel oddly protective towards her.

Streisand or Midler?

Streisand. I have my issues with her, but I can’t deny that the lady is pretty fucking incredible. I like Bette Midler, but I never thought she was half as fabulous or talented as her followers do.

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 Jayne or Mamie?

Jayne all the way, baby. I respect Mamie for still being alive and kicking, and she’s fun in those bad girl B movies, but Jayne took bad taste to such a stratospherically, operatically, insanely awesome level that one can’t help but just sit back and be amazed. I adore her.

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Liz or Debbie?

Connie Stevens.

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What’s next for Mr Brandt?

If I were more of a planner, and more organized, I’d probably not only have a better idea, but I’d most likely be there by now! I just take life as it comes, darling, and I believe that enjoying life is appreciating beauty and surrounding yourself with it. Even if it’s only in your own imagination.

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AvantBabs



Once upon a time, Avant Babs stepped out into the futuristic world to spread her electro-love on the planet. First sighted in the late 3060s she was noticed infiltrating the swinging sphere where she is reported to have found it ‘far out’. Grooving onto the theatre of a central park she hung with Marty the Martian and enchanted the throng with her meshuggena madcappery, drifting into an era called: Disco.

AvantBabs, earlier today
AvantBabs, earlier today

Through the DiscoAge she stumbled on a world electronica, entrancing earthlings to perform for her using their kitchenette implements: Concrete Chic at her beck and call. Avant Babs fought the good fight, swung the great swing and grooved away until she met up with the PermAge. Of this time little is known. What is depicted is that The GreatFro – as she was then known – ruled, but met with great resistance from the Misogynons. Fearing her strength and GlamaGroove, they grappled with the AvantBabsGlamatron until eventually denting her sense of humour.

Entering the StrutAge she spoke to her PeopleWhoNeedPeople from a vast platform and connected to their groovething, where a Silver and a Fluff and a Spawn took her to the level of the GreatOrangeShoulder, restoring humour and raspy magic. The GreatOrangeShoulder AvantBop rose invincibly to conquer the hearts of her minions and reign supreme.  AvantBabs will forever be entrenched in our LadyHeartsFoundation.

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Ethel Loves Shaun Considine


We originally knew of Shaun Considine as the author of the sublime duel biography Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. One of the best biographies ever written (if not the best), the book presents the greatest stories of these two Hollywood Queens as well as documenting their bizarre relationship built on a strange mix of rivalry, hate (Bette and sometimes Joan) and a longing for friendship (Joan in the early and latter years). The Divine Feud is a deliciously compelling read and if you haven’t ever done so then you really should give back your gay until you’ve read it. As if that weren’t enough, Mr Considine has also penned Barbra Streisand: The Woman, The Myth, The Music, an equally delectable tome about another of our fave divas and which led us to attempt to find out more about this author with the same taste in ladies as us. We found nothing about him outside of his own Web site, but through that we did discover that Shaun has also written a comprehensive study on Hollywood screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and the thrilling new ebook The Oscar Letters. If that weren’t enough the site shares many of the photographs he has taken over the years as a photojournalist, capturing the 70s zeitgeist through an astonishing span of the decade’s most compelling stars.  He recorded the birth of the ‘New Cinema’ and the old and new generations who took to the stage as singers, performers and icons. Some of the most extraordinary and iconic images of women in entertainment from this era were taken by this man. The anonymous souls of NYC also attracted his lens and the beauty of all these images stands rightly alongside his gorgeous prose. Shaun Considine is an important biographer and documentary artist who has contributed a great deal to the culture. With that in mind, we set out to gather the details behind the work and the man and discover the stories behind the stories. We got so much more than we hoped for.

How did you come to write The Divine Feud and The Woman, The Myth, The Music?

During the 1960s I worked at Columbia Records in NYC as the coordinator of new releases, including those of Barbra Streisand. Hence, along with knowing those who worked with her, there were the many stories of what went on during the creation of her classic recordings and TV specials. In the 1970s, as a journalist and photographer, I covered the production of a few of her films, including A Star is Born. A decade later, when the prospect of my writing a book was being considered, her name was on many publishers’ lists.  I wrote an outline.   Three New York houses bid for the rights and voila – the “author” was born. When published, this also became my “Baptism by fire” as the book was done without the subject’s legendary control.

Bette and Joan, despite being a double feature, was great fun.  For me it began in the early 1970s, when by accident, I was caught between their verbal missiles. The feud until then was largely unknown. In the years that followed, a harvest of facts and delicious details was gathered.  I also interviewed both stars again; Joan, six months before she died and Bette, specifically for the book. That she was willing to talk about her relationship with “Miss Crawford” was a large plus. At the same time she was also curious about what I had uncovered, and specifically what the world saw in them together, as a team. “Because we had nothing in common,” said Bette.

Who have been your favourite people to photograph?

That went in cycles. During the 1970s, the wealth of films being made in New York City enabled me to meet and photograph a rich assortment of filmmakers. Amongst them the writers, directors, cinematographers and actors of such films as: Godfather II, Saturday Night Fever, Network, Manhattan, and Kramer vs. Kramer. The latter featuring a virtual galaxy of talent – director Robert Benton, the DP Nestor Almendros, star actor Dustin Hoffman, and newcomer Meryl Streep, who had to fight daily to keep her character and emotional balance intact.

Barbra Streisand on the set of 'Up the Sandbox' (Kershner 1972), by Shaun Considine.
Barbra Streisand on the set of ‘Up the Sandbox’ (Kershner 1972), by Shaun Considine.

At the same time the New York cultural landscape was teeming with rallies, live concerts, plays and recording sessions, including Sweeney Todd. The double duty of writing and photographing were, I guess, a natural high because it shielded me from taking drugs and other toxic pursuits.  Wise in retrospect, but without judgment; only the lingering regret of losing so many I was close to.

During the 1980s, when I started writing books, the photography continued. Usually late in the day, covering the real stars of New York City. The people in the streets and parks. Each of whom – man, woman, child, dog or cat, firmly believed they were the center of their own universe. Which they were and remain. The style, attitude, spontaneity, creativity and spirit of survival is amazing.  Never a dull moment in Manhattan or any large city or town when one keeps their eyes and ears open.

Street Artist on 5th Avenue by Shaun Considine
Street Artist on 5th Avenue by Shaun Considine

Through your involvement with the New York nightclub Arthur you were part of the birth of the disco in the 1960s – did it feel like a revolutionary cultural moment at the time?

Arthur – yes, as you said, it was the birthplace of international disco. The timing was right. It was 1965 and everything was ripe for explosion in New York City. The British Invasion of pop music and fashion was already underway when Sybil Burton – whose husband, Richard, had left her for a famous movie star – moved from London to Manhattan. With many of her show business friends in town, she decided to open a club where everyone – the British talents and their American counterparts – could meet. She invited key people from both groups to become members by buying shares in the club. I was asked to join after contributing free dance records.  No one, except Sybil perhaps, knew that Arthur would be such a success and would span four incredible years.

What was your role as ‘investor’? Did you have any say in how Arthur was run?

Our roles as investor-members were to simply relax and enjoy the freedom of the place. Sybil was the hostess and she ran the club, which was open to everyone. She was Welsh, with the attendant Celtic humor and hospitality. No airs, No pretensions. No one got preferential treatment and everything on the menu was reasonably priced. Frequently, if it seemed a young couple could not afford the cost, the check was waived.

Beyond the constant flow of super celebrity guests – from Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, to Princess Margaret and Dusty Springfield – Arthur at the same time helped to nurture and launch many of the decade’s major cultural changes. Not long after it opened, I brought in an acetate of a record that Columbia was reluctant to release. With no specific plan, except to share, I asked the club’s DJ to play the acetate, which instantly brought everyone to their feet. The song, “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, caused such a sensation that Columbia were forced to release it the following week. Wherein the legendary folk-rock revolution of the 1960’s was born.  For more on that, see “The Hit We Almost Missed” – New York Times Op Ed essay.

At the same time another club member – producer-director Hal Prince – was preparing a new musical for Broadway. With rehearsals about to begin, he had no leading lady. At Arthur he was introduced to a  candidate, a coy but sassy 20 year-old girl from Sussex, England. Jill Haworth could act (Exodus), but could not sing or dance professionally. Which was what Hal Prince needed for the role of Sally Bowles, in his radical new musical, Cabaret. When it opened the theme of rampant decadence in Weimar Germany greatly upset the conservative New York critics. Hence the ticket sales were paltry; until the more liberal knights and fair ladies of Arthur rushed forward to support the show. Cabaret became a rousing success. A second production opened in London, with another young non-singer (Judi Dench) as Sally Bowles. Its effect on the old-fashioned song-and-dance genre was seismic, and lasting.

Concurrently, another of Sybil’s close friends, Mike Nichols. was facing the imminent extinction of his first feature film. Laden with profanities, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was about to be severely cut and rated X by the official censors. At Arthur, his current girl friend and social ally, Jacqueline Kennedy, told him not to worry. As the widow of the recently slain President, and close to public sainthood, she devised a plan on how to get the Catholic church to overlook the film’s dirty language. Jacqueline succeeded. Released with minimal changes the film, along with abolishing the industry’s strict, long-term ratings code, was a huge critical and commercial success. Sir Mike followed this with an equally risqué film, about a young man having an affair with an older woman, The Graduate, which  eclipsed everything else released that year.  Except for Bonnie and Clyde, produced and starring another habitue of the club, Warren Beatty.

Do you have any good Arthur stories for us?

As you surmised, there are many. Beyond the rampant social and creative crusades, there were the tales of the many famous and infamous guests. As I’ve said, everyone who was anybody went to Arthur. Everyone except the reigning female box office star of the decade – Elizabeth Taylor, who was not welcome, for obvious reasons (spousal larceny the main one). Undaunted, akin to Morgan le Fay in the original Camelot legend, Liz choose to ignore the embargo. Focusing her seductive wiles on the other club members, she attempted to get into Arthur – and failed – repeatedly.

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The Oscar Letters is so exciting! What are your favourite letters/stories in the book?

My favorite Oscar Letters interview was with Princess Grace, as told in the current ebook. She was the first to reply to my letter and the first to grant an interview, which we did in NYC. HSH was cool and gorgeous, appearing as if she just stepped from one of her classic Alfred Hitchcock films. When she sensed I knew her work and wasn’t a mere gaga fan, the conversation became livelier and continued way beyond the allotted time providing aspects of her career and the Oscars not divulged before.

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My favorite letter came from Simone Signoret, who sat at her desk in France and typed out everything she remembered about Room At The Top, the independent British film which brought her the Academy Award and worldwide fame. Deborah Kerr was nominated six times, and Thelma Ritter five, for best supporting.  Neither won, yet both remained grateful, and candid about their future chances.  “If it’s in the cards, I’ll get one someday,” said Ritter. “I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t want one,” Miss Kerr confessed, feeling that someday sentiment might sway her chances. “They will finally say, ‘Oh, God! She’s been nominated so many times, we must give it to her.’”  She was right.  In 1991, the Academy gave Deborah Kerr an Honorary Oscar.

Who didn’t reply that you wish had?

Marlon Brando was hard to reach. I wrote two letters before his press agent replied. He was at Universal Studios in Hollywood, making a comedy with David Niven (the first Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Marlon’s assistant asked for the questions. But he didn’t respond until a few months later. He called when he was in New York but didn’t divulge much about On The Waterfront or his Oscar. He only wanted to talk about the Civil Rights March in Washington, which he was about to participate in.

By our calculations, next year is the 25th anniversary of the first publication of The Divine Feud – are there any special plans to mark this occasion?

I wasn’t aware that next year is the 25th anniversary of Bette and Joan. David Shelley of Little, Brown has been a strong supporter of the book, so something special may be done. Currently I am working on a script, an adaptation of three specific sections in the book, which run together cinematically. So who knows what the legend of the two warring legions will be treated to next year.

 What is your opinion of the books Mommie Dearest [by Joan Crawford’s daughter, Christina] and My Mother’s Keeper [by Bette Davis’s daughter B.D.]?

I didn’t think much of Mommie.Dearest because it was published after Miss Crawford had died. Also it was much too brutal to be believable. Ditto the lurid film, which I believed drove a dagger into the over-the-top allegations. My Mother’s Keeper by Bette Davis’ daughter was published when she was alive and could respond. Which she did, in a chapter of her subsequent bestseller in which she addressed her daughter as “Dear Hyman”, her son-in-law’s surname. To be interpreted a few ways in Bette’s salute.

If you had to buy the ideal gift for Bette, Joan and Barbra, what would you choose for them and why?

I am not good at buying gifts for anyone, myself included. The only shops I frequent are book stores, so a gift would have to be a book, CD, or DVD. The topic would be dependent on the public’s current whimsy, or mine.

Who would you rather have dinner with out of the three?

My choice: Bette and Joan – together, in an Irish or English type Pub with the booze flowing and critical questions prepared. So, by the end of the evening, they would either have made some kind of peace; or they would finally have killed each other.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?', by Shaun Considine
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’

 What has been the most shocking and/or enlightening revelation that you discovered about these women in the times that you encountered them?

Shocking? I was born in Brooklyn and one summer – pre-University – I lived in Birmingham, England, where I was a bus conductor. I loved “B’rum,” the swarms of factory workers and the late-night Teddy Boys trying to take over the bus.  Hence, nothing unusual or amiss startles me.   Re: Bette and Joan, in the beginning it was hard to fathom there would be any envy or jealousy between them. I naively assumed that as major Hollywood “movie stars,” they were way above such basic human emotions. At the end of their lives it surprised me to learn that Miss Crawford was the more vulnerable of the two, and that she really wanted to be friends with Bette Davis. But to accomplish that do she would have had to grovel. Being the quintessential movie star, Joan Crawford could never do that.

Do you think you’ll write any further super-diva biographies?

After my third full-length book, Mad As Hell – The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky (Hollywood’s best, and most honoured, screenwriter), I felt I had covered the gamut with biographical subjects.  There is a possible project on the 1970s. I kept a journal on that equally tumultuous decade, and photographed everyone I was lucky enough to meet or to stumble across. Some of the photos are on the 1970s page of my web site.

[And then Mr Considine delivered a morsel we hadn’t thought to enquire after…]

This question was not asked, but here’s the answer. Yes, I did meet Ethel Merman. In 1984, Ken O’Keefe – a good friend – hosted a Sunday brunch at Harper, his Upper East Side restaurant in New York. Ethel lived in the neighborhood and was invited. But she did not show up until three o’clock at which time we were at the bar, where, dressed in a chic mink jacket and red dress she took the seat next to me.   Her friend, Anna Sosenko, was with her. In an effort to be friendly I began to tell Ethel a story about how, as a teenager in London, I saw a film.   It was There’s No Business Like Show Business, and over the marquee there was a giant cut-out of Marilyn Monroe, with her name in lights. When I mentioned this to Ethel she instantly barked at me: “Whaddya mean? I was the star of that film.” Which is what I was going to follow up with. But Ethel, dismissing me, turned her back and said to Anna Sosenko: “this guy doesn’t know a fucking thing.”

A few days later Ethel had a brain seizure and eventually died. R.I.P. A true Broadway legend. Except thereafter at Harper, whenever her name was raised, my good friend Ken would always say: “It was Shaun Considine who killed Ethel Merman.”

Note: we were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Shaun Considine in April 2015. Since first interviewing him for The Ethel Mermaids, Shaun and I had become incredibly close. As is the way these days, this friendship was developed online. We would email each other, sporadically. He’d send me a bit of news on his latest ventures, or a story remembered that he knew I’d appreciate. Stories about Julie Newmar, Judy Garland and the like. I loved hearing them and I always loved hearing from Shaun. He had projects that tragically weren’t completed when he died. He had written a follow up to his book Barbra: The Woman, The Myth, The Music (for which I wrote a chapter). Most excitingly, he had written a script based on his most famous and well-loved book, The Divine Feud, taking key moments from his biography. He was shopping it around and his dream cast, he told me, would be Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore. He wanted a woman and/or gay director/producer. Because he would give me sketchy details about himself and his life, I wasn’t sure to what extent this script was seen by the right people at the time of Shaun’s death. It is bitter-sweet then to know that Ryan Murphy is basically making Shaun’s film as his television series ‘Feud’.

I’ve no doubt that Murphy will do an amazing job. It’s been acknowledged that Shaun’s book is the source material. And there’s no reason why Murphy and his team couldn’t have come to the idea themselves. They probably didn’t know that Shaun had wanted to do it. If they did I would hope that they would ask for access to his script and maybe use it if they could, in some way. I’ve no idea who handles Shaun’s estate now. Even though it breaks my heart that Shaun didn’t get to do his film and didn’t get to see his work turned into a project by one of the most exciting and important creatives of our time, I would hope that he would approve of the idea that someone else was doing it. And that he’d at last have got the more mainstream recognition he so deserved for his incredible work.

I miss Shaun so much I can’t even say. He’s one of those facebook friends who comes up on invite lists from time to time and it rips at my heart to see his presence there as if I could just drop him a line. And then I remember that he didn’t really do facebook because he mainly got inundated with messages from young men chatting him up, apparently. I would, instead, have dropped him an email and maybe he’d reply, sometimes he wouldn’t. He was so private and so piecemeal with what he shared, but I did know he’d been ill in those last couple of years. He’d disappear from communication for a few months and return to say he was suffering from a case of getting old, no details. Just more wonderful stories. And he said the loveliest things to me. I miss him, I love him. It was an absolute privilege to have known him.

– Corinna Tomrley 

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Craig Russell in ‘Outrageous!’


 

Earlier this month The Ethels went on a field trip to the pictures when the V&A showed the 70s Canadian film ‘Outrageous!’ as part of its Classic, Camp and Cult: Queer Film Weekend.   We haven’t stopped thinking about it since. None of us had heard of this movie before, but all had a real sense of ‘where has it been all our lives’ as soon as it got going. The film is about Robin, a hairdresser who wants to be a drag queen, played by Craig Russell who was a hairdresser who became a drag queen. It follows his rise to drag fame encouraged by his best friend, Liza, who happens to have just left an institution, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Their relationship is moving and lovely; Robin’s message that Liza should embrace her craziness because we’re all crazy freaks is simply gorgeous. The film – slightly slow to start, a bit clunky and definitely lo-fi – is just fabulous. Hollis McLaren as Liza is outstanding. Acting crazy is an actor’s dream and usually it’s heavy-handed and insulting. But Hollis manages to convey the complexities of Liza without resulting to cliché and giving her genuine warmth that is only enhanced by her interactions with Robin.

The film is based on an a short story by Margaret Gibson, a woman who struggled with mental illness and who shared a flat with Russell. So it’s all a bit true and the fact/fiction of their lives continued with a roman à clef and play about Margaret and Craig written by Stephen and Guia Postal. The play starred Mario Cantone (Anthony in ‘Sex and the City’), a man who also does an incredible Garland impression and an equally astounding Minnelli. It’s all a queer-mimic heavenly mishmash.

Craig Russell is an absolute delight and we quickly fell in love with his chubby cuteness and ability to not only do drag brilliantly, but carry off dungarees with chunky aplomb. Truly one of the best drag-impersonators ever, what he lacked in sung imitation, he more than made up for in face and gesture. That said, his spoken mimicry of the goddess Streisand was Babs straight out of her TV specials: Brooklyn kookiness in spades. Along with Babs he did the most uncanny Mae West ever. It’s as if he’s lifted her face and stuck it over his own and then channelled her soul for good measure (he may well have done: see below). Also present were Carol Channing, Peggy Lee, a BRILLIANT Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Judy Garland and – YES! – Ethel Merman.

Smitten, we wanted to contact Craig Russell to tell him of our love and devotion and were very sad to learn that he died in 1990. We did, however, discover that there is a sequel called ‘Too Outrageous!’, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be available in any form. The original ‘Outrageous’ is though – you can view it in its entirety on youtube, you lucky, lucky things. If his drag and chub-cuteness weren’t enough to win our hearts, it turns out he founded a Mae West fan club as a teen, was invited to be her personal secretary as a result (SQUEAL!) and was apparently fired when she caught him trying on her clothes and makeup. We hope that’s true.  He is said to have declared that Mae West ‘taught me all I know’. We know where we’re going to study our own drag skills and it starts with entering ‘Outrageous!’ into youtube.