To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Charles Pierce – Entertainer, Drag Queen extraordinaire
by A. Loudermilk
Though an increasingly obscure hero in LGBT history, Charles Pierce (1926-1999) is still considered by many to be the most famous Bette Davis impersonator in the world. He impersonated other stars too, like Mae West, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, bigger than life females who were, as Pierce often noted, “almost female impersonators themselves.” Pierce is what you’d expect from comedy-driven drag cabaret but with this difference: he’s a pioneer of it, inspired by the slightly earlier pioneer Arthur Blake. A Pasadena Playhouse graduate, Pierce’s first paid gig was in 1954 at Club La Vie in Altadena, California, impersonating not Tallulah Bankhead but Tallulah’s grandmother “Pocahontas Bankhead”!
Pierce’s career is one long tour of dive bars and distinguished nightclubs, including Ciro’s on Sunset Strip, Freddy’s in Brooklyn, and London’s Fortune Theatre. Celebrities like Gore Vidal, Angela Lansbury, Lucille Ball, Della Reese, Patsy Kelly, Tennessee Williams, Rudi Nureyev, Shari Lewis, Paul Lynde, and Carol Channing came to see him perform. His very best friend was Bea Arthur. By 1978, he was renowned enough to open for Ann-Margaret at Caesar’s Palace.
Some of those who don’t know Pierce’s name may recognize him from TV cameos on Laverne & Shirley and Designing Women or as Bertha Venation in the 1988 adaptation of Torch Song Trilogy. But it is Pierce’s 1982 concert Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen—a late night repeat on cable TV and subsequent video release, now viewable online—that is helping most to keep his Bette Davis alive and bitching for nostalgia freaks and new fans too.
Female impersonation did not always mean full drag as we think of it now. For Pierce’s earliest acts, he had to wear a tuxedo on stage and work with a prop box containing accoutrements like gloves and a feather boa. In the later 1950s, Pierce took his act to The Echo Club in Miami Beach where he had to skirt, so to speak, yet another local ordinance against men dressing as women. So this time he wore dresses over men’s clothes, specifically a black turtleneck and black pants.
As such laws disappeared during the following years, Pierce traveled the cabaret circuit, evolving his act into full shows with iconic wigs and quick costume changes. At times he’d play two characters at once, appearing as Bette Davis but also voicing Joan Crawford for a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? skit. Or he’d do an impression of Katherine Hepburn doing an impression of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Franklin! If you can have a mistress, so can I!” Adding: “Lorena Hickok wanted to see inside of a national monument. So I let her!”
Though Pierce’s comedy may not have been political, per se, gay rights activist Gale Whittington, on his blog, vividly remembers how “1969 San Francisco culture held a passion for the ‘male actress’ extraordinaire,” catching the attention of the gay and straight press alike. On stage one night at The Gilded Cage, in Bette Davis drag, Pierce spotted Whittington out in the audience and declared: “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!”
My own introduction to Charles Pierce was rather miraculous. It was 1987 and I was 17-years-old, attending a picnic at Fort Massac in southernmost Illinois—right on the Ohio River—with my mother’s side of the family. I’d brought along one of my best friends who was also perceptibly gay but with his hair dyed and spiked and wearing rosaries irreligiously. Though both sides of my family were small town and country folks, my mom’s relatives tended to be more open-minded than my dad’s. At one point an older cousin of mine, whom I thought of as an aunt, took me aside to talk to me. She pulled a video from her purse, something she’d recorded off cable TV. “I think you’ll like it. And your friend,” she said to me with a wink. “Just don’t watch it when your daddy’s home.”
That video was Charles Pierce’s Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen.
I watched it so much I still know it by heart.
After decades in the business, Charles Pierce died at 72 in his Toluca Lake home. He had no surviving family members but friend Bea Arthur sat at his deathbed, holding his hand. He’s buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park around the corner from the tomb of Bette Davis.