Cher in the 2018 film, MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN! scheduled to be released July 20, 2018

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Seattle Theater We Loved: 2017 Edition

December 29, 2017 Comments Off on An Avuncularly Gay Convo About The Camp Classic, “Valley of the Dolls” With Jeffrey Robert Views: 275 *Seattle Theaterland, *The Strangeways Report, #Interviews, Gay 101, Infotainment, Legends, Queer Theater, Stage

An Avuncularly Gay Convo About The Camp Classic, “Valley of the Dolls” With Jeffrey Robert

Jeffrey "The Gay Uncle" Robert's new solo show takes us on a journey to the "Valley of the Dolls" the best selling novel/film by Jacqueline Susann.

Jeffrey “The Gay Uncle” Robert’s new solo show takes us on a journey to the “Valley of the Dolls” the best selling novel/film by Jacqueline Susann.

Us elderqueers just LOVE gabbin’ about old timey stuff that the younguns could care less about but that ain’t gonna stop us from discussing some of our FAVORITE fun pop culture/arty farty/faggy waggy obsessions like the deliciously over the top life of novelist Jacqueline Susann and her biggest hit, the mega selling VALLEY OF THE DOLLS which introduced to the world her obsessions with disguising real life show biz gossip as “fiction” and giving us such terrific characters as the Broadway Diva “Helen Lawson” (based on Ethel Merman) and super talented singer/mega star/pill popper “Neely O’Hara”(based on Judy Garland). The very popular book was of course adapted into a ridiculously campy film that became famous as a very entertaining “bad movie to love” which is still enjoyed by millions of fervid fans to this day…most of whom are gay men over the age of 45.
Naturally, one of Seattle’s beloved chroniclers of gay pop culture, comedian/artist/writer JEFFREY ROBERT got the bright idea to follow up his successful “Gay Uncle Explains It All” solo theater piece where he explored dozens of iconic artists and their work from the last 55 years, with something a bit more specific: a show focused on one of his favorite obsessions, Jackie Susann and her great work, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. The show debuts this final weekend of 2017 at the Rendezvous before heading off to the Tuscon Fringe Festival January 12 to 14, 2018 and hopefully all over the globe after that.
Being equally almost as elderly and j’adoring of VOTD, Mr. Robert and I sat down for a looooooong convo about all things Jackie Susann and Valley of the Dolls. Enjoy!

Michael: I was gonna ask you if your next upcoming solo performance show, “The Gay Uncle’s Journey Through The Valley of the Dolls” was going to cover both Jacqueline Susann’s original classic 1966 novel as well as the infamous film version made the following year starring Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate but then I read the synopsis FOR your show and figured it out….
“Join Jeffrey Robert, The Gay Uncle, as he takes you along on his twisty, turny journey through pills, sex, show business and the interconnectedness of us all. Jacqueline Susann’s CLASSIC of Trash Literature is the starting point but we will be speeding along through a land filled with Ankhs, Judy Garland, Barbiturates, Dory Previn, Backstage Drama, Charles Manson, Breast Cancer, Poodles, Wig Fights, Russ Meyer, Patty Duke and so much more…”
You’re covering it all!
Jeffrey Robert: In less than an hour I’ll be covering about 50 years in the life of Jacqueline Susann and countless years in the life that is still going on in her books and the movies based on them. VotD is the starting point – like the downtown area for our bus system. I’m going to attempt to cover as many routes as I can and wind up safely back downtown, or in this case, in the life of Jacqueline Susann.
Some of the bus routes are a bit scarier than others.
Michael: LOL…yeah. “Safely” back downtown. But, Jackie was a gal who enjoyed downtown….she wasn’t a rural or suburban kind of lady. She had her own look and style and it did not involve bib overalls and gingham.
Jeffrey: It certainly did not. She was made for city living. She loved clothes and most of them were as bright and loud as her personality. Not only did she like city living, she lived in a HOTEL. Actually, a combination hotel/apartment. But it had room service which she thought were the most important words a bride could learn. And she loved show business. She wanted to be close to where it was happening, which meant New York for her.
Michael: That was really the catalyst for the writing career…living in the heart of New York show business. She never made it as an actress but she picked up all the juicy gossip and turned it into books that people couldn’t put down.
Jeffrey: Exactly. Interestingly, writing was one of her first loves. She did try to be an actress without too much success, but what she really longed for was fame. And the fame gave her an immortality which allows her to live on – IF we keep her memory alive.
Michael: She has a cameo in the film VOTD and judging by her brief performance there, I kinda get why she wasn’t a successful actress….she seems a tad stiff. Which is odd because she gave GREAT interviews…she had a fun, big personality.
Jeffrey: “Stiff” was one of the words that was used to describe her acting. She also had a hard time sticking to the script. She would get bored. The theater wasn’t a match as far as making her a star, but as you noted it sure gave her a front row seat to some juicy, juicy gossip. Not just a front row seat, but sometimes a shared bed.
I first fell in love with her by watching her being interviewed. She seemed to always be on one of the talk shows – Mike Douglas was my favorite, but on Merv Griffin, The Tonight Show – all of them. And you could NOT not watch. She had an amazing presence. As a kid I remember thinking she must be ten feet tall, she seemed so larger than life.
She was actually 5’7″
Michael: Well, you brought up “kid” which brings up two things…one, is the great tragedy of her life, the birth of her son who was born severely autistic and lived in a special home. Jackie and her husband Irving were devoted parents who visited him weekly but kept his existence under wraps. So beneath the glamorous witty New York celebrity/ writer facade was this mother lavishing love on her child but keeping it hush hush. Thus, the irony of a woman famous for spilling all the secrets who had plenty of secrets of her own…
Jeffrey: Yes, officially he was “living in Arizona because of his asthma”. Autism was not well understood at that time and the parents, especially the mothers, were blamed. Susann was crushed by what happened. She also blamed herself because of her pill taking. Not that it stopped her from taking them. She did love her pills. They weren’t just a plot device for her books.
Oh, she had many secrets. Her lists of affairs is probably much longer than the ones that are known and the ones that are known are a fascinating mix of men and women. She had a thing for Jewish comedians. She loved them, in many ways.
Michael: She kept her own fatal illness secret for as long as she could before cancer killed her in 74.

Jeffrey: Yes, she did. She didn’t want anyone to know, and very few people did. The very gay movie critic, Rex Reed (a name that will leave many young people saying “Who?” but who was also everywhere back in the day) was one of the few who did know. He kept it a secret.

Breast cancer, however, does show up in Valley of the Dolls. Jennifer North, the character who would be played by Sharon Tate in the movie, is more famous for her looks than her talent, so when she gets breast cancer…well, no spoilers. Although I’ll have some in the show.
Michael: Ok, so that raises the other “kid” question….do younger people “get” Valley of the Dolls? Can we reach out to them to lure them into the cult? Do they even get our (and by our, I mean ‘elderqueers of a certain age’) adoration for VOTD?
Do the “Kids” get “Camp”?
And, I just asked you like 5 questions….
The late great Patty Duke as Neely O'Hara. Art by Jeffrey Robert

The late great Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara. Art by Jeffrey Robert

Jeffrey: I certainly hope so. I haven’t given up yet. We are living in a time when you click on a mouse twice and you can get RAAAAALLLY disturbing (even for me) porn, so not sure that the concept of a “naughty” book is going to have the same impact. But I’d like to hope. Those of us a bit older certainly didn’t cut ourselves off from the culture(s) that came before – they helped inform and frame who we were. It was part of our history. Part of our culture. And also so much fun.
I think VotD can still be fun. The movie is so over-the-top I can’t imagine not being at least amused by it.
Not that it was meant to be funny. But – there you have it – CAMP! Camp has become a dirty word in the LGBTQ community it seems. Very sad. I want to bring it back.
Michael: I think the best way to explain Camp is that it’s “so bad it’s good” and it’s the failure of an artistic attempt to be serious about its subject, but it fails and the result is so ludicrous, that it’s funny.
Jeffrey: One thing I try to do with my shows is give some context, both historical and personal, so that it allows younger folks to “get” why things had an importance they might not otherwise understand.
Michael: I think it still does exist….I mean, the awful film “The Room” is the new camp. But the problem is, some modern film/tv makers create, or try to, DELIBERATE camp, which isn’t really camp…you can’t FORCE camp.
Jeffrey: Yes, deliberate camp. Ugh.
Michael: I’m mainly referring to out gay television producer, Ryan Murphy, who created/produced Glee and American Horror Story and last year’s Feud about the feud/rivalry between Golden Age actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The “Bette vs Joan” Feud show had some great stuff in it but it was TRYING TOO HARD to be ‘gay’ friendly, I think. And, it was too long….camp is NOT 8 or 10 episodes. It’s over and done under 120 minutes!!!

Jeffrey: Yes. Camp can’t be stretched out like that. Two hours is tricky enough. No more. After that it is not fun-bad, it is just bad-bad.

Michael: I don’t think the book of Valley of the Dolls is camp….it’s just a fun potboiler. The film is what takes VOTD over the top. The bigger than life performances….the costumes….the songs…..the ridiculous lines, many of which are FROM the book but when over acted on screen , they became a whole new thing.
Screeching “I’M NEELEY O’HARA” at the top of your lungs is a High Camp moment..
Jeffrey: I would agree. I like to think of the book as trashy fun, which isn’t really the same thing as camp. I have to agree with a blogger I read recently who stated that in rereading the book, which I’ve done several times, it seems to improve. I had thought of it as a poorly written, sloppy novel. It is much better than that. But it is a “fun” read – it moves quickly, is heavy with dialogue, has a paper thin plot and you get to guess who the characters were based on. It also just looks fun if you find the copies with the pink cover.
The movie is fun because it wasn’t supposed to be bad, but it is. Not horrible – just not good. Patty Duke had already won an Oscar, but she seems ready to melt that down for scrap metal. It is the kind of fine acting that rarely leaves the High School auditorium to make it to the big screen.
Michael: The book makes more sense….for one thing, it has an actual believable timeline from 1945 to 1965. The film bizarrely squashes 20 years of the book’s plot down to about….what? 3 years or so? It’s apparently 1964 when the film starts and 1966 when it ends which doesn’t make any sense for the development of the characters.
Jeffrey: But – we LOVE Patty Duke! Those of us who are older already loved her. We are on her side, even when her side is flawed.
That was the 60’s. Every movie had to look like the 60s, even if it was supposed to be the freakin’ Renaissance. You had to have the right mascara, eye shadow and wigs. But yeah, they didn’t even attempt to go back to the 40s.
Michael: Poor Patty Duke…this film kinda killed her movie career and it raises the question, “WHAT THE FUCK was director Mark Robson doing, letting her give that performance?” It’s fun in a truly horrible sense because she SCREAMS and BELLOWS every line!
Jeffrey: Robson was not well liked by the cast.
Michael: She’s like a demented lesbian truck driver. It’s a weirdly “butch” performance….which makes no sense because Neely is based on the career of Judy Garland who wasn’t a “butch” performer. And, Patty Duke wasn’t a lesbian so it’s just…a strange performance. Compelling and fascinating but oh, so very wrong.
Jeffrey: Poor Patty – she later embraced the film and loved the gay fans. But she had a difficult time in life. She was dealing with undiagnosed mental health issues, which everyone assumed was actually a drug problem. There is a painful video of her at the Academy Awards – I can’t remember the year – but it is painful to watch. She clearly thinks she is giving a very important speech. It isn’t.
Patty was really trying to destroy her good girl America’s sweetheart teenager image. She did.
Michael:And, of course, Judy really is a figure in the VOTD story because not only was Neely BASED on her, Judy was originally cast as Helen Lawson, the bossy Broadway star who propels the story, at least in the book, and of course Garland got canned after a week on set. The rumors vary, ranging from Garland falling apart to putting the blame on Robson who allegedly didn’t want her.

Jeffrey:  In my show, I have a little bit about the whole Judy connection. It goes in a few different directions from where it starts. I find it all so fun to connect the dots. And you can really connect the dots with this story.

Thanks to You Tube, you can see and hear a bit of what Judy would have been like in the movie. It would have been a very different movie. At one point it was rumored that Liza and Judy would both be in it. Now THAT would have been something.
Michael: Though to be honest, that casting doesn’t really make much sense. Helen Lawson is a BITCH of the first order and Judy, though she could be a problem behind the scenes, didn’t PROJECT mean or bitchy on camera. She projected LOVE and fragile strength! I can’t see her barking out lines, like the great Susan Hayward, who replaced her, does with such gems as “Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope!” while swigging a martini!
Jeffrey: Hayward was added at the last minute and she nails it. It is a great performance and she gets the best lines. And she does it all in the most RIDICULOUS settings and circumstances. Singing a song while a huge mobile comes dangling towards her head – that’s a hell of a thing to do to a great actress. And she manages to do it with a bit of grace and charm. And tons of laughs now.
Michael: That line never made sense anyway:
“Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope!”
That’s ALL Broadway is run on!!!

Jeffrey: Right? 7 to 9 shows a week? Things go better with coke.


Michael: Hayward has the best line readings…putting the accent on the ‘wrong’ end of a word like “Broad WAY”….and, she just barks and snarls.
Maybe Patty Duke was trying to do the same with her Neely performance? Told to bark her lines like Hayward as Helen Lawson? But, it just sounds ludicrous coming out of little Patty’s mouth!!!

Jeffrey: Who knows what she was trying to do. It doesn’t work, which is why it DOES work now as Camp. Glorious, over-the-top, beautiful camp. We used to laugh at life. The more horrible the situations, the more we would find a way to laugh at them. It was a great survival skill. The mythological “Bitchy Queen” didn’t just spring from nowhere. S/he served a purpose. Camp served a purpose. Humor served a purpose. Larger than life served a purpose.

Now I’ve made myself sad again.
Michael: Awww. don’t do that!

Jeffrey:  Now we have the dismissive scowl. The condescending beat down. We take life so seriously. We should and we should’t. We are born and then we die, the stuff in the middle is what we make of it. We are not all given the same materials and chances to make the same thing, but we can all make something of it.

And I hope when we do we have some fun.

Michael: I think Neely and Helen Lawson were the “break out” characters of VOTD because they WERE larger than life and they were SURVIVORS. And, gay audiences ate that up because we LOVE tough ass survivors who do what it takes to live your life.
Jeffrey: And Jackie was a tough ass survivor.
Michael: Which raises the eternal question: if you could play either Neely or Helen onstage, WHICH do you pick? They’re both great characters with great lines!
Jeffrey: She got knocked down and she got up again.
I think Helen would be more fun to play. Her power is a bit more subtle – you have to convey it with your eyes more than your mannerisms.
Of course, Neely has the larger character arc.
The core of the story has been told time and time again – the innocent young girl/women who finds herself in a magical place with larger than life characters unlike anything she saw back in the farm/village/cottage/home. Then she gets swept up in the world and finds that…to quote another of the stories, there’s no place like home. But when you add drugs and sex, you get a twist on that tale.
The backstabbing theater gang – that too has been told countless times.
Michael: I think VOTD was such a hit (both as book and film) is because of that universality.
And, Susann was so wise to have those three girls as the main characters: Anne, the classic New England beauty from the “nice” family and Jennifer, the bombshell with the heart of gold, who is more middle class, and then Neely who isn’t ‘pretty’ but has huge talent and comes from the gutter….there’s a character type for EVERYONE to identify with.
“Good Girl” “Bombshell” “Trash”
Jeffrey: Susann knew her strengths – characters, dialogue. The rest she was willing to get help and feedback on. Imagine that. Asking for help and feedback rather than thinking you know it all.
Michael: OK, to wrap up, if you could travel back in time to the film set, what iconic piece of VOTD would you snag to take home with you?
Jeffrey: THE WIG! THE WET WIG! (from the infamous confrontation scene between Neely and Helen where the pair physically fight and Neely snatches the wig off Helen’s head and attempts to flush it down the toilet in a public restroom.)
Michael: For me, it would have to be one of the Gillian Girl spray bottles used in the fabulous montage with Barbara Perkins as ‘The Gillian Girl”, a commercial spokesmodel for a line of hair products/make-up.
Jeffrey: Oh, that is a fabulous montage
Michael: It always grosses me out when Patty/Neely fishes the wet wig out of the toilet, flings it at Susan/Helen, then swans out of that RIDICULOUSLY HUGE AND ORNATE WOMEN’S POWDER ROOM without washing her hands!!!!!!!!!!!!
Neely is just trash.

Jeffrey: Those little hand sanitizer lotion things weren’t as popular as they are now. Any Drag Queen with two days of experience knows to carry one in her purse these days. You live, you learn.


Michael: 2018 is Jackie Susann’s centenary, so you’ve timed it well! Hopefully, your new show will be booked coast to coast!
Jeffrey: I think they should replace all of those Confederate statues with statues of Jackie and her characters. The REAL America.
Michael: LOL….i want to see Neely O’Hara statues, nationwide….the famous screeching to god pose in a New Haven alley.
Jeffrey: And I’m willing to take the show wherever I am called to perform it. I consider myself a teacher of the trashier arts.
Michael: “Jeffrey Robert: The Pope of Trashy Solo Shows!”

Check out Jeffrey’s new solo piece, The Gay Uncle’s Journey Through The Valley of the Dolls this Friday and Saturday night at 7 pm at the Rendezvous, 2322 2nd Avenue in Belltown/Downtown Seattle.

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