by Vincent Pomilio, guest writer
Thanksgiving with the Three Strippers from “Gypsy”
I met my future husband Bob in 1996. At the time, Bob worked on Wall Street at the Bank of New York. He lived in Jersey City and I spent most of my days working in my painting studio on West Houston Street in Manhattan. I usually arrived back at the apartment, after work, before Bob. I liked to get a jump start on dinner and avoid the rush hour crowds.
One night Bob arrived home flush with excitement. “You’re not going to believe this. The Hudson Civic Players are doing “Gypsy.” They’re holding auditions this weekend. I’m going to try out for a part.”
This little theatre group managed to put on great shows time after time. They did it all on a low budget and drew on the wealth of talent that existed in the NY metropolitan area. An out of work actor/waiter could have a shot playing “Sweeney Todd”, or the baker from “Into the Woods.”
“Gypsy” is the musical to end all musicals: music by Julie Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. It doesn’t get any better: the story of the world’s most famous burlesque stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, her sister Dainty June, and their overbearing, larger-than-life stage mother to beat all stage mothers, Rose.
Okay, some context here. Bob and I fit most of those stereotypes about gay men when it comes to loving musicals, opera, cooking, design, old movies, etc. We’ve seen “All About Eve” dozens of times. But, who would Bob play if he got a part? Certainly not one of the chorus boys; Bob’s not the Tulsa type (more about him later). He would make a good Herbie, but can he sing? Bob is a hunky, six foot two Irishman from Scranton, Pa. (we met at Ty’s Bar on St. Patrick’s Day.) He and Joe Biden might be the best things ever to come out of Scranton. Bob always said he would like Ed Harris to play him in “The Bob Bohan Story.” We will see how that works out.
Back to the story:
Auditions were held the first weekend after Labor Day, 1998. Opening night is scheduled for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and will run for a week. Bob returned from the auditions a little disappointed.
“How did it go?” I asked.
“Well. I didn’t get a part but they asked me to be the stage manager.” He accepted the job.
The cast was announced. A local grade-school teacher named Colleen got the part of Momma Rose. She could belt out a song like Kate Smith. The guy cast as Herbie came up to her shoulders, but he was bald and sexy and had a beautiful voice and was perfect for the part.
Bob would return from rehearsals night after night with stories of disaster. Colleen is impossible; the chorus boys can’t dance. However, Herbie was professional and the strippers were terrific.
The strippers: Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessie Tura. In their show-stopping number, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”, the strippers give advice to the young Gypsy on what it takes to be successful.
As opening night got closer, Bob would come home with a more hopeful tone. “It’s really coming together.” He was getting excited about the show and asked if we should invite our mothers to come see it and then join us for Thanksgiving.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s do it.” That meant that I would get stuck with cooking, picking up the moms, and all the rest of it. I’m in.
Opening Night. I pick up our mothers, Rita arriving from Philly and Ann from Scranton. Port Authority the night before Thanksgiving. Not fun.
Off to the theatre. There was only a three piece band, but boy could they play! Everybody in the show invited their friends and family, so the auditorium is packed. The house lights dim, the overture ends, and then Momma Rose takes the stage. I have to say Colleen was a hit.
The show went on without a hitch and a big standing “O”. The Hudson Civic Players were jubilant as they took their curtain call. Bob was beaming and the moms and I were very proud. We took Ann and Rita to a fashionable dive on Hamilton Park for some food and drinks and then off to Bob’s place to get ready for Thanksgiving. It was not a huge apartment but great for dinner parties with an eat-in kitchen under a big skylight. The moms were comfy and we played a little poker before bed.
Thanksgiving Day. We had to be out of our minds. We invited so many people. Good thing our moms were there to help.
The Guest List.
I’m digging deep into the memory bank here. We had invited a stellar group of misfits. Wonderful, talented misfits. Joyce Mandel was there. Joyce was a downtown cabaret performer. At the time of this story, she was appearing in the East Village in a show called “The Miss Cheese of the Week Review”. She performed with Holly Woodlawn. Joyce played Miss Velveeta: “I’m incredible. I’m even spreadable.” You get the picture. Joyce has joined us every Thanksgiving since.
Pawel Thulin came. Pawel is originally from Poland and was a computer genius in the early days of the Internet. He was also a legendary ladies man whose sexual prowess was well known. His girlfriend Michele was there. Poor thing was in a constant state of longing and desire.
We also invited the young actor who played Tulsa in the show. Tulsa is one of the chorus boys in the act who winds up stealing Dainty June away from Momma Rose to run off and start a dance act on the order of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The part is usually played by a Gene Kelly-type guy, but in this production, Tulsa was more Cyd Charisse than Gene Kelly.
The big surprise guests were the three actresses who played the strippers in “Gypsy.” Rita thought they were the best part of the show. She was thrilled when she found out they were coming for Thanksgiving.
A little background here on Rita. She often entertained at parties. She would even make costumes for her act. She would tell jokes that would get raunchier as the night progressed. “Did I tell you the one about the mouse fucking the elephant?” she would tease. “As the mouse was fucking the elephant, the elephant let out a thunderous roar from its trunk. The mouse said, “What’s the matter babe? Am I hurtin’ ya?”” Her delivery was brilliant.
Guests have arrived and it’s time to eat. I was compelled to do the whole Italian Thanksgiving meal. First, an antipasto, then the Holiday Soup (Rita’s mother’s recipe), then homemade manicotti. And after all that, an entire traditional turkey dinner. Joyce read her Thanksgiving poem, and sang an Edith Piaf song. One of the strippers sang a song, too. Lots of boisterous conversation and joke telling.
The two mothers started talking about religion. These were two good, church- going Catholic women although Rita probably spent time in Purgatory for all those filthy jokes. Ann asks Rita, “What do you think about priests getting married?” Without delay Rita replies, “I don’t want some priest serving me Holy Communion after he’s had his hand up his wife’s twat the night before.” Well, that settles the six hundred year old controversy over celibacy. There was a hush, followed by deafening laughter. Rita strikes gold again. Mazeppa asked, “Who is this woman? Where did she come from?”
“South Philly”, I answered. “If you ever spent time there, you’d understand.”
The evening slowly wound down. Bob announced he was going to bed. The moms had a hot poker game going so many of the guests stayed and played well into the night. The moms cleaned everyone out. There wasn’t a penny left in the house. While leaving, the strippers promised Rita that they wouldn’t steal any of her material. Joyce got a ride back to the city with Pawel and Michele. Tulsa did a little tap dance while leaving and I played a couple more rounds of poker with our moms.
Best Thanksgiving Day. Ever.