Showbusiness

All About Craig

TOM HOPKINS April 17 1978
Showbusiness

All About Craig

TOM HOPKINS April 17 1978

All About Craig

Showbusiness

Craig Russell is crying in the Montreal afternoon. He holds a crumpled newspaper review of the previous night’s performance in his right hand, offering his left in greeting and lightly brushes his lips across my cheek. “Please,” he says, gesturing toward a chair piled high with Judy Garland records in his suite at the Chateau Champlain hotel. “Would you like some coffee?” Small tears squeeze from the corners of his eyes as he rummages through vials of perfumes, publicity photos and a wilting bouquet of red roses thrown on stage by an admirer the night before, to find a mug of lukewarm coffee. Russell is upset by the review, largely sympathetic, which complained about what the reviewer considered to be Russell’s tendency to sentimentality—partly in his impersonations of some 20 woman stars, but particularly in an ad-libbed curtain call appeal to national unity (“Let’s keep it together, eh?”). “Doyou think that’s a bad thing? ... to love your country?” Then, wiping his eyes on the bedspread he retreats into the bathroom. “I mean, dahling, it can’t be true that the French hate the Queen,” he drawls in the whiskey voice of Tallulah Bankhead. “Look how they treated me."

fice, and even middle-aged pairings who perhaps had been daring enough to have seen Russell’s affecting, controlled performance as a homosexual hairdresser in the hit Canadian movie Outrageous.

They had sold out the hall in order to see this chunky 30-year-old female impersonator caricature his grandes dames in an often clumsy, chaotic revue, part of whose pungent excitement comes from the audience’s voyeuristic fascination in watching a performer dance on the limits of an unstable psyche, part from admiration at his marvelous caricatures—a hilarious Peggy Lee, spastic in pink chiffon; a trashy, shambling Bette Midler, oozing obscene rolls of buttock from a scarlet corset. His success in recent months (he recently sold out the staid Imperial Room in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel for 18 consecutive shows) is even more unusual since, unlike established impersonators such as Danny LaRue and Jim Bailey, Russell pulls no punches. His show is built on the sort of bitchy, blue, homosexual humor spawned in all-male gay clubs across North America but seldom experienced by straight audiences.

If the fame is less than a year old, the gestation was much longer. Born Craig Hurst, he grew up in small towns throughout Ontario before his parents settled in the bungalowed Toronto suburb of Scarborough. When they divorced he lived with his father from ages 14 to 16. It was not a happy time. His upright parent had no patience for a boy who ran the wrong way in football tryouts or kept girlie maga-

And it was true. The previous night the lobby of the 3,000-seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Place des Arts had teemed with pose-striking circles of earringed young men, sleek in short haircuts, chic in the latest leather, silk scarves draped over thin shoulders. But more significantly there were the young couples, she back from ceramic lessons at the “Y,” he from the of-

zines in his desk drawer (he once made a bonfire of Craig’s Playboys, saying, “Let this fire burn the filth from your life”).

His high school was called Cedarbrae— even the name conjures images of pep and crimson-cheeked cross-country teams, none of which had much to do with a sadsack boy who wore Pan-Cake makeup on his face to cover his acne. He retreated to his basement room, watching the flickering black-and-white images of Hollywood on late-night movies, absorbing the strength

of the stars, especially the women. A letter to Mae West telling her he had founded a fan club led the flattered star to invite him to visit her in California and at 16 Craig went, staying up three days and nights on the bus. The pilgrimage was repeated in 1967 after Russell quit school in Grade 11. That time he stayed seven months as La West’s secretary.

The rest of the story has familiar echoes for those who have seen Outrageous, since it is based on a short story by his friend Margaret Gibson, who in turn based it on their life together. Back in Toronto by the end of 1968, Russell went to hairdressing school and started living with Gibson, who had known him at Cedarbrae. They lived and slept together for two years, during which Russell started work on his monologues and drag routines. With Margaret’s encouragement (“I was the first person who didn’t tell him drag was weird”), he decided in 1970 to exercise his talent, diving into gay bars and back-street bistros. His subtle performance in Outrageous drew critical attention and a successful run at a club called Theatre East in New York and, in March, the unprecedented nineday run at the Imperial Room. It has also brought fatigue, worry and confusion.

The last of the large crowd is shuffling toward Imperial Room maître d’ Louis Jannetta, waiting patiently to be seated for Craig Russell’s eighteenth and last show. Two middle-aged couples in the line are talking loudly. “All those movie stars that made those clean-cut movies 20 years ago,” says a tall lady in a lime-green pant suit, “now they're all using that word and running around in the nude.” Her husband steers her toward their table and offers, “Harriet doesn’t like the f-word.” On the small dance floor, knots of crimplene and polyester glide and sway as the Howard Cable Orchestra mewls out Feelings.

The show begins with an overture from Paul Hoffert’s Outrageous score and Russell’s toothy, scratchy-voiced Carol

Channing. And with her come the jokes: references to sodomy and the non-journalistic Deep Throat, interspersed with rages at the band’s drummer all punctuated with Harriet’s f-word and obscene dalliances with the microphone. A wonderful burlesque of Mae West’s portly lasciviousness, pink tongue flicking and hands stroking her torso and an Anita Bryant fairly quivering with the righteousness of Leviticus (“Oh, Jesus, I feel you in me”), salvage unsuccessful moments spoiled by a misused and overworked voice. He curses Jannetta for not filling a stage-side table, reaches down and throws the offending chairs, bouncing and cracking to the side of the stage. “I don’t want empty seats,” he hisses, “it makes me feel like a failure.” The show begins to feel like the last days of Judy Garland, haywire, erratic, the substance ruined by petulance, private in-jokes directed at managers and friends, love/hate barbs at the audience.

Indeed, the state of confusion spreads to the audience: can some of it, in fact, be staged? Russell’s Billie Holiday falls into the band, his Garland slurs and forgets her words, it’s as Streisand that he throws the chairs: all three, in real life, capable of just such excesses and more. Mirrors upon mirrors, reflecting back on one another— legends, fears, realities, fantasies cannonading back and forth, disorienting enough that, after the show, Russell will be placed in a wheelchair waiting in the wings and rolled directly to his room.

“He wants to have things so perfect,” frets his anxiously doting mother Norma, secretary-treasurer of a Toronto insurance agency and Craig’s business manager, “but he does so many things to make it wrong. He thinks people come to see him just because he’s outrageous.” Adds Margaret Gibson: “Craig needs time away from drag. His estimate of himself right now is very low.” Nor was it helped when he was

forced to give up his stints as presenter and performer, respectively, on both the ACTRA and Juno award nights last month. Both would have given him invaluable national TV exposure, but in the first instance he was replaced, according to an ACTRA spokesman, “because he had been in his dressing room all afternoon and got completely indisposed”; in the second, he bowed out for reasons of “exhaustion.” In short, those tantalizing ambivalences that make his act such a potential winner are what seem to be making his personal life such a lonely no-man’s-land.

“I was a homosexual once,” he says, fingering a glass of Benedictine liqueur in his Montreal suite. His hair is tousled, eyes swollen and eyebrows plucked, making his face even softer, fleshier and more feminine than it seems on stage. “But I’ve had more fun with women than with men.” (He says he has fathered two illegitimate children, and supports them.) As he talks, his ladies flicker across his face. “The Royal York was like a climax for me. When I started everyone pointed and said that’s a fairy. Now I’m making them pay.”

Revenge was a reason for the searing raunchiness of some of the shows? His head dips in a conspiratorial nod. But what about the fans, what about Harriet, will they come back to see you? “They’ll be back,” a touch of Garland here, “they’ll be back because they wonder: Ts he a homosexual? Is he self-destructive? Is he on drugs? Is he really talented? How come I enjoyed this show, even though when I think back I was offended?’ ” In the meantime, as most of his grandes dames knew, there is the loneliness. “I get notes from old high-school acquaintances but no one offers to come backstage. They think they’re going to find some monster or schizo back here. But I’m not a schizo, I only get wild on stage.” He has no lover now. “The audience is my lover,” he says, in the selfmocking hoarse rattle of a Bette Davis.

His hairdresser and secretary quietly pokes his head into the room to remind Russell that he must get ready for the trip to Boston for a concert; an engagement at Los Angeles’ Studio One follows late this month, with Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre booked for May 5. “Soon,\’ Russell replies, then leans towards the visitor. “I just want to make people happy and to wake them up. To show them that if a child is different, hold him, don’t push him away, don’t send them to a shrink ...” He stops, rearranges some records and grabs the mutilated review. “They just don’t understand. Look at this,” he says, stabbing the headline Russell Pleads For Help—“that’s crazy ... it’s only an act.” But his eyes again fill with tears and he reaches up and turns off the lamp, sucking the color from the dim room, making it inseparable from the dripping grey of the rainy Montreal afternoon. “Sex is only a matter of lighting,” he had said from the stage the night before. In the mirrored ambiguity of Russell’s universe, happiness may be too. TOM HOPKINS