Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Abominable Showman, March 25, 2012

The Dame (photo courtesy Barry Humphries)
Good-bye, Possums
Bugs revisits Oz, the land that gave audiences worldwide Tony Award-winning drag icon Dame Edna, now retiring 57 years after her stage debut Down Under 
By Richard Burnett
Aussie rockers Airbourne opened for the nastiest, skankiest rock’n’roll sideshow of 2010, Mötley Crüe’s Dead of Winter Tour. Imagine, if you will, the hallways and dressing rooms backstage, throbbing with big-breasted blondes with orange tans and bad tattoos. 
When this out-of-control rock’n’roll circus pit-stopped in Montreal, I blabbed with Joel O’Keeffe, lead vocalist and lead guitarist for Airbourne, still the most fun, most hard-rocking boogie band on Earth. Except the afternoon I spoke with Joel O’Keeffe I was working a serious hangover. 
“Forgive me,” I began saying when Joel butted in: “I hear ya, mate!”
Joel became my new best friend. 
Airbourne – Photo courtesy Roadrunner Records
But why Airbourne, and why here in this column?
Because I love all things Australian – the beaches, the crocodiles, and especially Black Swan lager, Aussie rock bands and Sydney’s amazing drag queens. But like every HI-energy rock singer or drag queen who works a stage like a Broadway chorus girl, Joel O’Keeffe readily admits, “You never eat before a show because you’ll throw up on stage!”
I met a few rock bands and plenty of drag queens when I worked my way across Australia many years ago. But I had to earn my keep. So I worked some pretty awful jobs, like in the engine room of an oil tanker anchored at Shute Harbour (fuck did I hate that job!) or hustling in Sydney’s old Darlinghurst red-light district. 
The Wall – Photo courtesy Sydney Eye 
In Darlinghurst I worked “The Wall” – 100 metres of convict-built sandstone wall that runs along the eastern boundary of the old 19th century Darlinghurst Gaol prison that was the most infamous gay pickup strip in Sydney – until one day I quit because I just couldn’t give this 80-year-old man a blowjob for a measly $20 (we were in a trashy Oxford Street gay bar called – wait for it – Bottom’s Up).
I tell ya, I should’ve won an Oscar or a Tony for some of my performances.
Photo by Melburnian via Wikipedia
It was also in Australia that I first discovered the amazing Dame Edna Everage – a.k.a. comic actor Barry Humphries – who is nothing less than a national treasure Down Under (check out Dame Edna on a Christmas 2005 promotional billboard for Myer’s department store in her hometown of Melbourne). In Canberra this June 22, Dame Edna launches her farewell show Eat Pray Laugh! Following her two-month Australian tour, Dame Edna will bring Eat Pray Laugh! to Britain and New York over the next two years.
“She’s a little weary of touring and strange hotels,” 78-year-old Humphries told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in Canberra, explaining Dame Edna’s decision to retire. 
Humphries invented Edna while on tour with Australia’s Union Theatre Repertory Company in 1955, entertaining company actors on the road between gigs. “Mrs. Everage” (Humphries was then just 21-years-old) made her first public appearance in a UTRC revue at Melbourne University on the eve of the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympic Games and was a big hit. Humphries then debuted the character – now known as Edna Everage – overseas at comedian Peter Cook’s The Establishment nightclub in London’s West End in the early 1960s. A decade later, in the 1974 film Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, she was made a dame in a cameo appearance by then-Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. 
“Barry’s a very funny man but when he’s dressed as Dame Edna, you must always address him as Edna,” says Montreal-based theatre legend Louis Negin who knows Humphries from their West End days. “He stays in character because it’s very difficult to keep switching back and forth.”
Dame Edna was a staple of television and stage in Britain and Australia before Humphries won a Tony Award in 2000 for his Broadway show Dame Edna, The Royal Tour. Its sequel, Dame Edna, Back with a Vengeance, was also nominated for a Tony, and both those shows toured to Toronto. Humphries has also played Dame Edna in Vancouver and at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival in 2005.

Dame Edna – especially in Montreal, where she tackled local language issues with abandon – was never at a loss for words. To wit, some of her bons mots over the years:
“My mother used to say that there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet. She’s now in a maximum security twilight home in Australia.”
Humphries (courtesy Barry Humphries)
“This double chin was grafted onto me, in Brazil. It belonged to Elizabeth Taylor. It was her left love handle.”
“Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t need necessarily to be on camera does he? I think the old phantom could have lent him a mask or two... No I’m teasing, and he’d know if he’s watching, which I hope he isn’t.”
“I was born in Melbourne with a precious gift. Dame Nature stooped over my cot and gave me this gift. It was the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others.”
“I’m not racist. I love all races, particularly white people. You know, I even like Roman Catholics.”
To an overweight woman: “I love that fabric, you were lucky to find so much of it.”
“I’m trying to think of a word to describe your outfit ...affordable.”
“Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.”
And of course, her classic one-liner, “You mustn’t judge Australia by the Australians.”
Which reminds me of the year I spent Down Under a lifetime ago when I was roughly the age of Airbourne frontman Joel O’Keeffe. I learnt three lessons pretty goddamn quick: 
If a beach is deserted, there’s a reason for it (sharks). 
You can’t outrun a crocodile. 
And Aussies love beetroot on their hamburgers! 
Bugs Down Under
“I love burgers too!” Joel agreed. “There’s always McDonald’s, but if you go to the local fish-and-chips shop or burger shop, they’ll chuck every fucking thing on there! I love beetroot!”
That’s not all. 
While this spectacular country has given the world some truly fabulous artists – AC/DC, INXS, The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave, Midnight Oil (frontman Peter Garrett is now Australia’s Education Minister) and, of course, the legendary Dame Edna –  Australia is also famously home to many of the world’s most notorious, most glamorous and best-loved drag queens (scooch over Priscilla Queen of the Desert).
So I told Joel O’Keeffe in all his macho splendour that I’d love to see him strut centre stage in full drag.
“Yeah, mate!” Joel agreed, laughing. “Just like Bon Scott!”
Lest we forget, AC/DC’s original lead singer Bon Scott was also inspired to storm the stage in drag by none other than – you guessed it – Dame Edna. 
So lets hope Edna brings her one-woman farewell show Eat Pray Laugh! to Canada before she calls it a day.
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