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Popnog 10: Jeffrey Johnson on What It Means to Bring Little Edie Back to NYC

By Jerry Portwood

It was the week between Christmas and New Year's in1978, and "Little" Edie Beale was in a cabaret show at Reno Sweeney Nightclub in New York City thanks to Gerald Duval, who managed, wrote, and produced the event.

"Little Edie showed me authentic eccentricity and how that kind of truth and behavior is often wrongly described as madness," Duval has explained since then. "Watching her on that stage was like witnessing every single time a butterfly emerges from a cocoon—beautiful, fragile, and a little scary—but in the end, God's absolute miracle of the natural."

Now a cult icon because of her depiction in the Maysles' documentary, Grey Gardens, Jeffrey Johnson has crafted a recreation of that cabaret show with the assistance of Duval and will return Dec. 30 to share it with eager fans at 54 Below. We asked Johnson 10 questions to get at the heart of why Little Edie matters now and forever.

1. How is this different from a typical drag show?

Jeffrey Johnson: Well it's different on a few levels. The only element of drag show about it is that there is a guy in a dress on the stage. It kinda ends there. Even though this is presented as a cabaret, ultimately it is a play. There is a script. Yes, the script is taken from Edie's real words and based on the events that happened over those seven nights in 1978, but it is scripted nonetheless. It is theater in the fact that it contains the elements of drama, pathos, characterization, acting, texture, pace, subtext and storytelling. I'm not saying that at times some of those elements don't appear in a regular drag show...but in theater they usually are all there in some way. It's not more a drag show that La Cage is or the first act of Torch Song...the elements are there, but the genre is different.

2. Is it a pure "recreation"?

As far as it being a recreation of the historical night, yes, I think that is a good way to describe it. It obviously can't be the exact show. I'm not Edie for starters. Also, there is no recording of it, either audio or visual. So to put it back together, we relied on Gerald and his notes from the process of when he actually put the show together with Edie back in 1978. We relied on the memories of various things talked about over the corse of those night, input from friends of Gerald's who were there during the process. Then, on our own, we added a smidgen of creativity to put it all together. So a re-creation is a good way to talk about it.

3. Do you think of it as drag in any way?

I guess we need to define what drag means to you to begin with. (I know I am getting all Bill Clinton on your ass.) If we are referring to it at face value: Drag-equals man in a dress...then yes, I do think of aspects of the show as that. I am a man and I am in a dress. But if we are talking drag in a way that I would assume would initially come to people's minds, that of the "Drag Queens" in the clubs...then no, it's not the same beast. Ultimately, I think of Edie as a character that I, as an actor, am tasked to bring to life. I don't really consider playing Edie any differently than if I were playing Hamlet or Huck Finn.

4. Why Little Edie?

Why not? I think it is hard to deny the fact that Little Edie has some kind of spell over our culture. Gays love her. And I think that is due to her being the odd man out. About being strong willed—or should I say S-T-A-U-N-C-H! I think when she did these shows she was empowered as an individual for the first time and we see both the terror of facing it alone and the will and excitement of the opportunity all mixed together.

5. So Little Edie represents different things to different people?

There are universal elements about Edie. She just deals with them on a more grand scale—but universal nonetheless. She is both from the aristocracy as well as poor as hell. She represents the glamour and elegance of the top of society while living in cat shit. She is the desperate child searching for independence but finds herself manipulated by the needs and desires of the parent and the list can go on. Though the issues may not be the dames, there are elements of Every(wo)man in the story.

6. When was the first time you remember seeing Grey Gardens?

I saw it for the first time around 2003 when it was first released on DVD.

7. A whole new generation don't seem to have any references to Little Edie or Grey Gardens. Do you think that's a shame?

In this day and age, there is no reason not to know something because we have the answers to everything at our fingertips...hell, on our phones! So I think if someone is interested in the piece and they don't know Grey Gardens or Edie Beale, etc, then Google it! There are videos on YouTube, there are websites with loads of information, Wikipedia can get you started with a decent background...you can stream the movies on Hulu...the age of not knowing something is kinda over.

8. What do you say to those younger folks who may want to experience this but won't get all the "jokes" or things that a more seasoned crowd may be laughing at or enjoying?

There are folks who have come to the show who don't know Grey Gardens and the piece ends up making them want to know more. It seems to do well as a stand alone piece. There is enough background and stories told throughout the evening that you get a good sense about the type of person she is and why she might be doing a cabaret show at the hottest night club in NYC in 1978. And the story is engaging. It talks about what happened after the movie...and before. So even if you haven't seen the movie you still find you get to know her. I mean, when you think about Little Edie, another aspect of why she is so loved is that she is so open about her story and about who she is that you can't help but feel you know her. And it seems from folks' reactions that this show is successful at capturing that. So you do know her by the end, which means that not knowing shouldn't turn you away. But if you do want to research a little, there is no reason why you can't easily educate yourself from the comforts of your own home.

9. Gerald Duval, who worked with you on this, mentioned "authentic eccentricity." What does "authentic eccentricity" mean to you?
I went back and read it to get the context, and that's interesting. To me, it falls under the question of "was she was crazy or not." I think Gerald kinda nailed it. I don't think they were crazy. Take these two women...all they had was each other. Two women who were raised in an era where social training outweighed homemaking. That's what maids were for. And that was the world of the First Ladies to be. So being the staunch women that they were when all that was taken away from them they refused to let that change who they firmly believed themselves to be. They stuck to their guns. No one was going to take that world away from them. So within their own isolation what they ended up developing was their own way of communicating to each other—through arguments, song, radio programs, and the short visits from the handful of people who remained in their lives—it was their own way of survival. Through endless cats and raccoon companions. So their eccentricity was born out of their class, and out of their isolation. I guess that is where the "authentic." That is wasn't something that was created or beaten into them. It happened on it's own over time and influenced only by their own isolated world with very little outside influence.

10. This is a pre-New Year's Eve show, do you have any big plans or hopes for the New Year?

Well I would love to find a location/theater to actually do a run of this show in New York. It always has an audience. And I feel that this show belongs here. I mean this is where it originally happened! Other than that, I will be bringing another character I do, Special Agent Galactica, to the Duplex at the very end of January. That is a show I love doing. An evening of Jazz, blues of burlesque, some modern-day gems and anecdotes about Galactica's life as a hired assassin. I will have the most amazing jazz guitarist, Peter Fields, accompanying me for that show. Other than that, I hope to just keep feeling the inspiration to create and keep finding amazing folks to work with!

Edie Beale LIVE at Reno Sweeney, Dec. 30; 9:30 p.m., 54 Below (254 W. 54th St.), NYC. For tickets.

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