Talking with the man seated next to me at a performance of The Allergist's Wife, I mentioned the name of the play's author, Charles Busch. "You're kidding," said the man. "Charles Busch does transvestites and drag queens. This play sounds like Neil Simon. It can't be the same man."

Two truths are evident in that conversation. First, the man looked square and is a middle-aged Manhattan Theater Club subscriber, yet he was familiar with Busch's counter-culture career. So Busch's gender-bending creations have wider impact than one would have thought. Secondly, it demonstrates the extremely wide range of Busch's talents -- because both genres are from the same man.

Busch tells me that some people are surprised at another aspect of The Allergist's Wife. "They ask me how I know so much about New York Jewish culture," says the author. "They hear the name Busch and they assume I'm not Jewish. Years ago I outed as gay. Now I'm outing as a Jew."

His religion is no surprise to me now, but it was in 1995 when I saw the comedy written by and starring Busch, You Should Be So Lucky. It has a strong and affectionate Jewish flavor, with a lot of Yiddish words. Busch's character is a lonely young man befriended by an older man named Si Rosenberg, who turns out to be Busch's fairy godmother -- you should pardon the expression -- in a twist on the Cinderella legend.

At its opening night party I asked Busch if the play was based on his own background. "You've outed me!" he said then, in mock horror. He says that he certainly is Jewish. He was raised in Cincinnati. His mother died when he was seven and he moved in with two aunts who lived in Hartsdale, in Westchester County. When he was 12 they moved to Manhattan. Neither Aunt Lillian or Aunt Belle were very religious, but in middle age Belle rediscovered her roots and started learning Yiddish, which she passed on to Charles. In The Allergist's Wife, Busch has the wife make fun of her aged mother's strong Jewish identification, saying, "You never spoke a word of Yiddish til you were 65!" It's Charles' affectionate tribute to Aunt Belle, who is now 91.

You Should Be So Lucky had a four-month run Off-Broadway, but most theater-goers never saw this aspect of Busch until The Allergist's Wife.

"With the success of Allergist, people are acting as if I'm Venus on a half shell bursting out of Times Square. But I've been around for years. It's taken me a long time and a lot of work to become a sudden hit."

Busch attracted the attention of MTC's head, Lynn Meadow, in 1997 when he wrote the book to a musical that she presented, The Green Heart. "It wasn't a hit, but she told me that she'd produce my next play. I had nothing in my trunk, but I had been doing a nightclub sketch about a suburban Jewish woman named Miriam Passman who, in middle age, develops her own cabaret tribute to Edith Piaf. I loved the character so much that I wanted to develop her further. The character had vitality and seemed so rich that I made her the basis of my new play. Miriam Passman evolved into the central figure in The Allergist's Wife."

There's yet another part of Busch's persona that was outed recently. I was surprised to see, suddenly, that he's mostly bald. I broached the topic, and it turns out that it's been a serious subject for Busch. "I started losing my hair in the late 1980's," he says, "but I covered it up. I was devastated. Of course I was a drag performer and I wore women's wigs in most of my plays. I wore a man's hairpiece in You Should Be So Lucky. But it was a problem in my daily life. As a man wearing a rug, you feel very vulnerable. You keep worrying that you'll have a bad hair day and everyone will see that you're a fake. In real life I have a fear of being a public clown, of being ridiculous." That's an interesting revelation from a man who appears so outrageously extroverted on stage.

The topic obviously was on Busch's mind when he named his 1996 club act "Flipping My Wig." It was an expansion of his Miriam Passman skit and a preparation for what became Allergist's Wife. "About three years ago I shaved my head and gave myself a very severe image. That was a cool look in my crowd, but for TV and public functions I wore a cute little boy wig. Now, with the success of Allergist's Wife, I'm a big Broadway playwright so I can look any way I want to! Fuck `em."

Until Allergist's, Busch was best known as the author and star of what he calls "campy movie spoofs." The most successful was Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which had a long run Off-Broadway. It fascinated audiences with its parody of sci-fi movies, with Busch himself playing a transvestite. He also starred in the cult film, Psycho Beach Party. He wrote and starred in a bunch of campy club parodies where he wore gaudy women's clothes, with titles such as Myrtle Pope: The Story of a Woman Possessed, Theodora the She-Witch of Byzantium, Gidget Goes Psychotic and Pardon My Inquisition or Kiss the Blood Off My Castanets.

He wrote Red Scare on Sunset, his take on the Hollywood Witch Hunt era, Queen Amarantha, a dramatic play with a drag role, and Swingtime Canteen, a send-up of the Andrews Sisters during World War II.

In real life, Busch is, of course, neither a vampire nor a lesbian -- he's just a normal gay guy next door who loves women's clothes and happens to be exceptionally creative. He's written musicals, plays, a club act and a novel, Whores of Lost Atlantis, which he admits -- or brags -- is autobiographical.

He's had a 12-year steady relationship with Eric Myers, author of "Uncle Mame," a biography of Patrick Dennis, who created "Auntie Mame." "We've been happily involved for 12 years, and we both live in the West Village, but not together. Do you remember what Katharine Hepburn said on the subject?" Here Busch goes into a convincing Hepburn imitation: "I'd like to live next-door to a man I love, but I'd never live with a man!"
"We each have busy lives and need privacy," Busch explains. "Eric's place looks like a home decorating magazine, but my style is messy. My place is a cross between Sarah Bernhardt's boudoir and a 1960's steak house."

After Busch's sister saw The Allergist's Wife she said to him: "Now I guess you're through with drag." But Busch said to her, and to me, "It's what I do best, and audiences seem to like it. I sure intend to keep doing it. I'm writing a marvelous big drag vehicle for me, based on the life of a 19th-century actress. I'm a student of theater history and I always wanted to write a valentine to the theater. Drag is normally done downtown in small clubs. Now we'll see how it plays to mid-town subscription audiences."

"Yes, Lynn will direct a drag show at the Manhattan Theater Club with me as a queen. She said she wanted my next show and I said, `If you're serious about that, you know that I'm a drag performer. Is that okay?' And she said it is."

[END]

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Key Subjects: 
Charles Busch; The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Green Heart, Jewish, Manhattan Theater Club
Writer: 
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Date: 
August 2001
Subtitle: 
Charles Busch Hits The Big Time