Peter Mac channels Judy (for the holidays)
Female impersonator/illusionist, drag queen, or gender bender are all appropriate descriptives for a male pretending to be a female in an artistic forum. I should know. And these, on the surface, can be accurate to describe what Peter Mac does on stage.
But Mac goes deeper than the surface with his more than 12 female impersonations, namely Judy Garland, because he goes beneath the skin and taps the soul of his characters. When Peter Mac takes to the stage as Judy Garland, you start to wonder whether you may have entered the Twilight Zone and gone back in time. It’s not just the look, the sound, the movement, it’s the pure essence in every way that is Judy. That is why he prefers the term "tribute artist" to the others aforementioned.
Of course Mac has had years to perfect his characterization of Judy Garland, but it is more than just practice that helps bring Judy back to the stage through Peter Mac. Receiving nominations for four 2011 BroadWorld Los Angeles Awards including Best Male Cabaret Artist and Person To Watch are some of the credentials in Peter Mac’s pocket(book) that the illusion, the queen, the bending is about as real as it gets.
Peter is preparing to take the stage once again to bring Judy back to life for the holidays at Tom Rolla’s The Gardenia in West Hollywood from December 14 through December 17 in The Judy Garland Christmas Special. I had an opportunity to explore Peter’s discovery into the gift of impersonation, why Judy Garland is his character muse, the proud moments of giving life to an icon to the gay community, and whose persona he will tackle next.
BeBe: I grew up during the time voice impersonators such as Rich Little were very popular, and my parents would always watch those television variety shows which would showcase people with that type of talent. And I have always wondered at what time in one’s life would an artist realize that they had the gift of impersonation?
BeBe: Now, why Judy?
Peter: The cliff notes version is that when I was 5 years old my Godmother showed me "The Wizard of Oz" movie, and it was a religious experience for me. I was transfixed and fell in love with the little girl (Dorothy). Then fast forward, I’m 12 years old, and I come across one of Judy’s albums on cassette tape in the store. I showed it to my mom, and she said ’yes, she did a lot more than "The Wizard of Oz." She did Carnegie Hall. She had a television show and did other movies, and made records.’ And I said, Dorothy made records? How cool. I just fell in love with her voice. Judy was like a raw nerve. She popped into everything.
A friend of my grandparents’ who saw her at Carnegie Hall with thousands of people said that amongst all those people at the back of the hall you got the sense she was singing directly to you. To me, that is the mark of a true diva. She just made me feel so good about myself. I could listen to Judy and feel good. It was never about tragedy, because so many people think that gay men love Judy because she had such a tragic life. That’s a myth. Judy would laugh at that if she were here. Despite all the bad stuff in her life, she always managed to rise above it. And when she did, it was magnified a thousand times.
Peter: For me, that happened pretty early. I was about 5 years old, and we saw the movie "Tootsie." And I said my idol was Dustin Hoffman. So I started doing my Dorothy Michaels (Hoffman’s female character in Tootsie) imitation for my family. I’d put on my grandmother’s housedresses, and she had a ratty old wig that she kept on a doll in her bedroom that belonged to my mom when she was a little girl. It started there. That’s when they and I realized I had a knack for voices.
BeBe: From there what did you do to hone your skill of voice impersonation? I mean, there isn’t a class one takes to improve upon the gift.
Peter: I think in terms of the impersonations, if you want to do it and you want to do it well, you have to do your homework. That means, in my case with Judy (Garland), that’s who I do primarily, it’s watching her over, and over, and over again. I do Judy in the concert years from Carnegie Hall toward the end of her life. But it’s watching and listening to that stuff over, and over again. You kind of have to marinate in it. It’s paying really close attention to detail. And it’s not just the voice, it’s making sure you get the hair right, the gowns right, the make-up and all of the rest of it. But in terms of the voices, as you say you can’t be taught to do this, it’s doing the homework. It’ definitely fun homework watching the movies and television shows.
Back with Judy again
BeBe: That’s a good commentary, Peter, because I think most people who see you perform as Judy see you as more than a drag show. Many people who have seen and reviewed have described your performance as magical, a reincarnation of Judy bringing her back to life. These are comments from many people who have known her. And you can’t garnish that type of response from those who knew the essence of Judy if your impersonation was purely based on tragedy. And with that, how do you feel about these types of accolades from friends and colleagues of Judy’s who have seen your performance?
Peter: I love it. I’d be a liar to say that I didn’t. It obviously means that I’m doing my job. The best for me was that we had Margaret O’Brien, who was Judy’s co-star in "Meet Me In St. Louis" (where Judy originated "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"), come to see us a few months ago and absolutely loved it. She said it was like being back with Judy again, that I brought back all the good memories. So when that (praise) happens, it is wonderful.
BeBe: So, is it your love for Judy that drives your impersonation, or is it your love for your craft?
Peter: Both! I love what I do. I get the best charge out of what I do. It’s such a great acting challenge. I have to make the audience believe for 45 plus minutes not only that I’m this other gender, but also that I’m this famous person that you can go on YouTube and see thousands of clips of.
BeBe: You know one of the things that appalls me about female impersonators who don’t sing live, but lip sync a performance, and don’t get it right. It breaks the illusion. It’s one thing to have the look and all that, but they don’t get the lip sync or mannerisms right. I feel, in those instances, that I am in the audience watching someone impersonate someone. If you are really trying to embody your subject, it is your job to make me forget that it’s you... that it’s Peter. You actually give people an opportunity who have never experienced Judy during her lifetime the chance to do so. That has to be gratifying.
Peter: Absolutely! I have friends who have seen me show after show who say that they get so caught up (with the impersonation). They are waiting for the day when they say it is just Peter, but it never happens. It’s a great compliment when I hear that at the end of the night. That, and thank you for respecting her. There are some impersonators who focus on the that one facet of her life where she had a drug addiction problem. After the second joke, it just isn’t funny anymore. I look at it as another form of gay bullying.
BeBe: And that (addiction focus) also makes her a caricature, and that is not respectful. I say that about many people who become the butt of so many jokes such as Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. These are people who have left marks in the realm of entertainment and the arts that go far beyond whatever struggles they have. They are human.
BeBe: Now you have a special holiday performance of Judy coming up.
Peter: Yes, Judy is back in December for pretty much a whole week in The Judy Garland Christmas Special at the Gardenia, December 14-17.
BeBe: I know you call the Gardenia your resident home once a month, but do you perform outside of that venue?
Peter: I have taken my shows to Palm Springs, up and down the East coast at various places. I haven’t gone on the road as much as I’d like to. I do perform at Royal Can Harry’s in Studio City, California about every other month. I just got cast in a play over there in show dealing with behind the scenes of the set of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" It will be my first crack at Bette Davis in the play "Whatever Happened to Bette and Joan."
BeBe: I know you also impersonate Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli, Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn, Mae West and others, and now you are adding Bette Davis. Are there any others you would like to tackle that you haven’t yet?
Peter: Well, I do about 12 ladies in my act from the Golden Age of Hollywood and Broadway, and you know it something (impersonating others( that you can’t even think about. Usually how it happens is I’ll see something that sparks something in me, like they are speaking to me. I don’t think I pick them necessarily, I think they pick me.
Judy, Judy, Judy. Clark Gable may have coined that phrase, but I found myself wanting to call it out more than once while speaking with Peter Mac. I’m sure after leaving my discussion with Peter that Judy Garland is somewhere saying, ’Finally, someone gets me!’
Peter Mac as Judy Garland in The Judy Garland Christmas Special on December 14 - 17, 2011 at The Gardenia in West Hollywood. $15 with a two drink minimum. For tickets and more information on the show www.cabaretwest.org/gardenia.html
To find out where next Peter Mac’s Judy, as well as, any of his other tributes to some of the greats of Hollywood and Broadway, go to www.friendofjudy.com.