It’s New Year’s Eve, 1977, and “Little Edie” Beale has decided to pursue a long-postponed career in show business. Heady on the attention she garnered following the release of Grey Gardens, the spellbinding documentary about her symbiotic relationship with her late mother, “Big Edie,” and their notoriously dilapidated East Hampton home, Beale decided to resurrect her abandoned dreams of stardom. At 60, Beale, the impoverished first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, created something resembling a cabaret act, which she performed eight times during January of 1978. To put it mildly, the show wasn’t well received and The New York Times described the evening as “a public display of ineptitude.”
Now, more than three decades later, fans can experience what went down on that stage for themselves as Jeffrey Johnson brings Beale back to glorious life with his production of Edie Beale Live at Reno Sweeney. Johnson collaborated with Gerald Duval, Beale’s original producer, to mount an authentic replication of the act. The new show, produced by Ganymede, his Washington, D.C.–based LGBT performing arts company, will be performed November 5-6 in San Francisco at Rrazz Room and November 8-9 in Los Angeles at Show at Barre. Johnson speaks with The Advocate about the production, his interpretation of “Little Edie,” and the enduring appeal of the tragic socialite.
The Advocate: When did you first become aware of “Little Edie” and Grey Gardens?
Jeffrey Johnson: It was probably around 2001. I watched a videotape of Grey Gardens that someone had given me, telling me I had to watch. I kept it in the VCR the entire weekend. I couldn’t stop watching it.
How did your show come about?
When I found she’d done the Reno Sweeney show, I thought it was something I’d want to write. But it sat on the back burner because I ended up with the theater company, which took up all my free time. But in the summer of 2008, an older gentleman [Gerald Duval] gave me a script to read. It was this show, but it was a huge monologue. I said, “Oh, God, this is something I wanted to write.”
Did he know her personally?
He told me that back in the ’70s he managed a lot of people and had connections to clubs. When Edie auditioned at Reno Sweeney, the owners called him and asked what they should do. They said she was a train wreck. He said, “She’s hot right now, and you’ll get a lot of people coming in.” They hired her under the condition that he’d take her under his wing and put a show together and make sure she was rehearsed. He was basically the guy who created the show with her. He had written down all the things she said over the original nights.
So you two collaborated on this show?
He handed me a monologue version that we workshopped and edited down tremendously so it would have enough shape and meaning to it. Then we inserted the songs. That’s how it came about. I had never thought of imitating her or anything, but he brought it to me and said after seeing me perform in other things I’d be perfect to do it.
Is your show a full replication of the act she did at Reno Sweeney?
For the most part, yes, but it’s not verbatim of one particular show. Her show had an improv quality to it because she would lose her place a lot and talk and ask him where to go and what was next. What we did was, once we got the monologue part we were going to use, we had to write transitions in and out of songs to make it all flow and make sense. For the most part it’s taken from the nights she performed. The audience is as much a part of the show as she is.
How much of your Edie is imitation and how much is your interpretation of her?
Being a man, I try as best as I can to replicate her speech patterns, her sound, and her physicality. I try to give enough of her spirit and essence. There’s no recording of her show, so I couldn’t listen to it. After we put together the show, I watched the movie again to see where her pitch goes when she’s angry, where her speech differs, this is physically what she does.
Have you had response from people who saw Edie’s original 1978 show?
The majority of them say that it was creepy in a good way. Jerry [Torre, a handyman featured in the documentary] came to see it. Albert Maysles [codirector of Grey Gardens and its sequel] came. They both said they saw the show and it was extremely accurate. Jerry said it was as if I knew her personally and had studied her shows.
It’s been 35 years since Grey Gardens premiered. Why do you think we’re still fascinated by the Beales?
I think there’s an element that we relate to either in our own character or an eccentric aunt. There’s something that’s universal and timeless about them. There’s also the question of whether they’re really crazy. In one respect you can say yes, and in another you can say absolutely not. It’s an ongoing mystery.
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