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Obituaries

Charles Pierce; Actor Impersonated Female Stars

June 02, 1999|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Pierce, a female impersonator renowned for his characterizations of such glamorous Hollywood legends as Bette Davis, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford, has died. He was 73.

Pierce, who repeatedly announced his retirement during the 1980s, died of cancer Monday night at his home in Toluca Lake.

He was most recently seen by area audiences in 1990, when the recent death of his most famous character, Davis, led to a deluge of calls begging the flamboyant performer to return to the stage.

In response to those requests, Pierce revived his one-man nightclub act, renamed it "Fasten Your Seatbelts" and took it on the road. Onstage, Pierce described the show to his audience as "The legendary ladies of the silver screen, all talking, all singing, all dancing . . . all dead."

The act included Pierce's elaborately dressed West, in bouffant yellow wig, sequined gown and red boa ("I couldn't decide what to wear, so I wore everything"), delivering the line: "I feel like a million. . . . But I'll take them 10 at a time."

Pierce was noted for his uncanny ability to conjure up the images of female celebrities using subtle forms of mimicry such as facial expressions and vocal inflections, rather than relying on the requisite heavy makeup and elaborate drag costumes to carry the illusion. He often demonstrated his acting skill with impressions of the screen stars doing scathing impressions of one another.

In his early performing days, Pierce did not wear drag at all, appearing in a mime's black shirt and pants, using stoles, boas and hats as props. The gowns, heels and turbans did not come out of his closet until the 1960s. "High heels, falsies, makeup . . . it was considered much more outrageous at the time," Pierce said.

He was also noted for occasionally improving on the original. "If he writes his own lines--and he at least passes on them--he is indeed a witty man," wrote former Times theater critic Dan Sullivan of Pierce's 1986 show, "Not a Well Woman." " 'I drink to pass the time away until I get drunk' isn't just the sort of thing that Bette [Davis] might have said in 'All About Eve'; it's funnier than anything she did say."

Pierce once recalled Carol Channing's reaction to his impression of her: "By the end of the evening she was in stitches and told me, 'You do me better than I do, Charles.' "

Pierce never much cared for the term "female impersonator." Nor did he want to be mistaken for a transsexual or a transvestite, explaining that after the show, he got back into his street clothes as soon as possible. "I have no ambition to be the Liberace of the drag world," he said.

"Why do I have to be described as 'Charles Pierce, female impersonator?' Why not just 'Charles Pierce, actor?' " he protested in a 1988 interview. "I'm really just an actor who puts on certain costumes, generally gowns, to create female characters familiar to millions of people."

Born in 1926 in Watertown, N.Y., Pierce began his acting training at age 20 at the Pasadena Playhouse, after working in high school and for several years afterward as a radio announcer. The dream of coming West began in his teens.

He never planned to become a female impersonator, but the dearth of work for the aspiring actor led him to give it a try. As a nightclub act, he reasoned, he would get paid at the end of the evening, rather than at the end of the year.

"You know, I'd like people who see my work to remember me as an actor--a good actor--who made his living by doing some really good impressions," he mused later in his career. "The fact that I went from rags to bitches was just one of those quirks of fate written in the stars."

In a 1990 interview, Pierce told The Times that he was 14 when he began to dream of studying at the Pasadena Playhouse, after seeing an ad in Theater Arts magazine.

"I was absorbed in the thought of coming to the Pasadena Playhouse to become an actor. For two years this playhouse was like an ivory tower.."

After acting school, Pierce divided his time among his radio job in Watertown, summer stock theater in Newport, R.I., and the Pasadena Playhouse.

By 1952, Pierce was doing monologues and stand-up comedy at the Cabaret Concert on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Eventually, he performed at the Club LaVie in Altadena, where he received his first paycheck for his impressions. "I'd use a leopard stole, a boa, a hat, but I wasn't in drag. I didn't even think about wearing drag," he said.

In the early 1960s, Pierce took his act to the Echo Club in Miami Beach. Though it was illegal to cross-dress in Florida at the time, Pierce skirted the law by using minimal thrift-shop props such as a cigarette holder, or slipping on a glittering gown over his pants and shirt.

After Miami, he appeared at San Francisco's Gilded Cage, where his shows played to a mostly gay clientele. Over time, his appeal began to win him a broader audience and popularity on the international nightclub circuit.

In the 1990s, a few critics began to complain that his material had lost some of its outrageousness as society's standards changed. Pierce argued that it was impossible to move on from these larger-than-life performers to today's stars. He once lamented: "You can't do 10 minutes on Susan Sarandon or Carrie Fisher."

No matter what actress he chose to portray, Pierce wanted his motives to be clearly understood. "I'm not doing it to be a woman," he said. "I'm doing it to be a star."

Services are scheduled for 1 p.m. June 19 at Church of the Hills in Forest Lawn Hollywood.

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