Anita Gillette AFTER ALL
“Oh my God; I LOOOOOVE Anita Gillette!”
This was the exclamation out of my friend Laura’s mouth when she heard that I had become friends with an actress of note, here in New York City. This admission did not surprise me, for I love Anita Gillette, too. Always have. Always will. I know many people who love Anita Gillette. Each time somebody tells me that they love Anita Gillette, I feel the same immediate reaction bubbling up inside me:
Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Anita Gillette was. A little gay boy from birth, I spent my youth studying musical theater and watching tv. It was the 70s. HOW could I NOT have known who Anita Gillette was? She was the petite fireball who sang THE SECRET SERVICE; she was the LOVE AMERICAN STYLE redhead! So, how lucky and excited was I, as an adult, to have Anita Gillette reach out to me one day, accepting my invitation to be in one of my books? I had written to her when she was performing in 70 GIRLS 70 at the Encores! series in New York, asking, wouldn’t she please be in one of my books; and she said yes. The day of our photo shoot lead to one of the sweetest friendships with one of the most wonderful people I know. She is a favourite of mine, onstage, onscreen, in life. And NONE of my feelings for her as a person have anything to do with my complete and utter adoration of her club act titled AFTER ALL.
I did not get to see the debut of AFTER ALL, last year because I have a job that requires me to work many nights (some days, too) – and my social life suffers, as does my ability to see my friends in their shows. Luckily for me, AFTER ALL had an encore performance a few months later at the New York Jazz/Cabaret club BIRDLAND. I leaped at the opportunity to see my darling girlfriend in her show; and I was so excited to be able to say how much I loved it.
You see, for me, the key to a great club act is an absolute lack of pretense. The artist should hit the stage with a bang, tell amusing anecdotes, share touching memories, sing great songs and leave the audience wanting more. That means, keep the stories short, vary the songs and get off the stage, leaving the audience feeling like they know you a little. That’s AFTER ALL, all over the place.
When you have a star like Anita Gillette, there are going to lots of stories and reminiscences – and, happily, from different areas of show business. Having gotten her start on Broadway, Anita gets to share songs from great musicals and stories about legendary Broadway personalities that we want to hear about (let’s face it, if you are in a club seeing someone who is a part of Broadway history, you WANT to hear about David Merrick and Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger). Anita is not just a singer, though, she is a great actress and that gift lead her to some beloved performances on film and tv; so there are opportunities for stories about the sitcoms and game shows of the 70s (BOY she was good on the game shows!) and, of course, the movies like MOONSTRUCK and SHALL WE DANCE, to mention only two. So an audience member has to know, walking in, that they are going to get an evening filled with the kind of stories we all love to hear celebrities tell — but I am certain nobody expected to hear a hilarious story about the time a United States President grabbed a sassy soubrette’s booby! Yes, it’s true. Every story Anita shared with her audience kept them (kept us) in the palm of her hand. That isn’t a gift or a talent that Anita has. It is just Anita. She is a master storyteller and a riveting force of nature; when you are in the room with Anita, you simply cannot take your eyes off her.
Her talent, though, is a gift. She is inimitable. She is the sort of actor that people are talking about when they mention the skills of Spencer Tracy or Kathy Bates. The nuance to her performances, the way she disappears into the character, the moving moments and giddy giggles she inspires — we see them in her movies, we see them in her sitcom work and, if a person is lucky enough to see her live onstage, it is a master class in what it is to be a performer. I have been lucky enough to see Anita on stages large and small, in plays, musicals and cabaret shows. She is never the same and she is never predictable; even while watching her perform AS Anita Gillette in AFTER ALL, she took me by surprise and made me gasp and howl and cry. I took my friend, Daniel, to see AFTER ALL. Daniel is almost 20 years younger than I am and he does not have the background in Broadway that I have. He was not aware of the musicals and the musical theater personalities of which Anita spoke. He had seen some of the movies; but he was MOST excited to be seeing Liz Lemon’s mom, live. Everyone, whatever their age, whatever their frame of reference, has an Anita Gillette moment. That is the beauty of Anita Gillette, the actress. She is timeless and she is beloved. Why, only recently, she was in the film FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS with Edward Burns and Connie Britton. I think everyone needs a little Anita Gillette in their lives. I’m lucky because I actually get THE Anita Gillette in my life.
Was I biased when I went to see AFTER ALL? You bet. Would I have enjoyed it just as much, were Anita not my friend? Absofrigginlutely. Why? Because I love beauty and I love talent. Because I love honesty. When Anita Gillette hits the stage, she sings with masterful craftsmanship, she emotes with beautiful humanity and when she reminisces, she does so with absolute, raw, unpretentious honesty.
You know, my first Broadway show was the wonderful THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG. I saw the original cast, when I was an impressionable 16 years old. Anita replaced in that show with the incomparable Tony Roberts. The night that I saw AFTER ALL at Birdland, Tony Roberts was in the house and when Anita began her song from that musical, I began to cry. Anita always makes me cry; with joy, with wistfulness, with sadness – whatever she is doing, Anita is able to move me. I am so lucky and grateful to have her in my life, as a friend, as an artist, as a role model. I hope that many people will be going to see AFTER ALL and allowing the one and the only Anita Gillette to give them the gift of being moved. It is a gift to be treasured.
As is Anita.
(AFTER ALL just played in London to rave reviews and has a planned stop in San Francisco in 2013 – NOT the dates seen on the photo in this story – those dates had to be changed by the club. Of the photos in this story, only the headshots of Anita Gillette were done by me; the rest were pulled from archives.)