Marilyn Michaels is a legendary lady of show business who famously impersonates legendary ladies of show business. She has been on numerous tv shows, notably Ed Sullivan, Hollywood Palace, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, The Tonight Show, Hollywood Squares and The Love Boat, and has been a guest on Howard Stern's radio program, to name just a few of her guest spots. She toured as Fannie Brice in Funny Girl and had her own radio show. She has also had a recording career. It was such a joy for me that she agreed to do this Q&A. Ms Michaels is not only refreshingly candid here but as funny a lady to interview as she is on-stage.
Dj Buddy Beaverhausen: Ms Michaels, my readers and I thank you so much for doing this interview. When I initially think of you, what first springs to mind are such fond memories of watching you on tv, Ed Sullivan and all the great variety shows and talk shows like Tonight with Johnny Carson, doing your hilarious impressions that I can still recall. Yet, more recently, I discovered you as an amazing, serious vocalist. What channeled your career more towards being an impressionist?
Marilyn Michaels: I do a number of different things. Singing, impressions, some stand up. It’s like, if you don’t like what I’m doing, stick around, there’s another bus in two minutes. I was able to reproduce voices as a very young kid. Then, when I put that into my act, of course the people loved it and a happy audience translates into more money and so forth. It’s a singular ability. I mean, I recorded for Warner Brothers and ABC and such. Maybe if I had had a big hit, I'd not have included impressions but I was destined to do it and, frankly, doing an entire singing act would bore me. I am an eclectic performer and I like changing. A bit like Tracey Ullman.
DBB:You will be at the Dix Hills Performing Arts Center in Long Island on Saturday, September 21. Your ad says you have a cast of 100 characters to draw from including, of course, your classics like Streisand and Joan Rivers. But also Diane Keaton? Sarah Palin? I love it! Can you tell us what attracted you to doing the latter two?
MM: Sometimes, one must learn to do an impression of a hot personalty, and at times I would have to lock myself in a room with a tape and listen and go over it. Again and again. Like, I could never get Cher but, over the years, I can do a perfect vocal Cher. But I am less interested in nailing impressions at this point in my life. Like, who cares, you know? I see some young gals doing them now. And they do some new people I don’t do. But a lot of it just seems like they are doing my old act!
DBB: The real-life Barbra and Joan have evolved and changed over the years. How have you kept up with and embraced those changes in your impersonations of them? And have you ever met and spoken to either of these women regarding your portrayals of them on-stage?
MM: You mean Joan Rivers? Or Joan Collins? I do both. Joan Rivers.... I pulled a trick on Howard Stern’s director. They smuggled me into the studio and I called him and they filmed me as Joan. Went on for quite a while before he caught on. The only one I keep up-to-date vocally is Katharine Hepburn. The young Kate and the old Kate. Big difference! I admire Joan Rivers very much. Her absolute staying power. But she is a nasty, mean woman. She and Woody Allen, who is a genius, are my two most unfavorite people, sorry to say. But I admire them both. Barbra didn’t like my impression initially. I was inverting one eye! But, after all this time.... She is so iconic, she really doesn’t give a shit [that I impersonate her], I am sure.
DBB: Your rendition of Donna Summer and Barbara Streisand singing via split screen on an award show has been termed a "cult favorite." Do you still include this in your act?
MM: No. It was done split screen. Very interesting process and I loved it. But, of course, it also necessitated my putting the Donna makeup on! I also did Donna for a Playboy shoot.... But that’s another story.
DBB: You began singing in the Catskills at a very young age, then moved on to the Copacabana. What was that like?
MM: What a thrill! Can you believe headlining the Copa at the beginning of your career? Johnny Carson sent flowers. It was a trip but very hard work. Like three shows on Saturday night! Tough.
DBB: Had you incorporated your impersonations in your show by then? Or when did that take place? How did they develop? When were you aware you had the ability to do such spot-on imitations of other artists?
MM: I was 14 when I auditioned at the Roxy Theatre in NY. It was like Radio City, and Roxy Rothafel was always looking for talented youngsters. I sang and then he asked me if I could do any impressions, and I went into them: Sarah Vaughn, Teresa Brewer, Patti Page. I didn't even do Garland or Streisand yet. He wanted to hire me, but my parents wanted me to be normal and go to school. Why? I was an abysmal student.
DBB: Let's discuss you as a singer in your own right, beginning with your "girl group" period in the 1960s. You recorded songs like "Tell Tommy I Miss Him," "Danny" and "Past the Age of Innocence." How old were you then? 14? Yet you had such a powerful, mature-sounding voice.
MM: Yeah... I was more like 15. I had my own backup guys. At Music and Art High School, we recorded a demo. I was very confident. I had begun with my mom in the Yiddish theater at the age of seven. So I knew what I was doing. And writing songs... I got a record contract with RCA at 17. Hugo and Luigi ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight"). I played the piano and sang. Nailed it!
DBB: Your rendition of "MacArthur Park" is marvelous! When was that recorded and how did you come to choose that song?MM: I think we just thought at the time that the nucleus of that piece was the part I recorded... very melodic.... "There will be another song for me... And I will sing it.... There will be another dream for me... Someone will bring it...." Gorgeous song, really. Wish more folks had heard it. Now they can.... On YouTube!!
MM: Yes. Sometimes I sing with a symphony orchestra because I have the arrangement done by the great Bobby Scott who wrote "A Taste of Honey" and "He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother."
DBB: You were born in Manhattan to a musical family. You reside there now. Was there any time you didn't make Manhattan your home?
MM: No. I am a Woody Allen New Yorker. I can’t imagine living any other place in the world. Maybe Paris. I would love to live in Paris for a month. But it is a fantasy. I take taxis to go to the Food Emporium across the street from my building! All my doctors are here! My last husband lives in Freehold, New Jersey. He couldn’t stand NY and I would go stir crazy after two days in the country. I don’t drive. My whole family is driving impaired. I am a painter. My joy is hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Frick and MOMA.
DBB: The Kopycats was part of The ABC Comedy Hour in 1972. You worked with Rich Little and Frank Gorshin, among others. I can't believe you were the sole female! Hosts included people like Steve Lawrence and Debbie Reynolds. I never saw the Debbie episode. Did she get in on the impersonation action?
MM: Yes, and Debbie still does her impressions! She is terrific. Wonderful to work with! We worked great together and she was very giving and professional. Talked a lot on the set. Which was ok by me. Gave me a chance to rest my voice. I hate having to be “on” all the time. What really counts to me is when the cameras are rolling.
DBB: At last year's Bistro Awards, Lainie Kazan took to the stage and, talking about the time she was Barbra Streisand's understudy for Funny Girl, said: "What a fucking job that was!" Have you two Funny Girls ever gotten together and talked?
MM: Lainie is a sweetie. I stayed at her place many years ago when she was out of town. She carved out a nice niche for herself as a fine character actress. Love her!
DBB: When were you first aware of your legion of gay fans?
MM: I've got gay fans??? Wow, I’m flattered! I don’t look at people via their sexuality. I don’t understand that at all. People are people. One day we will not refer to people as black or white or gay or straight. Just... How good is this person and what has this person contributed to society.
DBB: Finally, what's keeping you from doing the Manhattan cabaret circuit where you belong and you'd be lauded, and receive rave reviews and cabaret awards, certainly?
MM: Shit, I get tired! I mean, I have been doing this since I was seven years old for heaven sakes! I am not that excited about it. What excites me is having written a musical comedy with my son, Mark, who is a talented pianist, comedy writer and critic. I wrote the score to a show presently called Alysha. That is thrilling to me. Also, to be honest about New York City cabaret, I get nervous. I am too much of a perfectionist. A lot of things [keep me away]....
There are three Italian women who work.... Through everything! They have a certain constitution. Liza, Bernadette and Patti. You would have to lock them in the inner sanctum of a pyramid to stop them from going on. The show must go on!!! And I often wonder: Why? The industry now belongs to Lady Gaga. Gimmicks and singing naked. It’s too late for me to sing naked.
DBB: Marilyn, thank you once more for doing this interview. We'll see you on the 21st!
MM: What? That's it? That was easy....! P.s: Are you gay?
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