The following is a guest post by Romy Ashby, who runs the excellent blog "Walkers in the City."
The Henry Street Settlement - Abrons Art Center has the best Christmas show in town right now with Joey Arias: Christmas with the Crawfords, dazzling audiences with a fabulous cast in the gorgeous old theater on Grand Street. When Joey, who has spent a lot of time on that stage, was asked not long ago to do something at Abrons this December, he suggested doing the show, which was recently summed up this way by The New York Times: “Joey Arias joins up with San Francisco's Artfull Circle Theatre to make NYC's Yuletide ever so gay in this all-singing, all-dancing, holiday extravaganza. Based on the infamous Christmas Eve radio broadcast from the Crawford family's Brentwood mansion, Christmas With the Crawfords features Joan, the children, and a stellar line up of Hollywood icons in a hilarious parody of -- and homage to -- the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood.”
Following is my short chat with the wonderful Joey Arias—a most down-to-earth and friendly star—done over the telephone:
In the Christmas show you play Joan Crawford. Were you a Joan Crawford fan yourself?
No not at all! I love her work, but I never read the books or followed her. So when I got the part I watched Mildred Pierce four times to study her movements, her face, her hands. I think Joan Crawford was groomed beautifully by Hollywood; the happy Hollywood story of going from nothing to something. And she went with it. She never stopped working until she died. Her daughter would say, ‘Stop! You’re a star and these movies you’re taking now are schlock!” But Joan would say, “It’s a role and I’m doing it. I don’t want people to forget me.”
The last time I did this role was in 2002 and I joined the Cirque du Soleil right after that. And it’s exciting to play this character. For the new generation, who doesn’t have a clue about old movies or most of these characters, it’s a light into the darkness to turn them on to what that world was like, to show that these were real people in addition to all the glamour and falsehood, the screen smoke and mirrors that were put on people’s faces who were groomed for the public. When Joan Crawford’s daughter wrote that book, Mommy Dearest, all the smoke and mirrors were shattered.
When you first came to live here in 1976, New York was a different city. What about it did you find most appealing?
I found the corruption, the drug dealers, the hookers, the city falling apart and the glamour—hand in hand—so thrilling! You were really able to fulfill your dream then, and whatever you wanted was really kind of at hand—if you worked hard enough.
And what did you want?
I wanted to meet Andy Warhol and change my life! I remember closing my eyes and saying, “City, whatever you want me to do, please guide me.” And of course I worked at it too. I wound up getting a job at Fiorucci, which had just opened, and I was right in the middle of all the hubbub. And my dream came true! Andy Warhol came in and he wanted to meet me! And from then on, everything just fell into place.
How easy was it to do shows without much money when you first came?
Oh, it was the old saying with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney: “Let’s go to the garage and put a show on!”
And were there plenty of free "garages" available?
Oh, yeah! Downtown, the Lower East Side, there was the Mudd Club and of course we had Club 57 on St. Mark's Place, which Ann Magnuson started with Susan Hannaford. It started as the Monster Movie Club once a week and everyone had such a good time we just continued with theme parties and shows, and it was our neighborhood hangout. That was where Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat got their starts, and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and Lypsinka, everybody started there.
Having kept the same apartment on 10th Street and University since 1976, is your house a time capsule of an older New York?
Oh it is! It’s very old New York! When Klaus Nomi passed away I got a lot of his furniture, and there are little things here and there, pieces of art by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel and Andy Warhol and Kenny Scharf, oh, my God, it really is a History House!
To ask the opposite question of what you found most appealing, what do you feel most sorry about in New York as it is now?
I’m sorry that there is greed and corporations, that that Giuliani flipped it over to make it clean and accessible to that generation of people who are afraid to walk in the mud. The corruption is still around, but corruption wears ties now.
Despite the sad changes, do you have a favorite thing to do in New York?
I love to walk the streets and just bump into people. I love to meet people in the street—people that I know and strangers—and have conversations standing on the street corner. I love that. I’ll go out to the store to pick something up and then find myself just going for a walk. And the next thing I know, I’ll be having a conversation with an old friend or a new friend on the sidewalk. And now that I’ve become known, strangers stop me and say, “I love you! You’re so exciting! I came to see you, and that’s why I’m in New York!” And I’ll think, Oh, they’re just like me, the way I was with Andy Warhol! Now I find myself in that position; as the keeper of the flame.
Years ago, when you were publishing little interviews with interesting characters in Paper Magazine, I laughed at one of your questions to Debbie Harry (and her answer) which I will ask you now: What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?
What did Debbie say?
She said “Pee.”
Christmas with the Crawfords runs through December 27th, and stars Joey Arias as Joan Crawford, Chris March as Christina and a stellar cast of co-stars featuring Sherry Vine and Chris Mirto.