Editor's Note: Due to outstanding ticket sales, A Very Joan Crawford Christmas will extend to January 2nd. The extension week will consist of 8:00pm shows Tuesday December 28th – Saturday January 1st, with a 3:00pm matinee on Sunday January 3rd. Tickets for the extension are now on sale by calling 816-531-PLAY or online at www.UnicornTheatre.org
Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe — these and a host of other Hollywood divas are high on every actor’s must-perform list. At one point or another, the combination of outsized egos, glitzy wardrobes and juicy biographies that these legends of the silver screen afford prove to be irresistible fodder for lampooning.
At several points during their careers, Kansas City performer Ron Megee and Coterie Theatre producing artistic director Jeff Church have considered tackling the life and times of Joan Crawford, perhaps the biggest of the Hollywood divas and the product of a Kansas City upbringing. Now, in collaboration with the Unicorn Theatre’s Cynthia Levin and a raft of theater professionals, Megee and Church will present A Very Joan Crawford Christmas, a two-act comedy that promises some sort of camp heaven for local theater-goers.
“We were looking for a piece for the holidays,” Megee explained in a dressing-room interview. The performer was decked out as Joan in a sparkling gown and long satin gloves, with wig piled high and face caked by the bright, clown-like makeup that she favored.
After considering another Crawford holiday piece from the ’90s, Megee said, “we were like, ‘Well, you know what? What if we dabbled and played with our own version?’ And so Jeff Church and I wrote it.”
Church, in a phone interview, recounted how the play was inspired, in part, by Crawford’s unintentionally hilarious autobiography cum domestic handbook My Way of Life. “It berated on exactly how to have a dinner party and how to dress — always wear gowns that have slits — and how to take care of your man and how to brush your eyebrows. It was just hilarious.
“The Unicorn was looking for a vehicle for Ron at Christmastime. I said that I think Ron and I should write a Joan Crawford piece together, and they were game and Ron was game. And we started by just reading that book and a number of other books and making notecards and sitting out by my swimming pool this summer. It sounds luxurious, but it was a lot of hard work.”
Certainly, fitting all that Crawford’s life and career has come to symbolize into the running time of a play would necessitate a pointed writing strategy. Born in Texas and raised in Kansas City for much of her childhood (see sidebar article), Crawford has a story that is long and complicated. From dance hall chorus girl (and sometimes prostitute) in 1920s flapper-era New York and Chicago to young Hollywood starlet and later box-office superstar of the ’30s, then on to Oscar winner of the ’40s and B-movie queen of the ’60s, Crawford’s life and times are truly the stuff of legend. So which Joan will we see onstage at the Unicorn?
“We knew a couple things,” Church responds when asked this. “We knew that we wanted to delve into My Way of Life with its extreme directions in how to live and exercise. But also, we wanted to spoof older Joan, which is to say she’s already a movie legend. And that Joan was kind of also called “B-movie Joan” because Joan did movies like Berserk! and Strait-Jacket and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? So B-movie Joan is a lot of fun.”
This seems a good strategy — from this later-years vantage point, any and all aspects of Crawford’s biography are ripe for exploration. Megee talked about the specifics of A Very Joan Crawford Christmas, which is set in Crawford’s last Manhattan apartment: “In our version, Joan is getting ready for her big holiday party with Mamacita, her German housekeeper, and Carl, her valet, and she makes them act out scenes from her shows.
“Then, in Act 2, it goes crazy. By the end of Act 1 the show is starting to turn, and by Act 2, you’re in for a wild roller coaster. I guess I can say that Bette Davis arrives in Act 2 and all hell breaks loose … It spirals out of control.”
Church added, “There’s a lot of camp and even physical humor, but we actually did try to put a plot in the play. And I can’t give it away, but there’s a significance that Ron Megee is in Kansas City playing Joan Crawford and that fits into the significance of what the overall plot of this entire thing is.”
So the show promises a thorough comedic appraisal of Joan and her life, but why, I wondered, is the Crawford mystique such catnip for gay audiences in the first place?
“She truly is one of the first camp characters, before we knew what camp was,” Megee answered. “The thing is, she played over-the-top characters balls to the wall and gave it her all. And a gay man could hide behind these characters of hers. They were always tragic, they always had drama, there was always the man that was going to get away or was murdered.
“…We [gay men> love hard women. Look at all our icons through the years. We love if they took pills, if they drank, which Joan did. … We love ones who have had tragedy, went through pain, because we ourselves, before we come out of the closet — we can relate to the pain, or we can live through it.”
Two of Crawford’s most famous roles—the Oscar-winning title character in Mildred Pierce and the world-weary Helen Wright in Humoresque — illustrate this hard, exaggeratedly tragic style. Watching Wright saunter melodramatically toward the surf to the strains of Wagner’s epic “Liebestod”, or Pierce fight vainly to hide her hurt as her spoiled daughter Veda berates her middle-class status is sheer movie poetry. And though affected and campy to the extreme, Crawford’s acting choices, in retrospect, seem all too perfect.
The life lessons Crawford acquired from a Kansas City rearing are quite visible in the show, making it all the more poignant.
“She gained formidable strengths from here. … She really looked at it like it was what gave her her ramrod-steel back,” Church says, with a certain understanding. "

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