By Martha Wade Steketee
Julie Halston is a librarian of memories, a seeker of wisdom in unexpected places, a literary comedian. She’s been reading to audiences from newspapers, memoirs, advice columns, and self-help tomes for years as part of her stand-up act, riffing on what she reads. At Birdland this past Monday, she graced us with old bits and some new reflections on life, death, and the “filler” experiences that come between.
Resplendent in blue velvet, Halston addressed the mundane and the earth-shattering – from twee wedding announcements, to life advice from the rich and bawdy (yes we’re talking about Joan Crawford), to the very recent death of her mother. Pain makes us human, and humor in this case makes us a community.
The Baltimore Catechism that trained children, including young Julie, in the tenets of the Catholic faith is a familiar text for her comedy. She mused over some of its outlines of grievous sin and redemption in the rhythmic cadences she studied and repeated as a Catholic child. After delivering the atoning phrases – “my most grievous fault,” she paused and noted with rising dismay, “I was SEVEN!” After a deliciously timed beat she added, “What had I done?”
A core section of the program addressed aging with charm and resignation – “I can’t believe I can stand most of the time” – and her decision to have a face life after catching her Giamatti-like reflection – “I love Paul Giamatti as an artist, but I didn’t want to look like him.” On queries about whether her post-face lift visage would show emotion – shaddup about it. “I’ll tell you what I’m feeling,” Halston clarified with her trademark acerbic twist underscored with a verbal punch, inviting laughter and recognition.
From her Joan Rivers-like personal delivery and topics (aging and marriage and celebrity gossip) Halston moved to some untraditional sources for life advice, including Joan Crawford’s memoir My Way of Life. “I find comfort and inspiration in her words,” Halston noted, when reflecting on diet and exercise, and the lurking nastiness beneath. For example, Crawford advised the overweight housewife to create exercise groups with overweight neighborhood friends. “Competition is often the stimulus that you need,” Halston read from the pages, underscoring with her deep alto vocal nuances and her signature side eye that you wouldn’t put sabotage past the Crawford writing this advice. Crawford’s final warning that the group exerciser “may lose a friend or two” was tempered by the assertion that she’d achieve her solo fitness goal. There we have it, the Crawford life motto – what’s best for me.
My favorite Crawford life advice came in a section Halston read from her 1980 book Conversations with Joan by Roy Newquist. Crawford listed the challenges of her fellow survivors of the Golden Age of Hollywood (e.g. “Judy Garland was strung out on dope”) but asserted that they were ladies in their own way. “We all knew 101 ways to say go fuck yourself,” Halston quippily quoted Crawford, “but we were never vulgar.”
Her friends from productions and life populated the room, from Harvey Fierstein to Kate Buddeke (a colleague in the Bernadette Peters revival of Gypsy) to Randy Graff (a co-star in The Babylon Line). The star stories morphed from originating a role in The Babylon Line and Patti Lupone’s response to Halston getting that gig (see the show for this story) to Bernadette Peters connecting her to a Long Island animal shelter director with a big personality. “You do not choose a kitten,” the director told Halston, “a kitten chooses you.”
Stories of her mother Dolly, who passed away on August 30, and to whom she dedicated the show, were scattered through the evening. The “Dolly moments” of many stripes included the very Catholic-ness of her memorial – ““nothing says Catholic like a service at the Commack Abbey on Commack Road in Commack Long Island” – and an absolutely charming story of her mother in her early 90s stating the desire to see Hamilton, Halston arranging for house seats, and Dolly citing as her favorite part of the show the special treatment she received from a caring house manager.
Will Rogers read from the newspaper. Bob Newhart’s standup addressed tiny social interactions and gentle misunderstandings over the telephone. Joy Beyhar reflects on contemporary politics. And in between creating characters on screen or on stage — from society maven Bitsy Von Muffling in Sex and the City to Gay Willington in the 2014 You Can’t Take it with You revival, to Midge Braverton in the 2016 world premiere production of The Babylon Line at Lincoln Center – to delivering her public reading events, Halston holds a room, delivers a line, entrances an audience.
Photos: Kevin Alvey
Julie Halston: Life, Death & Filler, Broadway at Birdland, was Monday November 20 at 7pm
Birdland (315 West 44th Street). www.birdlandjazz.com