Camp David


By • Sep 23rd, 2007 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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Does anyone remember an actor/comedian named Michael Greer? There is no special reason why you should unless, like this writer, you happen to be over forty, with a fascination for 70’s cabaret and a memory for very obscure films. I can tell you this much, if you ever saw Michael’s cabaret act in person you would never forget him. You see Michael Greer was a fiercely independent entertainer who should have been a major player in films and television, as well as Broadway. The only thing that stood in his way was his sexuality which was out there in your face from day one. Michael Greer was a truly unique performer but more importantly he was one of the first openly gay actors to work in Hollywood. He would become, willingly or not, the pre-eminent role model for all the openly gay actors that were to follow for the next twenty years.

Without the pioneer efforts of actors like Michael Greer and his groundbreaking body of work there would not be successful openly gay actors like Chad Allan, Sir Ian McKellan or Rupert Everett, nor cable/mainstream television shows like QUEER AS FOLK or WILL AND GRACE, nor films like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The sexual /political climate in Tinsel town at the time Michael Greer was a working actor {1968-82} was so homophobic across the corporate wasteland that being perceived as openly gay condemned men like Michael to few if any opportunities to display his talent. His then agent advised him to get married like all the other closet queens in town and just pretend to be a normal kind of guy the whole family would like in their living rooms or watch at the movies.

Michael would have none of it; therefore he would spend the majority of his career in gay cabaret. He found himself performing around the country, occasionally appearing in films like THE ROSE in a small role as the MC at the drag show, or on television in something like The Bobby Gentry Show as a semi-regular performer. As an impressionist he would also record albums of comedy material showcasing his interpretation of Tallulah Bankhead, not to mention his spot-on turn as Bette Davis.

Michael Greer made only a handful of films in his lifetime, yet it took only one performance in one particular film to immortalize him forever in Queer Cinema. The role was that of “Queenie” in playwright John Herbert’s greatest achievement (not to mention his only hit play), FORTUNE AND MEN’S EYES. Herbert found his inspiration in a quotation from the Bard’s sonnet 29 “when in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…..” the words from this sonnet perfectly captured the helplessness of the principals trapped in their own private torment thus setting the tone for his play.

FORTUNE AND MEN’S EYES touched a personal chord in almost everyone who experienced it. John Herbert was instrumental in creating a support group, The Fortune Society, for men who had similar abusive experiences in prison, yet the system remains in serious need of change and as of now those reforms are still not in place.

The play was a runaway success all over the world, playing to shocked houses, giving audiences unaccustomed to overt displays of male homosexuality in the prison system something to think about on the way home. When MGM chose to make a film of the play, Michael Greer was asked to repeat his stage performance, or so he thought.

The film changed directors in mid production, with a decided shift in tone and substance. The original play was a plea for reform in the still inhumane prison system. The film, then under the heavy hand of Harvey Hart, became an exploitive freak show of homosexual gang bangs with suicide as the only alternative to gay sex, with Michael forced by the producers to send up his character and play out a savage and desperate drag show confrontation, which resulted in humiliation for his original efforts to bring some humanity to his role.

This exaggerated kind of exploitation film serves but one purpose: in giving its viewing audience the impression that the entire prison system is filled to the rafters with predatory homosexuals on the make, it totally erased the original play’s power and integrity, which was supposedly what motivated John Herbert to write the play in the first place (he was once, as a young man, arrested for being in drag, then placed in prison where he was abused) creating in its wake a film that critic Roger Ebert would call THE BOYS IN THE BAND GOES TO JAIL.

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13 Responses »

  1. Back in the day….somewhere between 1967 and 1968, I spent hour after hour at the Club 524 on Vallejo (below the Coit Tower). Michael’s comedy was so good and so funny that I memorized almost all of it. From Mona between Blue Boy and Whistler’s Mother, to Tallulah’s Toy Box, to Lady Bird, I roared every nite of his act. It was a wonderful time in my life. Michael will be missed. Also saw him in a couple movies. His one line when the woman stepped into his flower garden was classic” BITCH, stay out of my petunias. “She roared back “They’re marigolds you silly queen”. He said..I MAY NOT KNOW MY FLOWERS BUT I KNOW A BITCH WHEN I SEE ONE”. I use some of his lines from time to time.

  2. Michael’s Mona Lisa, aka “Mona the Mouth”, evolved over time. Mona started out as a solo character surrounded by a large gilded frame. In the next incarnation, she was flanked by similar sized reproductions of Lawrence’s “Pinkie” and Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy”. In the final version, he said Mona had moved to Marin, Calfornia, and Michael had replaced the gilded frame with a redwood hot tub.

    Once, while appearing at The Hayloft in Studio City, California, he asked that all the lights be turned out, and he launched into an impression of Billie Holiday singing “My Man” that was eerily accurate. He wanted the lights out, he said, because he thought it would be too distracting to hear the voice of a small black woman coming out of the body of a very tall white man.

    He spoke very proudly of his role in “The Gay Deceivers”. He said he played his character “like Eve Arden on acid”. He was particularly proud that his character was one of the first gay characters in mainstream cinema who was neither killed nor disgraced nor committed suicide, but instead had a hand in helping the protagonist. He also said that the costume department had turned the costume party scene into something very unflattering, and that he spent a good bit of time early that day bringing the costumes down to a more believable level.

  3. Joey

    Thanks so much for your addtions to the great Michael Greer!!! I nearly fell over at the mention of THE HAYLOFT….as though I would forget a place I had so much fun back in the day…..wish I had this information at hand while I was doing the column.

  4. Thank you for the wonderful article. I first met Michael at the CABARET in S.F. I was a 17 year old budding musician with a fake ID and it was a turning point in my life. He always sweetly endured my gushing silliness at his dressing room door after the many shows I made a point of attending. Charles Pierce, Waylon & Madame and that sweet amazingly talented young man who was tragically killed in Golden Gate park, the CABARET club was a treat always. Michael was the STAR, and rightly so. Let’s not forget Michael’s longtime pianist and musical director, the late Kenny Richardson. Kenny and I actually talked marriage at one point and we all crossed paths over the years in L.A., S.F. snd Dallas. I had the honor of working with Michael and Kenny on stage, one of the girl singers the Killer Tomatahs, at the Bla-Bla club in Studio City. The scratchy, but still hilarious, show tapes are available online as a tribute to Michael. When he passed, I searched to see if any of his show brilliance had been preserved. Nada!!! I felt it important to put it out there. Of course the title of the CD is “Don’t Mess With Mona”

  5. David, Thank you for this wonderful article on Michael Greet, It brought back a lot of memories of the old days. I of course remember Michael from Fortune in Men’s Eyes but I also remember seeing him at a club called After Dark at Beverly and LaCienega in L.A. I remember the Mona bit between Blue Boy and Whistler’s Mother. It was one of the funniest routines I had ever seen. I would go every night he was there just because I could not remember laughing so hard in my life.

  6. I’m saddened to know that Michael Greer is no longer with us, despite the fact that I hadn’t spoken to him since 1975. He left an indelible impression on me having gotten to know him back in the early 1970’s when he appeared at Reno Sweeney, in New York City. He would pull up to my apartment in a black stretch hearse, driven by his friend Bob Platz. (That was a statement in itself) and off we’d go. We would sometimes have dinner, and go off to the club where he would slay his audiences every night. He loved what he did, and it showed. People, both straight and gay, would often wait in line to get his autograph after the show which he did lovingly as long as they didn’t linger too long (well, SOME of them, he didn’t mind!!!). He was bold, he was talented, he knew his stuff and he was gay. I never gave much thought to his sexuality because I simply took it for granted as, I think, did he. The more I read, and the more I think about it, he was brave beyond comprehension for a performer in that time and place. I can’t imagine that his being openly gay was anything intentional, and I believe he was simply being Michael Greer. Not hiding, showing neither shame nor remorse for who he was or the fact that he was an openly gay man in a covert society. His name may not be a household word but for those of us who knew him and/or experienced one of his shows, he WILL be sorely missed. He fills a void in a time in the early life of a specific type of cabaret in NYC and around the country that can never be duplicated, and a very important time in my life in particular. May he rest in peace.

  7. So.. .. I just finished watching the Gay Deceivers… I didnt even realize Michael was in it.. and then suddenly WHAM.. there is my old screaming queen buddy Mona right there on the screen.

    I had the fortune of becoming friends with Michael (and Mona) in the mid-80’s when he would come to Phoenix and perform at Taylors (back then, the best gay eatery and lounge in town). We became fast friends and remained in touch for many years. We lost contact back in the 90’s.. and I think of him often.

    After watching the movie, I decided to do a websearch and find the cantankerous old bastard.. only to find this website and the comments above that he is no longer with us… Well Bless Him and you know that whether he went UP or DOWN.. he and Mona are making them all laugh… because.. as Mona always said, “Just remember in life.. that no matter what you do in life.. no matter who you meet…. no matter where you go……. THERE YOU ARE!” I use that line to this day…

  8. Speaking as one who knew Greer “after the day”, he became quite the opportunist, ultimately taking monetary advantage of an old friend, to whom he owed a great sum after the elderly, star struck man’s passing, then moving in to prey on the VERY elderly woman that the man had daycare for. He was not pleasant to anyone who saw through his little game. His behavior off screen and off stage more closely remembered his “Queenie” in the final cinema product than the fond remembrances posted here !!!

  9. Ah the memories. Last saw him at a cabaret in Atlanta back in August, 1977. Several friends of mine still quote his “Holden-Holding” and “Oh marone” bits.

  10. I remember seeing Michael at a club on La Brea in Los Angeles back in the 1970’s.. Of course I adored his Mona. I guess many don’t remember that he was also a singer. His song about the woman who jumped from the Hollywood sign was a show stopper. Sadly, he was before his time. God, I wish that his act was available on YouTube!

  11. Michael and I were lovers for a while in the late 60’s. He was a wonderful person and I really missed him when I was transferred to the east coast. He was an incredible comedian and even used some of his lines that he would say to me in his act. I have thought about him all the time and was sad when he passed away. I’ll miss you Michael…

  12. First off I would like to thank David Del Valle for this incredible tribute to me dear friend Michael….I first met Michael in the early 60’s when he was appearing at this little bar on eighth street called The Redwood Room…My dear friend Ann Dee A Great singer and friend of Mikes’ took me. The show was billed as Jack and the Giants starring Michael Greer, Jim Baily and Roy Helland a hairdresser who went on to be hairstylist to Merryl Streep till this day…The show was probably one of the funniest shows ever with incredibly talented performers….word spread and and the lines were down the block…then the celebrities like Judy Garland started coming and then the straight crowd…It was truly a great show…Michael introducing Mona in the Museum..also His Venus De Milo with no arms and Marlyin Monroe whisper and Tallulah Bankhead’s T.V. Kiddie show called “Aunt Tallulah’s Box…And of course his hysterical and dead on Bette Davis….We became very close friends and collaborators…We co- wrote his “Tallulah in Heaven” routine for his comedy album as well as many lines for his act..Michael, Ann Dee and I performed at the famous Ciro’s (now the comedy store).I also directed his last show at the Rock Garden in Palm Springs…He would come over to my house almost every night and bring a great foreign movie and we would have coctails, dinner, smoke a Fat one and watch movies or any award show or specials, and of course made our comments and…Laugh…We laughed so much over the years..Michael Greer was the nicest, kindest person..And without being “in your face”, was truly “Show Biz”..He LOVED Show Business with all his heart…He was very Low Key and yet would come out with Brilliant lines in an instant…I remember once in Palm Springs staying at the famous DP which was notorious for outrageous sex all over the grounds..we were having coffee by the pool in the morning..No one else was around..I walked over to the jacuzzi and was about to take a dip and Michael in his Deeeep quiet voice said..”I wouldn’t go in there if I were you..I asked why and he said “after last night, It’s looking a bit like Egg Drop Soup this morning”..I nearly fell over laughing….I Loved Michael Greer…We were not lovers but best friends..There are so many great stories…..Michael died in my arms at the county hospital in Riverside, California…As he lay there I was holding him and telling him what a great Star he was….I think of him every day..I miss him and I Love him…He would be SO proud the he is being remembered, so Thank You again David…Richard Caruso

  13. Richard thank you for taking a moment to respond to my article! It is for you and other like minded folks that gives me the energy to keep these memories alive and well in print on the internet and in my books….I know Michael was blessed to have you in his life….I too have taken care of a partner until the
    end and it is a life altering experience of which you already are aware…..thanks again and please check out this site as well as my blog….the delvalle

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