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SERIOUS ABOUT HIS LADIES By Don Heckman (taken from The Times)
When Jim Bailey takes the stage as singers such as Judy Garland, he definitely doesn't play for laughs. When Jim Bailey saunters onstage as a living image of Judy Garland, the impact is instantaneous — the voice, the songs, the look, the style. The only way to describe it is as an all-encompassing illusion, as utterly convincing character acting.
That's a definition that suits Bailey, who constantly underscores his insistence upon being seen as an actor who sings, rather than as a female impersonator, an impressionist or a drag queen.
"It used to be — and it's still true, in some sense," he says, "that a man puts on a dress for laughs. I did the opposite, and people were fascinated by it. Bailey's right about the laughs (think "I Was a Male War Bride," "Some Like It Hot" or "The Bird Cage"). But cross-dressing onstage has been a comedic practice for only the past few hundred years. Before that, from Euripides to Shakespeare, men typically played serious female parts.
Bailey likes to think of himself in that latter category. And Friday night, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, he will perform an evening of his full-range Judy Garland illusion. The show's title — "Jim Bailey Is Judy Garland Live" — should put to rest any doubts about Bailey's mission.
It's been more than three decades since Bailey, who says he is 54, made his major-venue debut in Las Vegas, followed by television spots on the Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett shows, dates at Carnegie Hall and London's Palladium, and appearances for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth, and four U.S. presidents. But before the accolades and the TV guest roles and the site was the decision: to put on a wig and do a characterization of Judy Garland. Bailey attributes that decision to something approaching employment desperation.
"I'd moved to California from back East trying to get work as an actor, and I wasn't having much luck," he explains. "Then, one day, I was in my car and the radio was playing a Judy Garland record. I started singing along and, after I got home, I put on an album and sang along with that. Well, as I did, I found my body was doing Judy moves that I had seen on her television show. And I thought, 'My God, I can sing like Judy Garland. What does that mean?' "
Initially, it didn't mean much — especially after Bailey called his then-manager and asked her about it. Her reaction, he says, sardonically, was to say: "Oh, come on. I don't handle female impersonators." But Bailey, still captivated by the idea, sang for a few friends and received an enthusiastic response.
He started playing around with makeup and wigs, picked up some wardrobe items from the Salvation Army and, with the aid of a new manager, landed a gig at a small local club in the late 1960s. "Judy was actually the first celebrity to come in," Bailey says. "She couldn't figure out what I was doing, at first. But after a while we became friends, she became supportive and I learned a lot about show business from her."
Describing her conversations with him, Bailey shifts, seemingly unconsciously, into the Garland speaking sound and rhythm. "She wouldn't say, 'This is what you do here,' she'd say, 'You know, when I do that song, I only do this. You don't want to do everything in the same song, because then you won't have anything to do later on.' " Singing and acting were actually second choices for Bailey, who as a teenager growing up in New Jersey wanted to be a concert pianist.
"That didn't happen," he says. "But my teacher suggested I go into singing. I had this wonderful aunt who, unlike my parents, was well-traveled and well-read, and she took me to the Conservatory of Music in Philadelphia. And the technique that I learned there, studying to be a lyric tenor — how to breathe properly; how to sing without a microphone, as well as microphone technique — is what has made it possible to do the kind of singing I do with my various ladies."
Initially, Bailey thought of the Garland illusions — as well as the Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee and Marilyn Monroe illusions that followed — as a way to "make money until I could get some work as an actor." Even today, with all his international successes, he still speaks wistfully of the hope that "a good, juicy film role will come along — either a part for a woman or a man, and hopefully a man." But he also has come to terms with the uniqueness of what he does with his illusions, especially with the Garland characterization.
"I once told Liza Minnelli," he recalls, "that I still had this thing in my head that I really just wanted to be an actor and a singer. And Liza said to me, very seriously, 'But if you stop doing what you do, how will I ever see Mama again?' "And that, for me, was the turning point where I really understood what I do, and how special it really is."
Copyright ©2005 Jim Bailey. All rights reserved.
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