Gypsy

Flashback: Faith’s Campaign Cabaret article in Washington City Paper

faith-cabaret-01.jpgThe following article appeared in The Washington City Paper on April 25, 1997. You can see the article archived online here. It attempts to document Faith’s campaign cabaret performances in DC, where she was running for mayor. I took the photos at one of Faith’s Campaign Cabaret performances the same year.

Faith’s Campaign Cabaret

Faith is a star. Not coincidentally, she is also a perennial candidate. In ’96, she ran for delegate against Eleanor Holmes Norton (picking up over 1,000 votes), and she has run twice against Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry. Her current campaign slogan is “Vote for Faith in ’98.” She’s running for mayor—again. Severely encapsulated, Faith’s platform involves running Congress and the feds out of D.C. (known to her as the “Devil’s Colon”) and using all those beautiful neoclassical buildings as art studios, theaters, and concert halls, a transformation to be funded by big Hollywood stars. It’s easy to get Faith on a roll about her plans: “I’ve got this one program I call ‘Shoot It on Film Before You Shoot Your Foe.’ It puts Tony Bennett in Anacostia starring as a Catholic priest, teaching kids to make movies.”

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Now 73, Faith started running when she lived in St. Croix, sponsored by her then-husband, a former attorney general in the islands. “I got fewer votes each time I ran,” she remarks. “You think they were trying to tell me something?” Before St. Croix, Faith played on Broadway in a series of musicals (“They were all flops,” she says with inspiring, unmayoral candor) before landing a role as Mazzeppa in Gypsy, the play Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne wrote for Ethel Merman. Faith claims to have stolen the show (you’ll believe it if you ever rent the video—and supposedly they tamed down her bit for the movie) with a bump-and-grind number she developed in N.Y.C. burlesque parlors. In the movie version, she teaches Natalie Wood how to strip, sings “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” and blows a trumpet. She also appears on my thrift-store copy of the Broadway cast recording.

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Faith recreates her Mazzeppa bit in her weekly Sunday-night campaign cabaret at Mr. Henry’s on U Street (formerly the Andalusian Dog; show starts around 8:30), kicking the show off with a Gypsy video clip and a strip number that leaves little to the imagination and ends with her blowing the trumpet between her legs and sporting a “Free D.C.” sign on her butt. “It has deeply sociological significance,” Faith says from the stage. The oddly magical entertainment includes calypso campaign songs, reworkings of Evita tunes (“Don’t Cry for Me, Washingtonians”), Noel Cowardlike ditties by unknown songwriter John Wallowich, a Nat King Cole tune, and a rendering of Lord Buckley’s “vintage soul talk” number, “The Nazz” (aka Jesus of Nazareth). If you’re, er, lucky, she might forget to wear her pants when she roller-skates out in red, white, and blue for her campaign speech. Her husband, Jude, accompanies her skillfully on guitar and does an uncanny karaoke Frank Sinatra. When Faith forgets the words, Jude is there to help her out, and he fills in the gaps between her costume changes with smooth calypso and Fats Waller numbers—like a cut-rate João Gilberto. Filled with broad comedy and multiculti touches, the show is a mondo exotica throwback; imagine a gene splicing between Incredibly Strange Music doyennes Yma Sumac and Rusty Warren. And think what Faith would do if she ran the D.C. government.—Jeff Bagato

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You Gotta Have Faith

Nonagenarian. Perennial candidate for Mayor of DC. DC Statehood activist. Burlessque dancer. Actress. Comedienne. Cabaret performer. Faith has done many things. Once upon a time, she was a key component of the Broadway musical Gypsy, in its original run with Ethel Merman, as well as the film version with Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden. Faith developed the role of Mazeppa, an aging burlesque dancer who blows a bugle while doing her bumps and grinds. She schools the young Gypsy Rose Lee on the necessities of stage life in the song “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” Contemporary reviews of the stage version and YouTube views of the movie version show Faith stealing the show with sassy hip snaps and a voice that could peel paint off your wall.

I first met Faith circa 1998 when she was doing her Campaign Cabaret performances in various nightspots around DC, adopting show tunes and calypso numbers to serve as self promotion, accompanied by her husband Jude on guitar. Film auteur Jeff Krulik (of Heavy Metal Parking Lot fame) was acting as their manager and booking the gigs. It’s hard to forget such a magical entertainment. Some images are more indelible than others. Like seeing a 75-year-old Faith rollerskate onto the stage in a nude body stocking to blow her bugle.

Recently while at work in George Washington University’s Burns Law Library, I ran across a book called Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance by Anthea Kraut. The back cover blurb mentioned Faith’s lawsuit against the producers of Broadway’s Gypsy for infringing on her copyright to Mazeppa’s dance routine. She had developed the number during her time on the actual burlesque stage, and reprising it during audition got her the part in the play. The climax of her performance made it a unique signature and brought the house down: bending over to blow her bugle between her legs, derriere facing the house. This “derriere pose” was deemed too risque by the film’s director, so she did a deep back bend instead, which is what you see in all the pictures. The case turns out to have been an important one in the struggle to gain copyright protection for dance choreography. But Faith was unsuccessful in gaining damages. The judge ruled that her dance–and the story it purported to tell of an ex-military woman now earning her living on vaudeville–was not significant enough to warrant protection, being both too low-brow and created by a woman.

I interviewed Faith extensively back in the 90s, writing a short article on her for The Washington City Paper (you can read it here), and later publishing the full transcript in my fanzine Mole. Over 30 years after her lawsuit, she was still angry about the copyright rip off,  But it was hard to tell if the story was just a part of her self-myth. It was great to see it confirmed in a big way.

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Using the article in Kraut’s legal monograph as a hook, I put together an exhibit for the display case in the Burns Library about Faith, her copyright lawsuit, and her mayoral candidacy. Included are vinyl LP copies of the soundtracks for both stage and screen versions, photos from her 90s cabaret shows, campaign ephemera, and a dented and warped old bugle I got on eBay. In fact, Krulik told me to get a beat up horn “just like the one Montgomery Clift gave her.” You see how the legend of Faith just seems bottomless? There’s always another amazing story about her. If she makes a visit to the exhibit, I’ll let you know.