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Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Peggy Lee

Chuck Sweeney returns to Don't Tell Mama with his uncanny impersonation of a musical icon.

Chuck Sweeney as Peggy Lee...
It goes without saying that the art form of female impersonation is given a bad name by many of its practitioners. Lots of guys love to get themselves up as icons ranging from Cher to Madonna to Liza and strut their stuff before an audience, but few of these individuals sing live and many of them offer acts that are tasteless and vulgar in the extreme. This only makes things harder for those with real talent -- a category that definitely includes Chuck Sweeney, whose channeling of the iconic Peggy Lee is one of the most brilliant acts of female impersonation you're likely to see. I recently spoke with Sweeney about his upcoming return to Don't Tell Mama in the guise of the incomparable Peg.


THEATERMANIA: Peggy Lee was generally considered to be a tough old bird. Do you think she would have enjoyed your impersonation of her?

CHUCK SWEENEY: I think so. Her friends Mario Buatta and Phoebe Jacobs came to my show in December and they both loved what I did. During the first half of that show, I did a thing on top of the piano where I ended up rolling around and throwing my legs up in the air and that kind of stuff. There was lots of comedy in the first half but the second half was a string of Peggy's hits: "Mañana," "He's a Tramp," "Fever," "Is That All There Is?" Mario and Phoebe were especially enamored with that. So I think Peggy would approve if these two people, who were friends of hers since the '60s, got into it. I think she would be understanding of what it is that I do.

TM: Mario Buatta is quite a famous decorator, isn't he?

CHUCK SWEENEY: Yes. He was Peggy's decorator. And Phoebe Jacobs's father owned Basin Street East when it was really the place to be.

TM: I was lucky enough to get to see Miss Lee in what must have been one of her final performances in the mid '90s, in a showroom at the Hilton that's no longer there.

CS: And I saw her at The Ballroom -- in the winter of '86, if I'm not mistaken. It was the one and only time I got to see her live. That's when she had the look with the sparkle glasses and the Cleopatra wig; the way I do her is the way I saw her.

TM: It's interesting to me that you specialize in impersonating someone who was -- well, I guess you could call her a minimalist performer.

CS: You know, when I saw a PBS documentary on her that was called Fever: The Music of Miss Peggy Lee, I was amazed by what incredibly expressive eyes she had in the old TV and film clips. When I saw her live, she was hidden behind those glasses; she was pretty much covering up the fact that she had Bell's Palsy and all that. In her '50s and '60s TV specials and in the movie Pete Kelly's Blues, she was really quite a beautiful, fascinating, expressive woman. Her face could say so much. As for the minimalist thing, I used to joke that it's great to do her because all I have to do is stand there. If you're doing Liza, you've gotta throw in all those arm movements and that Fosse-esque stuff, but not with Peggy. I think that's why it's so funny when I climb on top of the piano and roll around -- because she wouldn't do anything like that.

...and as himself
TM: Your vocal impression of her is so perfectly on-target that it's almost spooky. I guess you're helped somewhat by the fact that she sang in a fairly low register.

CS: And she wasn't a belter, which is another good thing. I don't have to destroy my voice when I do her because she was so restrained. She made people listen to her.

TM: I should ask about your makeup and costuming. Do you do it yourself?

CS: Yes. I've had to make most of the outfits because I don't think I could get what I want off the rack. It's basically just a simple pattern for pajamas and a maternity top; she wore those flowing things. Oh, and I have a funny story about the wigs: When I first did her back in the summer of '87 in Provincetown and I needed to order a wig, I thought, "Where am I gonna find what I need? How the hell do I even describe it?" All of the impersonators in Provincetown seem to use this one company called René of Paris, so I gave them a ring and I said, "I need a white wig like -- I don't know, it has to have bangs and a blunt cut. It has to be solid white, not platinum." First, the guy said, "Well we have the such-and-such wig," and I said, "That doesn't sound right." Then he said, "We have the Cleopatra. That's in white. Peggy Lee orders 40 to 50 of them a year." And I said, "That's the one! Give me that! I just need two of them!"

TM: René of Paris. Is that in New York?

CS: I thought they were in the middle of the country somewhere. The people there had sort of a Nashville accent.

TM: Peggy Lee was a unique performer but, because she only did one movie and her TV stuff is mostly inaccessible, I guess it's fair to say that she's not very well known to the public at large -- especially not to people under 50.

CS: Yes, but what's amazing to me is that young people who have no idea who she was still seem to respond to the humor of my show. I used to perform in Ron Poole's Pool Party at Don't Tell Mama and he once said that, when I do Peg, I look like a giant Muppet with the hair, the feathers, and the glasses. Maybe that's part of what the kids respond to.

TM: I'm sure you also get the old-timers who come up to you afterwards and say "I used to watch her on TV" or "I have all of her albums."

CS: Yeah, that happens too. And then there are other people who tell me, "I don't know who she was but now I want go out and buy some of her recordings."

TM: You started out doing impressions of lots of female stars. When and how did you decide to focus on Peg?

CS: Back in the '80s, I was living in P-town and I did a show there. The first half was various impressions -- Bette Davis, Phyllis Diller, Joan Crawford, Merman. I worked with a guy named Michael Ogborn, and he would entertain the crowd while I dashed offstage and threw on my Judy Garland stuff, then I'd come back out and entertain as Judy. Then I'd make another costume change into Peggy Lee and end the show with that. The first time Ron Poole saw me was on the closing night of an Off-Broadway show called I Will Come Back. I was Tommy Femia's understudy as Judy Garland; I had just moved to New York from South Florida and got that gig. On closing night, I did a walk-on that wasn't even part of the show. We thought, "Let's just do something fun." Anyway, Ron Poole was there and Sidney Myer [booking manager of Don't Tell Mama] was there. Ron had no idea who Peggy Lee was, who I was impersonating, but Sidney went nuts. So Ron asked me if I would be interested in doing a guest spot as Peg in his comedy show. I did, and it just kind of took off from there in the New York market.

Peg o' my heart
TM: Tell me a little bit about the new show.

CS: The first half is going to be a mini-concert by Peg with all of the wacky patter, and in the second half I'm gonna branch out and do some other stuff that I've been itching to do for quite some time -- other impressions, but out of drag. I'm not going to take an intermission but [comedian] Nancy Witter's going to do some stuff and keep the audience rolling. Then I'm going to go and peel off everything, come back in regular clothes, and do a little Bette, do a little Liza, do a little Judy. Who else? Phyllis Diller's gonna make an appearance, Eartha Kitt, Sarah Vaughan, Tina Turner...

TM: That sounds really great. Now, you're a flight attendant, right?

CS: I was. Like many others, I got the big old pink slip. It'll be a year in July; I haven't been flying the friendly skies for quite some time! I'm just taking survival jobs to pay my rent.

TM: It would be fantastic if you could make a career out of doing Peg. Your show is certainly one of the best of its type that I've ever seen.

CS: Well, my real love is musical theater and I'd love it if something could happen there. I have to get back onto the audition circuit; I want people to see what else I'm capable of so it's not locked into their heads that I'm Peggy Lee all the time. But the damage may already be done!


[Chuck Sweeney's show Miss Peggy Lee & Me will be performed at Don't Tell Mama, 343 West 46th Street, on four consecutive Fridays -- June 11, 18, 25 and July 2 -- at 9:30pm. For reservations and/or more information, phone 212-757-0788.]


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