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    Off the Wahl: Swing It, Sharon!

    By Jan Wahl–

    I’ve been in the audience for Sharon McNight for many years. This fabulous comedienne and singer holds the stage, original yet also bringing to mind two of my favorite performers: Mae West and Sophie Tucker.

    Sharon does a show called Red Hot Mama, an homage to the outrageous Sophie Tucker. Sharon told me for the San Francisco Bay Times, “I love her strong will, independence. She was out there on her own as a woman, not the easiest job … oh, brother.” When Bette Midler does her own Sophie Tucker, we laugh at the Bruce Vilanch-written stories and jokes. Wonderful … and a great way to bring Sophie back to new generations. 

    When Sharon performs Sophie, it is funny and poignant, exploring her life and loves. Sharon said: “Soph got married to get out of the house, and married three times. Her true love was performing and being an entrepreneur, always setting up a card table after her show to sell her book. She was in love with her career, starting as nobody singing in her parent’s restaurant, heading to New York cabaret; takes some balls.”

    Though Mae West was younger than Sophie, they were not that far off from each other in many ways. Mae is the closest thing I will ever have to a spirit animal, someone who deeply influenced my life and behavior. Please check out the amazing documentary feature on her, Mae West: Dirty Blonde, on “American Masters” for PBS.

    Since Sharon also does a wonderful Mae West one woman show, I asked who was happiest, Mae or Sophie. She responded, “Well. Mae got laid a lot, I mean a lot. Sophie not so much, due to weight issues and religion. Both were very successful in their careers, so that was definitely a happiness.”

    A 1989 Tony nominee for “Best Leading Actress in a Musical” (Starmites) and a 1986 SF Pride Grand Marshal, Sharon also does a remarkable show about three Betty’s: Betty Hutton, Betty Grable, and Bette Davis. I’m hoping she’ll come back to the Bay Area with this one. 

    But at least she will be here very soon. Maybe she’ll sing my favorite funny, “Santa Lost a Ho,” but she’s not promising! I am thrilled to welcome the holiday time with Sharon again as we celebrate for a great cause: The Richmond Ermet Aid Foundation presents Help Is on the Way XX: Feliz Navidad on December 5 at the Brava Theater Center. This fine organization was founded in 1994 by two women who had lost their sons to AIDS. Ken Henderson and Joe Seiler have led the fight, with friends and colleagues, to provide aid for HIV/AIDS programs, hunger and homeless organizations, and underserved youth and families. 

    Their holiday fundraiser is fun and festive, with fabulous performers like Bruce Vilanch, Paula West, Lisa Vroman, Shawn Ryan, and others. There are libations, an auction, and great-looking Santa’s helpers—all getting us in the holiday spirit. This year’s show will benefit Project Open Hand, which provides nutritious meals to many in need.

    With all the previous talk about divas, I’m thinking about other great dames that get out there and belt. We have Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, and Ella Fitzgerald, but I’m taking a turn to the movies with catty moments on film between women. Many of us immediately think of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  It’s kinda wonderful that Bette and Joan hated each other in real life. There are so many juicy stories about the making of the film.

    I was fortunate to interview Ginger Rogers, who absolutely hated Katherine Hepburn when they made the delightful Stage DoorFootlight Parade with Cagney and Blondell has one of the great diva lines: “Get out of here, Countess. As long as there are sidewalks, you’ll always have a job.”       

    Sometimes what is set up as rivalry can be just the opposite. Regarding Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Jane Russell told me that Marilyn Monroe was a great friend and they did nothing but help each other through that fabulous film. In Libeled Lady, classy Myrna Loy adored costar Jean Harlow, according to Myrna’s terrific autobiography Being and Becoming. Pal Joey was set up for Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak to despise each other, yet both women became lifelong friends. 

    Back to Help Is on the Way for the Holidays … I’ll see you there. Look for the hat.

    For tickets and more information: https://tinyurl.com/yrf847pf

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at www.janwahl.com

    Published on November 4, 2021