Ira Lee Collings :: At Nearly Eighty, Making His Mark In Cabaret
Like thousands before and after him, Ira Lee Collings came from small town America with a big dream to make it in show business in New York City. Like thousands before and after him, life took its unexpected turns and the dream perhaps was not realized as it had at one time been imagined.
And yet, those thousands of artists make up the fabric of our city, and their stories deserve to be told. Ira Lee Collings, who has been making a splash in recent years with shows at Don't Tell Mama, returns with "Gay Since 1935: A Gay Geezer's Musical Odyssey," to celebrate his own long life and Gay Pride month.
EDGE spoke with Ira Lee about his adventurous life and the new show.
A birthday celebration?
EDGE: Your show is called 'Gay Since 1935.' Is this an 80th birthday celebration?
Ira Lee Collings I don't turn eighty until October. I don't want to rush it. The reason I'm calling this 'Gay Since 1935' is because I believe we are born who we are. But there are many people who believe that we wake up one day and look out the window and say, 'Oh what a cute guy. I think I'll go gay.' It's so absurd. I'm the youngest of six boys and the Kinsey Report said one in six is gay, so here I am.
EDGE: I remember that in your show last year, you described growing up in Indiana as, 'There were heteros, and there were more heteros.' I'm wondering if back in those days you experienced bullying or family strife because of who you were.
Ira Lee Collings I really didn't. I was very innocent up until my twenties. I was terrible in sports. I couldn't dribble the basketball or hit the baseball, but I had to play because they didn't have enough boys for the team. I went to the coach and said I wanted to be a cheerleader. [Laughs] Well, that's the last thing he wanted to hear! But he talked it over with the teacher and they said to let the student body vote on it, and they said yes! I was the first male cheerleader in the history of Kingsbury High School. That was an achievement. I got a lot of harassment when we went to different schools, cat-calling and things like that. It was the first time I was called 'queer bait.' I didn't know what it meant, but I could tell by the tone of voice, it wasn't about fishing.
I never really thought about being gay. Who knew what it was? My older sister June brought home a True Confessions magazine and on the cover was this beautiful blond Adonis with curly hair. And it said at the bottom, 'Girls Beware: Do Not Marry This Man-He May Be a Homosexual.' I remember looking at it and thinking, 'What's not to like?' So I started to get an inkling then.
I had a friend that I fooled around with at one point. Unfortunately, he came to New York and took an overdose of pills at age 27 and was gone. His father wasn't good to him.
I didn't get a bad self-image from my father, because he died when I was six. I don't know how it would have been if he had lived. Look at what parents have done to their kids, even today with all the knowledge we have. They throw them out!
The whole odyssey
EDGE: How old were you when you moved to New York?
Ira Lee Collings I was in my twenties. I went to Chicago first and studied at the Goodman Theatre for three years. That's where I had my first love. I talk about it in this show. Later, a friend in New York got me an apartment, so I came here, but that apartment only lasted six months. Then I moved and moved and moved before I finally got my name on a lease.
I talk about the whole odyssey, up until the present. I was lucky I got out of Indiana without too much destruction. It took me years and years to like myself, let alone love myself. But I think many people go through that.
EDGE: It must have been interesting to see the differences in gay life through the decades.
Ira Lee Collings In Chicago, I noticed that many couples lived like a man and woman. One would stay home and knit and cook and clean and be the wife. I thought that was strange. I didn't see that once I got to New York.
EDGE: I read that you had a hiatus from show business for twenty-five years. What made you give it up?
Ira Lee Collings Between doing these showcases and waiting until three in the morning to sing, that really wore me out. And then the theater thing wore me out too. I decided that I'd better get a job because I might live long enough to need Social Security! A friend got me in the back door of Forbes Magazine. He was a writer and actor, and we would proofread the magazine. Then I got some of my friends in there to do it. I moved into a full-time job there and retired at sixty-two.
I ran into Woody Regan. He and a neighbor and I did our first cabaret show years ago called 'Back to Back.' I started doing his workshop, and then one day I called Sidney at Don't Tell Mama-I was so enamored of its history-and asked if I could do a show there. He said, 'Why not?' And that was it.
EDGE: I heard that you opened for Dawn Hampton back in the '60s. What was the cabaret scene like back in those days?
Ira Lee Collings It was mostly gay bars and she was the queen of the gay bar singers. She wore a jewel in the middle of her forehead. She was so exotic, I thought, 'My God, what is that?' There was a little table through the swinging door to the kitchen and that was her dressing room. Then she would come out and do her show. She claims her career ended when all the gay boys started dying of AIDS. She has now lost some of her voice, but she dances and still tours all over the world. I got to talk to her a couple years ago, and I thought she would come to my show, but she didn't make it. But she was wonderful. I remember asking her how she reached her audience. She said it was like a wheel-it turns and you give it out and then it turns again and they give it back. It took me fifty years to figure out what the hell she was talking about, but it was great information!
EDGE: That was the golden age of cabaret. You must have seen some others in their heyday.
Ira Lee Collings We were so poor, we were trying to do showcases and working temp jobs during the day and taking lessons. I kick myself that I didn't go to the Bon Soir and see Barbra Streisand when she was there. I'm sure I thought I couldn't afford it, but I probably could have, at least once. It didn't happen. I auditioned for the Bon Soir once, but it was right at the end of their run, so I never got to do a show there.
EDGE: You didn't meet your partner, Owen, until you were about fifty, right?
Ira Lee Collings I was fifty and he was forty-seven.
EDGE: Well, that gives us all hope.
Ira Lee Collings [Laughs] Yes, I put an ad in the gay paper, 'Nice guy looking for nice guy.' He answered the ad. He had just lost somebody and I had just lost somebody when we came together, so it was all timing. I sing 'Just in Time' in the show. Twenty-nine years later, we're still putting up with each other and having a life together.
Importance of Pride
EDGE: It must be fascinating for you to see the civil rights struggle going on and the acceptance of gay marriage and all of that. Did you feel the need to tell your own story or was there some sense of mission because all of this was going on?
Ira Lee Collings The main reason was because we are born who we are. For anyone to think that we would choose this because of all we have to go through and to become happy with who we are, is just nuts! It's an incredible journey, and not everybody makes it. Like my friend Ron, who took his life at twenty-seven. I was with an alcoholic for fifteen years, and he nearly destroyed me. God bless him, when he saw that Owen and I had met and were happy, he disappeared. But that took a lot out of me. That's another reason I stopped singing for a while. Owen was a whole different person, a loving person who wanted a relationship.
The most important thing that happened to me in New York was going to the first gay pride parade. Up until that point, I didn't think much of myself. They were going down Sixth Avenue because they didn't have permission to come down Fifth. So we were nervously waiting and someone said, 'They are coming down Fifth!' So we ran over there, and we saw all these wonderful men and women coming down the avenue with all their signs, and out front was Rollerina with her wand, leading the pack. When I saw those people, it took my breath away. For a moment, all my fear and anxiety went away and I said to myself, 'It's okay to be gay.'
That's the first time I was able to say that to myself. Now, I only go for an hour or so, but it is still very powerful. Imagine gay firefighters and policemen having the courage to come out, with all the other policemen looking at them. And parents of gays! What an amazing organization that is. That parade has been a powerful tool. So I'm very grateful for Gay Pride. I like to do this show in June because of Gay Pride. It gives us a chance to stand up and be counted.
EDGE: Your show is so whimsical and full of youthful energy. On the other hand, in your show you refer to yourself as a geezer. Why do you think it's important for the audience to hear the perspective of an older gay man?
Ira Lee Collings I didn't really give it too much thought. I'm almost eighty years old, let's face it: I'm a geezer! If I were still in Indiana, they'd be calling me a geezer. In my head, though, I still feel like a fourteen-year-old, running around and being crazy and having fun. It was time for me to clarify who I was and why people need to know I've been gay since 1935. Most gay guys my age, you don't even hear from them anymore. The older gay community is usually forgotten. I'm trying to get one of my videos on the gay TV station, HERE. There has to be a lot of elderly gays who are watching that station.
EDGE: Hearing the perspective of the older gay man is refreshing. For all the politics going on, nothing promotes gay marriage more than the picture of Owen getting up on the stage with you at the end of your show. Beautiful!
Ira Lee Collings He's walking a little slower this year, so he may not be on the stage!
EDGE: You can go to him!
Ira Lee Collings That's true!
EDGE: In a nutshell, how would you describe your show to get people to come see it.
Ira Lee Collings A fun expose of one person's life, starting from childhood up until eighty years old. Realizing he's a homosexual and dealing with all that. I want to bring joy to the audience, and maybe shake them up a little bit. And share some wonderful music. The bottom line is bringing joy and humanity and honesty to my audience. I want to show that an eighty-year-old can still have fun and share my love!
Ira Lee Collings comes to Don't Tell Mama for two special Pride Month shows, June 17 (7:00) and June 22 (7:00). Go to www.donttellmamanyc.com for more details, or make a reservation by calling 212-757-0788 after 4:00 pm daily.