Marga Gomez has long been hilarious, her kinetic energy applied to fascinating takes on Latin, LGBT, and pop culture. The Puerto-Rican/Cuban-American performer’s show Latin Standards is coming to San Francisco—where she lives—this month. If you can’t make it, Gomez filled me in on the show, and just about everything else in her life, in a briskly informative fashion.
Hi, Marga. Tell me about Latin Standards.
It premiered at the Public’s Under the Radar festival last January. I’ve written 12 solo plays and this is the last one I’m writing and performing—not that I won’t still perform. Latin Standards is about my dad and me. I‘ve written about him before, but this angle is how my dad wrote songs besides being a comedian. He wrote a few Latin Billboard hits. His song was bought by the Muzak corporation and he was very proud of that. It played in elevators for a while.
What was it called?
“En El Ultimo Escalon.” In English, it translates to “The Last Step,” but everything sounds so much better in Spanish. The show is a collage of a few things, but about how my father influenced me to be a creative person and not do anything but make shows and perform.
When the comedy scene started to change in San Francisco and you couldn’t really make a living being a comedian, there were all these open mics, so I did one at a Latin drag club similar to Escuelita in New York. This one was called Esta Noche. I talk about how things were going great for him and then this parallel story of me trying to make a comedy night work in a Spanish language Latino drag cub in a neighborhood in San Francisco that was just about to be slammed by gentrification.
The theme of the night was “Latin comedians who can’t speak Spanish.” It was a mix of hipsters coming in and the working class Latinos who’d sit at the bar and be really loud. Half the show was me saying, “Por favor, callate!” The club was created in the ‘70s by gay Latinos who recognized that gay Latinos are caught between the mainstream and their family, both of which reject them for different reasons. There were signs everywhere saying “No drugs,” which of course means “Drugs!”
Shouldn’t we say “Latinos and Latinas”?
Or you can see Latinx, which is what the kids say. The premise is this is my final farewell concert, much like Liza had 20 years ago. I say that after 30 years of being a performer, I want to do something different, I want to do songs. I segue into a scene from back in the day with my dad—being a kid and riding in his Cadillac, and later, starting my comedy show at Esta Noche and dealing with the shady manager.
You talked about Latin people being rejected by family, but it sounds like your father was cool.
Not at first. When my parents found out I was gay, I was 19. They were divorced and they didn’t even talk to each other. I was starting to figure out that I’m gay. They both freaked out. People think Latino parents are more homophobic than others, but they’re not—they’re uniquely homophobic. They’ll use tools from the Spanish Inquisition. They were terrifying.
I was with my first love and we were doing a lot of young girl lesbian sex. I’m refraining myself from not getting too graphic here. My father came home and must have heard us having loud sex. He must have called my mother in the morning and they talked for the first time in five years. They were trying to blame her. So I left New York and went to California. I thought California was where the hippies were, and I wound up in San Francisco, where everybody was an artist. So being gay led me to the kind of performing I do, which was autobiographical, revelatory, and campy.
Did your parents come around?
It was two years of me just gone. I ran away from home—from two homes, because they were separated. I didn’t want to hear them yelling at me or calling me anything bad, and I started having this great life in San Francisco, where everybody’s an artist, a queer, and there’s tons of weed—you can smoke weed in a café. After two years, I get back in touch with my parents. I come back to New York and we don’t talk about it. It’s a coping mechanism—“We know you’re gay, but we’re not gonna talk about it.”
That’s pretty common. Did they ever see your shows?
No. In fact, my father would tell people I was a doctor. They were both entertainers—my mom was a dancer, my dad was a producer/comedian/songwriter. They didn’t care whatever I did. They weren’t even paying attention to me being gay. They were focused on getting more gigs—typical show people. My dad passed in the ‘80s. My mom was involved in a divorce with her second husband for years. She died from Alzheimer’s. When she was sick, I’d perform my solo show for her and she’d lay there in the bed.
Did she get any entertainment out of that?
I don’t know. With that kind of illness, people go in and out of some kind of clarity.
On a less poignant note: Did Robin Williams really call you a lesbian Lenny Bruce?
Oh god, yeah. There was a magazine called Premiere in the ‘90s. He lived in San Francisco. He was one of the first celebrities who took an interest. I wound up doing this benefit for [the documentary] The Celluloid Closet.
They had me come in and do a little comedy set. Harvey Fierstein was the MC and Robin and Lily Tomlin and all these big names were in it. Harvey made a joke and he pissed off the lesbians and he was in a lot of trouble, and I came on, after everything ground to a halt, and I made some sort of joke and broke the ice and became the hero of the night.
Robin booked me on Comic Relief. I was scared shitless, but looked good. I had an up ‘do. I had a slacks suit. This was the ‘90s, so it was burgundy. There was a long vest—you know lesbians and vests. It’s like a second skin. I was all cheekbones. Robin introduced me on the show: “She ain’t heavy, she’s my brother.” He rolled his Rs.
Any other TV?
In the Christmas episode of Sense8, Season 2, I was the manager of a women’s shelter and a lesbian. I’m 10 minutes after the orgy scene. Mike Albo says, “Are you cleaning up?” I’m trying to get some more sweet on-camera money.
Yas! As for movies, in your show Pound, you demystified Hollywood’s lesbian cliches while raging about your lack of sex life as a “celesbian.” Are you still single?
I’m still single, but I’m having sex. The great thing about Pound is after the show every now and then, a lady would say, “I can’t believe you’re celibate.” “Yeah it’s true.” Then I wind up having sex. But I would not let it mess up my great script. [laughs] I think sex is a good practical idea. Monogamy, we should let it go. We should all get a get out of jail free card.
But the problem is, can I eat ice cream? I ballooned up a little bit, so I lost weight. Now I’m thinking, “Why? I can eat all the ice cream now.” We’re all gonna die. I wanna die with a pint of Häagen-Dazs or McConnell’s—with a lady going down on me while I eat a pint of pistachio from Ben and Jerry’s.”
Important final question: Do you wake up in the morning and think “I’m Hispanic,” “I’m a woman,” or “I’m a lesbian”?
I don’t wake up in the morning. I wake up at 11:59. When I wake up, I’m like, “When can I drink again?” I think I’m so behind. I don’t think about any of those things. I grew up in New York—Washington Heights—and I was in Long Island and lived in Sheepshead Bay. Who knows what you’re allowed to say anymore, but I’m an old Jewish man. I’m Bernie Sanders or something. When I look in the mirror, I see I’m not. I’m an attractive brown woman.
You certainly are. Continued fabulousness, Marga.
When You’re Alone And Life Is Making You Lonely…
British standards were the order of the night when Downtown came uptown to applaud Petula Clark singing “Downtown” last week. B.B. King’s was mobbed with fans there to see the great 1960s belter of hits like that one, “Color My World,” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” perform a satisfying and truly fabulous show of her hits (including a country version of “I Know a Place”), along with some new songs (a jazzy and righteous “Living For Today”), and other selections and anecdotes.
At 85, Petula is still the consummate performer, in fine voice and great spirit, never overdoing any aspect of her show, just delivering with spunk and spirit and cutely tugging at her blouse and doing a quick faux curtsy as a thank you every time one of her hits got start-up applause.
She also did “With One Look” from Sunset Boulevard, which she starred in for two years (in London and New York), despite admonitions that more than eight months in that show could land you in a clinic. And she told fun stories about Finian’s Rainbow, the 1968 Francis Ford Coppola movie she was in with Fred Astaire, who didn’t want to dance in a real cow pasture, though the burgeoning mad genius Coppola convinced him to do so.
I also loved Petula doing “This Is My Song,” the beautiful Charlie Chaplin song from his A Countess from Hong Kong, compete with funny remarks about the film’s costar, Sophia Loren. Backstage, the B-52s’ Fred Schneider was waiting with a Petula album for her to sign; the B’s did a cover of “Downtown.” Nice—but that was nothing compared to the gushing I did when I got to sit with Petula for a brief chat.
If I’d had a pint of pistachio, I would have been in LGBT heaven with Marga Gomez at that very moment.