“80. Fuckin’ 80.”
These were the first words that the legendary Cloris Leachman, who will actually be turning 85 in two months, said into her microphone at Idol Worship: An Evening with Cloris Leachman on Saturday, the main attraction of the 10th annual SF Sketchfest’s closing night, co-presented with Midnight Mass and hosted by “the very, very nervous” Peaches Christ. And Peaches had every right to be nervous: Ms. Leachman was as delightfully batty and unpredictable as the audience could have dared to hope.
The evening began, in traditional Midnight Mass fashion, with a drag spectacular. Peaches Christ performed an original song about Ms. Leachman, and a parade of drag queens paid tribute to several of her most unforgettable roles – Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety (which screened following the interview), Beverly Ann Stickle on The Facts of Life (along with additional queens playing each of the girls, most notably a wickedly inappropriate turn by Pollo Del Mar as Cousin Geri), and a quartet of queens paying homage to her memorably over-the-top stint on Dancing With The Stars.
Peaches also screened a thorough and crowd-pleasing highlight reel of Cloris’ six decades of work as a film and television actor, which featured everything from her Oscar-winning performance in The Last Picture Show to her role as Queen Hippolyte in The New Adventures of Wonder Woman (“Ooh, look at Linda Evans!” the confused old queen next to me cooed while pointing at Lynda Carter).
Then, finally, it was time for Cloris to come to the stage. But rather than just boringly stride out from behind the curtain, she opted to be marched down the aisle by her drag fleet and physically hoisted onto the stage. What followed was one of the longest standing ovations I’ve ever seen, with Ms. Leachman gliding back and forth on the stage, bouquet in hand, like the newly crowned Miss Octogenaria.
Once Peaches and Cloris finally settled into their seats, it became immediately clear that Peaches had her work cut out for her. Cloris was, to say the least, a restless stage presence. Peaches attempted to keep her on track with a roster of solidly informed questions that reflected her many years as a Cloris fan, but Ms. Leachman did not seem terribly interested in giving any straight answers. But, to her credit, Peaches seemed entirely prepared for this possibility (among others), so she rolled with the punches and let the conversation go wherever Ms. Leachman guided it.
There was a bit of a grace period toward the beginning of their conversation wherein Ms. Leachman at least attempted to answer the questions, offering a number of amusing anecdotes that usually ended with her waving her hand and declaring, “Oh well, they’re all dead now!” But soon Cloris grew bored of just sitting and talking. Her energy was just too intense to let her remain sedentary.
So, soon enough, Cloris was up and walking toward Peaches (a standing Cloris is roughly the same height as a seated Peaches). Poking her fingers into Peaches’ enormous black wig, Cloris said, “What would happen if I were to take this off?” With a shrug, Peaches granted her permission, perhaps sensing that Cloris was probably going to do it anyway. And so, Cloris briefly removed Peaches’ wig in front of the crowd, awkwardly attempting to put it back on a few moments later.
“I’ve actually been warned that you’re a wig-snatcher, so I was prepared for this possibility,” Peaches said calmly. And so, the interview resumed – for a few seconds, and then Cloris decided she wanted to try sitting on Peaches’ lap. This was then rejected as a bad idea, but not nearly as bad as her next idea, which was to have Peaches sit on her lap. Then, later, the wig was snatched again. And this time, it stayed off. “It’s fine,” Peaches said. “It’s actually very liberating. This is a whole lotta shit to wear on your head.”
But soon it became clear that Cloris was running out of ways to play with Peaches, so Peaches turned to the audience for questions (“Yes, working with Mary Tyler Moore was wonderful, yes, Mel Brooks is very funny, yes yes yes” Cloris muttered as a prelude for what was to follow). After the first gentleman to raise his hand was shut down by Cloris for asking an admittedly Interviews 101 question (“Do you prefer working in film or television?”), there was nervous laughter in the crowd when Peaches asked for another question. But a few brave gentlemen still came forward. Literally.
Each Q&A basically went like this:
Gay: Hello Ms. Leachman, I-
Cloris: Stand up please.
Gay: [standing] Ms. Leachman, I-
Cloris: State your name please.
Gay: Um, Bill? Ms. Leachman, I-
Cloris: Step into the aisle please.
Gay: [steps awkwardly over the people in his row to get into the aisle] Ms. Leachman, I-
Cloris: Come forward to the stage please.
Gay: [walks nervously up the aisle toward the stage and stands just below Cloris]
Cloris: Now what is your question?
Gay: Do you have any memories or favorite scenes you did with Madeline Kahn?
Cloris: Oh, I can answer that. [settles in for a long answer] I never had any scenes with Madeline Kahn.
Gay: Oh. Thank you? [returns shame-faced to his seat]
I don’t mean to suggest that Cloris was being a dick, although at least one or two of the gentlemen who asked questions might disagree. She was just doing a bit, busting everyone’s balls, being the big surly Cloris we all wanted her to be, with shades of Nurse Diesel thrown in for our benefit. She was nothing but sweetness and light at the book signing that followed. And if you knew how to play along well, you had a good chance of being invited onto the stage and forced to play jump-rope with Cloris’ microphone cord.
Eventually Peaches had to wrap things up and get the movie started, so she sent Cloris off to take a break before doing a book-signing in the mezzanine, introduced all the drag queens who’d participated in the pre-show extravaganza, and said a few lovely words in memory of Tura Satana, the iconic star of Faster, Pussycat! Kill, Kill!, one of the first celebrities to reach out to Peaches and appear at Midnight Mass, who’d passed away the night before.
Peaches announced that Cloris would be signing copies of her memoir starting roughly ten minutes into the movie. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to deal with a crazy line, but upon looking around the audience once the interval had passed, everyone seemed so enraptured by High Anxiety (truly one of Brooks’ masterpieces) that no one was getting up. So, I bought a copy of her book, got it signed, and most wonderfully, got this picture. I will treasure it always.