BWW Interview: Erik Lee Preminger of TOGETHER, WHEREVER WE GO: GYPSY ROSE LEE BY HER SON, ERIK LEE PREMINGER at TheatreZone
Erik Lee Preminger, the son of legendary burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee (whose 1957 memoirs inspired the classic musical GYPSY) and film director Otto Preminger, will appear in-person at Naples's Theatrezone on Wednesday, January 15, 2020 to present his one-man show about his famous mother (featuring rare home movies, television shows, newsreel footage, a question-and-answer session, and more).
He was kind enough to give me and BroadwayWorld readers some insight into his life and his show ahead of the January 15 performance; read below.
Could you start off by telling our readers a bit about yourself?
"I'm 75 years old. I was born in New York City, and my mother originally called me Erik Lee. Then when she married her third husband I was Erik Lee de Diego, then after that divorce, I was Erik Lee Kirkland, which was the name on my birth certificate, which was my mother's second husband. Then when I was 17, I learned that Otto Preminger was my father, and when I was 22, after my mother died, he adopted me. That is sort of my lineage, which is kinda complicated. I was in the army, and I worked with Otto in the film business. I wrote a book about my childhood with my mother, now in print as "My G-String Mother." I've written a number of screenplays, none of which have been produced. I've worked in audiovisual and a few other things like that. I edited this documentary film, which I narrate, about my mother's life, which is made up of film clips that she took; also newsreel footage, some clips from her television shows--they're very, very funny. I do this [one-man show] very often in connection with the musical GYPSY, because people are very curious to know what happened to her after the musical, and this is the answer to that question, along with a long question and answer period where I get to sort of satisfy the audience with some anecdotes that are both funny and revealing."
That is great. Could you tell us what was it like to grow up with a mother like Gypsy Rose Lee?
"Well, you know, that's a very difficult question to answer because, like most children, what you experience is normal. But in fact, from the time I was 6 months old until my mother moved to California in 1962, for about 18 years, I traveled with her every place she went. She put me to work early on, just as her mother had put her to work early on. My first job for her was when I was 6. We were in England, she was playing the London Palladium, and her act involved pins with porcelain tops. Straight pins with the porcelain tops, you probably know what I'm talking about. She would pin her skirt, her blouse, and everything with these pins, and as part of the act, she would pull out the pin and throw it into the audience. Well, this is 1950 and England was still in recovery from the war, and you couldn't get these pins. So my first job was to go out into the theatre after the audience left and pick up the pins. Later, I became her dresser. She came up with this idea; her act was in two parts. The first part was her strip, which was much more of a comedic thing than it was revealing of her body. She had big bows on her breasts and she only removed her skirt briefly and then she was covered with quite a large g-string. And then, the second part of her act she introduced these four scantily-clad showgirls and dressed them with panels of cloth that hung over the back of her dress. In order to do this, there was a costume change involved, and as the night club business evolved, there were no other acts on the bill aside from her. So she had to either carry along another act to fill time for the costume change, or instead of that, because she was a very frugal person, she decided to do the costume change in a shadow box. And it was a very small box, which I built, and because I was very small, I was 8 years old at this time, all you could see were my hands as I would hold her skirt and she'd step into it. I'd generally help her with the change, and all you'd see were my little arms and the silhouette of her as she changed. It was very funny and worked very well, and being her dresser became my job all the way through her act, and then when she was in summer stock in Auntie Mame, where she had something like 40 costume changes on both sides of the stage, I would have to run back and forth between the two portable dressing rooms. And then eventually she moved to California, where she started doing television. And I went off to college and then the army, so that was the end of that job. And that was really how I spent my childhood."
That's definitely a unique childhood.
"It was very different, and yet it was what I knew, it gave me a role to play in her life, which, you know, for a single mother with a child, it was actually probably the best solution to what is oftentimes a real struggle. I mean, she had me because she wanted a child and she wanted to keep me with her, and she was much too energetic to let somebody just stand around and do nothing or read comic books all day. It gave me a purpose and it was very useful for the family business."
Since you grew up working with your mother in the family business and continued on to work in different aspects of show business, would you say there was any particular lesson you learned about show business that stood out to you?
"Well, the one thing about show business that both my mother and my father were adamant about was that you don't keep banker's hours. You work, and you work whenever you need to, and you work whether you're sick or not, and the show must go on. And it sounds trite and very hackney, but it's really true. If you have an audience waiting to see you, you're not gonna let them go home disappointed. So I'd say the importance of hard work was paramount in both my parents' lives."
That is very important. Now, your one-man show about your mother, Together, Wherever We Go: Gypsy Rose Lee by her son, Erik Lee Preminger, is coming to TheatreZone in Naples on January 15. Can you give us a sneak peek of what audience members can expect to see during the performance?
"Absolutely. The first thing they can expect is around 45 minutes of clips featuring my mother but also with me because I was with her all the time, although I was often her cameraman, so I took the pictures, which means I wasn't in all of them. That really gives the audience an idea of who she was, what she did, and of her incredible sense of humor. I mean, she was known as a stripper, but she was really a comedian, and the clips are very funny and very entertaining; at least that's me saying it, but I would think they're entertaining because I put it together. And after that, as I said earlier, I do this question and answer period which lasts as long as the audience has questions, or until I get the hook because the stagehands want to go home, which happened to me a couple times."
It sounds like a wonderful time. Your show will also inaugurate TheatreZone's new "Legends & Legacies: Growing up Broadway" series. How does it feel to be part of a series like this?
"It feels great, I love doing this. It's a lot of fun for me and it's a lot of fun for the audience, and it's interesting; when I did it the first time, I did it here in San Francisco at a huge old theatre called The Castro, which originally was a Vaudeville house, which is very ironic. The audience gave me a standing ovation and I understood for the first time why people like to appear on stage; it's really thrilling. So I'm delighted to be doing it and very excited. I'm going to be arriving on Monday and doing a few television shows and then do my show, so I'm gonna have a fun time. I've been to Naples before, on a number of occasions, and I love the area and I love Florida. My mother played in Florida all the time, it was one of her night club stops, at the hotels in Miami beach. And I also worked on a film in Florida, in Miami, and I also worked on an aborted film in Naples; also another film in Everglades City. So I'm familiar with the area and I really like it."
Since you've been here before, is there anything you're looking forward to coming and seeing or doing again?
"Well, I haven't been there in many years, and I hope to get down to the Everglades, which, as I said, there was a movie made in the Everglades when I was 13 called 'Wind Across The Everglades.' And at the time, Everglades City was this very small town and we were there for months, and I just had a wonderful time and I'd love to just go back and see what it looks like. I'm sure everything has changed a lot but it's a beautiful part of the world."
Yes, absolutely. I just have one last question for you, and that would be: what do you hope the audience takes away from the show?
"I hope they take away funny moments as well as an informative experience that gives them a taste of what the theatre used to be like. Some of the footage I have goes back to the early days of Vaudeville, which is really funny and wonderful, and burlesque, and whole parts of show business which nobody sees anymore. And I hope they have a good time, that's the most important reason that anybody goes to the theatre, right?"
Many thanks to Erik Lee Preminger for his time. I'd highly recommend getting your tickets to his upcoming show quickly, so you can experience all of the fun, memories, and more.
Mr. Preminger will present his show for one performance only, at TheatreZone (13275 Livingston Rd. Naples, FL 34109). Tickets for this special event range from $100 - $150 and are available for purchase at www.theatre.zone or by calling the TheatreZone Box Office, 888-966-3352 x1.