Charles Pierce

A Remembrance by Frank Fontana

On a warm evening in May, 1999, I was strolling up Broadway here in New York and passed the bustling Fairway Market at 74th Street. For the unfamiliar, it's a big frantic market -- a little rough around the edges to those of us raised with the pristine Safeways of California, and a market which seems unwilling to be contained, bursting forth and spilling out onto Broadway with all manner of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

On this night, I noticed that the Fairway was bursting sideways as well, preparing to expand into a large space next door. While construction was proceeding, the windows of the addition were papered over with a number of large posters, all with quotations from the famous and infamous, and all about food. Some examples:

I stopped and read all the posters, enjoying each more than the last. Imagine my delight when my eyes came to this:

My heart swelled and my face beamed. For some twenty years, I've thought of Charles Pierce as quite the stellar personality, so how delightful it was to see him placed in this assemblage of famous folk! I decided immediately to inform him of his newfound notoriety on Manhattan's Upper West Side, to let him know he was "playing Broadway."

I called my dear friend Joan Edgar, Charles' musical director for many years. Did she think he would appreciate hearing this news from a slightly crazed fan? "Absolutely," said Joan, and she encouraged me to write to him as soon as possible, for dear Charles was ailing.

So, the very next day, I trotted on down to the Fairway with my Polaroid camera, and took a half-dozen shots, working to capture the perfect angle, the best composition. Then I traveled down to SoHo and found a lovely card in which to send the photo. All the while, I was organizing my thoughts -- how best to relate to Charles not only the delight I took in discovering the poster, but also to express my admiration and affection which had grown over many years.

Alas, life intervened . . . work, houseguests. Each day I resolved that the very next day I'd put pen to paper. Surely a couple more days wouldn't matter. But matter they did. Charles died on May 31st. In life, as in the show business, timing is everything. And, truly, who can question the impeccable timing of Charles Pierce?

Happily, I've since discovered that Brett Moore, a good friend of Charles living here in New York, also saw the "Fairway" poster, and told Charles all about it. "He loved it!" says Brett, which made me so glad. But still I was disappointed -- I'd missed the opportunity to share the photograph and my memories with Charles. So, here I am, pleased to be able to use the Internet to share them with you.

I'll use the ether to send them directly on to the grand "Master and Mistress of Disguise."

My first experience seeing Charles Pierce was with my friend Jim Reiter in 1977 at The City, a discotheque cum nightclub in San Francisco, now long-gone. At 19, underage, I had to be sneaked into the club by Charles' assistant, Kirk Frederick, which added excitement to the evening! Charles was, of course, astonishing. As Bette Davis. As "The Living Dolls." As Jeanette MacDonald, for heaven's sake, sailing out over the audience on a swing adorned with garlands of flowers. Amazing!

Afterwards, we were led backstage to a tiny dressing room and introduced to the star. Mind you, after a performance of such energy, he would have had every right to close and lock the door, and take a good long while to recover. Instead, this kind, gentle man greeted us all graciously, sweetly. My memory, vivid to this day, is of Charles in a dressing gown, smiling, seated before a large mirror, with the heady scent of Shalimar filling the tiny room. I was, simply and forever, smitten.

I last saw Charles in 1988, along with my partner Jim Millefolie, during the historic "last drag" dates at The Venetian Room of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. After the show, Joan offered to take us up to Charles' suite, and she led us along the route that show people know so very well -- through the kitchen. As we stepped into the tiny service elevator, I spied in the corner a memento: a single black feather, shaken loose from Charles' boa. I could not, still cannot, believe my good fortune! For me that single feather, found where it had come to rest, represents everything that is real and true and fantastic about the show business, and it remains a treasured possession.

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