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During the course of a 40-minute interview, showbiz Veteran Mitzi Gaynor breaks out in no less than 11 impressions: a Russian princess, Ethel Merman, Mario Batali and a pitch-perfect Marlene Dietrich among them. For anyone familiar with her lengthy career, however, that’s just a fraction of Gaynor’s many guises. On her annual television specials, which date back to the Sixties and Seventies, she parodied everyone from Doris Day to Rita Hayworth. Tonight, in a one-woman show at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, the actress-singer-dancer finally gets to play herself.
“It’s about my life,” says Gaynor, 78, of her two-week cabaret, “Razzle Dazzle! My Life Behind the Sequins.” “The act is really about how I got into show business, my father being a Hungarian cello player and my mother a flapper.” She begins to swiftly rattle off the major plot points in her 60-year career — dancing with Los Angeles’ Civic Light Opera, plus a Golden Globe-nominated role as Nellie Forbush in the 1958 musical “South Pacific” and decades spent headlining her own variety programs on television.
Tonight’s audience will get a decidedly more embellished version of events, complete with show tunes (pulled from her own repertoire), not to mention seven costume changes, courtesy of Bob Mackie. “Enthusiasm fuels one’s creativity,” says Mackie, “and Mitzi loves performing. She loves show business.”
Gaynor’s relationship with Mackie started in the Sixties, when he dressed her for her Las Vegas act. She initially requested to work with Mackie’s partner, costume designer Ray Aghayan, but he was busy wardrobing Judy Garland for her own variety show. “Mitzi wasn’t too thrilled about that,” recalls Mackie with a laugh.
“He was this little kid,” recalls Gaynor of Mackie. “I was ready to give him an autograph. I said, ‘My God, your voice hasn’t even changed yet, for heaven’s sake.’ But we’ve been together ever since.”
The pair have been responsible for some of television’s more risqué moments. Gaynor was the first to wear one of Mackie’s infamous nude dresses, decades before Cher would famously bare all at the 1986 Academy Awards. Meanwhile, her Cleopatra costume from a King Tut medley that was part of her 1978 special “Mitzi…What’s Hot, What’s Not” set off the censors. “Fashion is all smoke and mirrors, isn’t it?” says Gaynor. “You think you’re seeing something, but you’re not seeing anything at all.”
Doing this new revue, which had an earlier run in San Francisco, is a lot like therapy, adds Gaynor. “It’s hard to talk about yourself onstage and be sincere about it,” she says, before steering the conversation to her late husband and manager Jack Bean. It’s here that the bounce in Gaynor’s voice drops a little. “When my husband died in 2006, I didn’t want to be Mitzi Gaynor anymore,” she notes. “But [my agent] revved me up and I’m having such a good time again.”