Family Portraits: Tommy Femia

We all know the term “Friend of Dorothy” (if you don’t, shame on you. Learn your gay history!), but this week’s interview isn’t just a friend of Dorothy — he is Dorothy. Well, not Dorothy Parker, but the gal who played the other Dorothy, the venerable LGBT icon Judy Garland. Since 1991, Tommy Femia has appeared as Ms. Garland in almost every New York City nightclub (including an ongoing 20-year run at Don’t Tell Mama), to Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park to multiple venues across the nation. His credits include “The Montel Williams Show,” “The Facts of Life,” “One Day at a Time,” two off-Broadway shows, Drama Desk Award-winners “Whoop-Dee-Doo!” “I Will Come Back!” and “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” and he’s served as emcee at the celebrated revue La Cage Aux Folles. The six-time winner of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs Award for Outstanding Impersonation is currently in our part of the world to rehearse for his latest show, “Norma Doesmen,” opening in March at the Abingdon Theatre in New York.

The talented performer has many ties to our area: In addition to headlining the show “Tallulah!” in New Hope, he has performed here regularly over the years at Odette’s (before the flood), as well as the Cosmopolitan Room in what now is the Nevermore Hotel.

PGN: How have you faired in the snow? TF: It’s unbelievable. I haven’t seen anything like this since the blizzard of ’78. I’m staying at the Wishing Well, which is a beautiful, wonderfully decorated guesthouse right near our rehearsal hall. I was sitting on my bed getting ready to go over my script when the lights went out. Dan Brooks, the owner, told me the whole section of the city, including The Raven, was all without power because of the storm. Fortunately my producer, Stephen Stahl, came and picked me up until Dan was able to get a generator running. I love working in New Hope: It’s like living in Mayberry. Everybody knows everybody, everyone tries to help their neighbor, “What do ya need, what can I get you?”

PGN: Where are you originally from? TF: I grew up in Brooklyn, but I moved out when I was 18-and-a-half to go live with my then partner. My mother didn’t talk to me for three months after I moved out. Italians aren’t supposed to move until you’re married. I don’t care if you’re 40: You stay at home!

PGN: Tell me about the family? TF: I have two brothers, Bobby and John; I’m in the middle. My younger brother John is a TV actor. He was on that show “Hello Larry” with McLean Stevenson and also on “Square Pegs” with Sarah Jessica Parker. I used to go out to California with him to act as his guardian since my parents couldn’t do it. My mother worked for an insurance company for about 38 years and my dad had his own cleaning-products business.

PGN: Something about you? TF: I went to the High School of Performing Arts — you know, like in the movie “Fame.” It was great: One of my classmates was Ving Rhames — his real name is Irving, by the way — and another classmate was Suzanne Vega — she had that hit song “Luka.” That was a major event in my life; the discipline and everything they taught me set me up for this thing called showbiz. It even put me on the path to doing Judy. We all used to fool around and imitate different celebrities at lunchtime. One of my friends did a really funny Ann Miller impersonation and he bugged me for 10 years after we graduated to do a Judy and Ann Miller show with him. I didn’t even do drag! But after years of nagging, I finally said, “OK! Shut up, I’ll do it!” I scheduled it for two Tuesdays at 8 p.m., thinking no one was going to come but our family and friends. It wound up being an instant hit and it changed my life. He was a choreographer and had to leave for a show, so I did my first solo Judy show nine months later. It was such a success I quit my day job and, from ’92 to now, I haven’t stopped.

PGN: Speaking of day jobs, what was the worst one you’ve ever had? TF: Too many years ago, I worked at Petland discounts! It was awful. It reeked of rodents all the time because they had rats for people to feed to their snakes. You had to clean out the fish tanks and, twice a week, they’d get in a shipment of stuff that would give you a hernia trying to haul it to the basement. It was just the least favorite thing I’ve ever done.

PGN: Were you a pet person? TF: Oh yes, I’ve had dogs all my life. I have a Jack Russell now who is my daughter. Her name is Jackie. Everyone thinks I named her that because she is a Jack Russell, but she’s actually named after Jackie Kennedy. [Laughs.] When I explain it to people, I get that look: gay man!

PGN: You need to get her a pillbox hat … TF: Yeah, a hat and a bloodstained pink suit and we’re ready!

PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? TF: We lived in the city, so I loved all the old street games — kickball and stickball and playing in the fire hydrants in the summer. But my real passion was going to movies.

PGN: Do you remember the first movie you ever saw? TF: Oh yes, “Jumbo” with Doris Day and Martha Raye. I remember the screen looked 100-feet high!

PGN: What’s your favorite line from a movie? TF: At the end of “Now Voyager” when Bette Davis says, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” And of course, the last line in “A Star Is Born” when Judy says, “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine” and everyone gets hysterical. And about 90 percent of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” I could watch that movie 20 times a week. Oh, and almost all of “Mommie Dearest.” [Doing a Dunaway-as-Crawford accent] “You call that clean?” God, you just wet your pants when you hear that!

PGN: Did you get your creative talents from your family? TF: There’s music on my mother’s side. In fact, my mother’s great-aunt was a famous opera singer, Louisa Tetrazzini. The dish, chicken Tetrazzini, is supposed to be named after her. There are absolutely no artistic genes on my father’s side.

PGN: Playing Judy Garland, who is an LGBT icon, must really move people. Especially since you actually sing all the music. Any special moments come to mind? TF: About 15 years ago, I was doing a Christmas benefit called “Teddy Cares” where different performers would do a show and the admission was a teddy bear, which they gave to children with AIDS. I was standing by the piano at this beautiful little cabaret in the Village and someone suggested I do a few songs to promote the benefit. I did about six numbers as Judy (looking like myself). Sitting in a banquette 10 feet from me was Liza Minnelli! I didn’t know it because there were people standing in front of her. She was supposed to come to the benefit show, but she called the owner and said she couldn’t do it. When he asked her why, she said, “Tommy sounds so much like Mama it’s uncomfortable for me.” We’ve gone on to be friends and she’s the most amazing, giving person, but she still can’t hear it. She tells me that I hit a little close to home, although she appreciates what I do. Liza has been very generous with me in and out of print. I just adore her.

PGN: What was a bad celebrity encounter? TF: Mary Tyler Moore. She was as cold and as rude as you could be. I was so disappointed, I stopped watching reruns of the show. Well, for two years, then I started watching it again because it’s just so funny. You have to separate the performer from the performance. But I’ve been lucky to be around some really wonderful and kind people in the business.

PGN: I did a profile of your director, Stephen Stahl; how is it working with him? TF: He’s fantastic. He directed me in “Tallulah” back in ’95. He has an amazing ability to pull the best out of his actors. He really knows his stuff. I love him, just love him.

PGN: Speaking of love, since Valentine’s Day just passed, tell me something romantic. TF: I first met my partner David at a Halloween party back in 1987. Believe it or not, I was dressed as Norma Desmond. He came in dressed as a nun and the minute I saw him, I knew that something was there. He was so handsome and our eyes met from across the room. We went home together and, the next day, I came home from work and there were four-dozen long-stem roses on the coffee table. It was so touching. You know, you meet a guy and have a one-night stand and you’re lucky if they stay for coffee! The fact that he went to the trouble and expense when he’d barely known me for 24 hours was impressive. That 24 hours turned into 23 years. We have one of the longest marriages in my family!

PGN: Tell me about coming out. TF: I never really had to come out: I’ve always just been who I am. I figured if God made me attracted to boys, that’s just how it was supposed to be. But my mother confronted me when I was about 17 and scared the shit out of me! She was saying, “It’s just a phase, but we can help.” It was back in the ’70s, so it was like you had leukemia or something that they wanted to get you treatment for. My father never had a problem with it but my mother took a little longer. Now, she’s my biggest fan: She comes to all my shows and she and my David are best friends. When I’m on the road, they talk on the phone every day. The whole family is very close: We have dinner together every two weeks in Brooklyn and my baby brother, John, comes to my shows once a month. [Laughs.] I still call him the baby even though he’s 40 years old!

PGN: What’s your most likeable quality? TF: Oh, I don’t know. I hear that people are pleasantly surprised to find that I’m just a nice little Italian boy with no attitude. A lot of people expect that, as a performer, I’m going to be a diva. When I show up for a show, people will be walking on eggshells, so I just give everyone hugs and kisses to make them feel at ease. I’ve made so many friends in this show, one of the actors, a beautiful girl named Christina, came to see my show in New York on our day off. Such sweet kids. They’re really talented too.

PGN: What’s your idea of misery? TF: My parents on their way out or God forbid something should happen to my partner — or my dog! I lost too many people much too soon during the first ravages of AIDS. I lost about 25 friends and it was unbearable seeing people who were 28 years old and looked 80 suffering through a long, grueling death. It was unbearable. Any suffering really disturbs me. I don’t even like to hear fire trucks go by because I think about people being trapped and burned alive. I hope I just go in my sleep. Oh, and animal cruelty, like that bastard Michael Vick that you have playing for the Eagles. People like that are human garbage.

PGN: What’s a favorite costume? TF: I’ve had some pretty terrific outfits. I love finding pieces that are specific to the character and the time. Thrift shops are great because there are always those old women who have passed away and have saved every dress they ever wore up in their attic. Their kids want to get rid of the stuff and it’s like gold to me!

PGN: I recall reading that after you do a show, you’re out of makeup and costume in five minutes. TF: Some people like to talk to people after the show while they’re still dressed, but I think it shatters the illusion. Besides which, the drag is for the theater piece and, when the show is over, I’m out of it. For me, it’s a character thing. If I was playing Jekyll, for instance, I wouldn’t be walking around as him on the street after the show was over.

PGN: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear when you arrive at the pearly gates? TF: Hey Judy! Where’ve you been? And I expect Marilyn Monroe to be there, waiting for me with a cocktail next to a white, concert-size baby-grand piano and all my favorite dead people gathered around. Even Joan Crawford.

PGN: Your house is on fire: what do you take? TF: My photo album and my high school yearbook, because they’re right next to each other. And I have this enormous 200-year-old vase that belonged to my grandmother that I’d have to take. I’d shove everything into the vase and run! And of course my dog Jackie; I’d go back into a burning building to get her.

PGN: Any recurring dreams? TF: Yes! I dream that I’m in California on the outskirts of Los Angeles and I need to get in town and no matter what I try, I can’t get in to do what I have to do. I’ve had the dream three or four times a week for two years now. I don’t know what that’s about.

PGN: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? TF: [Pauses.] You know, I don’t think there’s anything I would change. It took me many years to figure out what I am and who I am. At this stage, I have no regrets and am pretty happy with the way it all turned out. [Laughs.] Unless I asked God to make me 6-feet tall with big muscles and blue eyes!

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].