I met with the cast of 2006's The Joan Crawford/Marilyn Monroe Christmas Carol after a rehearsal at the Albuquerque Social Club. This was the first of a handful of interviews with Matt and Ken—cofounders, writers and principal members of The Dolls—I collected for the Alibi in about the span of a year.
It was one of those moments that changes you. As silly as it sounds, I felt destined to meet this tribe of insanely creative, gracious and wholly unique people. It was a feeling of relief, the deep exhale that accompanies "Finally!" after unconsciously restricting your breath for who knows how long. I was among kindred spirits. (I felt the same way when I met my neighbor Dean Squibb, Dolls member and long-time friend of Matt and Ken, who at the time was painting the floor of my new apartment ox-blood red. In a word, karmic.) Something tells me this is a reaction people all around Matt and Ken experienced upon first meeting them. They have been magnetic in attracting strong friendships.
The interview was great. My tape recorder, on the other hand, was not. When I arrived at work the next day, I found that my device had shorted out and the entire interview was lost. But Matt and Ken were completely patient about it. That very afternoon, they put aside time for another round of interviews, this time one-on-one and over the phone. Of all the interviews I've done at the Alibi, my conversation with Matt that day is my favorite. Even now his voice is audible.
Is there any stuff we talked about last night that jumped out at you, that you would like to ...
Rewind? (laughter) Well, all the wonderful things everyone said about us, I can't say!
It's true! They did have really wonderful things to say about you guys. Just to clarify, you and Ken have been together since you were 15?
Yes, we've been together since high school.
So you've been collaborating, in a sense, for the majority of your lives?
We have been. Like we said last night, we basically started in high school. We would write stuff and entertain ourselves even then. Then we got to New York, and we were basically in this one-bedroom apartment for the whole nine years and going to all the Broadway shows; we would just write sketches and things to entertain ourselves. And so when we got back to Albuquerque, Kenneth got bored one night at the bars and started to do drag. That's when we started writing full-length stuff. We did start out for a while—it was a little difficult to get going, and we would do the regular bar shows and stuff for about a year. But then Kenneth decided we should rent KiMo and put on this Christmas show, this homage to the ’60s TV special. I thought it was a wonderful idea—everyone else we knew thought he was insane, that this was just the worst idea, that we had rented the KiMo, and we were going to have 30 people--and this our biggest supporter, other people were down to like 15 people. But we did it. We did this full, scripted show with the music and got Gene onboard. The thing ... I didn't say it last night, because I don't know if you can really say it 'cause you might be rival publications ... the thing that made that Christmas show was that the Journal put us on the cover of the "Venue." You don't have to say that.
That's very nice of you to take into consideration.
We'll just say everyone thought, "Whoa, what a good idea." We had two sold-out nights at the KiMo Theatre that year .
And that was the Christmas show?
And that was the Christmas show and the first full-length show. After that we decided we wanted to do it more than once a year, so that is when we started writing other scripted plays with the lip sync interspersed. We tried to do a play without lip sync. Like I told you: Lip sync, we do it, we have done a lot of creative and fun things with it, but it is not our thing—we love the pure acting part of it. But when we do a show without any lip sync or with very little, a lot of people, a lot of the fans, wanted the lip sync, so we've tried to keep that in there. And then with the Christmas show you have to keep it, because it is a variety show, and the guests have to sing. So that works out really well for everyone.
Absolutely. And before you guys came about, the scene was pretty much all lip sync—not a whole lot of original material out there?
As far as I know. Now, Kenneth and I were in New York in the '80s, but I keep hearing that there was stuff that went on. But certainly in the ’90s when we moved back, there was no such thing, no original material, there was no live performance going on—you would just come out and move your lips to Reba McEntire and get tips. That was the whole thing.
You guys moved back in 1992, was it?
But you were both from here and you went to Del Norte High School?
And that's how you met a lot of the people you work with?
Yes. We knew Dean [Squibb] in high school, we knew London [Turner] in high school. We didn't know Patti [Rox], although Patti knew Dean and London.
OK, but Dean went to Manzano?
How funny! You just can't shake these people. It is such a wonderful group. Would you talk about the dynamics of the group?
Sure. These creative people have come on at different stages over the last 10 years—Dean from the very beginning. And it was funny because he had just done La Cage aux Folles, which was a very big deal in Albuquerque. He was brilliant in it. It was great. I was very, very intimidated to call him and ask him for help. But he was thrilled to. And he started out in a smaller capacity because he would direct. That's not a smaller capacity, I meant non-performing. He would direct. He would dress the set; he would make sure everything looked good. Kenneth and I, even though we had a fairly theatrical background, when it came to technical stuff, we were stupid. We didn't realize when we went into the KiMo that we would need somebody to run the lights; I guess we just thought they would turn on automatically!
Dean took care of all that stuff initially. And then shortly afterwards he began to perform. And, of course, he is so good at whatever he does. He has done some male roles, mostly female. But then he is always putting the set together and doing all of that. Jim Jon came on shortly after that. He just provides this big, boisterous energy the audience just feeds off so well. I don't think, except for once when someone stole his car, that I have ever seen him unhappy. Always happy. And then Patti. We have had other people, but no one was ever as strong or has ever clicked with us so well. She sort of brings this sense of beauty, this really pretty drag queen element. That's always good, especially if you are going to have numbers. You really do need that. So she provides that for us. And then little AJ [Carian] came on with us about three years ago after we had seen him in a show and approached him. Just zapped into it. Kenneth and I are no longer children. It started out that he played my daughter in everything. It moved up to my younger sister this summer. And, of course, he has genuine theatrical training. He's just so good at whatever you tell him to do. Again, there is an enthusiasm he brings to it, as well as a very good acting talent and performing talent. And they are just all wonderful!
Someone had said, and it might have been you, it's kind of a stone soup ensemble ...
That was actually me. It is a stone soup, because everybody does bring that. Everybody does everything. ... Cheyenne Pretty, Wes, because he was an MC, a drag MC in Chicago and New York, he was very, very good at that. Bar shows were the first shows he actually performed in, acting in. He just loved it. All of these people, in heels or not, they will move props, they will move set pieces. If something gets ripped, Patty sews it; if something gets broken, Dean glues it. Everyone who's in this group of at most 17, they just do everything. Everything.
We had talked about how—can't remember who said it—it's more than drag. That it's more because everyone in this group has theatrical experience. Dean actually said he thinks of it more as a theatrical performance.
Kenneth and I, we have never, particularly if we are going out or hosting a party, we have never objected to being called drag queens, in that sense. I don't consider it an insult or anything like that. But it is true that it's a show, and sometimes when the local papers will dismiss the show as a drag show, they are definitely more than that. They are definitely more of a theatrical experience. I guess sort of reminiscent or similar to what Charles Busch does with his show Vampire Lesbians. So it is more of a theatrical thing.
You guys were talking about how because of the drag, like in the tradition of Milton Berle, you can get away without a lot more ...
Well, I certainly hope Kenneth and I are a lot prettier than Milton Berle!
Well, yes, you are.
Yes. I think what it is, is with the more risque humor. We do get ... in some states it's illegal to have a dildo on stage. In Louisiana.
I mean that in and of itself is amazing.
Yeah, we had a friend, a Barbara Streisand impersonator, who went to Louisiana to do a show, and they used one in a number, and they couldn't there because it is illegal.
But the thing is, with this heavy humor, if a man does it, it can be hugely objectionable, especially to women. If women do it, it sounds nasty and crude, but for some reason if you are a female impersonator, I don't know if it is like a child doing it, but it doesn't offend people to nearly the degree. Like I said, the older women just love it, it just tickles them to death. And you know if a guy was up there waving a dildo, they'd be horrified!
Can you try to describe the style of The Dolls, the humor and that sort of thing? Ken said it's a little darker and there's definitely heavy nods to Hollywood glamor. It's the humor we were just talking about; it's a little more risque. It's definitely for mature audiences.
Yes. Kenneth and I, we're obsessed with a certain old glamor era. We definitely try to keep it contemporary, and we definitely try to throw in a little local humor whenever we can, because New Mexico audiences just love that. I don't know. Over the last 10 years, we've learned so much. And it's hard to talk about your own work, you know it's just brilliant but, you know, it has definitely gotten better. It's sharper. As Kenneth said last night, the main satirical point that that we come from is that everything to us is open to make fun of. I think that's what's wrong with a lot of comedy today—people take it to an extreme. I think everything's open to make fun of and I think that makes for better satire, when everything is a target.
Ken was saying that when someone's going out on the attack, it's just not funny. It's mean.
No. Even someone like John Stewart, who I do think is very funny. But for my personal taste, it's too one-sided. And then that becomes too easy. That's just where we come from.
Being on stage in the full regalia, as it were, is there any sense of vertigo that you feel? How do you have to alter yourself to do that kind of acting?
Put Patti in 12-inch heels and she just flies around. That's fine. My knee went out, so it's a little more difficult for me, although I think I probably do walk better in heels than flats. It's wonderful. I like clothes and working a gorgeous dress. And you get that hair on, and of course it's a very different feeling, but it's just kind of rapturous. You get up there, you get the audience's adulation. I think for me, if I were playing anything else on stage, it would be the same feeling of just loving being on stage. You know, you're always in a costume.
Talk about the audience.
It's a very wide group. Of course there's a large gay following, and a large following of older women. They get all the Marilyn and Joan and all of that and then they love the risqué [humor]. And then there's this younger following. Of course they can only come to our theater shows, but once they get there they just of sort of seem to soak it up and love it. So it's very wide-ranged audience and they're all great.
For you, what's the significance in doing the Christmas show every year?
Just my huge love for Christmas and my huge love for Christmas kitsch. Always, when I was a kid, watching the holiday TV specials—I'm talking about the celebrity ones, Rudolph is another story, although I love those too (laughs)—but the celebrity TV specials, when I was a kid I would just sit there and look at Peggy Lee come out in some flowing chiffon dress—(laughs) at 4 years old!—and I knew that was what I wanted to do. That's Christmas to me and Kenneth, it's our homage to the whole Christmas season and our great love for it.
What's your favorite thing about The Dolls?
It's been a very wonderful thing to just express that artistic side of me. It's a very bizarre thing and I think a couple of other people have said it, but it's just growing up--I never wanted to be a woman, but I wanted to be an actress. Actors just didn't interest me. So to be able to do this, to be able to write our own material and do what we want to do, and then get in those couture gowns and get onstage and shoot people and laugh (laughs), it's a wonderful thing!
.. And behead people with dildos. [That's is a reference to 2006's The Joan Crawford/Marilyn Monroe Christmas Carol.]
(laughs) Yes, yes. You can somehow sever heads with it.
On the business side, it's not an equity company, but the money you make from the shows must be enough to continue to do them.
If we are lucky, even at somewhat successful shows, we can just barely break even sometimes. But a lot of the time it is enough to keep us going to the next show. It's so unfortunate that we can't just do it for a living. But the good thing is we can go from show to show with it.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
God, my mouth is dry—I've been rambling!
No, no! You're wonderful. You're great to talk to.