Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 2003
“When I’m good, I’m very, very good,” she famously said. “But when I’m bad, I’m better.” Mae West had a million of ’em. From “It’s not the men in my life that counts — it’s the life in my men” to “I used to be Snow White… but I drifted.” Not to mention the ever-naughty “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” But her signature line (often mis-quoted) was, of course, “Why don’t you come up sometime, and see me?”
She wrote her own material and created her enduring persona. She even had an inflatable life-vest named after her. Her lines and her legacy live on… and now Mae West comes alive again onstage.
“Dirty Blonde,” written and performed on Broadway by Claudia Shear, takes a comic look at the life of the incredible West, as well as a couple of her modern-day devotees. “I made myself platinum,” says the buxom leading lady in an arch double entendre, “but I was born a dirty blonde.”
A native of Brooklyn, West wasn’t young or thin or tall, and it took her 30 years to make it big. But once she did, she never let go, still appearing in movies at age 85 (“Sextette,” 1978). She was called “curvy and nervy,” “flirty and dirty.” And when San Diego native Kathy Najimy was asked to take over the juicy role in New York, marking her Broadway debut, she leapt at the opportunity.
“This woman,” says Najimy, a long-time activist, “was the very first feminist. She wrote and produced her shows and movies. She was arrested for freedom of speech; she was part of the sexual revolution. She didn’t care about being married, hung out with drag queens, gays, rebels, playwrights, political activists. She was fearless, and not a size zero. She considered herself sexy and that’s what she put out. She sang, she danced, she was hilarious, controversial and independent — all the things I admire.”
The warm, funny, voluble Najimy is a veteran of 20 films, best known for her appearances in both “Sister Act” movies, “The Wedding Planner,” and on TV, “Veronica’s Closet” and the voice of Peggy on Fox’s animated “King of the Hill.” Her whole family was raised in San Diego. Najimy attended Horace Mann, Crawford High and SDSU. She was part of local feminist theater troupes “Sisters on Stage” and “Hot Flashes,” and founding artistic director of New Image Teen Theatre. These political/theatrical experiences, she says, “set the groundwork for what I was to become.”
In the early 1980s, she did a two-night sketch-comedy gig at what is now the Theatre in Old Town with fellow actor/comic/feminist Mo Gaffney. The show, which cost them $300, extended for 10 weeks and moved to New York, ultimately becoming a long-running Off Broadway hit, with two HBO specials and a national tour. Najimy and Gaffney, still close friends and L.A. neighbors, are reuniting for a 25th anniversary “Kathy and Mo Show” in New York.
But in San Diego, Najimy never got cast. Her best high school friend, Steve Gunderson, an actor/singer/composer who’s performed all over town, used to say, “I won’t do this play unless my friend gets at least one line.”
“Now it’s surreal to be coming back to San Diego,” laughs Najimy, “starring in a show I did on Broadway. It’s like an after-school special: ‘Chubby girl can’t get a part, goes away and comes home a star.'”
She’s coming home, with her actor/musician husband Dan Finnery and 6 year-old daughter Samia, to her mom’s “best Lebanese food in the world.” She’s also returning to Jack O’Brien, the five-time Tony-nominated artistic director of the Old Globe, where “Dirty Blonde” makes its Southern California debut (July 20-August 30). “In 1979,” she says, “I saw his ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I was 22. It was the first time I’d ever been moved and touched by a director. Now, being at the Globe, I feel that things have come full cycle.”
Najimy loves the quirky play she’s in, a three-actor, multi-character comedy that jumps around in time, is “a little bit provocative in storyline” and requires her to switch back and forth repeatedly from the sexy icon to an obsessive fan. Najimy is quick to point out that she’s not doing and impression of Mae West. “If you want to see an impersonator, go to Vegas. This is more about the spirit of this woman.” She adores West, and also loves the fictional character Jo, a “gruff, blunt, honest, funny, loud, ‘tough girl.'” New York Post critic Clive Barnes considered the show “a marvelously entertaining night out — as terrific for fans of Kathy Najimy as Mae West.”
What Najimy likes best about “Dirty Blonde” is that “it’s an adult play with adult themes, thoughtful and clever, without being sexist, racist or homophobic. It’s smart, it’s funny as hell, and it’s all about tolerance, which is pretty much what my life has been about.”
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.