In ‘Dirty Blonde,’ former Mae West assistant sees glimpses of his past, actress’s larger-than-life persona

In 1968, David Christopher was a college student with a dream of meeting the bawdy, groundbreaking actress. As he watched the latest CVRep performance recently, memories came flooding back.
David Christopher poses with Mae West. He worked for the legendary writer and actress in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and ’70s. (Photo courtesy David Christopher)

Long-time local singer David Christopher was watching the Coachella Valley Repertory show “Dirty Blonde” when he suddenly flashed back to his youth as an assistant to Mae West.

CVRep’s production of Claudia Shear’s Tony-nominated play revolves around the bawdy, groundbreaking writer-actress whose classic comedies saved Paramount Studios from the Depression. It features photo backdrops of places West worked and lived, including shots of one of her Los Angeles-area homes where Christopher handled tasks, such as sorting her daily tidal wave of fan mail.

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One life-size photo shows an armchair where West entertained guests who came up to her sixth-floor apartment. Next to the chair, Christopher recalled, was an oval white fur couch where he’d sit and listen to West tell stories, including many of the tales brought to life in “Dirty Blonde.”

“The large photograph of the living room took me back,” Christopher said after the opening night final curtain, “because that’s exactly the way it was from 1932 until she passed.”

“Dirty Blonde” features two fans, Charlie and Jo, who meet at the Brooklyn mausoleum where West is buried and bond over their love of Mae. Charlie recalls how he traveled from Wisconsin to West’s Hollywood apartment building at age 17. In the lobby, he met former vaudeville comic Joe Frisco, who invited him to come up and see her — just as West had urged Cary Grant in 1933’s “She Done Him Wrong.”

Shear tells the Mae West story through the eyes of Charlie, a film archivist, and Jo, a wannabe actress inspired by West, whose self-invention influenced contemporary stars from Madonna to Megan Thee Stallion. Charlie tells Jo he visited West in L.A. again in 1978 after seeing her final film, “Sextette.” This time, West convinces him to dress up like her. She’s too old to go outside to meet her fans, she says, so she makes up Charlie’s face, puts him in one of her gowns and tells him to walk in the shadow of a hedge so fans will see what they think is her. 

Mae West, played by Cady Huffman, applies makeup to a young fan, played by Joshua Morgan, as actor William Ryall looks on in a scene from the CVRep production of “Dirty Blonde.” (Photo: David A. Lee)

Christopher watched the scene of West applying makeup to Charlie and was transported to when that happened to him.

It was 1968, he remembers. Christopher was a college student who had recently journeyed from the Midwest after having a dream of meeting Mae West. He’d been working for her for less than a month, and West was encouraging the brilliant young tenor to seek work in Hollywood.

“I was going to have photographs taken the next day,” the youthful-looking septuagenarian recalled. “She said, ‘Dear, you’ve got to have some makeup.’ So she went into her bedroom and brought out her makeup kit and had me lie down on the white oval couch. I’m laying back and she gets on top of me. And she’s drawing eyeliner on me. Her face was this close to me, and she’s drawing the eyelines! I’d only been there for three or four weeks and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Mae West is putting eye makeup on me!’”

But Christopher, who worked for West for 12 years, says he wasn’t like Shear’s Charlie.

“The guy is nothing more than a fan in this story,” he said. “I didn’t feel like this had absolutely anything to do with me.”

But watching Cady Huffman portray West as a three-dimensional woman evoked memories.

“I thought she was really good,” Christopher said. “The hair was a little too exaggerated, but I did appreciate that she got very, very close to it being real. I could relate for a few moments the way she walked around the apartment.”

Shear and director Phil McKinley also got other elements exactly right, he said.

For example, West did say she was the reincarnation of Catherine the Great. She did turn down the Gloria Swanson role in the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard” — feeling at age 57 that she was neither old nor a has-been. She did give herself colonics to avoid having to use the restrooms in New York theaters, which she considered filthy. (Christopher said she also believed colonics kept her skin soft and smooth by eliminating toxins from her body.)

David Christopher poses in front of a poster for “Dirty Blonde” on opening night at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theater. (Photo: Bruce Fessier)

And West did identify herself as her sister, Beverly, when strangers called. Her number at the Ravenswood apartments was listed, but callers would get a clerk who would transfer calls to her. If West didn’t recognize the name, she’d answer as Beverly. Christopher said she’d change her voice to be convincing, but Huffman elicited laughs by identifying herself as Beverly while sounding like Mae.

A few other details also deviated from real life, Christopher said. 

West’s apartment didn’t smell like a grandma’s home; it smelled like roses because of the cream she used and the many red and yellow roses she kept from fans.

She never deviated from her Mae West character in private or public, but she didn’t dress like Mae in her apartment. “She always greeted guests in a negligee,” Christopher said — “pastel colors. Edith Head helped me pick one out at May Co for her birthday. Light turquoise.”

She also never used harsh language. In fact, Christopher said, “I never ever saw her raise her voice. Even when she was upset, you could see movements on her face, but very rarely did she ever get angry. She stayed away from things that would make her upset. If anybody she knew told anything to the press or leaked a secret, she didn’t say anything to them. They just disappeared from her friends circle. She had a way of eliminating people from her life.”

Cady Huffman portrays a young Mae West fan, Jo, who develops a complicated relationship with fellow fan, Charlie, played by Joshua Morgan. (Photo: David A. Lee)

McKinley said neither he nor Shear wanted to create a Mae West biography. McKinley, an award-winning Broadway director who has mounted shows around the world — including “The Boy From Oz” starring Hugh Jackman, and the revival of “The Most Happy Fella” starring Paul Savino — said what attracted him to this play was the bumpy, uphill romance between Charlie and Jo.

“It’s not a biographical play or musical, even though you do learn a great deal about Mae,” he said. “In the end, it’s really a love story, and I think it’s a love story that’s basically (saying): There’s someone for everyone, even people who may appear to be oddities to other people. They can find their soulmates. It’s only through the two characters’ love of Mae that they find each other.”

McKinley, best known for turning “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” into a massive worldwide hit after original director Julie Taylor’s Broadway launch imploded, agreed to direct the show for CVRep to be able to work seven minutes from his Rancho Mirage home.

McKinley also once hired CVRep artistic director Adam Karsten as an actor in New York. When he heard CVRep hired Karsten last spring, he called and expressed an interest in directing new works. When Karsten said he couldn’t afford him, McKinley replied, “Don’t worry about that. You can afford me. For me to be able to stay home and work is a delight.”

Karsten allowed him to reach out to actors across the nation and McKinley cast three top pros. Huffman played Broadway in “The Producers” and “The Will Rogers Follies.” Joshua Morgan, who portrays Charlie and multiple other characters, was in the Broadway shows “Ain’t Too Proud” and “Les Miserables.” And William Ryall, whose many characters include West’s first husband, Frank Wallace, has been in 15 Broadway shows.

“The direction the CVRep is going is toward becoming one of those diamonds in the desert. It’ll be like a La Jolla or Pasadena (Playhouse) and develop new works that could go on, because we have the resources here.”

— Director Phil McKinley

The cast is remarkable for the fast pace it keeps, despite multiple costume changes, varied characters to morph into and many old songs to learn. Morgan even plays a bluesy piano as West’s 1912 vaudeville partner. It’s amazing, considering McKinley had just two weeks to rehearse for a less than two-week run.

But McKinley, who started a new works program at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey, wants to do for CVRep what the Paper Mill did as a tributary for Broadway.

“The direction the CVRep is going is toward becoming one of those diamonds in the desert,” he said. “It’ll be like a La Jolla or Pasadena (Playhouse) and develop new works that could go on, because we have the resources here. I’m all for doing that. I’m at the point where I have to give that back. I had people who did that for me and I’m very interested in giving that back.”

McKinley recognizes Christopher as one of those unique desert resources. He greeted him enthusiastically on opening night and vowed to see his one-man show, “She Touched Me,” featuring personal anecdotes and songs about West, on Feb. 23 at Pete’s Hideaway in Palm Springs.

McKinley is now working with New York Times best-selling author Gregg Hurwitz on a new dramedy titled “The Guest.” Karsten said its first reading will be on Feb. 5 at the CVRep theater.

More information: “Dirty Blonde” resumes today, with evening shows and matinees through Jan. 29. Tickets can be found on the CVRep website. For tickets to Christopher’s dinner show, call (760) 322-6055.


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