ARCHIVE: A Femia Fatale at Forty

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The Man That’s Got a Way: Tommy Femia as Tommy Femia, and in full Judy jacket. The award winning cabaret entertainer presents JUDY GARLAND: LIVE IN CONCERT this Thursday, June 25, at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park.

FemiaJudyLBy DOROTHY CREAMER (First published on Red Bank oRBit June 23, 2009)

It was forty years ago yesterday — June 22, 1969 — that Judy Garland died in her London home at the age of 47, an occurrence that led at least indirectly to the Stonewall riots, and maybe, just maybe, to the first appearance of Tommy Femia.

Femia, who brings his acclaimed cabaret show Judy Garland: Live in Concert to the stage of Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park this Thursday, June 25, will be marking the 40th anniversary of his birth that very same day. As for theories that the New York-based entertainer may be the reincarnation of the great Garland, well, Femia isn’t copping to that — but what’s not disputed is the fact that this six-time winner of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (MAC) Award for Outstanding Impersonation has an affinity for his favorite subject that goes beyond mere rehearsed mimicry.

“I was a fan of Judy Garland’s since I was three and saw The Wizard Of Oz for the first time,” Femia admits. “When PBS started showing episodes of The Judy Garland Show, which I had never gotten to see, that was a huge inspiration. I just absorbed it. I would watch and…I can’t explain…it just goes in one ear and comes out my mouth.”

Performing as Judy on national television, off-Broadway and at cabarets and casinos across the country (“It’s pretty much coast to coast”), Femia transforms himself into Garland with a seamless reverence.

“I’ve managed to successfully direct my Judy shows myself…I kind of know how Judy breathes,” he explains. “There are certain characters that you just allow to do their thing.”

His credits include The Jerry Springer Show and The Montel Williams Show, two Off-Broadway shows (Drama Desk Award-winner Whoop-Dee-Doo! and I Will Come Back!) plus regular appearances at the famed Don’t Tell Mama,  where he has performed since 1991 with his music director/pianist David Maiocco.

Red Bank Orbit caught the cabaret star between the acts and discussed everything from Liza to makeup tips and whether or not he could be the incarnation of Judy herself. Read on.

RED BANK ORBIT: You’ve performed all over the nation, from New York to Hollywood. What brings you to Asbury Park?

TOMMY FEMIA: It was my agent, Bob Egan. I’ve done many shows through the years with him, including out in New Hope at Odette’s. Back in October I did McLoone’s for the first time. I just love the place. It’s beautiful.

Performing an icon like Judy Garland, about whom a lot of people feel very proprietary, is quite the undertaking. Are you nervous about that?

I’m always a wreck the entire day of a show, whether I do eight shows a week or one a month, I’m a mess. But once I step out there the theatricality of it all just takes over and it’s smooth sailing. What I’ve learned from performing in front of audiences all over the country is that I really get a mixed group. I’ll get a lot of gay audience members, but about 40 percent will be straight couples. It’s a diverse group that likes Judy.

How would you pitch this to an audience who has probably seen a Judy Garland impersonator at some point?

It’s really Judy Garland Live! There is no lip-synching. The show itself is a mixed bag. It incorporates all her hits, plus songs that Judy didn’t get to do, but that I think had she heard them, she would have performed them.

Why do you feel the need to add more modern songs?

I try to keep her relevant. I don’t do a museum piece where it’s exactly what she said or exactly what she sang. You may as well watch the original. If I’m going to watch an impersonator, I want to know, what are they going to give me that is unique?

What are some of the new tunes that you added for Judy’s repertoire?

“I’m Still Here” from Follies and “The Greatest Love of All;” those are two for example. Of course by the time I’m at McLoone’s next week I’ll probably change it!

What else can we expect from this latest Judy incarnation of yours?

It’s about an hour and 10 minutes, standard cabaret length, plus I have a very funny musical comedy star, Sidney Myer, as my guest. He’s won many awards for his comedy.

It works out well because he’s right in the middle of my act. I do a costume change and kind of restart the show, because the second half is concert style, with more numbers. The first half has more patter. Plus it allows me to have a fabulous costume change.

Judy would have wanted it that way.

Exactly! She would say, “You go on, I’ll be backstage changing!”

When did you start performing as Judy?

Professionally in late 1991. She was a voice I always had in my head. I do a lot of impersonations, but she was always my favorite. A friend of mine from the School of Performing Arts bugged me for years because he did a very funny Ann Miller impersonation and he wanted to do a Judy and Ann Miller show. After years of nagging I finally said, ‘Okay! Shut up, we’ll do two Tuesdays at 8pm, though who the hell is going to go?’ It wound up being an instant hit and it changed my life. Nine months later I did my first solo Judy show and from ’92 to now, I haven’t stopped.

Who are some of the other celebrities you have impersonated?

I did a musical comedy about Bette DavisA Very Bette Christmas, and I did a musical about Tallulah BankheadTallulah! out in New Hope.

Do you have a favorite?

The fact of the matter is I just have so much more fun being Judy. People love her the most and I just love doing her. She’s so over-the-top. When we’re done doing the show it’s a cathartic experience. You can’t do “Judy Lite.”

Judy herself has so many incarnations. Which “Judy” do you do?

I like her early period and that’s the era I perform. The early ’60s, the television shows, the Carnegie Hall period. You have the A Star is Born Judy, the concert Judy, then the TV show Judy, and after that she just fell apart until she died.

The anniversary of her death is three days before the show. Were you thinking of that when you scheduled it?

Well it’s perfect timing, isn’t it? She’ll be dead 40 years on June 22, and the show at McLoone’s is on my birthday…the big 4-0.

Do you think you could be the reincarnation of Judy Garland?

It’s a whole channeling thing! (laughing) I don’t think so though.

Is the Judy voice difficult?

It’s very stressful. She’s all belt. It’s a lot of pressure on the larynx. I have to be careful with taking care of pacing and myself. I can get hoarse very quickly when I do her.  There’s no method acting though, I just do it. I’m like Spencer Tracy. He once said, “Just learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.”

How long does it take to turn into Judy physically?

If I’m not interrupted, doing everything from face and hair to getting dressed, takes an hour and 15 minutes. It used to be two hours. I got it down!

Is there one aspect of the transformation that is the most important in order to really look like Ms. Garland?

The most important things are the eyes and the mouth. The eyes are very specific. She had a very high ridge, which I don’t have. I use spirit gum on my brow and let that dry, then use pan stick over that followed by powder. Finally I draw her eyebrows just above where mine would end on top and that gives the arch. The mouth has a very small bottom lip. Without that you won’t look like her no matter what you do.

I have to ask…where do you shop for your wardrobe?

I have outfits that were designed for me that are copies of what Judy actually wore. I find tons of stuff on EBay. It has amazing sequin dresses and tops. Basically I look for anything that looks like it came from the 1960s. Thrift shops are great because there are always those old women who have passed away and saved had 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!

Has Liza Minnelli seen your act?

By accident once! It was about 15 years ago at this little cabaret called 88 in the Village; it’s gone now. I was publicizing a show and I did about three or four numbers as Judy (looking like myself). She was sitting in a banquette like ten feet from me! I never knew it because there were people standing in front of her. She actually has said, ‘Tommy does Mama better than Mama does Mama.’ She’s been wonderful to me. She’s a good acquaintance.

She must have a good sense of humor about the fascination with her mother.

She just thinks the whole drag thing is hilarious. The only time she gets mad with Judy impersonators is if they get nasty. If they get too “broken down drunk-Judy,” then it’s very offensive to her. Who wants to go see someone do his or her dead mother anyway?

Were you always into the drag scene?

I never did drag until I did Judy. My partner David was the one who pushed me to do it. I didn’t want to be typecast as a drag queen. But we talked about it and he said it’s better to be typecast as something than not be typecast at all!

As a fan of Judy’s, what is your favorite thing she has done?

That would have to be her television series. She sang everything on that show. Her voice was in peak form; she looked incredible. That’s my favorite period. If we talk recordings, Judy at Carnegie Hall, to this day, is the most amazing live concert. She sang 30-something songs and was at her best on every one of them. She was thin; she looked glamorous…that’s the Judy I loved the most and want to honor.

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