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Laughing all the way

Westenhoefer on her divorce, Birchmere return and Jodie Foster

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Suzanne Westenhoefer, gay news, Washington Blade
Suzanne Westenhoefer, gay news, Washington Blade

Suzanne Westenhoefer (Photo by Adam Bouska)

For one of her first shows this year, comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer cannot assure her audience she will stick to a certain theme or what kind of jokes she will make. She doesn’t even have a name for her current tour.

However, she does promise that straight or gay, boy or girl, attendees will laugh.

Westenhoefer comes to the Birchmere (3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria) Friday night, bringing with her personal stories that audiences can relate to and laugh about.

“Because the act I do is very truthful, very personal, my show is changing hourly,” she says. “If something changes in my life that makes the story not true, the show changes. It’s not like a written script.”

The blend of honesty and often self-deprecating humor is what brings audiences back year after year, says Michael Jaworek, Birchmere promoter, who has been booking Westenhoefer for more than 15 years.

“Her audience is very devoted and follows her,” he says. “She is funny. Her humor is insightful. A lot of her material deals with gay life, or rather lesbian life. She speaks to and for the majority of her audience.”

Suzanne Westenhoefer
February 1
The Birchmere
3701 Mount Vernon Ave.
Alexandria, Va
Tickets are $54.50

Westenhoefer does know that a bulk of her show will deal with recovering from divorce and entering the dating world for the first time in years. Through this process, she’s learned a few new things about herself.

“I suck at dating,” she says. “I don’t date, I don’t know how.”

A little less than a year ago, Westenhoefer divorced long-term partner Jennifer Houston, whom she married in 2008 before Proposition 8 was voted on in California. Through the transition, she’s learned a lot of new things about herself.

“I thought I would be fine, apparently not,” she says. “I didn’t know how to feed myself. I hadn’t cooked for myself since I moved in with my first partner when I was 21.”

But she says despite the bumps and challenges in her new life, there are so many great and new people to meet and that everyone should “go out, be nice, buy someone a cocktail and meet somebody.” She’s currently exclusively seeing a woman whom she calls “tall girl” in order to respect her privacy.

The stage to Westenhoefer is an open diary, and even when the story is tragic in nature, she always tries to make it comedic.

“I see what everybody is thinking, what needs to be said,” she says. “I’m getting everybody off the hook by saying it. I’m giving them a chance to laugh at tragedy that befalls them all.”

Growing up in the heart of Amish country in Pennsylvania, and coming out right when the AIDS crisis was starting in 1981, Westenhoefer has had plenty of stories to tell. But the act of sharing her personal narrative has its roots in something deeper and older.

“My grandfather was the same way,” she says. “He was that kind of person who goes to the store to get milk and bread, come back and have a fantastic funny story about it.”

On stage, Westenhoefer is not afraid to say whatever is on her mind.

“Once my sister told me she thinks she might be gay, but asked me not to tell anybody,” she says. “What did I do? I went right on stage and said ‘So, my sister thinks she’s gay.’”

This has not gotten her in trouble with her family so far, she claims, because they know it is “out of love.”

Westenhoefer began her stand-up career at the end of 1990, when a friend dared her to go on stage while she was working as a New York bartender. However, she did not need anyone to dare her to be honest and talk about gay life.

“My opening line was I am the only gay comedian you’re going to see tonight,” she says.

Though her first time on stage didn’t go well (by her own admission), her career took off through the ‘90s. In 1991, she became the first lesbian comic to appear on television, when she was on an episode of “Sally Jessy Raphael” called “Breaking the Lesbian Stereotype: Lesbians Who Don’t Look Like Lesbians,” and then went on to be the first openly gay comic to host an HBO Comedy Special in 1994.

Being on television created an opportunity to start a conversation, she says.

“It was a way to tell people not to panic, we aren’t killing babies,” Westenhoefer says. “This has always been and always will be.”

This is not the first time Westenhoefer has been a force for change. She says in high school she formed a group to ban dodge ball. She says activism is in her blood and that she and her family always were political

While still blunt and honest with her audience, Westenhoefer says things have certainly changed since she began. Westenhoefer no longer uses her original opening line.

“I used to do shows in straight clubs and I literally would say I was lesbian in the beginning of every show,” she says. “It’s definitely gotten to be a different show. It doesn’t have to be gay gay gay gay.”

Recent events, such as Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes and Barack Obama’s speech at his second inauguration, she says mark the change in attitudes toward the LGBT community.

When she came out at 19, Westenhoefer says it was a scarier time period. There was more violence against the community. However, most of her friends and family were supportive.

Now she finds it amazing that people like Foster can go on international television and discuss their sexuality with the world.

“I am very excited for her,” Westenhoefer, who’s met Foster three times, says. “She is a very shy, very private woman. I am very proud of her. To get up in front of an international audience and tell this, it’s amazing.”

Despite leaving the much warmer West Coast to do so, Westenhoefer says she’s always glad to return to the D.C. area.

“I love D.C. for several reasons,” she says. “First of all people will come out for a show even if there is an ice storm. They have southern hospitality, they are political and they want to be entertained. It is the perfect storm for comedy.”

Jaworek is happy to have her back because, “Suzanne is a very funny woman period.”

Even though she shares the experiences of a lesbian, Westenhoefer insists that, “the boys are welcome. It is not just for girls. It’s a show for straights, for gays, and if they wanna come, I promise they’ll laugh.”

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Photos

PHOTOS: DCGFFL 25th Anniversary Party

Gay flag football league marks milestone at Penn Social

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The D.C. Gay Flag Football league held a party celebrating their 25th season at Penn Social on Saturday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The D.C. Gay Flag Football League (DCGFFL) held a 25th season anniversary party at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23. Proceeds from the event benefited the LGBTQ youth services organization SMYAL as well as the D.C. Center for the LGBTQ Community.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

New book goes behind the scenes of ‘A League of Their Own’

‘No Crying in Baseball’ offers tears, laughs, and more

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hachette Books)

‘No Crying in Baseball: The Inside Story of ‘A League of Their Own’
By Erin Carlson
c.2023, Hachette Books
$29/320 pages

You don’t usually think of Madonna as complaining of being “dirty all day” from playing baseball. But that’s what the legendary diva did during the shooting of “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 movie, beloved by queers.

“No Crying in Baseball,” the fascinating story behind “A League of Their Own,” has arrived in time for the World Series. Nothing could be more welcome after Amazon has cancelled season 2 of its reboot (with the same name) of this classic film.

In this era, people don’t agree on much. Yet, “A League of Their Own” is loved by everyone from eight-year-old kids to 80-year-old grandparents.

The movie has strikes, home runs and outs for sports fans; period ambience for history buffs; and tears, laughs and a washed-up, drunk, but lovable coach for dramady fans.

The same is true for “No Crying in Baseball.” This “making of” story will appeal to history, sports and Hollywood aficionados. Like “All About Eve” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “A League of Their Own” is Holy queer Writ.

Carlson, a culture and entertainment journalist who lives in San Francisco, is skilled at distilling Hollywood history into an informative, compelling narrative. As with her previous books, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and “Queen Meryl: The Iconic Roles, Heroic Deeds, and Legendary Life of Meryl Streep,” “No Crying in Baseball,” isn’t too “educational.” It’s filled with gossip to enliven coffee dates and cocktail parties.

“A League of Their Own” is based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). From 1943 to 1954, more than 600 women played in the league in the Midwest. The league’s players were all white because the racism of the time prohibited Black women from playing. In the film, the characters are fictional. But the team the main characters play for – the Rockford Peaches – was real.

While many male Major and Minor League Baseball players were fighting in World War II, chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, founded the league. He started the AAGPBL, “To keep spectators in the bleachers,” Carlson reports, “and a storied American sport–more important: his business afloat.” 

In 1943, the Office of War Information warned that the baseball season could be “scrapped” “due to a lack of men,” Carlson adds.

“A League of Their Own” was an ensemble of women’s performances (including Rosie O’Donnell as Doris, Megan Cavanagh as Marla, Madonna as Mae, Lori Petty as Kit and Geena Davis as Dottie) that would become legendary.

Girls and women  still dress up as Rockford Peaches on Halloween.

Tom Hanks’s indelible portrayal of coach Jimmy Dugan, Gary Marshall’s depiction of (fictional) league owner Walter Harvey and Jon Lovitz’s portrayal of Ernie have also become part of film history.

Filming “A League of Their Own,” Carlson vividly makes clear, was a gargantuan effort.  There were “actresses who can’t play baseball” and “baseball players who can’t act,” Penny Marshall said.

The stadium in Evansville, Ind., was rebuilt to look like it was in the 1940s “when the players and extras were in costume,” Carlson writes, “it was easy to lose track of what year it was.”

“No Crying in Baseball” isn’t written for a queer audience. But, Carlson doesn’t pull any punches. 

Many of the real-life AAGPBL players who O’Donnell met had same-sex partners, O’Donnell told Carlson.

“When Penny, angling for a broad box-office hit chose to ignore the AAGPGL’s queer history,” Carlson writes, “she perpetuated a cycle of silence that muzzled athletes and actresses alike from coming out on the wider stage.”

“It was, as they say, a different time,” she adds.

Fortunately, Carlson’s book isn’t preachy. Marshall nicknames O’Donnell and Madonna (who become buddies) “Ro” and “Mo.” Kodak is so grateful for the one million feet of film that Marshall shot that it brings in a high school marching band. Along with a lobster lunch. One day, an assistant director “streaked the set to lighten the mood,” Carlson writes.

“No Crying in Baseball,” is slow-going at first. Marshall, who died in 2018, became famous as Laverne in “Laverne & Shirley.” It’s interesting to read about her. But Carlson devotes so much time to Marshall’s bio that you wonder when she’ll get to “A League of Their Own.”

Thankfully, after a couple of innings, the intriguing story of one of the best movies ever is told.

You’ll turn the pages of “No Crying in Baseball” even if you don’t know a center fielder from a short stop.

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Theater

Rupert Murdoch’s powers on full display in ‘Ink’

Media baron helped pave the way for Brexit, Prime Minister Thatcher

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Cody Nickell (Larry Lamb) and Andrew Rein (Rupert Murdoch) in ‘Ink’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Ink’
Through Sept. 24
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814
$46-$94
Roundhousetheatre.org

Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s loathsome traits are many, but his skills to succeed are undeniably numerous. 

In the first scenes of John Graham’s West End and Broadway hit drama “Ink,” an exciting year-long detail from the life of a burgeoning media baron, Murdoch’s powers of persuasion are on full display.

It’s 1969 London. Over dinner with editor Larry Lamb, a young Murdoch shares his plan to buy the Sun and rebrand the dying broadsheet, replacing the Daily Mirror as Britain’s best-selling tabloid. What’s more, he wants to do it in just one year with Lamb at the helm. 

Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes seduced by the idea of running a paper, something that’s always eluded him throughout his career, and something Murdoch, the outsider Australian, understands. Murdoch taunts him, “Not you. Not Larry Lamb, the Yorkshire-born son of a blacksmith, not the guy who didn’t get a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, who didn’t get a degree from anywhere. Not you.”

Still, Lamb, played convincingly by Cody Nickell in Round House Theatre’s stellar season-opener, a co-production with Olney Theatre Center, remains unsure. But Murdoch (a delightfully brash Andrew Rein) is undeterred, and seals the deal with a generous salary. 

Superbly staged by director Jason Loweth, “Ink” is riveting. Its exchanges between Lamb and Murdoch are a strikingly intimate glimpse into ambition involving an ostensibly average editor and a striving money man who doesn’t like people.  

Once on board, Lamb is trolling Fleet Street in search of his launch team, played marvelously by some mostly familiar actors. He makes his most important hire — news editor Brian McConnell (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) — in a steam bath. The remainder of the Sun’s new masthead falls handily into place: Joyce Hopkirk (Kate Eastwood Norris) the women’s page editor whose forward thinking is marred by her casual racism; Zion Jang plays Beverley Goodway, an awkwardly amusing young photographer; persnickety deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley (Michael Glenn) who learns to love ugly things; and an old school sports editor who proves surprisingly versatile, played by Ryan Rillette, Round House’s artistic director. 

At Lamb’s suggestion, the team brainstorms about what interests Sun readers. They decide on celebrities, pets, sports, free stuff, and —rather revolutionarily for the time —TV.  Murdoch is happy to let readers’ taste dictate content and the “Why” of the sacred “five Ws” of journalism is out the window. 

Murdoch is portrayed as a not wholly unlikable misanthrope. He dislikes his editors and pressman alike. He particularly hates unions. His advice to Lamb is not to get too chummy with his subordinates. Regarding the competition, Murdoch doesn’t just want to outperform them, he wants to grind them to dust. 

Loewith leads an inspired design team. Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s imposing, inky grey edifice made from modular walls is ideally suited for Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines, printed pages, and Rein’s outsized face as Murdoch. Sound designer and composer Matthew M. Nielson ably supplies bar noises and the nonstop, pre-digital newspaper clatter of presses, linotypes, and typewriters.

From a convenient second tiered balcony, the Daily Mirror’s establishment power trio Hugh Cudlipp (Craig Wallace), Chris Lee Howard (Chris Geneback) and Sir Percy (Walter Riddle) overlook all that lies below, discussing new tactics and (mostly failed) strategies to remain on top.   

Increasingly comfortable in the role of ruthless, sleazy editor, Lamb is unstoppable.

Obsessed with overtaking the Daily Mirror’s circulation, he opts for some sketchy reportage surrounding the kidnapping and presumed murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy Sir Alick (Todd Scofield). The kidnappers mistook Muriel for Murdoch’s then-wife Anna (Sophia Early). Next, in a move beyond the pale, Lamb introduces “Page 3,” a feature spotlighting a topless female model. Awesta Zarif plays Stephanie, a smart young model. She asks Lamb if he would run a semi-nude pic of his similarly aged daughter? His reaction is uncomfortable but undaunted. 

For Murdoch’s purposes, history proves he chose well in Lamb. By year’s end, the Sun is Britain’s most widely read tabloid. Together they give the people what they didn’t know they wanted, proving the pro-Labour Daily Mirror’s hold on the working class is baseless and paving the way for things like Brexit and a Prime Minister Thatcher. 

“Ink” at Round House closes soon. See it if you can.

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