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John Epperson relies on Josie's in designing divas

He's every woman.
John Epperson, aka Lypsinka, is back, channeling Crawford, Davis, Merman, Taylor, and Endora in the world premiere of his latest dragstravaganza, Lypsinka Must Be Destroyed!, which runs through March at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint.

Though he lives in New York, and his shows inevitably run forever off-Broadway, Mississippi native Epperson has developed and premiered all four of his hit Lypsinka shows at the 135-seat Josie's, which has become a vital performance center and springboard for established and emerging gay and lesbian artists such as Marga Gomez, Doug Holsclaw, and Scott Capurro.

But it was Lypsinka who put the Castro club on the map, and vice versa.
In his rented one-bedroom near the theater, Epperson recently granted an interviewer an audience, offering a rare glimpse of the capital-G Glamour that is Lypsinka offstage.

Sans the kabuki makeup, the gravity-defying wigs, the Edith Head-y gowns, the somewhat scary siren looks like ... Opie. Baby-faced with cropped, reddish hair, looking much younger than his 40 years, Epperson appears at the door in a T-shirt, black-and-white seersucker pants, and puffy black boot-slippers. Vases of multicolored rubrum lilies, an opening-night gift, sit drying and curling in a corner of the room, which is littered with rented videocassettes (Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear; Petulia) and piles of CDs (This Is My Life: The Best of Shirley Bassey; the original soundtrack of The Magnificent Ambersons).

"The first time I performed in San Francisco," recalls the soft-spoken Epperson, revealing vestiges of a Southern accent, "I was brought here to perform at a big dance club called the Colossus. Josie's was not open yet, they were still building it, and I wandered over there one day and introduced myself, and they said, 'Oh, we saw you at Colossus the other night, and we hope you'll come here and perform someday.' "

Soon afterward, Epperson decided to take Josie's up on the offer. "So I did what I have to do, which is gather up all these old records and hire time in a recording studio, and go down there and make a show," says Epperson, who creates his elaborate pastiche "soundtracks" on a combination of DAT and floppy disk technology.

"Josie's was still pretty raw -- they only had a few lighting instruments, their equipment was not much to speak of -- but the show had the kind of excitement you'd feel at [the East Village's] Pyramid Club, except people were sitting down. They were with me, and they understood all the references."

The combination of the city's camp-savvy audiences and the relative financial ease of producing a show here keeps bringing Lypsinka back for more. On Josie's tiny 10-by-12-foot stage, Epperson, director Kevin Malony, and longtime production designer Dana Peter Porras, a native of the Castro, create dazzling technical effects in Lypsinka Must Be Destroyed!, combining high-intensity computerized lighting in electric Easter-egg colors ("We finally got the Technicolor I've wanted all these years," Epperson says), with startling simulations of such cinematic effects as dissolves and telescoping close-ups.

The show's subtitle, "The First Farewell," hints that Epperson is thinking of retiring his formidable alter ego.

"I will phase her out sooner or later, and I hope she'll go gracefully," he laughs. "I've seen some people who do what I do well past the age when they shouldn't be doing it. I don't want to name any names. I don't want to keep doing it because I can't do anything else, because the truth is, I can do other things."

Last year, for instance, Epperson made an as-yet-unreleased movie with RuPaul, Debi Mazur, and Paul Mercurio. "Ru and I play boyfriends -- neither of us is in drag, which we were both very happy about -- and my character has AIDS," he says. "So I had to shoot a gun and cry three times and sit in a wheelchair and do all kinds of things I've never had the opportunity to do before.

"The truth is -- and I'm always embarrassed to say it, because it's such a clichŽ -- is that I'd love to direct movies," says Epperson, who confesses a fantasy of making the Broadway musical Dreamgirls into a movie. "You know," he says, "I never wanted to be just Liza Minnelli -- I also wanted to be Vincente Minnelli."

Lypsinka Must Be Destroyed! runs through March 31 at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint in S.F.; call 861-7933.

 
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