Night Crawler

A boisterous line of campy enchantresses and adoring queers (it's a fussy distinction) stretches out from under the glittering Castro Theater marquee, down the block, and around the corner -- a clear indication that producer Marc Huestis has far surpassed last year's Christmas show with John Waters. On this fine summer evening, over 1,500 people (who bought tickets in advance) have turned out dressed in their moviegoing finest to celebrate the brazen vision of show-biz decadence and star-crossed wickedness that Jacqueline Susann explored in her '60s best-seller Valley of the Dolls. A full 30 years after the book became a sensation on the silver screen, the Castro movie house is sold out, forced to turn away couples clad in feather boas and matching Susan Hayward scarves. ("There was a time," mutters a small-hipped boy as he hobbles away from disappointment, "that a boa could get you in almost anywhere.") The line for the second show, scheduled 3 1/2 hours later, has already swelled past 200 people.

Inside the lobby, contestants for the Miss Living Doll 1997 beauty pageant coolly size each other up. "Ooh, did you see that leggy Sharon Tate?" asks a "doll" wrapped in folds of filmy pink.

"Uh huh," says her supportive escort, "but did you notice the dish on the stairs next to her? You could put her hair on a leash and walk it." The two snigger with perfect claw-bearing dollishness and flounce off down the carpeted aisle.

Onstage Ona Whim -- the "leggy Sharon Tate" dressed as Jennifer North -- stands between two psychedelic washes of liquid light, lip-syncing into a phone. Overhead, a well-crafted montage of clips from VOTD is accompanied by the theme song from The Patty Duke Show. It's ridiculous and glorious. The crowd shouts out unforgettable one-liners from VOTD with Rocky Horror enthusiasm: "You know, if you weren't my husband, I'd be madly in love with you"; "Some men don't pull well in a double harness"; "Mother, I know I don't have any talent, and I know all I have is a body" (here, picture Sharon Tate doing bust-building exercises). A public service announcement reminds the audience to "always take prescription drugs exactly as prescribed" since no two people are just the same; then an original VOTD trailer adds that drugs can offer "instant love, instant excitement, and the ultimate hell." The crowd is tickled, giggling and murmuring in approval. A voice-over croons, "Patty Duke: Someone put her name in lights and turned her into a lush; Sharon Tate: She took the blue ones; Susan Hayward: a claw-fighting star who went down swinging; and Barbara Parkins ...."

The live cast -- Flynn DeMarco as Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins), Connie Champagne as Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke), and Matthew Martin as Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) -- treat everyone to some live wig-pulling action and a few brilliantly executed songs. (Many of them appeared in Phillip R. Ford's local stage production of Dolls.) Afterward, Miss Living Doll is decided according to applause and catcalling. Surprisingly, a real-life woman dressed as Anne Wells (before the fall) "asses out" the leggy and lovely Ona Whim -- an upset for the Castro -- but the winning title goes to a cowering queen (Anne Wells after the fall) who hides her mascara-stained face from the spotlight throughout the proceedings.

Next on the star-studded stage, E! gossip reporter Ted Casablanca takes the podium, announces that he is gay, makes a shameless plug for his network -- and then becomes stricken by stage fright, bringing the show to a stammering crawl until the real-life Barbara Parkins is finally welcomed up to discuss her career.

Parkins, wearing a dark taffeta evening gown complete with bustle, is surprisingly beautiful (she gave up the sinful business back in '79) and completely charming. Looking out over the sold-out house with dewy eyes and a perfect smile, she asks frankly, "Who are you people?" The crowd applauds like mad, giving her the immediate impression that, here, she is Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, and Madonna rolled into one. "I'm quite overwhelmed," she says with real sincerity. "I didn't realize the movie had such an amazing following. It must be because it's so bad," she adds, winking. The audience is in rapture.

Casablanca picks up the pace and does what he does best, leading Parkins through questions about her beginnings on Peyton Place, a television series in which she co-starred with Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal, and sad tales about the lushy Judy Garland, who was originally meant to appear in VOTD, but who "might have felt the script was a little too close to her real life." Parkins begins to revel in the night -- a celebration that she says is an unexpected but perfect finale for her career. She speaks of the time Bette Davis smacked her behind and said she was a big fan. She talks of a spastic Susan Hayward, a neurotic Patty Duke, and a magical Sharon Tate. (Casablanca tactfully points out that Parkins had been invited to Tate's residence on the night she was murdered.) She explains how she had to imagine the face of Cat Stevens (whom she later dated) every time she had a love scene with Paul Burke because "looking at [Burke] was just so depressing." She calls Faye Dunaway a horrible person, and admits to turning down Love Story and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and to posing for Playboy (only after asking her 11-year-old daughter, who is in the audience, to cover her ears). Finally, she airs a 30-year grudge against Rebecca Herrera at 20th Century-Fox Publicity for being wholly unhelpful.

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