Show Business said there was no place for him.
In Catania and Ignacio’s first feature documentary we look deep inside the world of one of the most prolific, talented, and outrageous New York theater artists of the last two decades, beloved playwright, actor, novelist, drag artist, and leading lady, Charles Busch. Splashed on the map in 1984 as one of the burgeoning artists of New York’s East Village arts scene, Busch’s scandalously sex-charged, cross-dressing classic, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom became a theater phenomenon, running an unprecedented five years and securing its place as one of the longest-running shows in Off-Broadway history. His legendary Theater-in-Limbo plays, produced originally at the dingy yet inspired Limbo Lounge, brought together an eclectic troupe whose talents are on display in rare archival footage.
The film begins in 2000 at the opening night of Busch’s hit Broadway show, The Tale Of The Allergist’s Wife. “I never knew the big bucks that could be made by exploiting your family,” explains Busch. Lifted from years of eavesdropping on his own family drama, the Allergist’s Wife offers a window into Busch’s traumatic childhood. Losing his mother at age seven, he reacts to this tragic event, as well the absence of his father, by immersing himself in a world of classic movies. Ignoring the demands of school, Busch watches movies late into the night, preferring the black and white world of 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood to his own painful reality.
But expert knowledge of Hollywood is not enough to keep Busch from nearly flunking out of school. Swooping to the rescue is a real life Auntie Mame-figure in the form of his mother’s oldest sister, Lillian Blum. Aunt Lillian saves him from the stifling suburbs and brings him to Manhattan where his creative appetites are finally sated. Busch discovers his talents and he makes it through high school and Northwestern University, but upon graduating is hit with a new harsh reality: his dream of being up on the stage is thwarted at every turn by theater directors who find him “too odd, too gay.” Busch says of this time, “If nobody else was going to put me in a play I decided I would have to get it done myself. So I became a writer so I would have the opportunity to act.”
So begins Charles Busch’s journey to become one of the most celebrated figures in New York theatre today. After graduating college Busch spends six years touring the country in one-man shows. Childhood friend Andy Halliday explains, “He’d go anywhere. He would open in a garage. He had to perform, it was like drug.” Then one fateful summer night, while attending a bizarre, experimental performance at New York’s gritty Limbo Lounge in 1984, Busch is inspired to write the wildly popular Vampire Lesbians Of Sodom. The overwhelming response to the racy skit compels Busch to write more plays, and within a few years his new Theatre-in-Limbo acting troupe has a string of hits to their name. Psycho Beach Party, Times Square Angel, The Lady In Question, and Red Scare On Sunset, all play Off-Broadway and soon Busch’s highly nuanced artistry becomes the gold standard for drag performance in New York.
Eventually after seven non-stop years (1984 to 1991), the legendary Theatre-in-Limbo is ripped apart by fatigue and AIDS, as several core family members are lost to the epidemic. Then, after a decade of reflection and experimentation, and just as the millennium turns, Busch experiences a new wave of success when he writes his hit Broadway comedy, The Tale Of The Allergist’s Wife. The future seems only rosy for Charles Busch, when in the wake of his triumph his life is almost cut short. A doctor explains, “Mr. Busch what you have kills 50% of the people in the first half-hour, and the rest by the weekend….” (Busch himself responds to this horrible episode through a silent black and white short he created especially for the documentary.)
Against enormous odds Charles Busch survives and rallies: in quick succession he writes the new Broadway book to a Rosie O’Donnell/Boy George musical; returns triumphantly to the Off-Broadway stage in his new play, Shanghai Moon; and stars in Die, Mommie, Die!, his first feature film as leading lady. As a packed theater of adoring fans welcomes Busch to the Castro Theater stage in San Francisco, Busch finally reveals the true inspiration and motivation behind his unparalleled drag artistry….