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SAN DIEGO -- Last night was the “preview” night of Robin Tyler’s “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Groom” at Diversionary Theater in University Heights.
I’ve known Robin (and her wife, Diane Olson) since the early ‘90s when I was one of her team of coordinators who helped produce her wildly popular West Coast Women’s Music and Comedy Festival (WCWMCF) in Yosemite. There were several of us "coordinators" in the audience last night, which made it even more nostalgic.
I was only there for the final four of the festival’s 15-year run, but I had heard of Robin’s history before then, her activism, her exploits on the stand-up comedy circuit. She had even co-produced the 1993 March on Washington during the years I worked with WCWMCF. I knew she was larger than life, and I was proud to have made her acquaintance.
Since then, I have run into her and Diane here in town when she was Grand Marshal of San Diego’s Pride Parade, again on the streets of Provincetown while Robin was hawking a one-night show, and in the last few years I’ve seen a great deal of them on television - smack dab in the eye of the Prop. 8 storm - every step of the way.
So in hindsight, I thought I was pretty "hip" on Robin Tyler and was looking forward to her comedy-based one-woman show.
What I got was so much more than I expected.
"Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Groom," both written and performed by Tyler, is a fabulous and delightful romp through her personal and mostly very public life, which frankly reads just like the encyclopedia of gay history.
Because from the moment 16-year old Robin picked up Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s groundbreaking book, "The Ladder," in a Winnepeg bookstore and realized there was an actual term for the feelings she felt, "Robin the Lesbian" has blazed a never-ending trail of living out loud and proud activism.
The dictionary defines activism as “The use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause.”
It also has Robin Tyler’s name next to it.
This show may be Robin’s personal memoir, and rightly so. I am thrilled at the fact she is filming during this weekend’s performances, specifically for submission to the coveted Film Festival circuit. This means that her story and the importance of her life and place in gay history will live on for the ages on film; but what you will come to realize when you attend this show, is that it is also a memoir of the entire gay movement. Robin basically started where Harvey left off and she’s still fighting.
With just a stool and small table at her side, Robin dutifully chronicles her life story for the audience, interspersing it with her quick wit, audience interaction and a multimedia presentation that includes old photos, newspaper clippings, home videos and television footage, in a montage that is all at once fun, passionate and historically riveting.
One thing I never knew about Robin is that she sang, and sang well. We not only get to experience her voice live during the show, but see and hear her at the top of her game in her heyday. That was around the time she was impersonating Judy Garland – something else I was thrilled to learn - and was the only female in a sea of female impersonators at the trendy Club 82 in NYC back in the early '60s; sort of a "Victor-Victoria" gig, long before its time.
In those early photos, I think she is the spitting image of a young Liza Minnelli – and she imitates Judy’s unique voice and halting style, perfectly. That combo was a shoo-in for a star performance and an adoring fan club filled with to the brim with "friends of Dorothy." She performed at Club 82 for two years, until she met the woman who would escort her through the next phase of her life, long-time partner Patty Harrison.
The couple formed what reminded me of a Carol Burnett – Vicki Lawrence duo, going on the road, making comedy records, doing television spots. Growing up in the sixties, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing what she was up to at an age when I was glued to the television and variety shows were the all the rage.
I found myself totally enamored with the bold and gregarious entertainer she was, long before I ever knew her name.
Her activism remains abundantly present throughout her long career as a performance artist, whether she be singing, offending someone with her comedy, during her romps on network television, or even while producing her very successful West Coast and Southern Music festivals.
No matter what else she was involved in - she was always busy pushing and moving the gay movement forward, however she could. She. Never. Stops.
When Anita Bryant said homosexuality was a disease, Robin famously coined the phrase, “If homosexuality is a disease, then let’s all call in queer to work. Hello? Sorry, still queer!”
Admittedly, not everyone has been a fan of Robin Tyler’s – especially of her method of activism and politics … the "take no prisoners" kind of style. She doesn’t believe in the word NO, or what she refers to as mob rule or even of decisions by committee; and she never could understand why any of us had to wait even one minute longer to have the same rights as everyone else. What's not to love?
Starting in the year 2000, she and her longtime partner Diane went every Valentine’s Day to the Beverly Hills courthouse to apply for a marriage license. They did it year after year after year, until Robin got fed up. She called her old friend Gloria Allred and decided to sue the state of California, becoming the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit that challenged the state’s declaration that marriage be between one man and one woman.
Lots of hard work later, Robin and Diane were the first couple to be married in June 2008 on the steps of that same courthouse after the lawsuit ruled in their favor and marriage between same-sex couples became legal in California. After the Prop. 8 debacle, she and Diane were allowed to keep their marriage certificate, but Robin hasn’t stopped fighting for the rest of us.
I put my dibs on her; she seems to pretty much get whatever she fights for.
You must go see this show. When it is over, you will feel exuberant, personally empowered and exceptionally honored to have been in such an intimate setting with this living legend.
Last night, I saw a grown man from the audience come up immediately after the show and ask her if he could hug her. She humbly obliged him. You may or may not act on it, but you will also want to do just that; to touch not only a cherished piece of our history, but to thank her for dedicating her life to fighting for the rights of all of us.
If you go
Diversionary Theatre is located at 4545 Park Boulevard #101, in University Heights. Parking is minimal and only on the street, so arrive early. Shows are Friday, September 17 at 7:30pm, Saturday, September 18 at 7:30pm and Sunday, September 19 at 2:00pm (tickets for Friday, Saturday and Sunday are $29, with discounts available for students, seniors (60+), military and groups (10 or more). For more information go to the website or call the box office at 619.220.0097
Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor for SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, ext 710 or at email@example.com.