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Friday, October 22, 2010

Deeper Dish with Alexandra Billings

Any regular reader of this blog knows that I consider Alexandra Billings to be a groovy gal. I've known this ever since she starred in the play, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, at Chicago's Royal George Theatre in 1990. Since then, the talented actress has appeared on television (Grey's Anatomy, Eli Stone) and in movies (Socket, Stealth), recorded two solo CDs, and performed a one-woman autobiographical show as well as a cabaret act (for which she received the New York MAC Hanson Award for Cabaret Artist of the Year in 2004).

Having featured her in an interview last year (click here to read it), I am thrilled to have her back here on the Dish to discuss her most recent success - her cabaret debut at New York’s prestigious Feinstein’s nightclub. She is also preparing for a stage show of her fabulous YouTube web series, Katie’s Corner, on November 7 in Los Angeles. And this weekend Alex is returning to Chicago for two special events - tomorrow night she will be the keynote speaker at a benefit for Gerber/Hart Library, and on Sunday evening she will be playing Googie Gomez in Pride Films & Plays' staged reading of Terrence McNally's play, The Ritz.

So let’s begin with The Ritz. Are you a fan of the 1976 film version?
I've actually only seen the film once - when it came out - which I guess makes me about 83 years old. I'm aware of the cult following of the film and that makes me a little nervous. Rita Moreno is a brilliant actress and I'm hoping no one will come with expectations. Our director John Nasca and I talked about this, and even though we are doing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" (which is the song Rita did on Broadway and in the film), we're going to do it our way. As a matter of fact, I asked John if I could use a tambourine and do a cartwheel. I like to keep my chiropractor busy.

What is your favorite moment in the play?
My favorite scene so far is when the mistaken identity happens and most everyone on stage is wearing mustaches. You can't beat that.

In August you made your debut at Feinstein’s nightclub in New York. What were the most memorable moments of that experience?
Singing gets more frightening the older I get. I don't do it as often as I used to and it really is a muscle. If you don't use it often, it gets weak. So truly, when the gig was over, I sighed like Snoopy.

There was a moment though the second night when the owner brought me a postcard and asked me to announce the act that was following us the next week. I got to actually stand on stage and say:

"And join Feinstein's next week for the brilliant Mickey Rooney."

You could have shot me in the head right there. I suddenly had this amazing moment of history waft through me. I was hit with all the amazing people who'd sung in that space and stood where I was standing, and it was a bit overwhelming for me. I mean, when it comes right down to it, I'm just a little kid from Schaumburg.

How did you first create your popular YouTube character of “Katie”?
I've been doing a Hepburn impersonation since I was about ten. I used to do it for my Dad. He loved Hepburn - and being in the theatre and being around actors since I was six years old, impersonations were always a part of my life.

From there, she started to sneak into certain shows I was in every once in a while. I'd do her in my cabaret act, and when we did Xena Live! at About Face Theatre, the piece was done like a TV show and had actual commercials in it. So Amy Matheny (who played Gabrielle and was co-producer) asked me to do Hepburn selling T-shirts for the theatre.

And then when we moved out to L.A., I met Heather Hopkins who became a very good friend of mine, and she loved the Hepburn shtick. She's actually the one who forced me to put it on tape. I thought it was a ridiculous idea, and I only did them to entertain her. Then I eventually dragged her into them (she plays Shaniqua in the videos) and the rest of my friends, truly just to have a good time. And now it's this bizarre, unstoppable beast.

And I have to say, it really isn't Katherine Hepburn anymore. This "Katie" character is a woman unto herself. She's morphed from Hepburn to a woman on the brink.

What will “Katie” be doing in Katie’s Corner Live On Stage?
That's a great question. I wish I could help you. The only thing we know right now is that she's going to give an instructional evening for the audience on "How To Create A One-Woman Show." Of course she'll be surrounded by about five people, but really, does that matter? Sean Abley, our director, has given us free reign to see what happens and improvise like mad. So...I have absolutely no idea what the heck is going to happen. Your guess is as good as mine. If I don't pass out from fear, I'll consider the night a success.

How did you end up singing the theme song for the cult indie film, Scream of the Bikini?
Bill Newlin was the composer of the music in the film, and is also my accompanist out here when I have nightclub work. We met doing The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Sacred Fools Theatre a couple of years ago and we really hit it off. He threw me a bone, what can I tell you?

Since you’re a big fan of I Love Lucy, what are your three favorite episodes of the show?
Oh you're killing me, Marc. Here's what I can tell you, I've been watching I Love Lucy since I can remember, and since the invention of the VCR, I've watched it every single night of my life before bed. My wife can also now quote lines from the series. She does it unconsciously and curses me at the same time. So picking my three favorites is impossible. I'll give you my three favorites for today - but it could change in an hour.

I love the candy episode where Lucy and Ethel lose their minds making chocolate. I also love the episode where Lucy has to tell the truth for 24 hours. And I think one of the great episodes is one that's rarely seen. Tallulah Bankhead makes an appearance as the Ricardos' next-door neighbor. This is when they've moved into the house in the country. Strangely, this was originally written for Bette Davis, who declined the role.

During rehearsals, neither Lucy nor Desi were speaking to each other. Their marriage had begun to fall apart and life on the set was pretty miserable. To make matters worse, Tallulah was drunker than a skunk. She was missing entrances, forgetting lines and falling over furniture. Ball was furious and wanted to fire her. Finally, the night of filming came, and the episode itself went beautifully. Bankhead is hilarious and it's wonderful to see two pros trade jabs in a really well-written episode. Lucy later sent her flowers to Tallulah's home with a card that read:

"I should have fired myself. Thank you for everything, Tallulah."

How did you end up singing with Bea Arthur at Chicago’s Gentry on Halsted?
My good friend Michael Sanders was Bea's make-up artist when she was traveling around with her one-woman show. They stopped in Chicago to play at the Park West, and Michael got myself and my wife Chrisanne back stage to meet her. She couldn't have been more gracious or more hilarious that night. The next week Michael told her that I was performing on a Sunday night at the Gentry and that I would sing "Fifty Percent", a song written by Billy Goldenberg who happened to be a friend of Bea's and was also her accompanist in her show. She and Billy both showed up that night and sat around the piano.

Eventually, I asked her to get up and do a song, which she did. Now - and I say this lovingly, of course - she was a bit tipsy. She sounded great and was still the great ole Bea we know and love, but after her two songs, she and I did a small version of "Bosom Buddies", and I saw in her eyes that she was getting tired and needed to sit. She then gave me a big hug while the crowd was roaring, wrapped her arms around me, and whispered in my ear with great aplomb:

"I'm so drunk, I could fart."

It was the single greatest night of my life on stage.

Since you confess on your website to being obsessed with amusement park roller coasters, what are a few of your favorite ones?
The Monster at Great America was the last one I rode and that was about 10 years ago. I'm almost 50 now, and the only thing I can do that goes that fast is to run down my driveway to check the mail.

If you could live anywhere in the world for one year, where would it be and why?
My wife and I want to live in Paris - because it's Paris.

If you could go back and give your 16-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Keep dreaming. They come true if you pursue them long enough.

My least favorite food is:
Most anything green, but especially spinach. It looks like something the cat threw up.

I collect::
Nothing. I collect nothing. Does that make me boring?

My first celebrity crush was::
Ann-Margret. I wanted her hair. I still do.

My current celebrity crush is:
Johnny Depp. Specifically, Johnny Depp as "Captain Jack". I have this thing for pirates. I don't want to talk about it.

The last good movie I saw was:
I loved Precious. I thought Monique's performance was the stuff of dreams. Talk about freedom and pain and anguish coming from some place real and true. It was like watching a documentary. She deserved more than an Oscar for that thing - she deserved a medal.

My favorite scary movie is:
Again, too many to pick a favorite. I'm a scary movie freak. I can try and narrow it down though:

The Exorcist, Scream and Night of the Living Dead.

Pretty much anything with zombies, gore or Ellen Burstyn is okay in my book.

What’s next for Alexandra Billings?
Chrisanne is directing a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf here in L.A. at The Loft Theatre with myself as Martha and Jeff Perry as George. We open in January. I also might be doing a gig at a club out here called First & Hope in December. That's really all I know so far. The rest is up in the air as usual. But that's the way I like it. I have absolutely no idea what's next and it scares me to death, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thank you, Alex, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. Pride Films and Plays' staged reading of The Ritz will be performed this Sunday, October 24, at 7 pm at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont). Tickets may be purchased by phone at 1-800-838-3006 or online at To purchase tickets to Gerber/Hart Library's benefit tomorrow (October 23) at 7 pm at the Swedish American Museum Center (5211 N. Clark), go to And for tickets to Katie's Corner on November 7 at 7:30 pm at L.A.'s Celebration Theatre (7051 Santa Monica Blvd), go to

To learn more about Alex, check out her website and her wonderful blog, Stillettos and Sneakers. You can also subscribe to her YouTube channel and become a fan on Facebook.

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