Charles Pierce (female impersonator)
Life and career
Born in Watertown, New York, he began his show business career playing the organ and acting in radio dramas at station WWNY. He branched out into a comedy routine, attired in tuxedo, yet managing to evoke eerily convincing imitations of popular movie actresses. Eschewing the term drag queen, which he hated, he billed himself as a male actress.
Initially playing in small gay clubs, his fame spread. He took up residence in San Francisco, California, where his act became well-known to Hollywood stars. As he toured, his costuming became more elaborate, initially adding small props, later full costume and makeup changes. His imitations were imitated by other female impersonators, and his roles included Bette Davis, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson, Carol Channing, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford, which became the drag queen canon. His act was centered on wit rather than accurate mimicry, though it was often said that he looked more like Joan Collins than did Joan Collins herself.
Carol Channing was the only Hollywood celebrity Charles "impersonated" who ever actually saw his act. She went backstage after a show at Gold Street in San Francisco (c. 1972) and said, "Cheee-yarles: you do me better than I do!”
He performed at many clubs in New York, including The Village Gate, Ted Hook's OnStage, The Ballroom, and Freddy's Supper Club. His numerous San Francisco venues included the Gilded Cage, Cabaret/After Dark, Gold Street, Bimbo's 365 Club, Olympus, The Plush Room, the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, and the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.
He was a guest actor on an episode of TV's Wonder Woman and played a cross-dressing villain in an episode of Laverne & Shirley ("Murder on the Moose Jaw Express"). Pierce also appeared on an early episode of the hit 80's TV sitcom Designing Women as a steward on a cruise ship. During the episode, he imitates Joan Collins (as the ship's waitress) and Bette Davis (as the ship's lounge entertainment). As Davis he quips: "Was that Joan Collins hustling the tables? One bitch on this boat is enough!"
He died in North Hollywood, California, aged 72, and was cremated. His memorial service at Forest Lawn Memorial Park was carefully planned and scripted by Pierce before his death. Among those attending his memorial was his friend Bea Arthur, who closed with “I’ll See You Again.” His ashes were interred in the Columbarium of Providence, Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
In Bea Arthur's Tony Award-nominated one-woman show, Just Between Friends, which she played on Broadway and in London's West End, Arthur performs Pierce's favorite joke, A Mother's Ingenuity. It can be heard in the CD cast recording.
|Year||Title||Episode / segment||Role||Notes|
|1972||The Partners||"Headlines for Higgenbottom"||Pretty Boy Clyde||TV series|
|1973||Love, American Style||"Love and the Baby Derby"||TV series|
|1977||Chico and the Man||"Dress""The Dress"||Brad Rushton||TV series|
|Starsky and Hutch||"Death in a Different Place"||Sugar||TV series|
|1978||Rabbit Test||The Queen of England||written and directed by Joan Rivers|
|Wonder Woman||"Death in Disguise"||Finley / Starker||TV series|
|1980||Laverne & Shirley||"Murder on the Moose Jaw Express", Parts 1 and 2||MacGuffin||TV series|
|1982||Legends of the Silver Screen||HBO Special; live at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion|
|Madame's Place||"A Visit from Cousin Charlie"||Charley / Bette Davis||TV series|
|1983||Fame||"Hail to the Chief"||Bag Lady||TV series|
|1987||Designing Women||"Cruising"||Claude||TV series|
|1988||Gay Voices, Gay Legends||Himself||documentary|
|Torch Song Trilogy||Bertha Venation|
|1989||DuckTales||"The Good Muddahs"||TV animated series (voice)|
|Spies and Lovers||Granny Greenberg|
|1990||Nerds of a Feather|
|1991||The Butcher's Wife||Beau|
|2006||Stardust: The Bette Davis Story||Himself as Bette Davis||TV documentary; archive footage|
|2009||Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis||Himself as Bette Davis||documentary; archive footage|
- For Pierce'd Ears (live San Francisco performance), Wanda Records MP2101
- Les Natali presents Charles Pierce. Recorded live at Bimbo's, San Francisco- Blue Thumb Records- BTS-30 -1970
- Charles Pierce at the Internet Movie Database
- A Charles Pierce tribute site
- Charles Pierce Papers, 1954-1998, held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
-  ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, University of Southern California Digital Archives