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, 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 one of two Hollywood celebrity Pierce "impersonated" who 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!” The other star was Bette Davis who was snuck into the Studio One Backlot to see his show in the late 1970s. According to Pierce's longtime stage manager and dresser Kirk Frederick in his 2016 authorized Pierce biography, Davis was unimpressed with Pierce's portrayal and refused to go backstage after the show to greet Charles saying, "There is only one female impersonator who does me right, and his name is Arthur Blake. Charles was never told Davis had attended the show. Shortly after the incident, Pierce was introduced to Davis at a private event through Geraldine Fitzgerald, a mutual friend. Frederick reports that Davis brushed Pierce off with the same reference to Blake but didn't mention attending the show.
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 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"). Thanks in part to his good friend actress Dixie Carter, 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"||Johnnie||TV series|
|1977||Chico and the Man||"Dress""The Dress"||Brad Rushton||TV series|
|Starsky and Hutch||"Death in a Different Place"||Show star 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 (villain)||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"||voices of the warden and Mr. Slinky||TV animated series|
|Spies and Lovers||Granny Greenberg|
|1990||Nerds of a Feather|
|1991||The Butcher's Wife||Beau|
|1997||Dragtime HBO Documentary||Himself|
|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
- Write That Down! The Comedy of Male Actress Charles Pierce, Page 82, (Havenhurst Books, 2016)