Donnie’s Make Me Gorgeous!: The True Story of Kenneth “Mr. Madam” Marlowe gives Wade McCollum a tour de force role as a forgotten LBGTQ trailblazer who lived a great many lives long before most of them were acceptable or popular in society. Marlowe was a female impersonator, an author of nine books, a hairdresser to the stars, a call boy, a Catholic missionary, the madam of a notorious gay prostitution ring and a mortuary cosmetologist among others. He also transitioned to become Kate Marlowe later in life. Born in 1926, Marlowe was definitely ahead of his/her time. Based on Donnie’s biography Mr. Madam: The Life and Times of Kenneth/Kate Marlowe, his play with additional material by McCollum purports to be the true story of this colorful and groundbreaking individual.
As Marlowe, McCollum sings, dances, strips, emotes and narrates this remarkable life story from childhood to middle age. He plays both a man and a woman and convinces us that he is gorgeous in full drag. He prowls around the stage as well as the audience making great use of Walt Spangler’s setting under the direction of playwright Donnie. Completely at ease in his skin even when stripping to almost nothing, McCollum demonstrates great versatility voicing all of the characters as well as many performing skills.
From his San Francisco apartment in 1975, McCollum as Kenneth tells us about the facts of his life from his autobiography Mr. Madam: Confession of a Male Madam. When he was born in Iowa in 1926, his mother expecting a daughter dressed him in girl’s clothing until he was three. He enjoyed dressing in his grandmother’s clothes and jewelry when his family went to visit her. As a preadolescent he discovered sexual experience. By the age of 14, he discovered men in bathrooms and male signifiers. Traveling on a bus in drag, he is noticed by his father driving in a car alongside who let him know this was unacceptable, but soon afterwards his father left.
Becoming too involved with Bible Study where he felt accepted, he was shipped off to his aunt and uncle in Glendale, California, where in downtown Los Angeles, circa 1944, in Pershing Square he found his milieu among gay men and transvestite women. When he is brought home by the police as being underage, his aunt and uncle give him a ticket back home to Des Moines. However, he cashes in his ticket and goes back to Pershing Square. Running out of money he eventually turns to hustling and finds an unattractive sugar daddy who pays his way to study dancing and then beauty school where he gets a degree. When he finds the arrangement too uncomfortable, he moves to Chicago where he gets a job in Arlene’s Beauty Salon.
Hanging out at a club called Bennie’s, he is given a job rolling dice at three 26 tables. One night dressed in drag, he begins performing a song on the bar counter and discovers he is a success. A theatrical agency offers him a better job in Calumet City, as a female impersonator but little does he know it requires stripping. Given the stage name of Mr. Keni Marlo, it being the 1940’s he discovers that it is illegal for men to wear female clothing in public and he is required to wear three items of male attire. When it is revealed that his boss Sy Goldman is a gangster he flees to Indianapolis where he writes a song with jazz pianist Reggie DuValle but Goldman finds him and makes him finish out his contract.
When he is assaulted by Goldman, he flees to New Orleans but not before turning him in to the authorities. Appearing in the Club-My-O-My, he runs into his mother who is now on the wagon for two years and glad to see him. When the club burns down he get a job at a hair salon which leads to a better gig in a whorehouse where he was the only man working there. He not only did hair but turned tricks, earning a great deal of money per night. When the police closed the joint, he found he was to be inducted into the U.S. Army and sent to boot camp at Camp Carson, Colorado.
When it is discovered that he worked as a hairdresser previously, life becomes impossible and he is given a dishonorable discharge. He returns home to his mother now living on the west coast to have time to heal when she suggests he start writing down his story. This began his career as a bestselling author about the gay experience. When he meets a theater personality who complains there are no reliable answering services in Los Angeles, Kenneth starts his own 24 hour service.
However, his Mr. Madam Answering Service led to his hooking people up with whatever they needed including sexual services. He also goes back to being a beautician and ends up the hairdresser to the stars. When he is handed a pamphlet on Sex Reassignment Surgery, this being after George Jorgensen had become Christine Jorgensen in 1952, he decides to peruse it but has to stage a benefit with his new celebrity friends in order to pay for the operation. His book takes off and he earns royalties on 300,000 copies. With the new life as Kate Marlowe and a new career as a writer, Marlowe finally feels she has found herself.
McCollum’s performance is greatly enhanced by the attractive costumes of Jeffrey Hinshaw which help change him from a man into a woman. Spangler’s setting in pink and blue showing us a make-up table and a desk in a feminine boudoir is aided by the pink and blue lighting by Jamie Roderick. Ien DeNio’s sound design offers the background music for Kenneth Marlowe’s musical numbers and club performances. Brendan McCann’s production props round out the design elements. The silken direction of Donnie keeps the story bubbling smoothly along.
As Kenneth/Kate Marlowe, Wade McCollum not only becomes the character but inhabits it. Required to act as narrator as well as performer in both male and female attire, McCollum is totally convincing. His personal charm and rapport with the audience also makes this a pleasurable experience. Make Me Gorgeous! is an unusual biographical show as the details of Kenneth Marlowe’s story will likely be unfamiliar to most theatergoers who will also be entertained by the musical portions of the evening.
Make Me Gorgeous! (Wade MCallum extended through January 28, 2024; return engagement with Darius Rose, aka Jack Cox on RuPaul’s Drag Race, February 1 – March 24, 2024)
Playhouse 46 at St Luke’s, 308 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.GorgeousPlay.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission