By Steve Ostrow
On my way to the beach [on Fire Island], I saw an object that looked like a man, but more like a sandman. I almost paid it no mind, except that I would have tripped over it. To my surprise, I found that, yes, it was a man, fully dressed -” and totally covered with sand.
My first fear was that he was dead, but as I got closer, I could hear drunken snores emanating from the figure. Once inside [the house] and with the sand shaken off, we could see that the figure we had recovered from the surf was a quite nice-looking young man in his early thirties. Then Bette [Midler] let out a scream that I’m sure was heard back on the mainland, exclaiming, My God, that’s Peter Allen!
To which I replied, Who the hell is Peter Allen?
Liza Minnelli’s husband, stupid! snapped Bette. Judy Garland’s son-in-law! Hello in there, do you get it now?
Peter came out of it slowly; in fact, it took all afternoon for him to make any sense at all, and then the whole drama spilled out of him.
He was devastated. He really loved Liza, but his ambivalence about his own sexuality was the breaking point between them. Peter was a late comer-outer, and he was just starting to emerge from the closet. Not until much later did Peter really accept himself, and once he did, he became outrageous. But that’s what freed him and his art up, and it was then that his career took off. For now, though, all we had was a shell of a man.
Peter stayed at the beach house for the next two weeks. Gradually he pulled himself together, and before long he was writing songs on the white upright piano I’d brought in from the mainland for my own practice. There were only two pianos on Fire Island at that time: mine and Jerry Hermann’s. Many an afternoon we spent at Jerry’s house, where he would regale us with songs from his hit shows: Mame, Hello Dolly, La Cage aux Folles, and others.
One afternoon I said to Peter, What would you think about performing at the Baths?
Peter looked at me quizzically, with that mischievous twinkle in his eye, saying, What kind of performance did you have in mind, Steve?
A musical one, dummy, I replied.
Peter agreed, and spent another week at the house preparing the act.
The night he went on, there was a kind of silence as I introduced him. Most of the crowd knew about his troubles with Liza, and I think they were sympathetic to him. Peter did a very straightforward musical show. He sang and played the piano and was pleasantly received.
I had booked Peter for a month, and with each show, he would gradually become more and more mobile. By the end of the run, he was tap-dancing on top of the piano, interacting with the audience, throwing out outrageous double entendres and the frenetic slapdance singer/hoofer Peter Allen had been born. His act became so over-the-top that those moments when he would just sit quietly at the piano and sing, letting his emotions infuse the words, were wonderfully intimate and all the more magical.
info: This is an excerpt from the book Live at the Continental by Steve Ostrow.
info: Sydney’s World AIDS Day concert on November 30, featuring Todd McKenney and Rhonda Burchmore, will be a tribute to Peter Allen. Details: www.acon.org.au/worldaidsdayconcert