Frank Marino is a a showstopper.
In his famous Joan Rivers role, performing at the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, three times a night, Frank pulls in about 6,000 adoring fans a week. Frank emcees an all-semi- star revue, showcasing the talents of entertainers impersonating Madonna, Liza Minelli, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick. His fabulous spectacle is a must-see for all visitors to America's Playground, where his impersonation extravaganza "An Evening at La Cage" -- a $2.5 million tour de force -- airs six nights a week.
"La Cage" opened in September of 1985, and is now running for the fifteenth consecutive year. It's been nominated 28 times for best show of the year, best production, best costumes, best specialty art and best originality show.
As Joan Rivers, good-looking Frank becomes gorgeous -- and a dead ringer for the glamorous and funny late-night TV comedienne. As a businessman with his own condominium development, Santa Fe villas, near Rancho Drive and Craig Road, a fashionable hair salon at The Lakes and his own line of cosmetics and hair-care products, he's just as successful. With the help and support of his well-known producers Norbert Aleman -- a European star in his own right, who divides his time between Vegas and Atlantic City and has been featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous -- and Lou Paciocco, a resplendent luxury wardrobe of tailored gowns and exotic furs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and the best hairdressers east of Rodeo Drive, Frank has become one of Vegas's hallmark attractions. Here's an entertainer who brings heart, energy and enthusiasm to his work, whose talent, flair and inimitable style make him the world's finest Joan -- next to Joan herself.
Frank's been featured in Show Biz magazine, in People, USA Today and Variety. He's appeared on ABC's Good Morning America with David Hartman, on PM Magazine in the company of Bill Cosby, and done a cable TV special with veteran comedian Milton Berle. He even had a guest spot on Joan's own Late Show! With fellow "La Cage" castmember Randy Aran, he appeared, as guest "Joan Rivers," on Sally Jessy Raphael. The twist was that Randy didn't appear as a guest - he dressed up as Sally herself and played hostess to "Joan"!
Frank even appeared, on July 22, 1986, on the cover of the National Enquirer, under the headline Joan Rivers Threatening to Sue This Female Impersonator -- He Using My Jokes! At the time that Joan sued Frank, she claimed it was because he was using herjokes -- though Frank felt he was only getting about l% of his material from his icon, Joan was upset. He revealed to reporters,that he had nothing but admiration for Joan, and was deeply hurt by her attitude toward his performance; imitation, said, Frank, is the sincerest form of flattery! After all, Frank was 22 and Joan was in her 50s -- to say nothing of the fact that Joan had fame and fortune, and Frank was just starting off. It was a stressful period for him, but did have the happy side effect of catapulting him into the national limelight. No female, impersonator had ever been on the cover of Enquirer before Frank -- he was the first. He had made tabloid history.
The jokes he used were off, one of Joan's albums -- so everyone should have known where they came from, Frank felt. "I idolized this woman," said Frank, at the time of the traumatic episode. "I remember the first time I met her in Atlantic City; my heart was in my shoes."
Frank quickly agreed to use his own jokes exclusively, and the two settled amicably out of court. With that misunderstanding between Joan and her biggest fan behind them, they became friends, and now Frank's got it all -- but he won't stop anytime soon.
Frank's in his 30s, with a naturally delicate bone structure. high cheekbones, big, brown eyes and dark hair. He reports that it takes him an hour and a half to put on his stage makeup every night, and another hour to take the makeup off again. He waxes out his face, using putty on his eyebrows to conceal them so that Joan's eyebrows are highlighted. Clown white hides his beard area, and regular foundation creme, powdered down, is applied as base. Frank dons a skullcap beneath his Joanesque wigs.
We know it's worth it! The butterfly that emerges from Frank's dressing room before the curtains are rung up is glitzy and seductive beyond belief, with bouffant blond hair, long eyelashes and a slinky gown to die for -- this ersatz Queen of Comedy spreads her sumptuous wings and takes flight! Frank's voice impressions of Joan are great too, and he's a wonderful and incisive mimic of her self-deprecating, sometimes cutthroat humor.
in "La Cage," Frank goes through 16 costume changes in 70 minutes. He owns over 100 gowns, and changes his wardrobe about every eight months. The dresses range from exotic to daytime-TV style, and each one brings out a different facet of Frank's Joan persona. "If I want to talk about dieting jokes, I make sure the gown is too tight," smiles Frank. He gives lots of credit to his wonderful choreographer, Fred Sarrano, who he feels is at the top of his profession. Occasionally, Frank watches videotapes of Joan before he goes on stage, to put him in the right frame of mind.
Frank's a petite man, who wears a size-eight woman's shoe. He loves shoes, and has a collection of over 100! Frank has designed some of his own gowns, constructed specially with long hemlines, long sleeves and high necklines to hide his more masculine characteristics (like body hair!); his wigs are designed by a friend who's also a celebrity impersonator. He was given a Russian lynx belly-coat worth $225,000 by an admirer -- a fitting tribute to his refinement. Each night in the Nevada desert, Frank glides onto the stage in Bob Mackie dresses (the most expensive of which is reputedly worth about $4,500) and black fox-tail boas -- the envy of all as, from the velvety dark of the Mardi Gras Plaza showroom, he's brought into dramatic relief by the rising dawn of the house lights.
Frank's risen above a lot of discouragement. When, in junior high school, he tried out for the musical Pippin, wanting to play Ben Vereen's character, he was told by a teacher, "You'll never make it." In spite of this Frank was a model by age 16. He was inspired to launch a career as a female impersonator at age 17, when he dressed up as Diana Ross as a lark for a Halloween party at a Long Island discotheque and won first-prize for his getup. An agent in the audience offered him the chance to impersonate Diana for a living, at $150 per show, and Frank was euphoric.
"I never thought about being a female impersonator," he said. "It was a series of events that fell into place. It was tough at first. I was an impersonator who didn't do comedy. I had to learn comedy or get out of business."
He dressed up as Bette Midler and then Cher; next it was Joan, after Frank saw a Joan impersonator who impressed him. (If he had to choose another celebrity to impersonate, Frank reveals, "It would be Phyllis Diller.")
A year later, he met his future producer Lou Paciocco back- stage at Bally's, in Atlantic City, with Joan herself, while she was reviewing one of Frank's tapes.
Lou was immediately struck by Frank and asked him to audition for a role emceeing as Joan. Frank went and auditioned in Los Angeles, and from then on out it's history!
Frank starred as Joan for a year at a venue in Florida, and then was hired for the Vegas show. Soon Frank entered, and was the clear winner, in a Joan lookalike contest in Nevada. This took him to the jet-set corridors of the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where he was mobbed by fans seeking autographs, and from there to an appearance on Joan's own talkshow.
Frank says his parents aren't upset -- though many parents would be! -- by his livelihood and blossoming fame as a Joan clone. In fact, they're proud of him, he says. They regard his career as they would any other career in entertainment, understanding that he goes to work as himself, in straight clothes, and leaves as himself, his Joanwear behind him.
Though some impersonators lip-sync to tracks by their cele- brity role models, Frank's show is live. He looks, walks and talks like Joan; he has her straight-armed clapping mannerism down-pat; and he jokes like Joan too. He may even be as funny!
But Frank is more than an entertainer, more than a comedienne. He's made a beautiful, moving, human art form out of impersonation. All we can say is, "Frank -- thank you."
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