It was just going to be for one night. Frank Marino decided he would dress in drag for a Halloween party.
"I originally planned to become a doctor. I was working in a pharmacy," Marino said. "When I decided on my costume, I went over to the women's make-up counter. I figured, What the heck, I might as well take advantage of the employee discount.'" At the party, Frank met a show business booking agent who specialized in finding celebrity look- alikes for private parties and promotions.
"At first, I turned him down, but later I decided to try doing one show, and I ended up getting paid $150 for an hour's work," said Marino. "That was more than I made in a week at my part-time job, so I started doing private parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs and any other dates where they wanted a celebrity look-alike."
For the past 15 years, Marino has had a full-time job at the Riviera Hotel where, every night, he turns himself into Joan Rivers and hosts "An Evening At La Cage." Three times each night, he delivers. an opening monologue and introduces the other female impersonators who make up the "La Cage" cast, all the while changing from one dazzling Bob Mackie gown into another.
He settled on doing the Joan Rivers character 16 years ago when he met the popular comedienne in Atlantic City. "At the time, Joan was the top guest host on 'The Tonight Show' and the number one female comic in the country," Marino explained. "I already had a gimmick by dressing in drag, so by doing someone as famous as Joan, I had a character who was instantly recognizable."
The real Joan liked what she saw and invited him on her late night show. They also made several TV commercials. The relationship, however, did have one rough spot. In 1986, the real Joan filed a $5 million lawsuit against Marino. "She was concerned that if I did material off of her comedy album, it would be a conflict," he explained. "We settled the lawsuit and I write all my own material now. I'm glad we got that resolved. I was about $80 short of what she was asking."
Marino admitted that the Joan Rivers he presents on the stage is his own creation. "I offer my version of Joan Rivers. It's my vision of the qualities I picked out that I like about her," he said. "Other imperson- ators might do a Joan Rivers that is harsher than my interpretation."
In addition to her comedy style, there's another quality Frank likes about Joan. "She's a great dresser. I don't have to wear shabby clothes." Marino added that he is constantly changing his wardrobe. "I do 14 costume changes during each show, coming out between each act in a dress that is more flamboyant than the one before. Bob Mackie's designers love doing the gowns. They can really let go and have fun." He estimated that about half of his clothes might be worn by the real Joan. The others are stage clothes made to please the audience. "It's my way of carrying on Liberace's Las Vegas tradition."
Marino recently signed a $10 million contract with "La Cage" producer Norbert Aleman that will keep him with the show through the year 2011. "Besides the money, Norbert's a great guy to work with and, to be perfectly honest, I love doing the show. I think it's a great show, and because we are always making adjustments and changing some of the numbers, it keeps getting better."
Still dressed as Joan Rivers, Marino greets patrons as they leave the show- room after each performance. He has noticed that women seem to make up the majority of "La Cage" fans, but men like the show, too. "The women make them go to the show," Marino said. "I can't tell you how many times men have come up to me after a show and told me, 'My wife dragged me in here, but I enjoyed the show more than she did.' Once men figure out the show is just for fun and laughs, and is not a bunch of freaks running around in dresses, they get in the spirit."
Customers at any given performance come from all age groups. "That's part of the appeal of the show," he said. "The cast of 'La Cage' is made up of men who impersonate famous female celebrities from the past and the present. The women and men we present are so famous, even older people know who Madonna and Michael Jackson are, and the younger people know who Judy Garland was. The lineup changes occasionally and the production numbers are replaced at least once a year, so the show remains fresh. About half of our audiences over the past 15 years have been repeat customers."
So, on that first celebrity look-alike job those many years ago, what celebrity did Marino impersonate?
"It was Diana Ross," he said. "Don't be shocked. When I said any one of us is capable of a complete transformation, I wasn't kidding. I'm not the only one, either. The fellow who plays Dionne Warwick in 'La Cage' is white!"
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