Ethel <3s David Munk
When we happened upon Stargayzing, we knew we’d found a kindred Mermaid-spirit. Not only is it fun, festive, and glorious but it is also an important capsule of a life and a career alongside other important lives and careers. David Munk is a fascinatingly funny, sharp man who is a great writer and teller of stories. It is not an exaggeration to say that it feels as if David Munk and The Ethel Mermaids share one super-camp brain and soul. What makes Stargayzing stand out is the non-obviousness of the majority of the content. The classics are there, as they should be. But the obscurity and rightfully sung-praises of the lesser known are a constant delight. We wanted to sing the praises of David Munk and Stargayzing so we virtually sat down with him and had a gay ole gab fest.
(EM) How did Stargayzing begin?
(David Munk): After the brutal contraction of my record business career in the middle part of the last decade when the Internet (among other things) killed off the record labels faster than the asteroids killed the dinosaurs, I couldn’t get a job. All things that I had always done to make it rain just stopped working—it’s like that when there is such fast attrition. After a year or two of doggedly trying to get the next job, I just gave up and got in bed for about a year. There’s a lot more I could say about this but I am determined to remain positive, not feed the feelings of resentment and recrimination that one associates with Sisyphean-tinged stories.
Anyway, when I awoke from my slumber I realized that if the Internet could kill one career it could begin another and I started to write as a way to make sense of what the last 20 years of my life had been; to create a repository for the stories and experiences I had borne witness to during my years in the studio and on the red carpet. I had met almost everyone I had ever hoped to meet and seen quite a bit of strangeness. That writing grew into Stargayzing, which I officially launched in December, 2011. The funny thing is that even though becoming fluid in the language of social media was something I did by necessity, it has actually been a blessing. I never would have elected to walk away from music, but now I realize I spent a lot more time fighting than creating. Fighting to protect my ideas, to sell them, to convince and cajole. Now if I feel it I can create it with no barrier to expressing my personal vision. It’s immensely rewarding, though not lucrative.
List your top 5 divas (and a little bit about why you love them):
It’s very hard to limit myself to 5 as they’re always moving around. Last night I watched a great Ida Lupino movie, They Drive By Night from 1940 and today I can’t stop thinking about her. To the true afficianado I’m not sure if you have favorites as much as who you’re into at the moment. So here’s whose on my mind today: a. Ida Lupino – in the Warner Bros. hierarchy in the 1940s, Ida had to play second fiddle to Bette Davis, and she did indeed have certain things in common with Bette: the intensity, the ability to play sympathetic or evil with equal conviction. They were both mavericks who pushed back against proscribed conventions of what a leading lady was and were both willing to be unglamorous. They both fought the studio for better scripts. Of course, Ida ended up becoming the first actress in Hollywood—and the first woman—to become a director/producer/writer, which is really incredible. I’m sure she is better known in the U.K. than she is here today because she was British, at least a little British. The way Elizabeth Taylor was a little British. I adore Ida Lupino. She made a wonderful plum cake too.
b. Cher – Well I’m just the biggest Cherficianado ever. I’ve written about her quite a bit. Out of all of the diva’s I’ve known—and I’ve known some—Cher was the best hang, lots of fun. The first time I met her I hung out in her bed the entire afternoon. Cher likes to visit in bed. Mind you her bed is like the size of a studio apartment in New York. The whole #NowthatChersDead hashtag thing last week was very bizarre and reminded me how important it is that Cher be, you know, alive forever. Cher is just the most quotable, most fun person. I love her obsession with classic American films. She loves them the way a gay man does! She used to call me “Mrs. Munk”. She is very special to me. Did I mention I played her in my basement in 1975? I did a full drag show in my basement. I was 10. I wrote about it in a piece called “Notes From the Honeycomb Hideout.” c. Adele – I am very careful with the younger ones because the PR machine and overall marketing-over-content mentality creates the illusion that everyone is gifted, so I tend to be very cautious and critical with the children. They have to really prove themselves to me for me to want to spend time with them. But Adele is a glorious throw-back for me. I always think about Dusty Springfield and Cass Elliot (Mama Cass) when I listen to her because the emphasis is on the song and the voice, not on dancing and looks, whish is how it should be. I wish there were five Adele’s for every Ke$ha or whatever that bitch’s name is. Adele is the anti-autotuned pole dancer and I love her for that. I hope she takes care of her voice so she can build a real body of work and stick around for a long time. She’s everything I fought for in the music business.
d. Judy Garland – I wrote a piece on Stargayzing a few months ago called Torch Song Elegy, Volume 2: How to Reduce 20th Century Gay History to a Stereotype in 3 Lines or Less. It was a response to this article in the NY Times about how young gay men don’t feel much affinity to the cultural reference points that were so predictable for generations because they’ve assimilated. What this essentially means is that young gay men find 20th century gay history un-relatable. So my inclusion of Judy here is a proud act of defiance: personally I will never be too assimilated to feel like a victim with Judy. Oh, and she was also the best entertainer of the 20th century, so there’s that which you might think would suggest some sort of dispensation for being marginalized by the younger generation.
e. Aretha Franklin – I’ve been working on a new piece about Aretha so I’ve been listening to her a lot. She is a perennial for me. I just always go back to her. Between 1967 and 1973 she really didn’t make a false move, and this is during a period when artists recorded at least an album a year. Her demo version of Van McCoy’s “Sweet Bitter Love” is one of my favorite recordings of all time. (You can find that recording on an Atlantic CD called Rare and Unreleased Recordings from a few years back). Her importance cannot be overstated.
In your opinion – why do the gays love divas?
I always get asked this and I’m not really sure. You would probably get a different answer from a psychologist or a sociologist. I’m not an academic really, so I prefer to usually say something like “gay people have excellent taste.” But that theory gets shot to shit when you consider the crap that younger gays are listening to. Honestly I think autotune is the worst thing that was ever invented because now you can have no aptitude whatsoever and still be called a “singer.” I mean, could you be a bus driver if you didn’t’ know how to drive? It’s so cynical it makes me sick—only in the music business. It’s like the great old Lily Tomlin line “no matter how cynical you get it’s impossible to keep up!” Words to live by. Oh wait, that sounds negative—and back to the spiritual place: ommmmm.
What is the campest thing you’ve ever experienced?
My first thought was the Jackie Collins record I made which I wrote about in detail in the piece The Gayest Song of All Time, but I think the Connie Stevens party was even gayer—if that’s possible—which I wrote about too in the piece The Best Hollywood Birthday Party Ever!: The Night I Went to Connie Stevens’ House and Wound Up in the Attic With Tab Hunter. It was the most incredible party. I wrote that it was like Robert Osborne’s Turner Classic Movie cruise washed aground in Connie Stevens’ backyard. To find out what was in the attic you’ll have to read the piece.
You’ve worked with The Great Lady and know Jason Gould (you lucky, lucky so-and-so). Tell us 5 things about Babs that we might not already know.
Oh my, well it’s very hard to share anything unexpected about someone who has been talking so extensively about herself for 50 years! Because my relationship is really with Jason and because the things that I do know that are personal I would never share because my relationship with him is important to me and she is, you know, his mom. Here, instead I’ll give you my list of the 5 Barbra Streisand tropes that she herself has repeated the most times over the years. • The one about how her father died when she was 18 months old • The one about how “if men behave a certain way they’re powerful and authoritative” but if a woman does the same thing “she’s a bitch.” • The one about how she never sings around the house, hates to sing, not even in the shower. • Anything about the press distorting the truth or printing outright lies. • The one about “we were so poor I didn’t have a doll, my doll was a hot water bottle.”
We’re going to see Babs in London in June and you went to see her on her Back to Brooklyn tour: what can we expect from her?
It’s a really great show. It is really well-constructed and she seems to be having a great time. It was called “Back to Brooklyn” in the States but I’m not sure if they’re going to be changing that for Europe. I know Jason will be with her so you’ll get to hear him sing both with her and solo. I hope all your readers have his CD. It’s really good. The song choices are great. I just hope she gets rid of those little Italian kids. They were beyond irritating. What were they’re names? Il skivo? Would you have liked to have gone supermarket shopping with Joan Crawford?
Oh for goodness sakes, of course! I would go anywhere with Joan but I would have to be well-prepared because she seems like the most high-maintenance person who ever lived and you’d have to be mentally prepared for an inordinate amount of mirroring and caretaking. But it would be so worth it—think about the stories.
If someone were to give you a TV show tomorrow, what would it look like?
Well first of all, as my grandmother might say “it should only happen!” My show would be a scintillating blend of high and low, new and old a reflection of my taste in popular culture. I’m interested in making people laugh and understanding what things were important. As you know, I’m also obsessed with things that could not possibly be construed as important, like LaToya Jackson. I’m not interested in being hip, which to me is the most absurd objective, I’m only interested in being me which probably hasn’t helped me sell my show—it hasn’t been easy trying to convince anybody that Dorothy Squires and Fanny Craddock deserve serious reconsideration, which is probably why you’re interviewing me!
Ethel Merman’s Disco album is one of our favourite things. Can you tell us a few of your favourite (camp) things?
I’m looking at the shelf above my desk in my writing room and here are the first 5 things I see:
- “The Las Vegas Celebrity Cook Book”
- A Yentl earring that I made out of a luggage tag in 1983.
- A Farrah Fawcett laminated cup
- A small but curated collection of 8-track tapes including Eydie Gormé,Dolly Parton, and Gloria Gaynor
- A Richard Simmons Sweatin’ to the Oldies VHS tape
One of our fave features of Stargayzing is Eating with the Stars. Who would you want to cook for you? Heck, let’s make it a potluck so you can have as many divas bring their dinners as you’d like…
Hm, let’s see. Do they have to be alive? Well the thing about Eating With the Stars is that it really has nothing to do with food, that’s just the excuse for the conversation and to get into their kitchens. I would have to say LaToya Jackson since it was her meatball that started the whole thing in the first place. Just the thought of LaToya’s kitchen makes me laugh. I enjoy imagining what it looks like. I find it relaxing to think about her with her acrylic nails in a bowl of chopmeat and how that would all work for her. Would she wear gloves? Wear an apron? Is it just me or does this kind of thinking create an almost palpable well-being? (Don’t answer that – it’s rhetorical. You wouldn’t be interviewing me if the answer was “no.”)
Something we Mermaids like to do is fantasise about fictional queer couples, such as Bea Arthur and Angela Lansbury, Liberace and Christopher Walken. Can you contribute any of your dream pairings?
How about Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine? Oh wait—you said fiction. Carol Channing and Liza Minnelli always works nicely for me. They could help each other get around and take turns performing—one could be the audience and the other the star and then switch. They both have the ability to look like they’re actively listening and completely out to lunch simultaneously, which is not as easy as it sounds!
What’s next in the stars and on the cards for David Munk?
Got a lot of stuff coming up for Stargayzing that I think readers will like. I’m starting the process of turning it into a memoir of my life adjacent to stardom, and I’m still developing Eating with the Stars for TV. The subtitle is “Someone’s in the Kitschen with David” but it’s taking forever. It’s hard when you’re trying to create something that’s a bit more clever and where no one is humiliated. That’s not my humor—I like the duality of taking the piss out of someone just a little at the same time that I’m making them feel important and really being respectful, which is different. It’s a little like looking engaged and spacey at the same time. I hope that I’m able to put this together soon though because, literally, everyone is dying. Even Cher almost died last week! Wait—that’s negative. And back to the spiritual place: ommmmm.