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Iconic Charles Busch Discusses ‘Psycho Beach Party’ and Career

From an early age, Charles Busch was stagestruck, enamored with the idea of performing. He faced one tiny little problem, though.

“I wasn’t very good,” he told Georgia Voice. He had to move to a Plan B, one that came a bit unexpectedly, but has led to a legendary career as both a writer and performer, oftentimes in drag. Out Front Theatre Company closes its 2023–2024 season this month with Busch’s “Psycho Beach Party.”

In the play, Chicklet Forrest, a tomboy and teenager, craves to be a part of the Malibu Beach surf crowd in 1962. One thing stopping her is her split personalities, one of whom is Ann Bowman, who wants to dominate the world. Andi Stanesic stars as Chicklet in the Out Front version, directed by Paul Conroy, the company’s founder and producing artistic director.

Busch has lived in New York all his life, except when he attended Northwestern University and stayed a few years after in Chicago. Before that period, he had been sent to acting classes, but was also writing. Writing, to him, never seemed like something he could do, even though he was cranking out full-length plays at the age of 11. When he got to Northwestern and became a theater major, he was never cast in a play and realized that there might not be a place for him in commercial theater. That’s when writing took center stage.

“The things that made me un-castable — my androgyny, being obviously gay — rather than being a detriment, were my calling card,” he said. “I said to myself, in that case I have to write and create roles for myself that only I could do.”

In his senior year of college, he wrote a one-act play for his roommate and him to do, about a pair of Siamese twin showgirls. The idea was to stage it in the dorms on the weekends for their friends. Yet a colleague who organized a cult movie series at the student union auditorium, often screening films from the likes of John Waters and Andy Warhol, lost the rights to a title one weekend. Busch was asked to produce his play in the student union for the same amount of money that had been allocated for a film rental.

“Suddenly, we were really doing it,” Busch said. “From the moment we came out on stage, I knew this was who I am and this is what I will do.”

His drag started at around the same time. In the early ’70s, Busch was attending downtown New York experimental theater, in particular the work of actor-director-playwright Charles Ludlam, who would occasionally play some of the female roles in his shows.

“That was very revelatory — to see that this was a possibility,” Busch said. “Maybe I, this androgynous kid, could write roles to use my eccentric talent at invoking actresses from the golden age of Hollywood.”

The first 10 years of his career were spent as a solo performer, but he eventually went on to collaborate with others and write and star in off-Broadway shows. In 1984, he began working in Alphabet City, a neighborhood in the East Village. By 1985, his company’s work had attracted a cult following, and “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” debuted, eventually moving to off-Broadway. In his curtain speeches, he would tout titles he loved — one being “Gidget Goes Psychotic.”

“I had no affection for beach party movies, but I thought if the main character was psychotic she could have other personalities than a teenage girl,” he said. “Maybe one alter ego could be a Cruella de Vil-like dominatrix vamp, which was more [for me].”

That subsequent play was also beloved, and the producers decided to open it off-Broadway as well. There was concern that Universal Pictures, which owned the rights to the “Gidget” movies and TV series, might raise a rights issue due to the title. While one lawyer suggested moving forward, since it was a parody, the team came up with the title, “Psycho Beach Party,” with Gidget becoming Chicklet.

It’s one of the playwright’s most popular titles.

“It’s a very good play for colleges and younger theater and gay folks,” Busch said. “It’s very sexy, it’s young people in bathing suits grabbing each other — and we were sexy young kids doing it. Those early plays I have a lot of affection [for]; they were written for people I loved in the theater company.”

It ran from 1984 to 1991 and became a 2000 film.

“I never thought it would be a movie,” Busch said. “The producers wanted me in it, but they did not want me to play Chicklet. At this point, I was in my 40s so I thought it would be fine to find a younger girl. A more suited role for me would be a Susan Hayward-like lady — Captain Monica Stark.”

Other successes for Busch would be the stage and film versions of “Die, Mommie, Die!” and 2000’s Tony-nominated “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which he wrote.

He has been touched over the years by people telling him how they appeared in shows of his when they were growing up and it gave them the courage come out to their parents afterward. Conroy has his own deeply personal connection with “Psycho Beach Party” — it was actually the very first queer-focused show he was ever a part, 20 years ago in Boston. He credits it with opening his world to “so many wonderful people in the LGBTQIA+ community and possibilities.”

“Psycho Beach Party” runs through May 18 at Out Front Theatre Company