"Petula Gets Out of Her Head
San Francisco Examiner
November 2, 1999


"I don't have anything in common with Norma Desmond," Petula Clark confesses, with a proud, youthful sparkle in her eye. "I don't live in the past. I live in the present. "However, we are both Scorpio."

At this moment, it's two hours before curtain for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Sunset Boulevard." I join Clark in her dressing room at the Curran Theatre as she prepares to apply Norma's mask of heavy theatrical maquillage. Sitting at a brightly lit vanity cluttered with cosmetics and brushes, she says, "We need good lighting. It's the most important thing!"

Clark's dressing chamber is modestly furnished with a makeshift daybed strewn with a leopard print throw, mix-matchy pillows and an odd-looking stuffed gorilla. A garden of red roses and gerbera daisies in vases occupies every available surface.

Unlike the Desmond character, Clark actually has fans. "But I admire Norma's love of her public, (which isn't there)," she says. "There's a moment when she says, "The only thing that stopped me from killing myself was the thought of all those people waiting to see me back on the screen. How could I disappoint them?' She feels it's her duty to go back to them. It's a total pipe dream!

"She's also got a kind of courage. It's not a popular word, but you need to be courageous in this business," she continues. "Fan magazines don't talk about this. But sometimes it's blind courage that gets you out there."

On fame: "I was famous at 8 years old. It's something I lived with, so I don't really know what fame is. I'm not even aware of it."

I ask Clark to indulge us with memories of yore: "The '60s were great. But that was then, I've done many things since. It's sort of a blur. I do remember the first time I did "The Ed Sullivan Show,' live. I arrived jet-lagged from Paris, not realizing how important it was. (Which was maybe a good thing.) I schlepped onstage wearing no make-up, and a funny little black dress. "Downtown' was number one at the time, the whole audience stood. It was an amazing moment."

When yours truly was a tender lad, the Grammy-winning "Downtown" was my favorite tune at the roller-skating rinky-dinky. I'd twirl round-'n'-round bellowing my troubled little heart out. "Stories like that always make me smile," says Clark. "You make a record, and next thing you know its a hit, all over the world. I still get letters from Mongolia, Afghanistan and Siberia. It's bizarre."

(I have to ask: When is Victor Calderone doing a dance remix of "Downtown"? The Supersonic Downtown Disco Meltdown Mix has hit written all over it!)

When our self-described over-sensitive Miss Clark is feeling alone, where does she go? "Into my head. I've learned how to cope with it, because I can't always go somewhere. But when I'm in London, I have a place in Chelsea, close to King's Road -- which is comparable to Melrose in L.A. It's lovely. There's something comforting about getting out of your head, and onto the street with other people. Even if they're looking just as fraught as you feel."

There are fabulous places beyond downtown too. "I love being near the water. And the Wine Country here reminds me of France. I went to a wonderful outdoor hippie wedding there about five years ago. The sunlight, houses, vines and the smell of lavender, very similar."

I inform Clark of San Francisco's city sisterhood with Paris, and ask her to say something racy to me in French. "I once received a telegram from Charles Aznavour on an opening night in Paris. It said, "Merde!' I thought, how rude. But it means good luck, the same way "break-a-leg' does. Being a bit of a prude at the time, I was shocked. Now nothing shocks me." (Merde also means ca-ca-doo-doo.)

Showcasing hundreds of rhinestoned, fur-trimmed, beaded and tailored get-ups by Antony Powell, not to mention some 50-plus wigs, "Sunset Boulevard" delivers more costume changes than a gaggle of drag queens at a church bazaar. Desmond's are by far the most elaborate. "I like the silver-beaded Joan of Arc pantsuit and turban because it's very beautiful. Heavy though," says Clark. "And the leopard print coat-dress with crinoline, because it's silly. Thing is, Norma doesn't get dressed in the morning the way you and I do. She disguises herself, living out some fantasy."

The way you and I do? The Lord no-no comprendo.

Next book she's dying to read? "Esther Williams gave me an autographed copy of her book in L.A. I don't think I'll learn a lot, but it'll be a hoot. A swimming pool read for sure. Excuse the pun."

Currently Lauryn Hill is in her CD player. How hip is this cutie Petula-girl?

If down to her last $20? "I'd buy some Haagen Dazs ice cream, and get a puppy from the pound... We'd sit and eat ice cream together." Well, if that doesn't melt your jaded heart.

Clark glances at the clock. It's 6:20 p.m. Query-time is terminated. "I normally start my make-up at 6," she says as she scoots me out, "I have to get Norma's face on; it's not easy."

A legend's work is never done.

"Sunset Boulevard," starring Petula Clark, plays through Sunday November 7 at the Curran Theatre. (415) 512-7770.