The Irrepressible Ira Lee Collings and His Gay Pride

BY MARILYN LESTER****The self-proclaimed “Gay Geezer,” Ira Lee Collings, is, at 81, still a work in progress. No matter that he’s been performing since he was a kid on the radio, the old guy is as young at heart as it’s possible to be, and going strong. Accolades for this MAC Hanson Award winner have been many; he’s been called an imp, an indefatigable optimist, an extrovert and a bundle of energy, among many other declarations of character. Collings is all that, neatly folding these attributes into his persona as an entertainer. He cuts a dapper figure, too – smartly attired in a tux, wearing a Gay Pride Mardi Gras-style necklace for flair and the claiming of identity. He’s been celebrating Pride Month in style, owning his own sexual orientation and professing “gay geezer power” without hesitation or reservation. From his first gay kiss as a youth, singing “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)” (Jimmy Davis/Roger Ramirez/James Sherman) to memories of his first Pride Parade in 1970, with a dramatic “No Matter What Happens” (Michel Legrand/ Alan and Marilyn Bergman), he is sure of himself as a person and as a performer.

Collings may have what is known as a “cult following.” Certainly he’s cherished by those who know his work. Taking the old radio (and subsequent television show) Your Hit Parade as his sub-theme, he sings a countdown of Top Ten hits that have affected his life, beginning with “Canadian Sunset” (Eddie Heywood/Norman Gimbel). These reference points in song help define his journey from an Indiana childhood to Chicago to his arrival in New York City in the early 1960s. Collings is also a canny geezer, and fearless, letting no eccentricity or opportunity to entertain pass him by. There’s drama, pathos, props, little bits of business, animated facial expressions, body movement and plenty of humor to move the journey along with delight.

He sings two numbers he refers to mischievously as “weed songs.” He is sure their creators must have been high to write those lyrics. And so it is, with “The Moon Is Blue” (Sylvia Fine/Herschel Burke Gilbert) and “A Dreamer’s Holiday” (Kim Gannon/Mabel Wayne) that audience ears perk up with new awareness –aided by Collings’s amusing mugging throughout. There’s more humor with his dedication of “Hound Dog” (Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller) to Snooky Lanson, one of the stars of Your Hit Parade. Plus, he sings the tune as a poem, a recitative, that makes the words pop with hilarity, once stripped of melody. He turns “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” (Bobby Troup) into a gay anthem, allowing Music Director, John M. Cook to take a solo, which demonstrates his artistry as a talented pianist. This song also represents one of the upbeat tunes in the evening’s set, along with “I Know a Place” (Tony Hatch/Jackie Trent); Collings confesses that as a“balladeer” he yielded to director Sally Darling’s wisdom to include upbeat diversity in the show.

Interactivity is also a prime feature of Life Is a Song So Why Not Sing It. Thrice, it’s “lights up!” as Collings descends into the audience to select participants to be serenaded back on stage. For his female subject he croons “Couldn’t Believe My Eyes” (Walter G. Samuels/Leonard Whitcup/Teddy Powell) and “How Do You Speak to an Angel?” (Bob Hilliard/Jule Styne). For a male, he selects later in the show, he sings his “surprise song”: “Lost in Loveliness” (Leo Robin/Sigmund Romberg). Each is presented each with a romantic single rose for complicity. In another lights-up moment, he offers a sweeping, all-inclusive “Baby, Baby, Baby” (Mack David/Jerry Livingston). Collings knows full well that life has its ups and downs. He addresses those unflinchingly, speaks of his family lovingly, and pays tribute to his mother, a hard-working beacon of light who encouraged him and who raised eight children alone and well, after the early death of his father. On the more serious side, he sings a reverent “I Believe” (Ervin Drake/Irvin Graham/Jimmy Shirl/Al Stillman) and, dedicated to his partner of thirty years, a truer-than- true “You Are So Beautiful” (Billy Preston/Bruce Fisher). This youthful geezer is a man who walks his talk.

With his encore, “Nothing Can Stop Me Now” (Anthony Newley/ Leslie Bricusse) the message is clear: life is a song that will continue to be sung, and gloriously.

Ira Lee Collings performed at Don’t Tell Mama in Manhattan on Restaurant Row.