Interview: Lynne Jassem – 'My mother had me totally in her grip'
At the age of 70, Lynne Jassem makes her Fringe debut with an hour about showbusiness and sexuality. Here she discusses the mother she dubbed Muriel the Terrible, the 'very nice' Perry Como and an alter ego called Billy
Listening to native New Yorker Lynne Jassem describe her career with barely a pause for breath, it's easy to forget that the tap dancer, mime artist, physical comedian and storyteller is a (recent) septuagenarian. In From Como to Homo, the Jewish multi-threat brings to the stage her remarkable life story, from child performer on The Perry Como Show to international Latin ballroom dance champion, plus plenty in between.
While relating her fascinating tale, Jassem calls to mind a favoured relative, the kind with an endless array of fascinating tales and the chutzpah to bring them all to florid life. 'Perry Como was a very famous singer back in the 50s and 60s,' she explains. 'And I was fortunate enough – at least I think it was fortunate – to be on the show, one of six little girls who were called "Comoettes". And that was probably a take-off of the Rockettes who performed at Radio City.'
The correlation between the Comoettes and the Rockettes is a significant one as Jassem's mother was a member of the latter, a renowned precision dance company that prides itself on an unforgiving audition process and an exhausting rehearsal regime. When Jassem's mother lost her place as a Rockette she was determined that her children would follow in her footsteps. 'At first she pushed my two brothers,' she remembers. 'But they would do nothing. And then she pushed me and she got a live one in me! So, I think I joined AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] when I was ten and paid $15 a year. My mother took me to all the auditions and I had a manager who put me on a soap opera – The Edge of Night – to see how I looked on television. And I did what they called the Borscht Belt, where all the Jews went to the Catskill Mountains to spend the summer in bungalows by the lakes. So that's how all that started with my mother: Muriel the Terrible.'
After propelling her daughter into showbusiness, Jassem's mother continued to have a profound impact throughout her career. 'Oh it was love / hate, you know. I mean my mother had me totally in her grip. And I loved her and I hated her. She died about five years ago at 94 and she was still asking me to teach her tap steps! And then she said: "that was not hard enough! Give me a hard one!"'
Happily, the two reconciled their differences towards the end. 'The last months of her life were absolutely wonderful. All façade and everything disappeared and it just became "love": thank god for that.' She has fond recollections, too, of her time working with the legendary Perry Como. 'He was very nice. Back then they had the laid-back singers who never moved: you couldn't even tell if they were breathing. He was just very charming and very nice and had a dry sense of humour. I think I saw him get angry maybe once. So he was pretty delightful.'
Aged just 11, Jassem's burgeoning showbiz dreams were shattered when she developed ulcerative colitis, the diagnosis of which was fumbled by the medical profession. Jassem also realised she was gay and grew increasingly confused about her gender orientation, something that her family – and post-war American society in general – struggled to comprehend. She describes 'Billy' as the bad boy who lives inside her. 'Billy actually started in my life when I was about three. I was wearing my brother's hat with earmuffs and sitting in the back of the car when this man at the gas station came up to me and said: "what's your name son?" And without even thinking I said: "Billy". And that's the basis for my character Billy who is my alter ego. Which ain't easy to have when you're a kid in showbusiness! You gotta really get rid of that Billy character … '
Over six years in therapy with one of New York's first child psychiatrists, Jassem learned to accept Billy as a positive facet of her personality. Asked about her present association with Billy, she laughs. 'Oh, I think I've completely integrated with Billy so I don't have any problem with him anymore.'
Jassem is still a passionate dancer and hopes to bring her skills to the streets of Edinburgh. 'I was planning on getting a piece of masonite, putting it down in the central town and teaching a five-minute tap class to get people excited and say: "I was just performing right down there! You can have more!" The whole show is told through tap dance, physical comedy, mimes, song and story. 'And let me tell ya,' she says in that mellifluous New York twang, 'it never stops! I need a long nap after it.'
Lynne Jassem: From Como to Homo, Sweet Grassmarket, 243 3596, 5–28 Aug (not 10, 15, 22 & 23), £8 (£6). Preview 4 Aug, £5