CLIFF HENGST


KCET 28,  Cliff Hengst's Semi-Fictionalized, Drag Double-Decker Bus Tour, Machine Project, by Bennett Williamson, 1/14/2014

The Beverly Hilton Hotel was designed in 1953 by Welton Becket, the architect behind so many mid-century L.A. icons, including the Capitol Records Tower and the Cinerama Dome. The building presides over the busy intersection of Santa Monica and Wilshire, buddied up near the Los Angeles Country Club and Beverly Hills High School, and since 1961 has hosted the annual Golden Globe Awards.

On February 11, 2012, the hotel made the news when pop icon Whitney Houston was found dead in her suite. She was there to attend a pre-Grammy party hosted by her long time producer and friend, music mogul Clive Davis, later that same night. To the surprise of friends and family, the show went on, with Whitney's body still in the building, and the police investigation taking place four floors up.

On June 29, 2013, San Francisco based artist Cliff Hengst embarked from The Beverly Hilton to perform "It's Not Right But It's OK," perhaps the first ever historic autobiographical semi-fictionalized disembodied drag double decker bus tour. His body was the vessel for the spirit of Whitney, flowing with the bus all the way across town to MacArthur Park. The performance wove a continuous monologue from architectural history factoids, the trials of her career, and one liners aimed at pedestrians, punctuated by lip-synched versions of her greatest hits.

Did you come into L.A. very often growing up?

Cliff Hengst: I lived in Southern California up until I was 25. It was a suburban childhood. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. Once a year we would have these huge assemblies. They would rent out either the Forum or Dodger Stadium for almost a week. We would listen over these loudspeakers to hours and hours of lectures on religion and Bible study. It was crazy! It was unbelievable.

That's where Michael Jackson, when I was...

You saw him there?

CH: Yes, yes. When you were 17 or 18 they would ask the young men to be attendants. I was an attendant at one of the private levels. There was a rumor that he was coming, that he was actually converting to be a Jehovah's Witness. This was right after his first big solo album. We were all really excited.

He did actually show up, and my friends and I ran over to see him, which was really against protocol. He was dressed up like this old man. He had this crazy white wig on and these terrible clothes, this really horrible plaid polyester suit to disguise himself. But it was such a ridiculous disguise that you looked at him more, with these two huge African American bodyguards standing behind him.

My friend said "Hey, Brother Jackson," and Michael Jackson actually got up, walked over to us, and said "Hi, how's it going?" We all touched his hand like in a real weird thing. I couldn't think of anything else for the rest of the assembly.

Were you into singing and performing at that age, too?

CH: I was kind of a ham growing up. I was really into Flip Wilson. I could do his alter ego Geraldine, who was basically a drag character. At parties, inevitably my mom would say "Oh Cliff can do Geraldine" and I had to do my little thing, her sayings, her famous quotes. Everyone would love it. The Jehovah's Witnesses had a song at the beginning, the middle, and at the end of each meeting. That's how I learned to really get into singing.

I moved to San Francisco and I started going to the Art Institute, where I was listening to a lot more psychedelic stuff, jazz, standards, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis. In the 90's I started really getting into Krautrock, and Esquivel, which was kind of the rage, Moog music. I was trying to recreate myself through these different types of music.

But what about Whitney? Why Whitney?

CH: When I first came out of the closet, Whitney was everywhere. I was 24. I went to my first gay pride parade in Long Beach when "I Want to Dance with Somebody" was very big. I remember them playing that song over and over again. It was such a joyous time.

It was a weird time, too, because AIDS was really devastating the gay community. Every float would be a flatbed truck with go-go boys dancing on it, and everybody would just go crazy. Then there would be a car with "That's What Friends are For" playing and ten gaunt, dying, emaciated gay men just being rolled through in wheelchairs.

It was a weird thing for me to see for the first time, and at the same time being like "I'm young, I want to dance to Whitney." I've never forgotten that.

Whitney had such power and greatness. I think it was one of the her first times on TV, on David Letterman, she did "Saving All My Love for You." It's amazing. You could see why people wanted to do those shows "The Voice" and "American Idol." It all comes down to when you can see and easily identify someone with greatness. It's very intoxicating. But it just seemed so effortless.

When I heard she died I was really hurt. It was like when Michael Jackson died. I always thought that somehow she would come back. That's such a great American thing, the comeback. Everybody loves a comeback. I was really rooting for her.

How did the idea for the performance come together?

CH: We drove around and around. I remember reading "City of Quartz" where Mike Davis says that if there was an earthquake in L.A., there's not that one place that people can identify to go to. That was the feeling I was having.

As we were driving up and down Wilshire I was thinking "Wilshire is pretty interesting." When we got to the Beverly Hilton I said to [my boyfriend] Scott, "This is where Whitney died. We should do a thing where she's giving a tour of Wilshire Boulevard." I was just tossing out ideas. Scott stopped the car and said, "That is a great idea. You could talk about history and you could make stuff up." The history becomes a means to an end.

I've always liked comedy and I've always done performance. For years I was doing more straight performance in a serious tone. A couple of years ago I thought "there's got to be a way to make them work together." I think this piece is a way to push that a little more.

Other artists in this project chose sites for their aesthetic qualities, but I was impressed that you really did your homework for the tour. The project really engaged with the history of the site.

In a weird way I'm glad that I had this job. I do prep work for the Berkeley Art Museum. I have to get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning. I would read up on stuff on the way to work. After work I would come home and read until I couldn't stay awake any more. It's forced me to go at this project with an intensity that I've never taken up before, because I only have so many hours.

In L.A. it seems everything is part of the story. The Subway and the nail place and the bus station all come together. Wilshire Boulevard is fascinating to me -- all the histories, and different architects, and the entertainment spots. It was at one time, really, an electric place. I love that it was started with a guy clearing out a path for his barley field. That's insane!

I started looking into it and noticed it isn't just art deco landmarks -- there are some brutalist buildings and a beautiful temple and a Catholic church next to each other that are each crazy examples of architecture in their own right. There's a lot of ugly buildings, which I love, and a whole stretch of these 1970's office buildings. The Bullocks Wilshire at one point was the tallest thing [in L.A.]. There used to be a light that shone off the tower, and you could see it for miles.

There were so many treasures that were destroyed and almost destroyed. For me the big tragedy will always be the Ambassador Hotel. I only got to go to it once. My brother had his prom there. I thought that that it would always be there. But the Kennedy [assassination] tainted it forever.

You know, in L.A., once somebody has the idea to tear it down, it's gone. It's completely gone. I find that utterly fascinating about L.A., that people are okay with that. In San Francisco they do that, too, but there's always more of an outcry.