Fat kid. Pratt Graduate. Cross-dresser. Nightclub Singer. Playwright. Actor. Critically acclaimed Tony-winner. Ethel Merman. Edna Turnblad. Virginia Hamm. Seth Low Junior High School student.
This month, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle profiled a man who has worn many hats, including that of a Bensonhurst native, Broadway great Harvey Fierstein.
Harvey Forbes Fierstein’s life, like so many other neighborhood success stories, had humble beginnings. His parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe for a better life. His father was a handkerchief manufacturer. His mother, a school librarian.
As a student at Seth Low, prior to fully discovering his own talents, Fierstein realized there were two things that separated him from many of the other young adults- sexual orientation and weight.
From the Eagle:
At age 13 Fierstein realized he was gay. He told Jack Kroll of Newsweek (June 20, 1993), “The very first gay couple that I knew … had been together about 30 years … my formative years were spent seeing that gays were just like straight people. Except we had a better sense of humor.”
Fierstein was, in his words, “a fat kid,” ballooning to more than 240 pounds as a teenager. Comfortable with his sexual orientation but not with his girth, he turned to cross-dressing for self-protection as well as self-expression. In an interview for New York (Aug. 22, 1983) he said: “In drag, I could completely become someone else. And guess what? I liked it.” At 16 he began performing as a female impersonator at a gay nightclub in the East Village, using names like Virginia Hamm and specializing in impressions of Ethel Merman singing “Rose’s Turn” and “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.” Even then he knew that he “didn’t want to stay in that world of gays doing things for other gays,” that he had “to make [his] own place.” And that he did in a big way.
Fierstein’s first role in the theatre was as an “asthmatic lesbian cleaning woman” in the Andy Warhol play Pork La Mama. Still a Pratt student, he continued to act, starring in dozens of off-off Broadway productions.
After writing and then re-working a compilation of three semi-autobiographical one act plays known as the Torch Song Trilogy, the show was finally brought to Broadway in 1982, where Fierstein won his first Tony Award- two actually, taking both Best Actor and Best Playwright.
He’s been an A-lister of the New York theatre scene ever since, adapting La Cage aux Folles for the stage and scoring a Tony nomination for his role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.
Fierstein, like so many prodigious talents of his generation, is from Bensonhurst, a place where stars aren’t born- they’re made.