by Steve Desroches
Sharon McNight is yodeling at the Sea Dragon lounge, the upstairs cocktail bar at the Pilgrim House. Her vocal acrobatics bounce off the vaulted ceiling and then back down to the floor as she makes her way through “Wabash Blues,” an old song once sung by singer and comedian Judy Canova. She then abruptly changes her tune—quite literally—as she belts out “Some People” from the musical Gypsy a la Ethel Merman, and then slides into Bette Davis’ “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” from the 1943 film Thank Your Lucky Stars.
McNight is both a veritable jukebox and encyclopedia of musical knowledge, specifically that of the grand woman of song from the past. The past is very much part of the present for McNight as she sings in the very spot where she first arrived in Provincetown for the first time back in 1980. She was already a crowd favorite with a big gay fan base back in San Francisco, playing at venues like Fanny’s and the Plush Room, making her a beloved diva of the Castro in the late 1970s, those crazy days of the White Night riots and the Jonestown massacre. She once introduced Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone at a “No On 6” rally, a measure that would have prohibited gays and lesbians from working in public schools in California. So she was already known in the gay community by the time she hit Provincetown, but playing the main room, her voice carried all the way to Commercial Street and drew in a crowd in those heady, devil-may-care days when her show was sandwiched in between drag shows featuring legends, such as the Texas Tornado Tiffany Jones, Bobbie Callicoatte, and Craig Russell. She became a legend herself.
McNight shakes her head when she thinks of how time has flown as she begins to hum a Patsy Cline song. Her show is on her mind. She’ll be performing Gone, But Not Forgotten, her cabaret show where she sings the songs of departed ladies of stage and screen, at CabaretFest this weekend. But she’s also receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor from her peers, who describe her as “cabaret royalty.” McNight is the real deal, something that comes in quite handy in the performance art of cabaret.
“Cabaret is being yourself on purpose,” says McNight. “There’s no character for you to hide behind. There are great Broadway performers who can’t do cabaret. They need that character to hide behind. I’ve never had that fear, I’ve never been afraid to be myself.”
Indeed she has not. McNight’s always had a brassy, rebellious streak. Passionate about theater and performance, she earned her master’s degree in directing from San Francisco State University. But women were hardly ever hired as directors, and she found herself stuck in children’s theater. So she quit and lived a bohemian life, dipping in and out of “straight” jobs while sailing around the Pacific and singing in cabarets, remarking she was often “the only woman in the joint.”
In need of some money, she answered an ad for a secretarial job, which turned out to be for the Mitchell Brothers, the famed adult movie producers of what is now called the Golden Age of Porn. They dominated San Francisco’s adult entertainment industry, releasing classics like Behind the Green Door and operating the O’Farrell Theater, the famed porn movie house and strip club in the Tenderloin.
A crooked accountant ran off with a huge chunk of money, leaving the Mitchell brothers deep in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. At that same time, they offered a chance for McNight to direct a film, and she ended up at the helm of The Autobiography of a Flea, a 1976 porn film starring the legendary John Holmes. The film made $3 million and pulled the company out of debt. It is also believed to be the first time a woman directed an adult film.
“Hung,” yells McNight when thinking about her friend John Holmes, who was well known for being incredibly well endowed and for inspiring the character of Dirk Diggler in the film Boogie Nights.
“We were all part of the counter-culture, the sexual liberation movement,” says McNight. “If it was part of the establishment and status quo, we were opposed to it.”
McNight moved on to pursue success in cabaret and was now playing both coasts. But the Mitchell brothers came calling again in 1986, asking her to direct, something she initially refused. She accepted, however, once they said they wanted to make an adult film with a safe sex message. She happily agreed, as she had been involved in HIV and AIDS activism since the very beginning of the epidemic, appearing in Randy Shilt’s tome And the Band Played On. As such, she co-wrote and directed Behind the Green Door: The Sequel in which the performers used condoms, dental dams, and medical exam gloves. And McNight herself appears in a non-sexual role as a lounge singer.
Three years later, McNight went from porno theaters to Broadway when she starred in the musical Starmites, earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Over the next 30 years she played stages of all sizes, laughing that she’d perform anywhere “the checks cleared and the drinks were free.” Throughout that time she frequently returned to Provincetown with such shows as Songs to Offend Almost Everyone, her hilarious homage to naughty 1950s party albums, and The Sophie Tucker Songbook.
She’s played most every venue that still exists in town and rattles off a list of those no longer around. She says Provincetown is special to her, always will be, as she pats her chest. “I’ve got 40 years to reflect on,” says McNight. “That’s a long time. That’s a lot of songs.”
Sharon McNight performs Gone But Not Forgotten as part of CabaretFest at the Pilgrim House, 336 Commercial St. on Friday, May 31 at 7 p.m. McNight receives the Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday, June 1 at 5:30 p.m. also at the Pilgrim House. Tickets are $25 for the show and $35 for the awards reception and are available at pilgrimhouseptown.com. For more information on CabaretFest visit provincetowncabaretfest.com.