Lounge-act lifer wants to get down, baby

By Margaret Krauss

‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Hey baby, this is Tony Clifton. Sweetheart, how you doin’?’ ‘ ‘ ‘ In a heavy New… ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Hey baby, this is Tony Clifton. Sweetheart, how you doin’?’ ‘ ‘ ‘ In a heavy New Jersey-tough, slinky-lounge-singer voice, Tony Clifton introduced himself. The one and only caustic Tony Clifton, in his own words, ‘an international singing sensation,’ the man who caused Tinseltown to shudder long before the late-night talk shows glowed with the exploits of latent childhood actors. ‘ ‘ ‘ The past tense, however, fails to do Clifton justice, as do most tenses. Really, Clifton is not one to be constrained by grammatical or general niceties. This is something Pittsburgh audiences can judge for themselves this weekend when ‘The Return of Tony Clifton and the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra,’ takes center stage at the Rex Theater. The tour’s musicians and dancers all hail from Louisiana, and all proceeds go to help Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina. ‘ ‘ ‘ A Las Vegas lounge singer most often attired in a ruffled tuxedo, Clifton was ‘discovered’ by comedian Andy Kaufman in 1968. While it is widely accepted that Clifton was a character created by Kaufman, allowing the comedian to rage at Hollywood stuffiness and the trappings of stardom, Clifton remains firm that he is his own performer, that Kaufman ‘is a kook’ who stole his identity. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Andy Kaufman came to see Elvis, and he saw me in the lounge. A few years later he started performing it himself ‘mdash; he was riding my coattails for years!’ he shouted over the phone.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ The ‘it’ Clifton refers to is his himself ‘mdash; his unique performing style that is more a conglomeration of personality traits than an artificial stage persona. ‘ ‘ ‘ Sporting thick mutton chops and a heavy mustache paired with 1970s-era aviator shades, Clifton marches through and over old standards in his performances. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘They’re the songs I was brought up with, the ones that I love. And they all have to do with love, lost love or lust,’ he said. ‘ ‘ ‘ But his performance is no straightforward drive down memory lane. In between songs or even lines, Clifton is apt to riff on audience members, tell bad Polish jokes and talk about his sex life. He changes directions more often than Pacman. And this is before the addition of the tour’s 18-piece orchestra and the Cliftonettes ‘mdash; a troupe of back-up dancers billed as ‘burlesque,’ by Comic Relief, the organization running the tour. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘It’s a cross between a Las Vegas show and a Grateful Dead show ‘mdash; that’s what people have told me,’ said Clifton. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘I’m a song and dance man at heart,’ he added, sounding very much like his professedly hated colleague Andy Kaufman in Milo Forman’s biopic ‘The Man on the Moon.” But such a suggestion was rebuffed.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Myself, I don’t get it, why they made a movie of this guy’s life. I’m glad it happened, it put my name out there, but I don’t understand that guy’s career, what the public saw in Andy Kaufman. Kaufman wasn’t a singer, he wasn’t a dancer, he wasn’t a comedian, then what the hell was he all about?’ he yelled. But if Clifton was so against Kaufman, why did he agree to perform in ‘Man on the Moon?’ And for that matter, a humanitarian aid tour that he claims he’s doing in order to fulfill 60 hours of community service? ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Cause they pay me a lot of money. Pay me money, I’ll do anything,’ he said. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Listen sweetheart, I’ve been around a long time, and I’m not looking for more lines. My idea of success now is you pay me good money and I work less, I got nothing to prove. Imitation is the best part of flattery, or something like that, right?’ ‘ ‘ ‘ But there is more to his actions than just paychecks. Beloved of Jim Henson, Clifton was asked to perform in ‘The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show’ in 1982 after he had riled up Hollywood so much ‘that no one would touch me.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ When asked to describe the experience he mused, ‘Henson believed so much in those characters, maybe that’s what added to their believability.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ His conjecturing made me wonder if he didn’t think of himself in the same way ‘mdash; a character worthy of an audience’s unquestioning indulgence. But before I could ask, he said suddenly, ‘Wanna hear me rhyme?’ and then quickly switched directions to ask if I had watched the vice presidential debate. ‘ ‘ ‘ Yes. And had he? ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Of course! I keep up with everything!’ he shouted.