By Alan W. Petrucellientrpt@aol.com
Five minutes before Liza Minnelli gets on the phone, her publicist – appropriately named Ira, the same first name as Mr. Gershwin, the man who wrote the song for which Liza was named back on March 12, 1946 – issues the warnings: “Don’t ask Judy Garland questions. Don’t ask health-related questions. And don’t ask David Guest questions. Stay away from those and she will have a wonderful time.”Not talk about her famous mother? Not talk about the problems that have plagued her for decades? Not talk about her short-lived fourth marriage to the quixotic man who wears more make-up than most drag queens and who has accused Liza of physical abuse while she was drunk? Not ask her about these things, and Liza with a Z easily becomes Liza with a Zzzzz.Yet we relented . . . and stayed away from the uninvited Guest.And from her candor and chatter, her laughs and her Marlene Dietrich imitation, Liza had a most wonderful time . . . even singing a snatch of “Cabaret,” old chum. On July 21, the 60-year-old performer, most recently seen on the big screen in The OH in Ohio and on the TV series Law and Order Criminal Intent and Arrested Development, will return to the Cape Cod Melody Tent . . . proof that life for Liza is still, indeed, a cabaret.Your relationship with your sister Lorna Luft has been on-and-off again for years. She told us it would be better if you learned how to use your cell phone. She leaves messages and they aren’t returned. True?[Laughs] Yes! Yes! It’s true. I just got a new cell phone and I don’t care about all the crap it has – all I want to do is call someone! There’s so many damn buttons to push. I used to be a mechanical genius; I love to figure things out how everything works. Now that I have to wear close-up glasses, the time it takes to put on the gosh-darned glasses pisses me off so much that I don’t bother to learn.Lorna also told us, on these very pages, that your mom was never tragic. Agree?Yes, but Mama knew exactly what her public wanted. I’ll give you an example. She’d finish a concert and I’d be standing in the wings with some water and cough drops. The curtain would come down. She’d sit on the edge of the stage, her legs are dangling, and I’d think, ‘That poor lady! She’s so heartbreaking.’ I’d walk over, she’d grab the water or drop and ask, ‘Chink or Italian?’ I’d say, ‘What?’ She’d say, ‘Do you wanna eat Chinese or Italian?’ “I’d say, ‘Italian.’ She’d say, ‘Great. Get off the stage.’ The curtain would go back up, she’d sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and go right back to being tragic. She knew exactly what her public needed.Like your mom, you’ve battled a problem with booze. How were you able to turn your life around?It was something I was given by my parents. They always believed in me, and they always made sure I knew they believed in me. My mother constantly praised me for my strength. She built that up in me. I was taught early on that I had choices and they are mine to make. I inherited this disease, this bloody alcoholism. I looked around and realized there’s always a way to accomplish something. I had to be ready to do it. I had to want to do it. I had to be curious; if you’re curious you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself.How long have you been sober?God, a long time. But that’s my stuff. That’s private, not to talk about in public. I always encourage people if you have a problem, go to AA. And that’s it. And I laugh about it. Without the humor, none of us would be around. I have very funny friends. My parents were hilarious. I am attracted to people who have a great sense of people. You attract what you put out. And I never put out negativity. I think that’s why people are drawn to my performances – they are about strength. If I sing about vulnerability, it’s a song in which the person overcomes it.Just how hilarious was Mama?We went to see Marlene Dietrich in concert. Marlene came out and was sensational. I went, ’Oh my God!’ Mama said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘She’s beautiful!’ And Mama said, ‘Yeah, but wait until you hear her sing.’ Marlene started to sing; it was quite sensational but I didn’t dare yell out, ‘Brava!’ because I looked at my mother who was really pissed off. Mama said, ‘I work my ass off on stage and this lady comes on and goes [Liza’s voice takes on a deep, unintelligible German accent], ‘Fallllllllllling…’ It should be so easy for us!’ That was Mama’s humor.You diligently work for various AIDS charities. How did you become involved? Was it through your pal Elizabeth Taylor?No, I introduced Elizabeth to it. There was an event at which she was getting an award. I thought, “I’m going to ask Rock Hudson if he wants to come.’ I called him and he said, ‘I’d love to – I haven’t seen you and Elizabeth or anyone in years.’ This was really early during the AIDS crises. I picked him up and Rock didn’t look good at all. At all. I thought, ‘Oh no! He’s wasting; he looks like he got it.’ Rock got up to go to the men’s room and Elizabeth said, ‘Rock looks awful!’ I said, ‘There’s something that’s starting to be called AIDS. Elizabeth asked me what it was. I told her about it – how it was being called a ‘gay disease,’ how nurses were afraid of taking care of patients, how people were afraid of getting it, how nobody was caring for people who had it, how everyone was scared. I told her about Mathilda Krim. Elizabeth said, ‘This is terrible! Somebody’s got to do something.’ I said, ‘I know, that’s why I am telling you.’ I was the one who really introduced her to the cause. Your first husband, Peter Allen, died of AIDS. Did you know he had it?I knew what he had because I knew ‘the look.’ I said to him, ‘What have you got?’ He said, ‘I have cancer.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m sure you do. You wanna talk any more about it?’ He said, ‘I don’t think we have to, do we?’ I said, ‘No we don’t.’ Peter knew that I knew, and we never talked about it again. I stayed with him all the time and took him everywhere. There was unconditional love until the end. We were great, great friends. [Pauses] I also lost Halston. My God, two of my dearest friends in the world.Elizabeth told me she considers you a daughter. Who are your other show-biz friends?Joel Grey. Billy Stritch. Liz Callaway and her sister Ann Hampton. Kirk Douglas. And the three Michaels – Michael Feinstein. Michael Douglas. Michael Jackson. I haven’t heard from Michael Jackson since he’s been over there, but every once in a while he calls me and he’s doing great.Where do you keep your Oscar?On the windowsill of my bedroom because I am repainting the apartment.Whatever happened to the special Oscar your mother received for The Wizard of Oz?I haven’t a clue. It was being sold at auction. I wrote to the Academy and said, ‘You should stop it.’ And they did. But I never found out where it is or who has it.When all is said and done and last note sung, how does Liza May Minnelli want to be remembered?As somebody who worked hard for the people who paid to come and see her.