Marilyn Monroe is a huge deal again. Her enduring appeal is especially evident in downtown Palm Springs where her 26-foot likeness from “The Seven Year Itch” seems to beckon visitors to the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way to pose for photos and do their best impersonations.
Fifty years after Monroe’s death, it’s not uncommon for fans to don a blond wig, slip on a white halter dress and adopt a breathy voice in tribute. But the essence of Monroe was more than met the eye, as Michelle Williams portrayed in her Oscar-nominated role in “My Week with Marilyn.”
However, the absolute best Monroe impersonation I’ve ever seen was on YouTube clips featuring Jimmy James. The young makeup artist from San Antonio, Texas, brilliantly inhabited her look, vulnerability, sex appeal and “cute” factor.
I recently chatted with James about becoming Monroe and working on new voices in Palm Springs.
When did you begin impersonating famous people for pay and whose voice was first?
It was 1983, a long time ago. I guess the first one I brought out to the public was Marilyn Monroe. I always thought of it as an actor playing the part. It suited me at the time.
I had a show of my vocal impressions. Of course Marilyn was like a calling card but she was only like 20 minutes of the hour show. We had Marilyn for such a short period of time that I didn’t want her to linger on the stage. She had her limitations on the stage because she was primarily a screen star.
I had only seen footage of her experience with the troops inKorea. It was just in my mind how she did it – short and sweet.
Then I had more shows. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. I wanted to bring out the voice side of the show. That was a real fun part of the show. Marilyn was a stunning part of it, but after it I would change, come out androgynous and do all the voices.
It was a time when just being a female impersonator would get you on television. I was a pass-around talk show guest. I was mainly called for sweeps weeks. When they needed ratings they would be like “Let’s call the men in dresses.”
How often do you add a new voice to your show?
It just comes from time to time. I’m always on the lookout for more artists to add. I seem to be fascinated with certain tones and sounds of voices, from Sylvester to La Roux to Amy Winehouse to Cher to Adele. They all have a unique tone and unique sound.
I’m not a fan of artists who don’t have a distinct sound. Jennifer Lopez is a star but she doesn’t have a distinct sound. Janet Jackson is fabulous but she doesn’t have a distinct sound.
What do you think of the Marilyn Monroe sculpture in downtown Palm Springs?
I love it. As soon as it’s not 110 degrees I’m going to get my picture by it.
When I was doing Marilyn I used to play in Palm Springs. I would perform at Daddy Warbucks in Cathedral City. But from 1993 to 2009, I lived in New York City and didn’t come to Palm Springs. I missed it.
Read the full interview with Jimmy James in the Sept. 6 issue of Desert Outlook magazine.
IF YOU GO
James performs his monthly workshop of familiar and new voices at 8 p.m. today (Aug. 28) at Streetbar, 224 E. Arenas Road, Palm Springs. Admission is free.