My night with Joan Rivers

In my younger life, like half the writers in Los Angeles who imagine themselves being wittier and funnier than they really are, I thought I…

FILE: Grand Marshall Joan Rivers at the Winterfest Boat Parade on December 12, 1991 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Rivers was laid to rest Sunday after she died last week from complications related to a surgery.  (Photo by Manny Hernandez/GettyImages)

In my younger life, like half the writers in Los Angeles who imagine themselves being wittier and funnier than they really are, I thought I could be a comic and spent too many evenings on try-out nights at the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip.

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On one of those nights, as I’m in line to go on stage, I get a tug on my butt, and think it’s one of the other wannabe comedians.

I look around, and it’s Joan Rivers. This was around 1980, when she was still opening for acts in Vegas and just before making it big.

“Sorry, just checking to see if those were your buns,” she dead-panned.

This was around the time that she, Billy Crystal, Richard Pryor and many of those who were already established would still come around regularly to check out other comics and sometimes work on their material.

I should also explain that my buns were in a slinky black evening gown, the designer kind women wear on the red carpet at the Oscars. I had on a long black wig, and some people from that time knew me as Raquel. I was doing my stand-up in drag.

Joan checked me out. I weighed around 125 pounds, if that. I was slender and small-boned. I also fit in a size 6 dress, and I had on great rhinestone-studded stilettos.

“My compliments,” Joan said. “Not what I would expect, to see on a drag queen looking so elegant on the Sunset Strip.”

I had a girlfriend my size, I told Joan, who did a double-take.

“Oh, how, I’d love to have a man like you,” she said in that gargly girly voice of hers, “a man who could help me double my wardrobe!”

Jesus. I rocked on stage that night.

How I got to meet Joan on stage

“First of all,” I began, “let me explain that the reason I’m dressed this way is that I just came from the weekly meeting of Transvestites Anonymous where we not only not tell anyone our identity, hell, we don’t know it ourselves.

“I discovered my own sexual identity crisis about a year ago when I first arrived in Hollywood from New York and attended a cocktail party at the Beverly Hills Hotel where I walked into the wrong ballroom — a ballroom that full of what I thought were beautiful women, who were actually beautiful men.

“I was just starting to realize this when one of the hostesses there unnerved me even more by looking at my name on my New York press pass and asking, “So, Mr. Castro, you’re from New York — are you one of the Castro Convertibles?”

This is in a roomful of beautiful men pretending to be women and common courtesy telling me I couldn’t just turn and walk away.

Well, talk about my machismo springing a leak. My body broke out in a sweat of premature ejaculation! I mean, do you know what a Castro Convertible is? Do you? I sure as hell didn’t. Oh, yeah, much, much later, I learned that a Castro Convertible is a sofa with a hideaway bed — a big item in New York that made the Castro family a fortune there. Well, I’m originally from Texas – where we have no beautiful men, much less any wanting to be beautiful women —  and I had no idea what a Castro Convertible was.

“I mean, I thought it was someone with both male and female genitals or something.

“Really. After all, I have a friend in the State Department who thinks a Castro Convertible is a Castro-government Cuban spy who’s been turned into a double agent by the CIA.

“I have another friend, a non-polluting, polyunsaturated, biodegradable non-smoker who swears that a Castro Convertible is a Havana cigar that’s both low in tar and high on socialism.

“And I have still another friend, an actor who moonlights as a used car salesman, who believes that a Castro Convertible is an imported Cuban sportscar – that, of course, steers only to the left.”

I would say this got me on the “Tonight Show” or even a paid gig at one of the comedy clubs in town. It didn’t.

It did get me a couple of drinks with Joan later that evening at a bar up the Strip. She said wanted to look at more of my work. But I got the impression she really wanted to see more of my wardrobe.

She recognized the gown as Christian Dior. She knew the shoes were Gucci.

Joan Rivers was even familiar with the drag queen slang.

“Do you get clocked much?” she asked. To get clocked was to be recognized as a man in drag. “I almost didn’t make you. You’re so small! I don’t think our waiter clocked you.”

“It’s the bar’s dim lights,” I said.

“Oh, hell,” said Joan. “Everyone else in here probably thinks we’re both female impersonators!”

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