In December 1944, when Erik Lee Preminger was born to world-famous burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, an MGM newsreel announced the event to the nation's moviegoers with a clip headlined: "Stripling born to Gypsy Rose Lee."
It was just the beginning of one of the most adventure-filled lives a guy could have. Preminger accompanied Gypsy in her car as she criss-crossed the country performing in everything from burlesque shows to circuses.(The fact that his father was filmmaker Otto Preminger did not become public knowledge until after Erik's mother died in 1970.)
Now in his mid-50s and living in the San Francisco Bay area, Preminger feels that he was lucky to grow up on the road with a mother who not only loved him, but taught him how to work.
"I wasn't just sent off to a boarding school somewhere," he said on Sunday afternoon, following the opening of Sundance Summer Theatre's production of "Gypsy," based on his mother's memoirs.
In the Sundance Screening Room, Preminger showed his 52-minute compilation of home movies ("Gypsy Rose Lee: An Intimate Portrait"), augmented by newsreel clips and segments from her television show. Preminger narrated some of the footage, then fielded questions from the audience.
Among the interesting tidbits that surfaced:
- "My mother was uncomfortable with burlesque, but she also had a patholigical fear of going broke."
- "Mom knew how to work the press. When she saw Walter Winchell in the audience at Minskey's, she quickly changed her act to focus on him - and was mentioned in his next day's column." She was also fully aware of the ongoing feud between Winchell and his rival, Ed Sullivan. She would read Sullivan's column in the morning, then use material there for her act that evening . . . which Winchell would then put in his column. This drew more attention right where she wanted it . . . to herself.
- Gypsy was turned down by high-ranking military brass for a proposed USO tour. "They felt her act was `unsuitable,' " Preminger said. Since she was driving from New York to Hollywood for a movie role, she simply called the commanders of various bases en route and volunteered to perform as she traveled. "The people at the bases were more in tune to what the soldiers wanted to see," said Preminger, "and she was welcomed with open arms."
- When Gypsy was invited to perform at the London Paladium, she was unable to use her birth certificate to obtain a passport. Her mother had gone into the state offices in Seattle and mutiliated the document by constantly changing Gypsy's birth date in order to appease child welfare officials. "She finally got her passport by having three close friends verify that she was, in fact, an American citizen," Preminger said.