Dame Edna is sort of a cross between Don Rickles and Margaret Thatcher. She makes people laugh, at the rich and famous, at the cult of celebrity, and most of all, at themselves. Now, Dame Edna, who is a household name in Sydney and London, has become a Broadway hit. Correspondent Bob Simon reports.
Dame Edna is really Barry Humphries, who claims he created the character of an Eisenhower-era Australian suburban housewife for a skit in a college play.
"It's still surprising to think that this funny little character that was invented for one show is now on Broadway, capering around on a spectacular set," he says.
Even when she's not capering around on stage, Dame Edna never steps out of character. As long as the glasses are on, so is the persona. There is even a Dame Edna autobiography. Dame Edna has become so real that journalists often interview her in character.
Over lunch, Edna described her modest origins in Moonie Ponds, the Melbourne suburb, where she grew up, courted, and married.
The death of her husband Norman was widely reported 10 years ago. She says that she visits his grave often. She goes, she says to "buff up his obelisk."
"Funnily enough, he used to like me doing that when he was alive," Edna adds.
Edna has little patience for those who insist on believing she's just a figment of Humphries' imagination. "If they think Barry Humphries and I are the same person, let them talk to my gynecologist," she told Simon during lunch.
Later, Humphries addresses the same issue from a different perspective: "I'm pleased with the fact that people believe in Edna's reality," he says. "I do. So why shouldn't they? I think there should be no glimpse of the actor behind the mask of the performance."
Humphries says that his creation has taken on a life of her own. "There seems to be no real process where I think 'What will Edna say next?'" he says. "She says it before I can think of it... She can do things I can't do. For example, she can Charleston in high heel shoes, which is something I could never do."
Humphries has created many characters. Besides Edna, he invented Les Patterson, the perpetually-drunk Australian diplomat whose humor is as coarse as his physique.
When Humphries isn't on stage, he can often be found in rare book shops. He hunts for first editions with his fourth wife, actress Lizzie Spender, daughter of the late British Poet-Laureate, Sir Stephen Spender.
While Humphries is unfailingly polite, his alter ego is something else entirely. She can be hilariously cutting to people who come to watch her perform. "In your honor, I'm wearing my oldest frock tonight," she told one recent audience. "Oh, by lovely coincidence, I see that a woman in the front row is wearing her oldest frock, too."
Audiences almost always love the insults. Why? "Because they are simultaneously delighted, entertained, convulsed with lughter and somehow elevated in a form of stardom," he says. "They come into the theater as ordinary patrons. They leave signing autographs in the lobby, in the foyer of the theater."
And when Edna reaches for her gladiolas, the entire audience becomes part of the show. For Edna, these flowers symbolize nothing less than beauty and truth. "They're big, they're voluptuous, fleshy even," she says. "Luscious. Gorgeous. Beautifully colored. And they grow in the United States of America."
Starting this fall, Dame Edna will take her show on the road, from Minneapolis to Phoenix, and points in between.
The trip will help her accomplish her goal, she says.
"I'd like to marry an American," she said, eyeing Correspondent Bob Simon, who was wearing a red striped tie and a pale blue shirt. "I think I'm ready to remarry. Someone not too young. Someone who's had some experience in life...Been around the block a couple of times. Someone in a nice red striped tie, with a pale blue shirt, and their old bar mitzvah suit. I could be looking at him, Bob. Oh, I'm sure I'm looking at him."
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