What is there to say about a 78-year-old lady named, simply, Faith, who blasts a bugle in public places, is making her sixth run for D.C. mayor, claims to have been Stephen Sondheim's muse and says she's friends with Marlon Brando?
Brando. Yeah, right.
Faith has her bugle with her tonight, here at a recent campaign forum. Actually, she owns two bugles. The first is not here. The second stands upright on the long table where she sits with other candidates.
She is wearing a short, tight white dress and a red-white-and-blue headwrap that barely manages to contain her curly ash-colored mane, headgear that somehow recalls Bob Dylan circa the mid-'70s Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
Her platform is arts saturation. If elected, she promises to establish an arts utopia modeled on FDR's Works Progress Administration. She says she'll be "an arts fascist."
"God planted me here as a nuclear suppository up the Devil's colon," she likes to say, adding: "D.C. -- get it? A sense of humor never hurt anyone."
Faith is Washington's jester. For a quarter-century, no ballot has been complete without her monosyllabic moniker. Few rallies -- for statehood, racial justice, decriminalization of marijuana -- have gone uninterrupted by brassy toots from her bugle. In her last two runs for mayor, she got 423 and 430 votes.
Rather than make stump speeches, she sings. When she lobbies local officials, she shows up with a promotional videotape and a white Sylvania television, in case they don't have one. At 73 she did a pseudo-strip act called "Stripping for Statehood." Drag queens do impressions of her. On an old calendar in her Adams Morgan apartment, a telephone number is scribbled next to the initials "M.B." Brando's number.
At the candidates forum, in the middle of a heated squabble, she picks up the bugle and honks a few piercing notes of reveille.
"Come on, Faith!" shouts someone in the sweaty crowd of 175. "Respect the order of the process."
This is one of those godawful insider-D.C. political brawls, hosted by Ward 6 Democrats to endorse candidates. It's so loud and pointless that when it's all over, nobody will be endorsed.
Mayor Anthony Williams sits at the long table looking shrunken and doomed. He looks the way any big-city mayor would look after his campaign was busted for submitting 5,000 forged petition signatures, including voters purporting to be Dudley Moore, Martha Stewart and the Apostle Paul. At least Faith got on the ballot.
She summons her husband, Jude Crannitch, 48, who sports a red-white-and-blue shirt with matching headband and is carrying his classical guitar. They sing a song they wrote, "We Are D.C.," to the tune of "We Are the World."
We are D.C.
We're getting slaughtered
We pay more taxes than most other states
Yet our rights are thwarted
Shakespeare taught us never to underestimate the fool. Or as Faith says, "Behind any clown's face, you might find some wisdom."
The Brando Endorsement Faith Dane caught the showbiz bug as a rebellious teenager. She used to sneak out to Coney Island from her home in Flatbush to play Neptuna the Mermaid in a sideshow act when the real Neptuna was too drunk.
She studied ballet, painting and piano, and started getting parts as a dancer and comedienne in musicals and variety shows in the 1940s. She did summer stock in the Poconos and danced in forgettable shows on Broadway. She appeared on "Texaco Star Theater," the live television show that launched Milton Berle, and also on "The Colgate Comedy Hour" with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
"She was a character," says her dancer friend from those days, Maxine Alters, now retired in New York. "She'd be doing her comedy stuff. She's an attention-getter." But also: "She gets a lot of people crazy. You know, she antagonizes people."
One day in 1946, when she was 23, Faith was hanging out with a violinist friend in Greenwich Village, and she met a young actor.
"Marlon took up with a new girlfriend . . . Faith Dane, a tall, voluptuous dark girl," author Charles Higham wrote in "Brando," a 1987 unauthorized biography. Higham quoted a Village television writer saying, "Faith told me she was in love with this man who looked like a poet but was built like an animal. She wanted me to come over and see him. . . . It was Marlon."
After the book came out, Faith protested that she was not Brando's "girlfriend," as if the word implied something shallow. Their relationship was platonic but emotionally deep, she says. She painted his portrait, she says, and they stay in touch to this day.
Brando and Faith? Many of Faith's stories sound too good to check. Until you start checking.
The reclusive actor consents to a rare telephone interview.
"I've known her since I was 22," he says in that deliberate, faintly menacing, Brando way.
Then he talks for almost 10 minutes, a virtually uninterrupted monologue. He sounds positively bewitched by Faith, from her "classical profile" to her generosity to her art. He likes her music and dancing and painting, and has some of her works hanging in his house.
"She's always stood up for what is right and stood up for principles," Brando says. Many years ago "she was at a party and somebody made some untoward remarks about me . . . and she grabbed this guy and broke his nose."
Brando keeps in touch by phone, and Faith sends him little gifts -- he calls them "care packages," she calls them "mojos." It might be a painting or a beautiful piece of African clothing or an outlandish dreadlock wig. Last week she was wrapping the latest mojo, a wooden wind-up piano that plays the theme from "The Godfather."
"I don't really know much about politics," Brando says, "but I feel that anybody who votes for her could have their vote entrusted in her character. . . . She's one of the people I would trust with my life."
He keeps circling back to her artistic talent.
Talent? The serial candidate with the bugle?
"She's creative in this desert of creativity, and in this time of things that are mundane and commercially oriented, she refuses to bend," Brando says. "She stands head and shoulders above anybody else I know just in the realm of pure talent.
"But she's never commercialized herself."
The Bugle's Call Faith met many figures on the arts and literary scene of her day. Through mutual friends, she says, she got to know James Jones, author of "From Here to Eternity." He gave her her first bugle as a present to cheer her up.
He told her it was the one Montgomery Clift blew in the movie version of his novel. It was during a low point for Faith, in the mid-1950s. She was past 30, and her career seemed stalled. She kept getting fired "because of my big mouth," she said. She decided to develop a nightclub act and hit the road. She took the bugle.
Show business exacts some of the hardest dues from itinerant players, scraping through dives and carnivals, dependent on the kindness of coldhearted club owners, falling back on pure personality when all else fails to win over an audience. For three years Faith worked her way through joints in New York, Miami, New Orleans, Nassau. Once she resorted to wrestling doped alligators in a carnival show on a Florida Indian reservation.
Eventually she developed an act with 26 numbers -- piano, jokes, sketches. She'd come onstage with a shopping cart full of junk. She'd pull out items -- a hat, a scarf -- and start improvising. When she pulled out the bugle, she always got laughs. She devised a number she called "A Stripper in the WAC [Women Army Corps] Drum & Bugle Corps."
She read that auditions were being held on Broadway for a new show called "Gypsy," based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque queen. Some of Broadway's heaviest hitters were involved: co-producer David Merrick, director Jerome Robbins, book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, star Ethel Merman.
Here was Faith Dane's big chance.
The luminaries assembled for her audition had low expectations. Faith was one of a series of vaudeville-style acts they were testing to give "Gypsy" authenticity. She got a shot only because her father was Arthur Laurents's high school history teacher and her cousin was Laurents's friend.
She slipped out of her sequined gown, revealing a flesh-color body stocking with bikini-style coverings, and unleashed the Stripper in the WAC Drum & Bugle Corps. She saluted and marched and bumped her hips and blasted the bugle. For the finale she bent her posterior toward her judges and blew the bugle at them between her legs.
The jaded audience went berserk. Robbins and Laurents howled. Gypsy Rose Lee laughed so hard she cried and had to peel off her false eyelashes.
"It was one of the most spectacular auditions ever in the history of Broadway theater," recalls John Wallowitch, who played piano accompaniment at the audition and went on to become a prolific songwriter and distinguished cabaret star. "It was hysterical. It was a beautiful, wonderful theatrical audition by a theatrical animal. . . . Even Sondheim cracked a smile."
Sondheim declined to be interviewed for this story, but during a panel discussion on "Gypsy" published in 1985, he recalled the tedious process of those auditions. "It was all worth it for one thing, incidentally," he said. "Faith Dane and her trumpet. . . . That went right into the show."
Faith got the part of Mazeppa, the veteran stripper passing on hard-earned wisdom in the song "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." She sang like a collision between a horse trailer and a dump truck.
"If you wanna bump it, bump it with a trumpet," she belted.
Once I was a schlepper, now I'm Miss Mazeppa
With my revolution in dance
You gotta have a gimmick, if you wanna have a chance.
"Gypsy" (1959) ran for 706 performances and Faith stopped the show many nights, Wallowitch says.
She also appeared on the original-cast album and reprised Mazeppa in the 1962 film, with a doe-eyed Natalie Wood looking on.
This fame didn't last, nor did the bugle. After miles of hard traveling, Faith failed to make the final leap to stardom, and the bell end of the bugle bent. She got another bugle, and now the first bugle rides in the mess of papers in the trunk of Faith's campaign vehicle, a white Toyota Avalon missing a hubcap.
Running in Place Truth is, everyone has a gimmick. The gimmick is a cloak against meaninglessness. The gimmick becomes part of identity. But this is ultimately unsatisfying, and the human condition can be defined as the struggle to transcend our gimmicks.
After "Gypsy," the only movie parts Faith was offered were cameos as strippers or prostitutes. She never got another major musical audition. Whenever there was a revival of "Gypsy," she asked to play Mazeppa but was never hired.
She went back on the road. As leader of a dance act in a carnival in St. Croix in the early 1960s, she met a former attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands. They got married, and she settled in St. Croix.
At his urging, she ran for the legislature of the islands in 1964. She suspects her husband wanted her in politics to help his law practice, but she used the platform to advocate for the arts. Her bugle became her political prop.
She says she lost the race by four votes. More important, she had hit upon a way to transform her gimmick, if not transcend it. She kept running in election after election.
She never won, and her marriage failed.
Back in New York in the early 1970s, now about 50 years old, she tried to work up a nightclub act, but money was tight. For a time she was homeless, sleeping on a piano in the studio she rented by the hour to practice her music.
Through a mutual friend she met Crannitch, an artist and musician, then in his early twenties. He was smitten during one of their first conversations. Somehow they got on the subject of natural cruelties, such as when lions eat zebras. Faith proposed inventing veggie zebras for the lions.
"No one else could have come up with that," says Crannitch, a native of New Zealand who now teaches at Washington Very Special Arts, an arts education program.
They settled in Washington in 1978 because they wanted to be in the nation's capital, and now live in a one-bedroom apartment in Adams Morgan.
Soon after they were married in 1983, Faith had her name legally shortened. She has two explanations: The first is she thought the simplified name would refocus her on-again/off-again relationship with God, and to this day she sings on Sundays in various churches.
The second is a bit of shtick:
"I also wanted to get on the ballot as Faith because I thought I might pick up some Pentecostal votes. It didn't happen."
Arts Advocate Extraordinaire Washington is not sure what to make of the pair, who still collaborate on nightclub shows when Faith is not campaigning.
A 1996 Washington Post review of the act called it "a mind-boggling mix of song-and-dance, film, recitation and trumpet solos. . . . Is it brilliant? Is it terrible? Are you rooting for her? Embarrassed for her? Just happy to be seeing something different?
"All of the above."
One of her hobbies she calls "stalking the stars" -- searching out entertainers like Tony Bennett and Don Rickles when they come to town and blowing her bugle outside their dressing rooms. Many of them she knows from way back.
"The bugle has a mind of its own," Faith says.
This might be madness, but with a method: It's her way of enlisting stars in her plan to infuse the capital with art. The stars would donate time and talent, while the government would turn every school into an arts magnet and throw open public buildings for performances during off hours. The plan hasn't advanced very far, but Faith does have a videotape with people like Ossie Davis and Billy Taylor speaking in support.
"Every human being has a genius in one of the arts," Faith says. "It has to be honed. Here, it is being un-honed."
She still has a dancer's figure and looks younger than her years. At campaign appearances, she sometimes free-associates herself to the edge of incoherence, then when the moderator says her time is up, she declares, "My civil rights are being affronted!"
But the new campaign song, "We Are D.C.," is going over big. At political forums, it's a showstopper. The final chorus:
We are D.C.
We lead the nation
In homelessness, HIV and elitist gentrification
"I think it should be the national anthem of D.C. It's our 'We Shall Overcome,' " says Mark Plotkin, the longtime political commentator now with WTOP Radio.
"This is a sometimes terribly bland and appropriate town, and she is ridiculously inappropriate," Plotkin adds. "She's outlandish, and this town needs outlandish. You have to get through all the theater and the buffoonery and listen to what she says."
Stephanie Lee, a nurse and member of the executive committee of the Ward 8 Democrats, makes the same observation -- but reaches the opposite conclusion.
"Some of what she's saying is actually true," Lee says. But "the packaging is wrong. People don't want someone who blows a horn, wears a hat and talks out of turn."
On a recent Saturday in a public library in Far Southwest, more than 100 people attend the Ward 8 Democrats endorsement meeting. The audience cheers the song. But when it comes time to endorse candidates, they give Faith only two votes.
"I could have got three votes for all the work I did," she quips on the way out.
She perches on top of the Toyota, her legs dangling through the sunroof. Hung on the side is a banner with the motto "Free D.C. With Mayor Faith" and the painted picture of a bugle. Crannitch is at the wheel. They wend through the streets of D.C., hunting votes, putting on a show.
Faith's bugle is at her lips, Mazeppa's is in the trunk.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.