Whatever happened to Mrs. Foggybottom?
— Jerry Mann, Alexandria , Va.
The same thing that happens to fictitious theatrical characters everywhere: Mrs. Foggybottom exists in playbills, in yellowing newspaper reviews and in the memories of aging audience members.
The person who created Mrs. Foggybottom, on the other hand, is alive and kicking.
That would be Joan Cushing , the local singer-pianist-composer who started performing at piano bars around town after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1969. In the morning and afternoon, she taught second grade in Landover Hills. Md. In the evenings, she hurried to places like Mr. Smith’s or the Statler Hilton to tickle the ivories.
“I’d take a nap, put in eye drops and go to the job,” Joan said. “One day I decided that playing piano was more fun” than teaching.
The character of Mrs. Foggybottom — a glove-wearing, martini-sipping, cigarette holder-gripping, wisecracking society dame — was born at the Fire Escape Lounge, a late-night cabaret above the old Cafe Lafayette in Alexandria. The owner suggested Joan quiet the unruly crowd by delivering a monologue before playing standards and show tunes.
Mrs. Foggybottom was a lady who lunched. She had a sharp eye and a cutting wit. (Joan said the name was suggested by Dan Ruskin , a local entertainer who happens to be the brother of singing satirist Mark Russell .)
Soon, Joan began writing songs in that persona. She opened her show, “Mrs. Foggybottom & Friends,” at the New Playwrights Theatre in 1986 before moving it to the Omni Shoreham Hotel’s Marquee Lounge, where it was a Friday and Saturday night fixture for nearly a decade.
Mrs Foggybottom’s show featured a small cast singing songs that poked fun at political Washington — remember Ed Meese? the Contras? — as well as non-political Washington. A ditty called “I’m in Heaven in Hechinger’s” makes sense only if you remember the local hardware store.
“Mrs. Foggybottom & Friends” closed at the Shoreham in 1995 after a change in the hotel’s ownership, but Joan said the real reason for never resurrecting it was the death in 1998 of Ron O’Leary, the University of Maryland theater professor who had directed all of her shows.
Joan next turned to writing musicals. She was commissioned by Imagination Stage to write “Miss Nelson Is Missing,” based on the children’s book by Harry Allard and James Marshall. Since then she’s penned more than a dozen musicals. Most are for kids, but there’s also “Breast in Show,” which she describes as “The Vagina Monologues” for breast cancer survivors.
“I just like being creative,” said Joan, who lives in Washington. “Even though I’m not in the public eye anymore, I’m still creating and working with other creative people.”
You might see Joan bartending around town. And she occasionally transforms herself into Mrs. Foggybottom for one-off performances. She’s especially popular for roasting Washington dignitaries.
“I just got this e-mail asking me to perform at the 50th anniversary of the Watergate,” Joan said. “What could be more fun than that?”
As you look forward to 2015, I hope you’ll think about those fellow Washingtonians who could use some help. As part of our Helping Hand fundraising drive, The Washington Post has partnered with three nonprofits that assist homeless families in our area. You can contribute to any of them online by visiting www.posthelpinghand.com. (Details on donating by check are below.)
Community of Hope: Every year, this District charity assists more than 300 families, offering stable housing as well as employment services, mentoring, health education and medical care.
To give by mail, send a check payable to “Community of Hope” to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
Homestretch: From 50 to 60 families at a time are enrolled in this Virginia charity’s two-year program. They receive housing and supportive services such as budget counseling, job training and child care. Sixty percent of the mothers who come to Homestretch are victims of domestic violence.
To contribute by mail, send a check payable to “Homestretch” to: Homestretch, 303 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church, Va. 22046, Attn: Nan Monday.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork: In addition to operating the District’s only 24-hour emergency shelter for teens, Sasha Bruce has short-term and long-term housing. Programs help teens earn a high school diploma or GED, learn entrepreneurship and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
To donate by mail, send a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Attention: James Beck.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.