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‘Charles’ looks back at life of popular designer

‘Charles’ looks back at life of popular designer

J.J. Buechner doesn’t remember much about Charles Elsen, other than the fact that he was an awful lo
‘Charles’ looks back at life of popular designer
Matt DeMarco, left, J.J. Buechner and Ann Milliken rehearse a scene from "Chasing Charles," opening Saturday at the Saratoga Arts Center. (Alejandro Pinto)

J.J. Buechner doesn’t remember much about Charles Elsen, a distant relative by marriage, other than the fact that he was an awful lot of fun.

“I can remember that there was a lot of happiness and laughter in the house when he visited,” Buechner said of Elsen, a Scotia native who died of spinal meningitis due to complications from AIDS in 1985. “He was always laughing and telling jokes. He controlled the room when he was in it.”

Elsen, who became one of New York City’s most successful makeup artists and wig designers, is the subject of Buechner’s new play, “Chasing Charles,” to be staged by the Local Actors Guild of Saratoga over the next two weekends at the Saratoga Arts Center.

‘Chasing Charles’

WHERE: Local Actors Guild of Saratoga, Saratoga Arts Center, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs

WHEN: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 22

HOW MUCH: $20

MORE INFO: 393-3496

Matt DeMarco will play Elsen, a 1964 graduate of Scotia-Glenville High School, while Buechner is his long-time friend and business partner, Dennis Bergevin. Jonathan Pate is directing the show, which covers the time period from 1974 to Elsen’s death in 1985.

“I met him once when he was home visiting his mother, and I saw him again at his wake,” said Buechner, who was 7 when Elsen passed away. “I don’t remember that much about him, and all my uncle told me was that he didn’t have time for a girlfriend. He had a great career in New York City before he got sick.”

When he started researching Elsen’s life two years ago, Buechner reached out to Bergevin, who is still alive and living in New York. He also will be in Saratoga Springs this weekend to see the show.

“We had a two-hour conversation and he told me all about [Elsen],” said Buechner, who refers to Elsen as his cousin. “He told me he loved life, and that he loved men. He told me they had a unique relationship because Charles didn’t have any male ‘friends.’ He told me that Charles had this confidence about him, and that he just exuded magnetism. Men swarmed around him.”

Buechner says that Elsen immersed himself into the “hypersexual lifestyle of pre-AIDS New York City gay culture,” and much of the show revolves around his long relationship with Brian, a young street-wise Midwesterner played by Christopher Malatesta.

“It’s probably a PG-13, or even an R-rated show,” Buechner said of his play. “Any mature teen will understand what’s going on, but it’s definitely not for kids.”

Also in the show are Ann Milliken, Melissa Putterman-Hoffman, Oliver Ward, Chad Radock and Liz Sterling.

Elsen, who originally headed to New York to pursue an opera career, created individualized makeup and wigs for such singers as Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland.

“The play starts with the day that Charles and Dennis meet and become friends, and then follows Charles’ career in New York,” said Buechner, who started the Local Actors Guild of Saratoga in 2006.

“He was an only child, and his parents have passed away. When I started this project I wanted to find out who Charles really was. Now we’re doing a full production of the play, and Dennis, who I am playing, is going to be here. It’s surreal, but it’s really exciting. I think it’s going to be a great experience.”

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