Houston Robertson strides confidently to the front of a large living room filled with people seated in rows of chairs. The windows behind her offer a view of the sun setting over the Carquinez , but all eyes are on Houston as she tells her story of metamorphosis following heartache.
“I like to think of myself as a smart, witty, adorable, age-advantaged woman,” she declares, her animated voice and energy filling the room. “Although I know there are a few who are going to call me a take-charge bitch.”
The laughter begins as the audience joins her on a journey that took her from a traditional 1950s wife with two kids by age 23 to a solo performer. She will celebrate her 81st birthday this month in between her seven performances at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.
Houston’s show, Victory for the Recycled Virgin, focuses on the years following the disintegration of her marriage and how becoming a clown saved her during that dark period. She speaks openly about the pain that followed her husband’s disclosure that he was gay and the warmth of strangers who helped her during that time. Humor and humanity shine through during the honest and occasionally bawdy performance.
Houston started out life in a more conventional fashion. She grew up in Nebraska, married at 21, graduated from Texas Christian University, had a daughter and son, became president of the League of Women Voters in Nashville, and worked at what she calls “stop-gap jobs” to help pay the bills not covered by her husband’s salary as a minister. “I saw my role then as being the supportive wife of a professional husband.”
She now sees herself as a solo performer. She presents her show in professional theaters and private venues. Edmonton will be her sixth appearance at Fringe Festivals.
Houston was looking for a small town to spend her retirement years when she moved to Benicia in 2004. She volunteers with the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano and was honored in 2013 with a Living Legacy award from the Senior Coalition of Solano County for her work with the food bank.
Have you always been a performer? I felt I wanted to be on stage ever since I was in my senior class and I had a part in the school play. It was Night Must Fall, a rather standard drama of the time. I played Olivia, and I got a really good review in the Kearney Daily Hub (laughs). …
My father was a preacher and my mother held workshops, so I grew up with people who talked to groups. I’ve always been comfortable with public speaking, even though I was painfully shy as a child and teen.
When I first came to Benicia, I was very active in Benicia Toastmasters for the first five or six years. Before I started doing my show, public speaking was my way to perform. Now that I’m performing, I finally got around to recovering a dream.
Why did you decide to become a clown? Just a few years after my divorce, I was fighting the death of the spirit. I was pretty much supporting myself. Becoming a clown was not something I was seeking to do—I was just trying to save my life.
Because I was living in San Francisco, becoming a clown didn’t sound strange. I’d tell people that I was thinking of becoming a clown, and they’d say, “That’s a good idea. You’re funny even when you don’t intend to be.”
Once I came up with the name—Ribbons—the character developed.
How did Ribbons save your life? Ribbons kept these aspects of me safe and alive that I felt were dying: being outgoing, welcoming, cheerful, service-oriented. Ribbons would help people cross the street. …
It was my delayed adolescent rebellion. I quit my job to become a clown on the streets of San Francisco. I was back working temp jobs fairly soon because I had to pay the bills. Sure I was 47 years old and working, but I was also a clown. Ribbons, in a way, was my first solo performance.
How did you come up with the concept of Victory for the Recycled Virgin? The term “recycled virgin” has been in my head for a long time. It was very apropos of my situation because I was married for 21 years to a gay man. …
How long did it take to develop the show? It was two years from concept to first performance. That was in November 2014 at The Marsh in San Francisco.
It wasn’t until I worked with a director that I learned the difference between writing for the stage instead of writing for the page.
Why is your show a good fit for Fringe Festivals? The Fringe Festivals are a great opportunity for performers who are not well known, who are not financed, for people like me who want to perform. …
Getting out there and talking to people to convince them to come to the show—that is hard work. … But, oh my gosh, it is something (smiles and puts her hand to her chest) to perform; just knowing I am doing this. …
My granddaughter came to my first performance and said afterwards, ‘Grandma, it’s obvious this is where you’re supposed to be.’ What?! She could see that?
Then she took me out for a shot of bourbon.
You seem really happy with your life at this point … I am. I’m creating and performing. …
One of the reasons my 70s and 80s are so terrific is because I took the time to work through the disappointments of my life when I was in my 50s and 60s. I don’t have that baggage anymore.
I have a show in the back of my head, “Octobabe Burlesque.” It’s another aging thing.
You know, in our youth, it’s all “I want.”
In our middle years, it’s “I must.”
But in old age, it’s “I can.” We are wearing all these different hats throughout life, and when we age, we get to take them all off. That’s what “Octobabe Burlesque” will be about.
What have you learned along the way? I’ve learned to appreciate myself. That might not sound like a big deal, but for a girl born in 1936 in Nebraska, it’s a big deal.