Everyone loved it. What a treat: A private performance by Barbra Streisand!
Except it wasn't Streisand.
It was Jim Bailey.
"I remember her knocking on the door of my dressing room," Bailey recalled. "She just said, 'It's time. Are you ready?' Well, I was a nervous wreck. It was very difficult for me. Barbra had seen me doing her before, but at the time I didn't realize she was in the audience."
Bailey, 47, has been portraying Streisand, along with Judy Garland and several other celebrated divas, for more than 25 years. But, please, he doesn't want to be called a female impersonator. He prefers illusionist. Or character actor.
The entertainer, a native of West Philadelphia and graduate of Riverside High School in Burlington County, has played many of the world's great concert venues, including London's Palladium, New York's Carnegie Hall and Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Until now, he has never performed in his hometown.
On Wednesday, Bailey began a two-week engagement at the Society Hill Playhouse, providing audiences with a more intimate view of his artistry than is available in the big halls and showrooms. Through Sunday, the offering is An Intimate Evening With Barbra Streisand. Wednesday through next Sunday, Bailey will present An Intimate Evening With Judy Garland.
Bailey's success is based on the meticulous approach he takes in creating his illusions. Three hours of preparation are required for each of his characterizations. He looks the part down to the tiniest detail. And he sounds the part.
"Barbra told me how much she loved it when I hit one of her high notes," he related.
Another of Bailey's big fans is Liza Minnelli, who asked him to join her for a show in Las Vegas, reenacting the concert Minnelli shared with her mother, Judy Garland, many years ago at the Palladium.
It was, to say the least, a great compliment. And Bailey jumped at the opportunity.
To be sure, Bailey has considered other career options. "I mentioned to Liza once that maybe it was time for me to do something else with my life," Bailey said. "Maybe I should forget about the ladies and start appearing as Jim Bailey. Liza said to me, 'If you do that, how would I ever see my mother again?' So it's not likely I'll ever stop doing the ladies. It's the uniqueness of me."
It's a uniqueness that hardly seemed likely when Bailey was a young man attending the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music (now part of what is the University of the Arts), where he earned a degree in opera performance.
"My parents are the ones who wanted me to be an operatic singer," he said. "I just wanted to sing. Every time I would take one of those opera lessons I wondered what I was doing there. Well, thank God I did. I learned so much about technique and other things concerning the voice. I wouldn't be where I am today if it hadn't been for that."
Bailey's first taste of show business was with the old Neighborhood Playhouse in Philadelphia. Then he went to New York, where he performed with small theater groups and sang wherever he could.
"I did jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, went on the Playboy circuit, that sort of thing," he said. "I wasn't doing badly, but I just needed that gimmick, something to make me different, unique."
Bailey's first impression was Phyllis Diller, but the evolvement into the entertainer he is now actually began one day in his car.
"Judy came on the radio," Bailey said, "and I just started singing with her. 'Zing' went the strings of my heart.' There it was."
"I was a little uncomfortable with the idea at first," he said. "I mean, I'm a man, wearing a dress. Then I realized that wasn't the point. I was a character actor. It's my job to make people believe they're seeing and hearing Judy Garland. Convince them that I'm Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, take the audience on a magical trip."
The next challenge was to sell the gimmick. Those who saw Bailey in one of his roles in small New York clubs bought it quickly. Others were less receptive.
"My agent talked to the people at the Flamingo in Las Vegas," Bailey said. "He wanted to get me in the lounge there - the lounge, not the big room. He kept approaching the Flamingo and on the eighth try, they gave in and said I could have a week - just one week with no options.
"Well, by the third night there, the crowds were lining up to see me in the lounge. Ed Sullivan came, Carol Burnett was there"
Things mushroomed from there, and they included the first of several appearances on Sullivan's television show in the early 1970s, presenting Bailey to a national audience.
In the early going, Bailey was pressured to present more than one character a night.
"It just didn't work for me," he said. "I require three hours. This is something that can't be rushed. I know people have called me difficult, but that's not the case. I'm a perfectionist. Everything has to be just right. Barbra's that way, and because of that she's been called temperamental, a bitch. I know all about that. I sympathize with her."
For Bailey fans who haven't seen him perform in a few years, there have been some changes - especially with Streisand.
"It was nice of Barbra to resume her concert career last year," he said. ''I was able to update her. Previously, the Barbra I did was tuned in to the '60s and '70s when she was maybe 26. Now I'm able to present her as what she is today, a 50-year-old woman."
Another new twist to Bailey's act is that he no longer departs the stage near the end of the show and returns as himself, singing a few songs in his own voice.
"The trouble was," he said, "just about the time I would peak with Judy or Barbra or whoever else, I would cut things short and come back as myself. Then about the time I peaked, the show would be over."
Bailey, who calls Beverly Hills home on the few occasions he's able to be there, said he's thinking about moving back East.
"It's my roots," he said. "And I miss it. I miss the snow and slush and ice. I tell people that and they say, 'God, you're so depressing.' But I can't help it. It's my roots."
IF YOU GO
* Jim Bailey will appear at Society Hill Playhouse, 597 S. Eighth St., in ''An Intimate Evening With Barbra Streisand" through Sunday and "An Intimate Evening With Judy Garland" next Wednesday through the following Sunday. Showtimes are 7 and 10 p.m. Saturdays and 8 p.m. for all other performances. Tickets are $25 and $30 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows, and $20 and $25 for Wednesday and Thursday shows. Phone: 215-923-0210.