"Don’t you know who I was?" It’s a rhetorical question, delivered with over-the-top hauteur, as if the answer were indeed self-evident in the mane of titian hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and swirl of jewel-encrusted couture.
While visions of Norma Desmond may spring to mind, it’s actually one of many beloved one-liners, flavored with a smoky twang, from the repertoire of Broadway diva Carole Cook.
Like a Texas barbecue, San Francisco audiences get a double helping of Cook’s special brand of humor this week.
On Sunday, she is a guest artist in the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s annual winter AIDS benefit concert, "Help is on the Way for the Holidays." She is also playing her one-woman show "Dress Up!" at the New Conservatory Theatre Centre.
The latter, a hysterical assemblage of song and anecdote about the road from Abilene to Broadway, was launched by her indomitable grandmother’s dismissive advice to "Save it for the stage, Mildred Frances!"
"I use real names, which means I don’t go back to Texas too often," says Cook, who changed her name to Carole at the suggestion of mentor Lucille Ball.
Her half-century plus career includes Broadway ("42nd Street"), television appearances from 1980s dramas to last season’s "Grey’s Anatomy," and film roles from "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" to "American Gigolo" and Disney’s "Home on the Range."
Cook has also been active in the fight against HIV/AIDS for over two decades. In Los Angeles, she is the matriarch of S.T.A.G.E., the longest continually running AIDS benefit event in the world, founded in 1984.
"I was doing ‘42nd Street’ at the Shubert in L.A. and a young man in our company came down with AIDS," she says. "His family turned him out, so we started raising money to help him with bills and rent. At the time the disease was still relatively unknown and I thought ‘How odd that I should know someone with AIDS. Thank God I’ll never know anybody else with this disease.’"
She gives a melancholy chuckle. "Little did I know," she says.
Cook has been donating her talents to San Francisco AIDS benefits in cameo appearances for over a decade. She hopes that Bay Area audiences are ready to spend an entire evening with her.
"I really am looking forward to doing [‘Dress Up!’] in San Francisco," she says. "The thing I’m feeling is not nervousness, it’s anticipation. I feel very comfortable [in San Francisco]. Everyone has always been extremely nice to me. I know how Tony Bennett feels — I have left my heart there time and time again."
Known for her spontaneous banter, Cook says the show, directed by David Galligan, has a definite story, but still leaves her room to play.
"I like to have some structure to start from, but then I like to go off on a riff depending on how the audience responds," she says. "I’ll just make a bookmark in my mind for where I need to come back and continue the show. Something I’ve always wanted to do is a question and answer period. We might try it, just for fun."
A mistress of the grand gesture, Cook is equally adept at creating intimate moments among the laughter.
"I try to reach everyone personally," she says. "I try to identify with my audience and let them identify with me. That’s the fun of it. Otherwise, you’re just up there."
Help is on the Way for the Holidays
Who: Carole Cook, Justin Guarini, LaToya London, Shawn Ryan, Sally Struthers, Mary Wilson and many others
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $45 to $100
Contact: (415) 392-4400 or www.cityboxoffice.com
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 9
Tickets: $20 to $38
Contact: (415) 861-8972 or www.ticketweb.com