Mary Dolan is a well-established act in Boston. The sassy 86-year-old was the original Auntie Drosselmeyer in "The Slutcracker," a burlesque version of "The Nutcracker" that has become its own holiday tradition in Boston. She hosted the variety series "Bent Wit Cabaret" for its two-year run at Oberon and appeared in countless cabaret and variety shows as a guest or host, providing off-color commentary and gabbing with the crowd. Few who saw Mary could identify Petey Gibson, the performer underneath the giant headdress of wilting flowers and saucer-sized glasses.
"People will talk to me about Mary without sort of acknowledging that I am Mary, even though they know," says Gibson, who is back from Los Angeles to host "Uncle Petey's Christmas Comedy Spectacular" Saturday at the Davis Square Theatre. That fans might separate the two is a tribute to Gibson's skills as an actor and improviser, which she honed as a member of the drag king group All the Kings Men and by producing her own shows, such as "Bent Wit."
Dolan is an homage to Gibson's own grandmother, who mesmerized her with stories about performing Sophie Tucker songs in vaudeville revival shows in the 1960s and '70s. Sometimes, she's even dressed like her grandmother. "I inherited her costume trunk when she died," says Gibson. "Some of the costumes I wear are actually the costumes she wore onstage."
"Mary is a fully realized, very interactive character who's able to exist completely in the moment, somehow," says Lainey Schooltree, who will be the musical guest at Saturday's show, appearing with comedians Jenny Zigrino, Sara Faith Alterman, the Walsh Brothers, Julee Antonellis, James Patterson, and Sean George.
For this show, Gibson will be herself (she says Dolan may or may not make an appearance), a stand-up comedian telling stories from her life. "That's actually one of the main reasons I started doing stand-up, because nobody knew who I was," she says.
The name "Petey Gibson" didn't appear on any of Dolan's bio information for "The Slutcracker," which was good for the character but bad for the comedian. "At some point I started thinking, I've got to get my career together," says Gibson. "Nobody knows who I am. So now, you'll see, 'Mary Dolan, as created by Petey Gibson.' I was like, Mary's going to run away with my career."
It was daunting for Gibson to step out from Dolan's shadow and be herself. The first time, she suffered stage fright and dry mouth, setbacks uncharacteristic of a veteran performer, and she didn't tell anyone what she was doing. "I didn't put it on Facebook, I didn't tell my friends," she says. "I didn't want anybody to see me. Because people already knew who I was in the community, and I was about to do something that I was so terrible at, and I would just sneak in and do these sets and then get drunk and cry because I hated it so much."
She rarely performed in regular comedy clubs while she was in Boston, instead producing her own shows in venues like Oberon. "It's interesting calling myself a Boston comic," she says, "because the Boston comedy scene is so particular and so tightknit, and a lot of those people wouldn't know who I am because I was really part of the underground scene."
It's been a strange arc for Gibson. "A lot of people sort of cut their teeth doing stand-up and see where they want to go from there," she says. "I feel like I started with All the Kings Men doing these huge shows on big stages and touring and doing all that stuff, and then it's like I've gone backward. And now I'm in school for comedy."
Gibson moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2012 to study with the Groundlings, the legendary comedy group that has been the training ground for generations of famous comedians, including Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman, and Melissa McCarthy. She's currently in an advanced improv class. To Gibson's classmates, Dolan is just one voice in her repertoire. "They don't really know this whole life this character has," she says. "It's just sort of like, oh, that's your go-to old lady."
Schooltree believes Gibson has set an example in Boston of offbeat performers working toward more mainstream success, and she admires her dedication to learning about comedy. "She's studying her craft and making the right connections to get where she wants to go," says Schooltree. "Pretty inspirational."
Like many fellow comics, Gibson is struggling to make a name for herself and get more stage time in Los Angeles. But that gives her the chance to establish a new identity. "People know me as a stand-up or they know me as an improviser from Groundlings," she says. "But they know me as Petey Gibson.''
That doesn't mean Mary Dolan is going anywhere. Gibson is shopping a new Web series featuring her character. And she's looking for a space to produce a monthly live show in Los Angeles for Dolan to host. She's too good a creation to be neglected, and Gibson thinks she'll always enjoy playing her. "I think Mary will be something I do until I reach the point where I don't even have to age my face anymore," she says.
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.