Parting Glances: A Drag In Time

BY CHARLES ALEXANDER

In the sixty-some years I've been out, I've seen more female impersonators than you can shake a rhinestone tiara at. Some great. Some talented. Some gone bonkers. Some now gone bingo.

I was celebrating my 21st birthday when I saw my first drag show at the Flame Show Bar, located on Detroit's Brush Street in the city's famed Paradise Valley. (I went with my new partner, Ernie - three years older, a foot shorter. An intellectual top to me, a skinny-guy bottom.)

The Flame Show Bar was a black-and-tan venue. A club to which whites felt comfortable -- even daring - frequenting. The performance that night of nights at the beginning of my own reasonably long gay run -- with many mental costume and professional changes in the wings for me -- was the internationally famous Jewel Box Review.

Headliners of the 12-member, Miami-based touring company formed in 1939, were nationally famous female impersonator T. C. Jones, who died, age 54, in 1971, and black drag king impersonator Storme DeLarverie.

(Just a few years later, Storme, was one of the 1969 Stonewall Riots instigators. She had a yelling tussle, a loud, fight-back encounter, a courageous, rallying stand against the New York police officers called to handle the confrontation bar scene. Storme died in 2014 at 94.)

In the early '60s, public cross-dressing was confined to Halloween. Anyone caught in drag at other times might be arrested. Two early impersonators who played Detroit's drag venue - The Diplomat Club, Billy & Maurice - wore elaborate hairdos and pancake makeup. Men's black shirts. Men's black slacks.

In the 1960s, the Diplomat had its own star-struck retinue of drag queens: Bobbie Johns, a former baseball shortstop; Lola Lola, ex-army sergeant, whose routine included humping the stage curtains.

There was Chunga, who danced with a 6-foot snake; Vicki Marlene, who lip-synched songs that allowed her to cry, and Fat Jack, "a quarter ton of fat and fun", who wore a yellow polka-dotted bikini while butt-wobbling to music of the same title.

There was also a stunningly beautiful Gail Sherman, a talented vocalist, a gorgeous tease. She jilted a straight guy I knew at Wayne State University, a sociology major who killed himself over Gail in the club's parking lot. Gail, who later transitioned into a woman, must now be in her ambulatory 80s.

Perhaps the most famous impersonator to play the Diplomat was Ray (later Rae) Bourbon. He got a big start in 1927, appearing in Mae West's police-raided Broadway play, "The Drag." He followed that success with bookings on what was then derisively called the "Pansy Circuit."

The 1930s through 1940s were the heyday of "pansy" drag queens. Forbidden fruit for viewer sampling. A safe taste of gay life imitating -- and often damn well besting -- the genuine female article. (Chicago's Baton Club has for years carried on the drag queen glamour tradition to tourist packed weekend houses.)

When Bourbon (now Rae, though he lied about actually having a sex change) played the Diplomat, his glory days were over. He was paid per performance, to avoid IRS complications.

Rae was older, heavier, booze bloated, mascara fluttered, still doing his infamous "Around the World in 80 Ways" LP record routine. Sadly pathetic. Soon to be incarcerated without fans.

He loved dogs and boarded five with a vet, but neglected to pay for the animals upkeep. Patient too long, the vet found separate shelters for the barking menagerie.

A pissed-off Bourbon hired two thugs to rough up the vet. They accidentally killed him. Rae was ultimately arrested. Died without makeup in prison. (Rye Bourbon on the rocks.)


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