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In the 50-some years I’ve been out, I’ve seen more female impersonators than you can shake a rhinestone tiara at. If I never see another gay deceiver – let alone play drag queen bingo with one – that will not be a failure on the part of my continuing search for cultural enrichment.
(I don’t consider lip-synching a talent. Creating an illusion of beauty, complimenting or interpreting the style of famous female celebs, or honest live singing is another matter. I remember one of the all-time best “ladies with talent”, Detroit’s legendary Gail Sherman. More of her later.)
I was celebrating my 21st birthday 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 and male impersonator Storme DeLarverie. (Storme, 90, now living in New York City, is its equivalent of our Ruth Ellis. Jones died in 1971, age 51.)
In the late 1950s, public cross-dressing was confined only to Halloween. Anyone caught in drag any other time of the year might be arrested. (Two early impersonators who played Detroit’s 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, former baseball shortstop; Lola Lola, ex-army sergeant, whose routine included humping the stage curtains; 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.
The earlier mentioned Gail Sherman was stunningly beautiful. She “clocked” decades before the expression came into use. She was vivacious, a talented vocalist, a gorgeous tease. She jilted a straight guy I knew. Jeffrey took a gun and killed himself in the club’s parking lot. Gail, who later transitioned into a woman, must now be in her ambulatory 70s, if still around.
Perhaps the most famous impersonator to play the Diplomat was Ray (later Rae) Bourbon. He got his 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 daily to avoid IRS complications. He 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 forgotten.
Rae loved dogs. He boarded at least a dozen with a vet, but neglected to pay for the animals upkeep. Patient too long, the vet found shelters for the barking menagerie. A pissed-off Bourbon hired two thugs to rough up the vet. They accidentally killed him. Rae was arrested. Died without makeup in prison. (Rye Bourbon on the rocks.)