Joseph Verran, better known to many as Jolene Sugarbaker, died Tuesday, Aug. 10. He was 47.
Verran, a native of Lapeer, grew up and spent most of his life in Metro Detroit. While he held various day jobs over the years, he became known to many for his Jolene persona and for the productions he produced at the Rainbow Room.
“He wanted to do something nice for the community, so he started doing shows at the Rainbow Room,’ said his friend Dennis Rutowski, who worked there. “We raised thousands and thousands of dollars over the years. He’d put together these shows that were really something.”
The shows, called “Jolene and Friends,” started after Verran’s partner at the time was diagnosed HIV-positive and were an effort to raise funds for HIV/AIDS care agencies.
As both Joe and Jolene, Verran developed a reputation for his kindness and generosity.
“There was not a time you would go to Joe for a lending hand and he wouldn’t give it,” remembered friend Walter McNew. “He had so many contacts in the LGBTQ community and had so many friends that ‘no’ was very seldom an option. He had a heart of gold and a sense of humor and a laugh that is so unforgettable you hear it even when he’s not here.”
Verran’s cheerful laugh was a lot like that of his idol’s.
“I grew up loving Dolly Parton since I was old enough to remember her singing on the radio or watch her on TV,” he told Between The Lines in 2006. “I’ve met her many times as Joe, but she’s seen me twice as Jolene and gets a big kick out of it.”
Michael Champagne, who appeared in some of Jolene’s shows, said his friend was “a light in the Metro Detroit Community. His laugh was infectious. He believed, just like his idol Dolly Parton, that music and laughter was the key to life and happiness. He was always so positive and optimistic. The kind of man who lit up a room.”
Verran’s love of Dolly led him to relocate to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Dolly’s beloved home turf and the location of her Dollywood theme park. Verran even went as far as living in Sevierville, Dolly’s birthplace. He also loved TV chef and hospitality guru Paula Deen, and worked in her restaurant, Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, in Pigeon Forge.
“He was a Southern boy at heart,” said Rutowski. “He really lived life doing what he loved to do. You can live to 80 or 90 and live a miserable existence. But even though he passed away so young, he did exactly what he wanted to do and he lived a good life. He was one of those persons who had a dream and went for it.”