Back to Drag
Kurt Mann Story
I was born and raised on Long Island, openly and proudly out, even
in those dark days before Stonewall. The first time I saw the Jewel
Box Revue was in January of 1967. A friend drove us into Manhattan
to the Apollo Theatre. I was a bit nervous going up to Harlem, needlessly,
as it turned out. I was most impressed with the caliber of the show.
It was huge and colorful, a spectacular display of beads and feathers.
The performers were talented and professional. Afterward my friend
hosted a party in his home and I met Danny Brown and Doc Benner socially.
Doc was smallish and very business-like, with a neat pencil line moustache.
Danny was grander and more flamboyant. From a bit of a distance he
cut quite a figure, a slightly Cesar Romero type. Close up was a different
story. He wore a lot of heavy makeup and glue-on hairpieces on the
sides where, reportedly, a bad facelift had gone wrong, leaving severe
scar tissue. He had a brilliantly bitchy sense of humor. Doc, too,
had a wicked sense of humor but was more reserved. I liked them both.
I always assumed that they were, or had been, lovers, but never found
out for sure.
Sometime later I was out at a local Gay dance bar called The Bay Shore
Health Club. This was a straight health club by day and a wildly popular
Gay bar at night. It was during that period when New York's Mayor
Wagner was closing the city's bars and many guys came out to the island.
The place was run by the owner, named Joe, and his wonderfully bosomy,
blowsy girlfriend Anita, who for some reason called me "Giselle".
I never knew why. They knew they had a goldmine. There, one night,
I was introduced to a man named Paul Owsley, who had been watching
me dance. He suggested that I come and audition for the Jewel Box
as a chorus girl. I was flattered but told him I already had a job
working at Pilgrim State Hospital.
In June of 1967 the Bay Shore Health Club was putting on an amateur
drag show and I had agreed to take part. I remember the date because
it was to be the same night that Barbra Streisand was performing in
Central Park and I was irritated that I could not go. Already a trouper.
There were about ten of us in the show, but only two of us actually
performed live acts, the others worked to recordings. I did my impression
of Phyllis Diller and was well received. Afterward, someone came backstage
and told me that Danny and Doc were out front and wanted to see me.
I thought it was a joke, but, sure enough, there they indeed were.
They told me that they liked what I had done and that I worked clean,
as opposed to the other act who was pretty raunchy. They asked if
I would be interested in joining the Revue. I was kind of thrilled
and gave them my number. They said they would call.
I waited for what seemed like an eternity for them to call. Finally,
a month later, in July of 1967, they did. They asked if I would come
up and join the touring company in Albany, New York. I wanted to get
a leave of absence from the hospital, in case things didn't turn out
well. It was denied so I quit my job and hopped a Greyhound. I found
it amusing that, not long before, Paul Owsley had asked me to audition
for the chorus and now I had been hired as a featured performer. I'd
just turned 20.
A Little Backstory: It seems that Danny and Doc had recently had a
bit of a dust-up with their star Lynne Carter. Lynne was an extraordinarily
talented performer. He'd auditioned once for the chorus and was told
he was too ugly. "Just you wait", he reportedly said, "I'll
be back in your show one day...as the star!" And so it came to
be. I don't know what their disagreement was about but I heard that
Lynne had thrown a chair at Danny Brown and had been fired. I was
to attempt to fill Lynne's pumps as comic. I only met Lynne Carter
once, outside the famous Everard Baths on West 28th Street. When he
heard who I was he coolly turned and walked away.
The show was playing a small club called Scandurra's Latin Club and
that is where I met them. Before leaving Long Island well-intentioned
friends warned me about the nature of drag queens. Trust no one, they
are evil and vindictive. I can assure you that, with a few exceptions,
this was not my experience. I knew quite literally nothing when I
arrived and they collectively took me under their wings. They gave
me hair and makeup to get me started. They taught me tricks of the
trade such as blocking out one's eyebrows and tucking away the genitalia.
Everything. Chorus "girl" Nicki Valdez patiently sat with
me and helped apply my makeup. Having met them all that afternoon
out of drag it took a while before I could recognize them in full
A Pet Peeve: Although "A Chorus Line" is one of my all-time
favorite shows, I've always bridled at the portrayal of the character
Paul. That may have been Nick Dante's experience but I doubt it. It
certainly wasn't mine and I found it to be absolute bullshit, even
if it was only dramatic license. I never met Nick but Robin and Bobby
knew him and they also questioned his veracity.
My opening night arrived and I was terrified. The show was a pared
down version of the one I'd recently seen at the Apollo. The band
(piano, bass, trumpet, sax and drums), struck up Duke Ellington's
"Satin Doll," the standard overture for our nightclub dates.
The opening number was The Ziegfeld Production. Kirk Wilde and Sid
Marshall, our male dancers, came out and sang an original song called
"You Can't Do A Show Without Girls." Then came the showgirl
parade: "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" (Robin Rogers in
purple); "You Are Beautiful" (Bobby Barton in green); "Lovely
To Look At" (Chris Moore in pink); "The Lady In Red"
(Gigi Duvall in, well, red), etc. I came out in a red, sequined bikini
with a red and white feathered tail and headdress to "You Belong
To My Heart (Solamente Una Vez)." The club was packed and appreciative.
Robin's act never failed to bring down the house. He would come out
in an enormous duster, encrusted in beads and adorned with feathers.
He sang in a clear, soprano voice. The second number he sang was "The
Masquerade Is Over." Halfway through he would tear off the duster
and his wig, revealing his short hair and tuxedo. This was years before
"Victor / Victoria." He would then switch his voice to a
rich baritone. Always a crowd pleaser. Bobby Barton was a stripper.
Chris Moore did Ethel Merman. I did Phyllis Diller. Our star was Mal
Michaels, a talented performer with long hair and hormone breasts,
usually a big no-no with Danny and Doc, but the drag world was slowly
beginning to change. Mal was openly unhappy touring and particularly
detested Albany. He would walk down the street late at night shouting
epithets and flashing his breasts. On stage he would also put down
the city, which he called Albania, and it's denizens. This displeased
the management and the audience. He soon left and his spot was filled
by our emcee Ronnie Paige.
The middle production number was a two-parter. We started out in period
costumes doing "Frankie and Johnny," danced by Bobby Barton
and Kirk Wilde, which then segued into "The Swinging Shepherd
Blues," danced by Sid Marshall and Nicki Valdez. It lead to Bobby
and Nicki having a catfight, ending in a gunshot. Robin then came
out in a mini dress and sand "You've Gotta Keep Up With The Times"
("What's new at the discotheques? What's the latest thing in
sex? You've gotta keep up with the times!") It then became a
disco number. I had a dance solo in a red fringed dress that always
The finale was "The Oriental." Bobby, Kirk and Sid danced
to "Caravan." One slow night they did it in tap shoes and
it was a scream. Ann Miller, eat your heart out. Robin then sang "Stranger
In Paradise" for the showgirl parade. Once during the parade
our stage manager and lighting man, Bob White, put on a pure red spotlight.
Like vampires facing the morning sun we turned our backs en masse
as red light notoriously let's ones beard show through the greasepaint.
An Aside: The Jewel Box Revue, unlike many female impersonation shows
of today, hired only acts that worked live. You had to really sing
or speak...No lip-synching allowed.
As Gay icons of the day, we were often invited places. In Albany I
remember a Gay bar called the Shangri-La. It had a jukebox you talked
to, and it would answer you back. You could make requests and dedications.
I requested Ethel Merman doing "There's No Business Like Show
Business," dedicated from Phyllis Diller to the cast of the Jewel
Box Revue. Pretty corny, eh? One night a gang of toughs walked in
and became surly. Without a word we all casually picked up our beer
bottles by their necks, we did not look like showgirls. The toughs
meekly departed. This was before Gay Lib.
The tour continued...Syracuse (Andre's Tic-Toc Club); Rochester (Club
El Marrocco); Buffalo (McVan's Supper Club); Baltimore (Mardi Gras
Supper Club). Along the way Gigi Duvall left and I was elevated to
The Lady In Red in the opening parade. I liked the costume much better.
It had a voluminous cape with a red feathered and sequined shawl-type
collar. It was to be the beginning of my lifelong challenge with wardrobe
to trip over. At Baltimore's Mardi Gras we followed risqué
comedienne Belle Barth and were held over because country star Merle
Haggard had canceled.
It was soon time to return to New York and begin rehearsing the new
production for the Apollo. Robin and Bobby found me a place at the
Landseer Hotel on West 51 Street where they lived. It was, and perhaps
still is, next to the former Mark Hellinger Theatre's stage door.
They had a neighbor who was a bit of a busy body named Ruth Hamilton.
She'd been a vaudevillian and was the original model for head of the
Columbia Pictures logo. The daytime desk clerk was Billy Daye, who
had once been with the Jewel Box doing Billie Holliday. There was
another lovely lady working there who had been a real life Ziegfeld
Girl and was the model for Psyche the White Rock fairy. Ah, New York!
Whenever the Jewel Box Revue returned to the Apollo Theatre on 125th
Street Danny and Doc would hire a black headliner and more black acts.
Whether this was their idea or a request from the theatre's management
I don't know. I've always been irked that histories of this theatre
neglect the impact of the Jewel Box, as if it was something to be
ashamed of. The audiences there loved us and came back again and again.
The Jewel Box was the only show, at that time, black or white, to
play for more than two weeks. The last time I was there we played
for four weeks! This time they brought back singer / comedian Dodie
Daniels as headliner, Don Marshall as an exotic dancer and more male
dancers and chorus girls. As mentioned before, the Apollo show was
By the time I came along it was no longer necessary to apply for a
cabaret license. This had long been a requirement by the City of New
York for workers in nightclubs, to verify that they were of legal
age and without a criminal record. I did, however, have to join the
union which, in the Jewel Box Revue's case was the American Guild
of Variety Artists. This was the lowest rung on the theatrical union
ladder, covering things like the circus, the Rockettes and us. I don't
even know if this branch still exists, or if it has been absorbed
into one of the larger unions. I joined, I paid my dues and thereby
officially became Kurt Mann. As
for my name...Kurt is my real middle name and Mann is the last half
of my real last name. I toyed with cutsie-pie androgynous names like
Kay, but decided against it.
Rehearsals began at the Jerry Leroy Studio on Eighth Avenue. This
was a renowned rehearsal space where you could have the Jewel Box
in one room, Flamenco dancers in another and Bob Fosse in yet another.
Here is where I first met the legendary Storme De Larverie, a Jewel
Box veteran and the only girl in the show known as "25 Men and
a Girl". Of course, she performed in male drag. She was a terrific
singer and one particular favorite of mine was her version of "I'm
Beginning To See The Light." She was a good friend to Robin and
Bobby and became one to me as well. She had a slight tendency to hypochondria,
which came in handy if you weren't feeling well. She knew the cure.
She helped me out when I had a brush with hepatitis. I was told that
she would sometimes wear a brace on her leg that she called "Jonah",
but I never saw that.
have really been a sight, a motley crew of often unshaven men in tights
and heels parading about to the sounds of a rinky tink rehearsal piano.
Occasionally we'd sit about as newbies, I now also a veteran, would
Rehearsals went smoothly. This edition of the show was being billed
as the Silver Anniversary Edition, even if it was actually more like
the 30th anniversary. There would be a black and white opening, a
middle production in Hell and the Silver Jubilee finale.
After several weeks rehearsal finally moved up to the space beneath
the Apollo Theatre itself. Here we first heard the musical arrangements
played in full by Reuben Phillips and his Orchestra. Wow! What a difference.
Soon it was January 1968...Opening Night! Actually opening day, since
we did matinees. That weekend we would do eleven shows. Three on Friday
and four each on Saturday and Sunday. Is it any wonder that Robin
and I were always getting laryngitis? We would do a show, which was
followed by a movie, then another show, etc. The movie this time was
a western called "Seven Ways From Sundown" starring Audie
Murphy. The movies were usually awful. Danny and Doc tried to get
the rights to "Some Like It Hot," to no avail.
I digress...Drum Roll...The Black and White Opening had us all looking
like right idiots in tuxedos, with full makeup but no lipstick and
no wigs. We sang and danced to "You Can't Do A Show Without Girls."
As the chorus boys and girls danced, we showgirls had to rush off
and quickly change costume, adding lips and hair. I actually missed
my opening parade because my costume had a side zipper that came apart
like a jacket zipper and I couldn't get it on and there was no one
there to help me. This was fixed while the movie was on and I successfully
made my change at the second show. My costume was quite beautiful.
I had good legs so they made me a sequined leotard with a Grecian
drape of black and white chiffon. My hat was a tall cone wrapped in
black, white and gray chiffon that trailed out for yards behind me.
Cascading down the hat like a cornucopia, and also on my left hip,
were large bunches of black grapes. This became known as my Grapes
of Wrath costume. I didn't need to wear a wig as the hat fit like
a turban. I merely combed my own hair down in bangs. The showgirls
paraded to the song "You Stepped Out Of A Dream" (from "Ziegfeld
Girl"), as we descended high flights of stairs escorted by the
Gentlemen of the Jewel Box.
My act as Phyllis Diller closed the first half of the show. Storme
made my introduction thusly: "And now, ladies and gentlemen,
a young man who does a brilliant impression of one of the most beautiful
and sexy stars in all of Hollywood...Mr. Kurt Mann". The orchestra
struck up Hooray For Hollywood as I ran out like gangbusters. The
audience, expecting something else entirely, would roar with laughter.
I'd run about a bit, blowing kisses, and finally stop at the microphone
and let out a raucous Diller laugh. It went well.
For the middle production number Danny and Doc had purchased six large
black lights. The number took place in Hell. Robin came out and sang
Irving Berlin's "Pack Your Sins And Go To The Devil"...The
showgirls paraded to "Temptation"...and then Paris Todd
and the chorus danced to "The Ritual Fire Dance." The stage
was completely dark, lit only by the glow of our costumes and four
large fans that blew tattered strips of day-glo material simulating
flames. Some of us chose to wear blonde hair that would also glow
in the dark. Again I was in a leotard wearing day-glo pink tights.
The audience loved it and, frankly, so did I. Sadly, no photographs
exist due to the nature of the lighting.
The finale was the big 25th Anniversary Silver Jubilee. For some reason
I cannot remember any of the music or what we did. I do know that
the costumes were all silver and white and absolutely dazzling. I
was in a silver sequined leotard with yards of flowing white fabric
trimmed in silver, my hat was a huge puff of white marabou with crystals
and small round mirrors across the front. I also had long strips of
the crystal beads and mirrors hanging from my hips.
Between shows we usually had about two hours to kill. Danny and Doc
let us leave the theatre with the stipulation that we wear sunglasses
and remove our lipstick. The dark glasses remained only until we hit
the street. Locals knew who we were, I mean, how could they not. We
were a bunch of boys, some of us white, in makeup and lashes walking
125th Street. There was a bar on Amsterdam Avenue we would frequent,
careful not to get shitfaced before the next show.
We played the Apollo for two weeks and then it was time for a short
break before once again hitting the road.
Jewel Box Revue was always advertised as "25 Men and a Girl",
and perhaps at one time it was that big. I think the most we had while
I was there were about 18, still quite a large cast.
Rogers, Bobby Barton and I had become very close friends, sort of
a Gay three musketeers. We were almost always together, carousing
around town. One of our favorite places in New York was the legendary
theatre bar on West 48 Street called Big Spender. The clientele consisted
mostly of theatre people, actors and gypsies. We fit right in. They
treated us so well that we gave them a giant framed blow-up of us
as the Big Spender girls. It was extremely popular. Bobby and I would
also sometimes cruise Central Park West together. We'd walk up, separate,
do whatever, meet up and walk home. Such sluts.
Between us Robin was the older and had been with the show the longest.
He was of Dutch and Cherokee descent and was originally from Hoboken,
NJ. He'd also served in the Navy. Bobby came from a small farming
community in Pennsylvania. Two of his sisters had been Radio City
Music Hall Rockettes. At age 20 I was the baby.
My next best friend in the show would have to have been Chris Moore.
He was probably about 50 years old at the time and had been with the
Merchant Marines. He used a special heavy makeup to cover the tattoo
on his upper arm. Besides Merman he also did a wonderful Dietrich
and, of all people, Alice Faye. He was blind as a bat and wore the
proverbial coke bottle glasses. This sometimes presented a problem.
Once the Jewel Box played the old Fox Theatre in Detroit. This place
was enormous, only slightly smaller than New York's Radio City Music
Hall. The stage was vast and, one night, as he was making his entrance,
the huge velvet show curtain wrapped around him in the darkness and
dragged him off stage. The theatre was so big that there was an elevator
to the dressing rooms. Our show hats often had feathers supported
by wires. Chris was quite tall and as he got onto the elevator one
afternoon the wire from his hat went into an empty light socket frying
the feathers and giving him quite a jolt. I don't know if it was the
wig or the heels that saved him. His favorite expression for nearly
any occasion was "Mary, how evil!"...Or, if he couldn't
find something he'd ring out with "Mop queen faggots!",
meaning it in the kindest possible way.
So once again we hit the road.
- McVan's Supper Club in Buffalo, NY... Lovingly called a Bucket of
Blood it was quite literally where "the underworld can meet the
- The Hawaiian Lounge in Montreal...We rarely played Gay venues but
here we were. Bobby fell in love with a Latino named Leon and I fell
for a French Canadian hockey player named Alain. There was another
Gay bar downstairs called Bud's where we regularly got plotzed on
our days off.
- The Blue Orchid in Toronto...This was a converted movie theatre.
The downstairs, where we worked, was a nightclub, the old balcony
was a country western saloon. The dressing rooms were miniscule so
we were allowed to come out into the room between shows. Danny Brown
hated this. We would sneak upstairs to the CW bar. The guys thought
we were whores, gigantic, painted whores. The barmaid of the Blue
Orchid was a pretty blonde from Scandinavia named Eva. She developed
quite a thing for Bobby and he had a small affair with her.
- Club Venus in Baltimore...I got tossed from the YMCA for fooling
around in the showers and had to move to the Albion Hotel where the
others were. Here we had a new act who did Carol Channing, badly.
I forget his name, he wasn't around for long.
The Lambertville Music Circus in New Jersey...Literally a tent with
a turntable stage in the round.
The Howard Theatre in Washington, DC. ...Similar to the Apollo, but
Jenning's Rose Room in Atlanta...We performed on the dance floor with
the band on an elevated platform at the back. Opening day the cleaning
service had waxed the wooden floor to a high gloss. During the opening
number we started slipping and sliding. Several fell. I fell, landing
in a confusion of red turkey feathers, my wig and hat in my lap, my
gown torn up the back. There were several steps at the back rising
to the platform where there was a flimsy curtain between us and the
boys in the band. At one point I had to climb to the top step and
pose. Another night I lost my footing and there was nothing to grab
onto but the gauzy curtain. I partially disappeared behind the steps,
torn curtain in hand, gown again ripped up the back. A real trouper,
I finished the number in my tattered dress, with shredded hose and
a bleeding leg. How undignified! It was, however, fun, it was exciting
and I was now 21.
memory...Summer 1969, we played the Around The World Room of the President
Hotel in Atlantic City. It was one of the rainiest seasons on record
so we had lots of free time. This was the summer of the moon landing
which we watched in the lobby of our hotel. Due to the rain we were
often only required to do only one show a night instead of two. The
rest of the time we caroused in the Gay bars on New York Avenue. Our
favorites were the Chez Paree and Ciel's Saratoga. One night we were
joined at Chez Paree by members of the Ice Capades who had just opened
at the convention center. We sent them drinks to welcome them to town.
When they heard who the drinks had come from they laughed snidely,
turned up their noses and hit the dance floor. Robin had to be physically
restrained from clocking Billy Chapel, a featured skater. Fortunately
they didn't stay long. They were there for a week but we never saw
them again. Another night we met Edie Adams at Ciel's Saratoga. She
was in town doing Mame and the cast had earlier come to see our show.
She was introduced to us by an actress named Sandy Sprung and was
so wasted she could barely hold her face up from her plate of spaghetti.
club dates Danny and Doc would sometimes send out small tab versions
of the show. One such date had Bobby Barton, Chris Moore and myself
booked into the Club Inferno in Utica, NY. We were basically on our
own. It was a good experience for me and a time to stretch a bit.
Bobby stripped, Chris did Ethel Merman and I was the Master (Mistress?)
of Ceremonies as well as a headliner. I got to sing a bit as we opened
with a patter song called "Don't Be A Woman If You Can"
from a 1946 show called "Park Avenue." I sang the part about
choosing a nail polish and remember it perfectly to this day. I loved
it. I also did my Phyllis Diller but was able to sprinkle in a little
Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich. The club was small but the patrons
appreciative. One gentleman, in particular, took a shine to me. He
thought I looked like a "tough broad". He gave me his name
but I didn't recognize it. He later became a famous sport's figure,
as a player and a commentator, and I'd had him in the front seat of
his car in the middle of a soccer field in Utica, NY. He is now deceased
but shall remain nameless out of respect for his family.
There was also a small club in Congers, NY called Fran Bell's that
would invite us to come perform. I worked there with Robin, Bobby
and a female stripper named Micki Martin. What a tough piece of work
she was. The club's clientele was mostly lesbian and they enjoyed
us. In the "Small World Department"...Many years later,
after I retired and moved to Fort Lauderdale, I became good, close
friends with a man named Peter Fremed. It turns out he quite often
would drive Robin, Bobby and others from the city up to Fran Bell's.
How we never met at the time I'll never know.
Time does indeed fly and it was soon back to Jerry Leroy's and the
beginning of rehearsals for the Apollo. Over the years we were honored
to have several theatrical notables come in to stage the show. The
previous year had been Broadway dancer Danny Joel and the future would
bring Ted Cappy, who later would coordinate the tap routines for Ruby
Keeler and others in the Broadway revival of "No, No, Nanette"...Bill
Bradley, who had not only done Broadway, but had worked as assistant
to Richard Barstow for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey
Circus, ultimately taking over the direction completely...However,
my personal favorite was Rudy Tronto, who had appeared on Broadway
many times and would be nominated for a Tony Award for choreographing
"Sugar Babies" starring Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney.
The new show was to open with a big number reusing the silver and
white costumes from the anniversary show. They were beginning to look
a little shabby up close but probably looked alright past the third
row. Again, I cannot remember what the music was.
One highlight was the number "You Gotta Have A Gimmick"
from "Gypsy," with Robin as Tessie Tura, Dodie as Mazeppa
and Chris as Electra. Robin learned to stand en pointe in toe shoes
and Dodie learned to play a trumpet. A big hit.
Once again taking advantage of the black lights, the middle production
took place under the sea. Robin sang "Ebb Tide" and Paris
Todd and his sea nymphs danced a ballet to "Clair de Lune."
We showgirls didn't have to parade as we were saddled with enormous
stuffed mermaid tails. I'm sure it was wonderful looking from out
front and the audience loved it. I frankly thought it was slow and
just a little boring.
The finale was French. It opened with us all singing and dancing in
front of a huge painted backdrop of an ocean liner. The song was George
Gershwin's "Bon Jour, Paris" from "Funny Face"
and we were dressed like vacationing secretaries and school marms.
This segued to Dodie Daniels singing about going to Paris to buy a
gown. Then came a sensational singer, new to the show, named Carroll
Durrell who sang "Think Pink," also from "Funny Face."
Carroll sang like Aretha and had earlier brought down the house. I
was given a bit as well. I was to come out and sing "Ta Ra Ra
Boom De Ray." Absolutely nothing had been staged so I ran about
singing and turning cartwheels...The segment was cut after the first
show. The showgirl parade was all red and gold. Frank Page had once
again outdone himself with the costumes. It began with "I Love
Paris"...Bobby Barton, Chris Moore, Don Marshall. Then the music
changed. There was a sort of fanfare and they went into a raunchy,
burlesque style version of "Stairway To Paradise." I entered
on the fanfare and did the first part of the music, about 16 bars.
Since I was probably the shortest of the showgirls, and certainly
not the prettiest, it was great fun to have something distinctive
to do. After the parade came a wild "Can-Can"...Slow curtain.
Over time I had become more seasoned and before opening at the Apollo
I decided to have some new costumes done. There was one very dear
cast member named Bruno, billed as Bruno Le Fantastique he did a sterling
half man / half woman seduction act that was absolutely brilliant.
In his off time he made costumes. I had him make up a stiff, sort
of rice papery, pinafore with blue sequined appliqués, a wildly
multicolored mini-dress and a gold satin coat with a hot pink satin
lining and beaded fighting cocks on the front. How unspeakably chic.
My act was more polished but I still had Storme do the "glamour"
introduction. As before, I would run wildly about, stop at the mic
and begin with Phyllis Diller's raucous laugh.
While at the Apollo, Danny and Doc told us of a proposed European
tour. We were thrilled. We would open in Germany and travel the continent.
It would include a side trip to Japan for a television show. It would
have been a breeze for me as my act was a talking act and I would
only need to do the production numbers. It was said that Danny and
Doc asked for too much money and the deal fell through. It would take
me another decade or so to make it across the pond.
January of 1970 would mark my last appearance at the famous Apollo
Theatre, but it would be for a record breaking four weeks. I can't
remember what the opening production was but the middle number was
a blast, and it was my suggestion. The movie version of "Sweet
Charity" had recently opened and I suggested that we do the "Big
Spender" number. I've always been a tart at heart. It was so
much fun and the audience loved it. The number opened in one. From
opposite sides of the stage we wheeled out our railings. Bobby Barton
and me on one side, Brandy Alexander and Toni Lee on the other. Robin
walked between us singing the song. We were dressed in wildly psychedelic
colors and Afro wigs. The curtain then opened on the entire cast and
we did "Rhythm of Life," halfway through it the stage went
to black light.
The finale was Mexican. Although the Jewel Box Revue was always advertised
as "25 Men and a Girl" there were never that many during
my tenure. Usually Storme was the girl, dressed as a man, of course.
For the Mexican Finale another woman was hired. Her name was Ruth
Hermine, of Hermine's Midgets. They also rented a sweet little burro
named Barbara. The number opened with us all milling about singing
something called "Taco," about a little burro. Dodie entered
riding Barbara. Dodie was terrified of Barbara and the burro knew
it and constantly tried to throw Dodie off. Dodie then sang Al Jolson's
"The Spaniard That Blighted My Life." The showgirls paraded
to "Guantanamera." I wore a gown of green, purple and black
and a towering headdress. At the end of Dodie's parade he stood majestically
posed as Ruth Hermine popped out from under his gown in an identical
costume. It looked as if he was giving birth and always got a laugh.
Whether it was the rise of discotheques, or merely the changing times,
nightclubs seemed to be going out of style and the Jewel Box Revue
seemed to belong to another era. It became increasingly harder for
Danny and Doc to find bookings for such a large and expensive show.
We kept ourselves available but took small gigs when we could get
them. I worked one of Frankie Quinn's drag balls and traveled a bit
with Chi Chi LaVerne and Joey Tone.
I would occasionally get offers for film work, in and out of drag.
The highlight of these was a movie I did for my dear friends John
and Lem Amero called "Blonde Ambition" (1980). I appeared
first as myself and later in drag. It was the first time I'd seen
myself in action. The picture was shot in "X" and "R"
rated versions and was in a similar vein as "Gentlemen Prefer
Blondes." It was advertised as, "If you like 'Deep Throat'
and 'Singin' In The Rain". The wardrobe supervisor went to a
rental house to find a costume for me to wear and, surprisingly, came
back with Robin Rogers' costume from our French Finale. It was all
gold eyelash material with red and gold cabbage roses and worked like
a charm. It seems that Danny and Doc had sold all the old production
costumes to Jerome Cargill. What goes around, eh? "Blonde Ambition"
is now enjoying a bit of a renaissance, having just been re-released
in a deluxe two disc DVD edition, and I have recently been the subject
of several interviews.
One final anecdote from my post-Jewel Box Revue career...
In the Spring of 1982 I received a phone call from an agent friend,
Richard Cataldi. He'd been contacted by the office of Tommy Tune regarding
a role in the upcoming musical "Nine." Mr. Tune wanted to
know if Dick had any buxom actresses who might be the right type to
play the beach whore Saraghina. Dick couldn't think of any but asked
if perhaps a female impersonator might do. Mr. Tune thought about
it and, considering that this was based on Fellini, asked if Dick
knew any and, if so, to send them over. I was already several years
into my new life working at an insurance company but who could pass
up such an opportunity? I called John and Lem Amero for moral support
and they said they be happy to accompany me. I got made up at home
(I'd kept my makeup kit) and they walked me over. I put my last minute
effects in a bag, donned a big pair of sunglasses and we were on our
way. I lived in the theatre district at the time so a man in makeup
wasn't too much of a distraction, unlike those days on 125th Street.
were being held in the famous little theatre at the top of the New
Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. This was the legendary Ziegfeld
Roof. We arrived and I went directly to the men's room to finish my
makeup and hair. Dick had also sent over my old friend Chi Chi LaVerne.
There we were, just the two of us. Chi Chi went first and sang Cabaret.
They thanked him and then called me. The only photo I had was from
John and Lem's movie "Blonde Ambition" and they thought
that was my name. I corrected them as I strode on stage wearing a
very Judy Garland-ish white shirt over black tights and heels. I sang
"If My Friends Could See Me Now." When I was done the composer,
Maury Yeston came up on stage. "You're a lot of fun," he
said, "but you're really not right for this." I agreed.
"However," he added, "in a few months I'll be putting
together the musical of "La Cage Aux Folles" and I'd like
you to come back. I think you'd be perfect." I thanked him and
left. As luck would have it Mr. Yeston never did do "La Cage
Aux Folles"...It was turned over to Jerry Herman...He was out,
and so was I. I was sorry not to have met Tommy Tune but I had performed
on the stage of the Ziegfeld Roof.
I haven't seen or heard from any of my other cast mates in many years.
Bobby Barton and Chris Moore died way back in the 1970's...Brandy
Alexander was an early victim of AIDS...and the last I heard of Robin
Rogers he was bartending in a Gay bar called The Stanchion in Springfield,
Mass., but that was in 1978. Storme De Larverie will be 90 in December.
She lives in a nursing home in Queens, NY. I last saw her at a Gay
Pride event in the 1980's.
retired and happily living with my partner of 25+ years in Florida.
you know Kurt and want to share some memories,
or just want to contact him? His email is
recent shot of Kurt (in blue shirt) and his partner Rigo
note: I asked Kurt a couple follow-up questions. One concerned why
several of the programs were called Silver Anniversary, when that
would have really been several years prior. And I commented that the
programs didn't change much and often featured performers who had
long left the cast, for example, TC Jones.
and Doc did the 25th anniversary show mostly because they'd neglected
to do it at the actual time. It sounded grand and gave the excuse
for silver costumes. The only program I have is the red covered one,
which I'm guessing coincided with the red and gold French Finale.
You are correct, however, that the programs didn't change much. Occasionally
new photos would be added and the front credit page would be updated,
but as little as possible. The first program I was in had a picture
of me as Phyllis Diller with the name of Adrian Dennis under it. Adrian
was an exotic dancer, I never knew him, and presumably my picture
just happened to be where his had once been. I believe T. C. Jones
was already dead by the time I joined the show. [he
died in 1971] He'd become quite famous doing Tallulah Bankhead,
even on the Ed Sullivan Show. I heard that he claimed to be straight
and married but I really wouldn't know.