De Alba on Keith
By Entertainer David de Alba*
Brian Keith was the last emcee that worked at Finocchio Club, but as Brian cutely pointed out to me via e-mail "I was the emcee at the closing of Finocchio's, not the emcee who closed Finocchio's". Though I have never seen him on stage I did see a video taken at Finocchio's closing night in 1999 when the cameras descended from local TV stations to cover the event. I saw a few seconds of Brian on stage that reminded me of a '60's typical sexy movie siren, and out of drag being interviewed in front of the club by a TV news person. He is a very handsome guy, and would give any Soap Opera Stud a run for his money. I finally met him for brunch in Dec. 2000 in Las Vegas and had a very pleasant time talking Showbiz stuff. I won't try to analyze why Finocchio's closed its doors, as it would depart from the subject of this interview, but I would like to capture the essence of this fine performer and to thank him on behalf of myself and all of the great talents of the 20th Century who performed on that stage for for making a valiant but futile attempt to salvage the show in its final years. So here you are Brian, my Cyberspace stage is all yours! (Note: A special thanks to Mrs. Eve Finocchio for making this interview possible by contacting Brian for me.)
Brian Keith was the last emcee that worked at Finocchio Club, but as Brian cutely pointed out to me via e-mail "I was the emcee at the closing of Finocchio's, not the emcee who closed Finocchio's". Though I have never seen him on stage I did see a video taken at Finocchio's closing night in 1999 when the cameras descended from local TV stations to cover the event. I saw a few seconds of Brian on stage that reminded me of a '60's typical sexy movie siren, and out of drag being interviewed in front of the club by a TV news person. He is a very handsome guy, and would give any Soap Opera Stud a run for his money. I finally met him for brunch in Dec. 2000 in Las Vegas and had a very pleasant time talking Showbiz stuff.
I won't try to analyze why Finocchio's closed its doors, as it would depart from the subject of this interview, but I would like to capture the essence of this fine performer and to thank him on behalf of myself and all of the great talents of the 20th Century who performed on that stage for for making a valiant but futile attempt to salvage the show in its final years. So here you are Brian, my Cyberspace stage is all yours!
(Note: A special thanks to Mrs. Eve Finocchio for making this interview possible by contacting Brian for me.)
David: Brian dear, where were you born and where did you spend your youth?
Brian: I was born in Cleveland, Ohio on April 20th, 1968. I had a pretty usual suburban childhood and a pretty ordinary growing up. In high school I had an interest in being a radio broadcaster. I even built my own "radio station" to broadcast local football games. The radio station was a series of 10 Mr. Microphones tied together...oh the power, and so crafty. My interest in theatrics came and was inspired by a hip Catholic priest. His Mass celebrations were so dramatic and his altar "sets" were stunning. I thought for sure that was what I wanted to do, but my mother (and the priest) thought I really ought to think it through (like for the next ten years). My mother later admitted that she knew there was just "something" about me that probably wouldn't agree with a life in the clergy. I then went in a totally different direction and considered a career in the US Navy. I expected to get in the Naval Academy, but ended up going into the fleet as a submariner and then petioned to get in the academy. I was accepted but the result was terminal . . . it seemed they didn't like my idea of dressing the tuba horns in blue and gold feathers and changing the fight song to "I will survive".
David: When did you first realize that you were destined for a Showbiz career, and what was your first professional (paid) gig?
Brian: I had the opportunity to run a night club in Las Vegas called The Cave, and while I was there we built a modest cabaret room. With the help of Jimmy Emerson and Frank Marino we booked the room with some very talented and diverse entertainers. Dressed as a man, I would sing some Broadway tune with a nice bridge to welcome the show goers. One night, Joey Skilbred of La Cage asked if he could dress me up as a woman. That was it! I was never so incredibly happy up to that point as I was on that stage that night! (Well, the Brazilian soccer team incident might have been pretty close).
David: Did you have a "drag mother" or mentor who inspired you get into the female impersonation side of Showbiz?
Brian: I had no drag mother, but I had some incredible inspirations and plenty of advice from many talented people I met while on the road. Kenny Kerr was my total stage inspiration and still is. Never since have I met someone who makes me laugh so hard. At most shows I sit and watch critically and forget to be a good audience member. . . one who laughs and carries on. When I watched Kenny, I had no choice but to be a good acting audience. I learned and perfected my make-up technique thanks to Andrea Michaels who I met in Cleveland. My body padding was created by Angel Amor. No one I have ever met can create "Selena Bootie" like him. My reality of what I call "tempered elegance" on stage was inspired by Beverly Plaza, the emcee who I replaced after her retirement from Finocchio's. She has the most grace I have ever seen.
David: Before your engagement at Finocchio's in San Francisco, you toured the country with your own "road show". What was the format of the show and what was it called?
Brian: After the cabaret room at The Cave closed I put together a small show called the Sin City Sisters and hit the road. It was a different crowd in a different city almost every night. Because of this, I was able to learn very quickly what material worked and what didn't. I was well advised by Frank to learn to work a comedy act 'live'. "No matter how old, fat, or ugly you become you can still find work making an audience laugh. It's a little more difficult (but not impossible with the right surgeon) to be a 60 year old man impersonating a 30 year old diva!"
David: In your last year at Finocchio's you were given the job of emcee and I understand you made a few changes in an attempt to upgrade the show. What were you able to do with what I imagine was a somewhat limited authority?
Brian: The biggest thing we did was "clean up" the look of the stage; new curtains, replaced burned out lighting, brought back some productions and added a funny nuns number. We also had the opportunity to bring in some younger fresh talent. Hollatta Thymes does some great visual comedy (picture Lucille Ball), Nikki Starr is the only performer I know who could literally bring an audience to tears (the good kind of tears, not the "please get off the stage" kind) while exuding the very essence of a ballad and then turn around and bring the same audience to its feet in one of those gospel numbers. (Nothing funnier to watch than a room full of rhythmless white people feeling the "power" of a song and attempting to react in a way they think is appropriate!) There is talent in lip synching. If you don't do it right the audience knows your doing it . . . they thought it was Nikki actually singing. Angel Amor was sexy and powerful. He did very festive Latin numbers. He is also one of the performers who is a gorgeous woman and a stud as a man . . . incredible transition. And the many guest artists that we got to come through as well. Competition is a good thing and that's what we had going in the last year.
David: As well as performing as an emcee, you also sing 'live', which is becoming a rarity in the world of impersonators where most pantomime to recordings. What type of songs do you sing, and do you impersonate any female Stars?
Brian: I do sing 'live', usually standards with parody lyrics. I also impersonate Marilyn Monroe and Dolly Parton. Since I can't possibly sound like either of them, I pantomime. To me it respects the characters much more than my voice would.
David: Do you have someone who designs your costumes? How about the styling of your wigs?
Brian: My costumes come from all over, from designer boutiques to ghetto fence sales. I learned very quickly the value of a fabulous gown. The best advice I have is to replace all stage gown linings with jacket satin and replace all those "girlie" zippers with heavy jacket zippers. No matter how femenine you act on stage you will eventually take a masculine breath or step and blow the zipper. You will also sweat like Niagara under proper stage light, and jacket satin lives a lot longer than those chinsey silk linings.
Hair? . . . not a chance on doing it myself as long as Nikki Star is alive! My best looks are created by this master.
David: What do you consider the highlight of your Showbiz career so far?
Brian: I'm still waiting for that one moment to come. If I had to pick one, it would be my mother's visit two weeks before the Finocchio show closed. The room was FULL of love and people. I couldn't fail on stage! We would go out into the lobby between shows to take pictures with departing guests. My mom was visibly proud as she was standing near me. I had introduced her in the audience during the show and all these patrons were lining up to tell her how lucky she must feel to have such a delightful entertainer as a son. She was just beaming, she started to tell stories, and naturally took credit for giving me what she called a great name for the stage (like she knew it was going to happen). The only thing missing was the naked baby pictures as she developed her spiel and talked to hundreds that night.
David: Was there ever an embarrassing moment on stage that you wish you could forget, but you would share with us?
Brian: I have honestly never had an embarassing moment. If there was an uncomfortable time I probably improv'ed it into what looked like part of the act. Some entertainers make a living "creating" those embarassing moments . . . wigs falling off, heels breaking, eyelashes sticking, and there are some funny acts doing this. When you get on stage to have fun and make people laugh you hope for embarassing moments. They break the monotony and actually help you connect with an audience, through their sympathy in many cases.
David: You have traveled throughout the U.S.A. in your career. Is there any place other than California that you would consider making your permanent home?
Brian: I would live in San Francisco forever if I could buy a nice house; I would love to live in Tampa if I had a show to star in; I would live in Venezuela if I could speak Spanish and have two house boys; I would live in New York if I wanted to....... I really don't know. I have so much left to do this time around and when I figure it out that's where I'll be.
David: By the way, do you have a day job or a trade to fall back on if your Showbiz career ever falls short of paying the bills?
Brian: I have always had a day job. Show business can be ruthless, especially if you feel it is your only way to make a living. With a day job you are able to have fun just being on stage. I've seen far too many desperate entertainers being manipulated by show management because "the show" is the only thing the entertainer thinks he can do.
David: Is there anything "so very you" that not even those close to you would ever suspect that you would care to share with us?
Brian: Those close to me know everything, those who see my act know everything, those who ask questions want to know everything. I love to sit on my duff watching home improvement shows with a glass of whine, some Ritz Crackers and some queso (maybe I will move to Venezuela) until someone comes over to pick me up and asks "should we have Chinese or American food after the show tonight?".
David: When the clock strikes 12 on Dec. 31st, what would be your wish for the Year 2001?
Brian: That it would really be New Year's 1986 and I know everything and everyone I know right now. (And the new marquee design is in production for the show that starts in say, February.)
* Cuban/American entertainer David de Alba (also known as "Heri, Hairstylist of the Stars") is known for his live singing impressions as a concert artist since 1965. He has worked at the world famous Finocchio Club of San Francisco (USA) for many years. Visit the award winning Web Site "David de Alba’s Theatrical Arts & Tributes" athttp://david-de-alba.com and you can e-mail him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org