Chris Lee Interviews David De Alba
I first encountered David de Alba through searches I had done on the Internet for information about Finocchio's for my Web Project, "The History of Drag and the Art of Female Impersonation", and through an introduction from a fan of his who encouraged me to write to him. In our e-mail exchanges, I have been quite taken with the power of his personality expressed in both his e-mails and on his Web page. He is a true living legend who has preserved for all of us his experiences and wonderful memories as a performer at Finocchio's; he's known just about everybody who is anybody in the field of Female Impersonation. In the arena of FI, he is a national treasure, but the greatest treasure he offers is his willingness to share his memories. He is an inductee in my Female Impersonator Hall of Fame. I'm proud to introduce David De Alba!
Chris: At what point do you remember first seeing a drastic change from live music such as what you do, and the overwhelming change to recorded music, aka MIME?
David: When I started in 1965 working in drag in Chicago, Illinois almost all of the drag shows were done in pantomime form. They were OK in my opinion, but I did sing live, even when I was doing guest spots in revues. With the exception of comedians and emcees, I was one of the few live drag acts in the Chicago area at that time.
Of course, we all know that the FIs at The Jewel Box Revue and Finocchio's did work live and also some acts at The 82 Club in New York, but it was already a dying Art in the mid 1960's. Most everyone was pantomiming then, and even now in 2003, with a few rare exceptions here in the USA as in the case of Lady Patra, Anita Mann, Gypsy, and Jim Bailey. Of course in Europe there are many talented FIs who still work live, as in the case of the legendary Ricky Renée and Danny La Rue, Criselda Crescini and Genny Random (all of whom I interviewed for the Celebrity Interview Series on my Web site). I am sure I forgot to mention a few names . . . sorry kids.
Many entertainers resented it when I sang live in Chicago as an FI, and even now some still do I am sure, but it is most challenging to me being a live act like the late and wonderful Craig Russell, Charles Pierce and a few others in the cast at Finocchio's when I was there and and the 50 plus years before. Soon after I left, Finocchio's went all pantomime until they closed in November of 1999. Mrs. Eve Finocchio made a big mistake not hiring entertainers who could sing live and letting her musical trio go. Many people feel it was the main reason for lagging business, and that is was not just the big increase in her monthly lease that caused her to close the club.
Chris: You are a live performer. Did you ever attempt mime because it seemed the way the business was going? Are there any mime performers you have seen that you admire?
David: I never liked to mime myself. Yes I have seen some drag performers who pantomimed well and were good at their craft, but as Craig Russell once said he felt cheated when he saw Liza Minnelli in the Broadway hit "The Act" pantomime to four out of five numbers. That's the way I feel. I know that if for any reason the record were to stop playing, the mime would be in a lot of trouble on stage.
Chris: Also, what is your personal opinion of kids who get breast implants....were there many of those girls at Finocchio's? There are so many here in Florida, and sometimes I think the term Female Impersonator or Female Illusionist is over used when it comes to entertainers who go to that length. What do you think?
David: The professional female impersonators in the Drag Biz that I knew and worked with never agreed with having altered bodies such as breast implants, as so many of the new FIs working nowadays do, because it defeats the premise of female impersonation in the first place. It is more than OK if you have plastic surgery to look younger or prettier on stage, as many have done at one time or another, but permanently altering their bodies by having breast implants and/or taking female hormones, that's a different bag. If they go that far they should just call themselves 'entertainers', not FIs. If a male entertainer wants to alter his body with breasts and even have a complete sex change, that's fine. He should do it by all means if it helps him fit properly in a heterosexual society. If it makes him feel happy and complete as a person, no one should criticize him. I am just referring to the definition of what an FI is supposed to be; a guy that can transform his male body into a believable facsimile of a woman for the singular purpose of entertainment. Once an entertainer leaves the stage and walks the street in drag he is a transvestite, not an FI. If it makes you happy doing so, that's fine, but please don't call yourself a female impersonator. This is not just my opinion, but most of the FIs I had the pleasure to work with at Finocchio's felt the same way. We spoke about it quite often backstage.
When I was at Finocchio's there were some entertainers, members of the chorus line called 'The Eve-ettes', that got away with taking hormones to have some kind of small breasts and to look even more girlish on stage because their skin got softer and the hair longer and shinier. One even had full breasts implants (whose name I won't mention). We all were shocked at Joe and Eve Finocchio (the owners of the club) for allowing that, since they were very strict with the rest of us in the cast. We were never to come in drag to their club or leave in drag either, but some of the Eve-ettes got away with things that no one else could at Finocchio's. They (the owners) had two set of standards at the club it seemed. As my friend and Emcee Carroll Wallace used to say to me from time to time: "At Finocchio's some of us are considered pets and some pests". I speak about some of those things in my CDs, Volume 1 and Volume 2 of my "Finocchio Backstage Memoirs and Rare Recordings" available through my Web site at david-de-alba.com
Chris: Once while going up a flight of stairs to reach the stage, trying my best to make an elegant entrance at the beginning of a number, the bottom half of my two piece suit fell off unbeknownst to me and when I got to the top of the stairs I found I was standing there for all the world to see in my girdle. Another time while I was doing a comedy number with a base drum, banging away, it disintegrated on stage - literally and suddenly fell apart. What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you while performing.
David: Once doing a concert for San Francisco State College, in the last number "Over the Rainbow" of my Judy Garland Tribute, my human hair Garland styled wig fell off as I pushed my head back for the last dramatic notes of the song. There was nothing I could do to repair the damage, since I was not doing comedy as in the Garland Hobo or Clown Act where I could have made fun of the situation.
Another incident happened on New Year's Eve at Finocchio's. We were told backstage that whomever was on stage when the clock struck twelve, that the Emcee Carroll Wallace would interrupt his performance to greet the audience and sing "Auld Lang Syne" to usher in the new year. I didn't want it to happen to me during my act, as I could see Carroll over my shoulder in the wings smiling slyly. As I hit the last note of of my "He Loves Me Medley" I rushed to take a quick bow and head for the wings before Carroll and the whole cast burst on stage. As I was leaving the stage I had to dodge the grand piano which was placed directly in front of the stage exit. My leg grazed the side of the piano and ripped a big hole in my theatrical stockings. I had to return for the finale with all the members of the cast and had no time to change. I was wearing a gown that was cut especially to show my legs.
Chris: Finnochio's was known as a tourist attraction in San Francisco for years and one of the stops on many bus tours I understand, which may have brought in folks who perhaps didn't quite know what they were getting into. Back in the 1930's there was the "Pansy Craze" that FI's endured as the curious ogled them at shows. Once when I attended a Jim Bailey Show back in the early 1970's, the guy sitting next to us obviously felt he was in the wrong place and was pretty verbally abusive. Did you ever experience that kind of negative reaction from an audience, or get heckled? And how might you have handled that sort of thing?
David: I never got heckled, thank God! Sometimes at Finocchio's during the course of the show there were customers seated in front, talking loudly and making rude comments while we were on stage. That was very distracting, because other members of the audience were trying to enjoy the show. I always wondered why the management seemed to seat these 'loud mouths' in the front row and the civilized people in the back. Some members of the audience wished they were on stage themselves and tried to get attention, either by ordering a drink loudly, putting their feet on stage, vigorously fanning themselves, or anything to focus attention on themselves instead of the entertainer on stage.
Chris: Did you ever work with someone who, try as you might, you just couldn't get along? What was the atmosphere backstage like at Finnochio's and other clubs you worked in and how did you handle situations like that?
David: Yes, a wonderful comedian/showman by the name of Lori Shannon. He is one of the few people I worked with who is not featured on the Finocchio Tribute Page of my Web site, nor did I mention him on my two Finocchio CDs. No matter what I did on stage he always liked to poke sarcastic fun at me. He wasn't that well liked by the other entertainers, except for two or three of the Finocchio Eve-ettes (the chorus line) who wanted to butter him up because Lori had a theatrical column he wrote for the Bay Area Reporter (a gay San Francisco newspaper). I am sure Lori was aware of their motives..
I tried my hardest to be extra nice to him and see if I could win him over somehow in order not to have an enemy nearby, since I like to work in peace. I went to his own dressing room one night (he wanted to be alone and not share a dressing room with anyone else in the cast) and told him how much I enjoyed his performance in the popular "All In The Family" TV show. He responded with a glow reflected in his make-up mirror, "Yes, I know I was good!" . . . so I left his dressing room without saying another word.
One year during the Christmas holidays, Eve Finocchio asked me to sing the Ave María of Schubert in her show to "give a little class to the Holiday Season show" as she put it. I had Bill Bullard write a special piano arrangement for me and my kind friend and former FI, Robin Price made a simple but beautiful white gown with a sequin collared chiffon cape from the shoulders down to the waist line of the gown. It was very elegant indeed. Well, when I did that song for the first time that night on stage the audience applauded loudly with a few whistles and a 'Bravo' or two. From the front desk, Eve Finocchio's attention was fixed on me with a look of rapture. Lori Shannon followed me on stage when my act was over, and before he started his regular comedy and singing act, he said sarcastically and very loud on stage as close to the mike as he could get "If I knew that wearing a white virgin gown and singing the Ave María would have brought so much applause, I would have done it myself!" That may have been his twisted way of complimenting me, but it surely did not look like it to many of us backstage. What can you do . . . with some people you can never win.
One more thing to show how nasty he could be at times if he did not like you: During the Christmas holidays we drew names out a of a little box of a members of our cast for whom we were to buy a present. Well, Lori got my name when he opened his little folded piece of paper. When he saw it, he was caught by surprise and with a smirk on his face he traded his paper slip with someone else in the cast. One thing I must say on Lori's behalf, at least he was not hypocritical.
A few months later we were told at the club that he had died of a heart attack all alone in his apartment. When I saw Reggie Dahl (a former Finoccchio Eve-ette) at the Ritch Street Baths I told him about it. Reggie with his unique sense of humour said loudly "David, that queen died of her own hate!" Sorry Lori, I wish we could have been friends! Oh well.
Chris: Many FIs are fabulous at what they do, professional, and yet historically have been notoriously underpaid, to the point that for most, they pursue their careers as a labor of love, and earn their living in some other field, unless they reach superstardom. What advice would you give someone who aspires to FI stardom about the realities of the trade?
David: I would tell them "Keep your day job", but try to select a job or a trade you enjoy, hopefully something that compliments your Showbiz career (in my case, hair and makeup). In the old days, even before my time there were lots of opportunities to perform in nightclubs, theaters, radio, even films and TV. If you worked hard, had a good agent and were willing to travel a lot, you could make a pretty good living in Showbiz. Now you hardly even see a live band with a singer in a lounge anymore.
Chris: What's your explanation of the connection between Female Impersonation and Gay men? What's all that about? I'm speaking both from the standpoint of most FIs being Gay and most FI fans being Gay.
David: I hope I am answering your question correctly, but although most of the FIs I knew were gay, there are some who claim that they were bisexual and were married to straight women. In fact we had several FIs like that at Finocchio's. There are many gay men and lesbians who I have known in my showbiz past who loved FIs and my work as an FI, but there are some gay men trying to be so 'butch' that they claim they don't like female impersonators. Somewhere in their personalities there are femme characteristics they want to deny. Putting us FIs down makes them feel like a straight male talking rough and putting down a gay male. Strange how some people feel they have to play roles. If people were true to themselves this world would be an easier place to live in.
If you still want to make a living as an FI entertainer, just know that it is even rougher than for those in 'straight' Showbiz. Due to the homophobia prevalent in this country, FIs are considered second class citizens. Even in the gay community, we don't get the credit and sponsorship that we FIs deserve, but what's new folks?
Chris: Who was the best FI comedian you ever saw on stage who did NOT do impersonations of other Stars?
David: Gypsy! By all means!. . . He is a superb female impersonator who works live and is not just an excellent comedian, but a very good emcee and movie actor, but best of all, what a sweet and kind gentleman he is. That's one of the reasons I was honored to include him in the Celebrity Interview Series of my Web site. Every year during the Christmas Holidays, (after I met him in Lake Tahoe just once in my life about three years ago, mind you), he sends a Christmas card to me and my partner Paul.
Chris: If you had not been an entertainer, what career would you have pursued instead?
David: Well dear Chris, I have had dual careers throughout my life since 1965 when I was a teenager living in Chicago . . . Yes, I have been a teenager once or twice in my life! I am a professional hairstylist and make-up artist who owned at one time in San Francisco, CA. a well-known salon in Potrero Hill called "Heri The Hairsylist" Stylist of The Stars, [David's real name is Heri]. I had a number of TV documentaries done on me and my hair work and the salon. Even a sequence in a TV movie pilot called: "Spies" starring Tony Curtis was shot in my salon and the distinguished columnist Herb Caen covered the event. Those were the days my friend! At that time I worked as a female singing impressionist at night. I had to work at my salon in the daytime and rush home to rest, eat something light for dinner and then go to work in Finocchio's at night until the wee hours of the morning. I don't know how I did it then, but somehow I managed.
Chris: You've ventured out onto the Internet entrepreneurially with your CD sales. Has that been a successful venture? Have you found fans as a result of your Web site and CDs that had never seen you perform?
David: Since January 2002, I have released eight CDs. To any famous recording artist, eight CDs is nothing to brag about, but for an FI, it's quite a few. Each of my CDs is completely different and geared to different International musical tastes since I sing in Spanish and English. Besides my classical Spanish CDs, one of my best sellers is my two volume Finocchio CDs with narrations of backstage memories inserted between rare live recordings of my performances on that famous Finocchio stage with the late Bill Bullard at the piano, directing the the other two musicians. At Finocchio's we had a trio; piano, tenor sax and drums.
The late Billy Tweedie, Irish record producer, theatrical promoter, and dear friend, whom I never met in person by the way, encouraged me to record my songs to leave as a legacy of my career. He knew a lot of great FIs left no audio or video recordings of their work once they passed away. I told Billy on the phone just before he died, that some people in the Biz thought of me as a novelty act. He corrected me and said emphatically "No David, you are not. Believe me and I know what I am talking about. You are a Star, a very good singer and a wonderful female impressionist!" He was one of my most avid fans, both theatrically and personally. I miss him a lot.
It is very hard, without the backing of a professional recording company, to attempt what I have. I don't have the big budget to spend on fancy recording equipment and marketing promotions that they have. I have some good but primitive equipment, compared to those big label companies, to produce my CDs.
Many people who compliment me and my work and say that they love my Web site, never buy anything from me. If I am so good, why not buy at least one CD as a memory. The most puzzling thing of all is that complete strangers who have never even seen me perform on stage have been the ones that, either through my Web site or E-Bay, have bought many of my CDs without question. I have some entertainers I must thank, like Lady Patra, Anita Mann, Robin Price and Linda La Blanche who bought my CDs and showed me their support. Also a new fan from Germany whom I call my German Angel, Roswitha Boehme and a lady here in Arizona, Donna Zurcher. Both, who are non-entertainers by the way, bought all of my CDs.
Chris: Is there a question you've never been asked but have been dying to answer? This is your chance!
David: Well, here is my question to myself:
David asks David: If you could go back in time and relive some happy moments in your life, what would they be?
I would make three stops for sure a la Twilight Zone, like:
Oh how I wish I could re-live those times, not just in my memories as they are vividly now, but for real. But I know I can't go back, because life unfortunately is not a fairy tale Walt Disney movie where everything turns out rosie at the end!
Thank you Chris dear for taking the time to interview me, and most of all for being so kind in inducting me into your "Female Impersonation Hall of Fame" on your lovely Web site. It is not the first during my career, mind you, but anytime such a tribute takes place it makes me very happy and honored and I realize that there are still some Angels left on this Earth of ours and that all the hard work I did on the stage was not in vain. Thanks to lovely people like you Chris, when I die someday, my name won't be forgotten . . . for a while at least.
Mr. Chris Lee's own FI experience came in the early 1970's in Denver, Colorado as a young man who saw his first drag show there, and later, 1993-94 as an Empress in the Imperial Court System, winning his crown in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Retired from the stage, and after many years as an antiques dealer, he is now working for a major entertainment corporation and lives in Orlando, Florida with his partner of twenty years. Visit Chris Lee's Web Site "The History of Drag and the Art of Female Impersonation" at: www.geocities.com/historyofdrag