De Alba on Renée
By Entertainer David de Alba*
To interview the legendary female impressionist Ricky Renée for me is one of the highlights in my Celebrity Interview Series. A wonderful emcee and friend of mine, Carroll Wallace who I worked with for years at the world famous Finocchio Club of San Francisco, would mention Ric
ky's name fondly, along with Danny La Rue's in conversations with me. Recently I was fortunate to meet on the Internet, Ulrich Cazal, a talented entertainer from Hamburg, Germany (whom I also interviewed) and who is a dear friend of Ricky's. Ulrich helped me to make this interview possible, for which I am very grateful, and to the Star Ricky Renée himself in accepting my request. In Mr. Cazal's own words (I could not say it better myself), this is the way he describes Ricky's stage act: Ricky is not 'lip-synching', he is a 'live performer'. He talks to the audience, heavily accented even after being so many years in Europe, which gives him a special charm and makes him exotic. Ricky sings songs of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., and of course from "Cabaret". Ricky's stage career is that of a Hollywood survivor with lots of self irony, a well shaped body and tons of blonde hair! His humour is 'Lucille Ball', his looks 'Lana Turner' and his voice 'Marlene Dietrich'. So ladies and gentleman of the Cyberspace World, (in my own words), "When I think of Ricky I conjure up an image of spring flowers, cotton candy, chiffon, powder puffs, and pink and blue stage lights. And now, ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, meine Damen und Herren, I give you that schöene fraeulein - Ricky Renée!
To interview the legendary female impressionist Ricky Renée for me is one of the highlights in my Celebrity Interview Series. A wonderful emcee and friend of mine, Carroll Wallace who I worked with for years at the world famous Finocchio Club of San Francisco, would mention Ric ky's name fondly, along with Danny La Rue's in conversations with me. Recently I was fortunate to meet on the Internet, Ulrich Cazal, a talented entertainer from Hamburg, Germany (whom I also interviewed) and who is a dear friend of Ricky's. Ulrich helped me to make this interview possible, for which I am very grateful, and to the Star Ricky Renée himself in accepting my request. In Mr. Cazal's own words (I could not say it better myself), this is the way he describes Ricky's stage act:
Ricky is not 'lip-synching', he is a 'live performer'. He talks to the audience, heavily accented even after being so many years in Europe, which gives him a special charm and makes him exotic. Ricky sings songs of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., and of course from "Cabaret". Ricky's stage career is that of a Hollywood survivor with lots of self irony, a well shaped body and tons of blonde hair! His humour is 'Lucille Ball', his looks 'Lana Turner' and his voice 'Marlene Dietrich'. So ladies and gentleman of the Cyberspace World, (in my own words), "When I think of Ricky I conjure up an image of spring flowers, cotton candy, chiffon, powder puffs, and pink and blue stage lights. And now, ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, meine Damen und Herren, I give you that schöene fraeulein - Ricky Renée!
Ricky: Hello David, here we go. Let’s play '20 Questions':
David: Ricky dear, where were you born and where did you spend most of your youth?
Ricky: I was born in Indiana but raised in Florida until I was 12. Then I hit the road so basically my youth was spent around the 50 states. The whole United States was my playground.
David: I understand that the famous Jewel Box Revue was your first professional job. Can you give us one or two fond memories from that time?
Ricky: You asked me if I had one or two 'souvenirs' from The Jewel Box. I have one or two hundred stories from those days. I'll tell you a couple that come to mind at the moment of these memorable days. [Photo on right, Ricky center, dancing partner Nat Dano left, Lavern Cummings, right rear].
First story: I did not know I was going to be a chorus girl. I thought I was being hired to be a male dancer. Well I came in to work the first night as a guy and the owners asked me where my make-up and wig were? Not knowing about the drag scene I replied I have no idea what to do, so someone put a wig on me, some make-up, a brassiere and a fishtail. Lo and behold I started my debut in drag as a mermaid!
Another story: After six months of working in the club one night my wig fell off and as luck would have it my mother’s neighbour in Palm Beach recognized me and told my mother that she thinks her son is working in women’s clothes in Miami. So my mother checked me out the next night. There was a lot of explaining to do, -many tears- and from that day on my mother and I became the best of friends ‘coz I told her everything.
Yet another story: In the Jewel Box we had a singing Star, Jackie Maye, and a dancing Star, that was me. We also had a comedian Art West and a chorus. Gilda from Paris was engaged to appear at The Jewel Box but she never showed up. Gilda thought she would be the only Star in the show . . . WRONG! But she did very well in France and later in The USA too.
David: I heard that at one point in The Jewel Box Revue you were pantomiming to a recording and something went wrong with the sound and you were left silent on stage. You shouted to the orchestra "Hit it boys!" and your live act was born. Can you elaborate a little more on that episode.
Ricky: It did happen, but not that way. When the playback music broke, I said " Hit it, boys!" and the band started to play "Sweet Georgia Brown", and I danced to the melody. I was not yet singing 'live' at that time. I did some ad libs that night. But when I saw the marvelous Josephine Baker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I decided to go 'live'. That woman knocked me out. I'd never seen such a personality until then. Right that very night I took the darkest make-up and all the black wigs I could find, styled them into a 'beecomb' with a pony tail at the top, went on stage and I never shut my mouth ever since.
David: Did you have a Drag Mother or mentor who helped you in the professional field of female impersonation?
Ricky: I had no mentor up and until this time. The Star of the show was the late Leone Laverdi and he took me under his protective wings and showed me the ropes of the trade including make-up, presentation, etc., etc.. I owe him a lot of thanks for helping me out.
David: In your Jewel Box Revue days, a mutual entertainer friend of ours, Lavern Cummings, told me that he used to baby-sit your Chihuahua "Pepe" when you went into town to have fun. How long did you have him with you, and was it difficult bringing a pet with you on tour? Have you had any other pets after Pepe?
Ricky: Yes, Lavern did baby-sit my pets. Thanks to her I had a lot of fun in Pittsburgh. My first dog Pepe lived to be 22 years old, a good age. If you look at the picture, Pepe was so tiny you could tuck him anywhere. I don’t recognize that little dog Lavern was cuddling, but if it was mine, it could very well be my second dog Miguelito. I had many canine friends since then; Candy, Chico, mostly Chihuahuas. They are easy to travel with.
David: Who designed your lovely gowns and also who styled your wigs, then and now?
Ricky: Douglas Darnell, (who did Shirley Bassey’s gowns) created my costumes from my own ideas during my England days. As far as wigs are concerned, they are from real human hair custom-made for me but I style them myself daily. It’s a lot of painstaking work and consumes most of my time but I enjoy doing it . . . and it keeps me off the streets.....
David: Has your make-up changed in Europe (brandwise) since the time you when you started in the Biz in the USA? I know you can't give away "trade secrets", but can you tell us anything that deals with better foundations, etc.?
Ricky: I started out with MAX FACTOR at that time and a lot of other expensive cosmetics. What a waste of money! I use theatrical make-up today, as good, even better. I have changed my make-up many times in my career, you can see in my pictures. In the last few years I say to myself every night, tonight a new make-up, and when I'm finished, I look just the same. Anyway, if it wasn't for MAX FACTOR, foam rubber and glue, I would never be able to appear as I do.
David: After working in Showbiz for a few years in the USA, what made you decide to leave and go to Europe?
Ricky: Al Burnett the owner of The Stork Club (and four other great places in London) came to Miami to see my show. That time they passed an ordinance in Miami, 'no drag shows on the Miami Beach'. He was very interested in the full act, so we hired a private theatre, locked all the doors and I did the entire show with four dancers and my comedian friend Wally Charles. Image he was sitting there alone. He was our only audience, and we had to do the whole f - - - ing show for him. (Ricky laughs) I signed the contract that night and eight months later I was on the Cunard Liner (not Titanic) on my way to Europe. And really the ship broke in the middle of the ocean and we floated for three days. I could have swam quicker I told the Captain. He didn’t find it funny . . . so it took me over eight days and nine looonely nights to arrive in South Hampton from New York. I only had a contract for four weeks, but I stayed six months, and broke all records in the history of The Stork Club for the longest running act.
Al Burnett wrote a book and he tells you more about my problems to bring my costumes, furs and feathers, etc. to England. Customs drove me crazy! They told me, if Marlene Dietrich, who had arrived two weeks earlier didn’t bring that many furs and clothes with her, then why in the world, me, a man? I only had nine trunks, bags and requisites with me! I was trying to travel light....
David: You have been cast in movies filmed in Europe, including the famous Bob Fosse movie, Cabaret. You have worked in theatres and cabarets, but of all of those venues, which one is your favourite, and why?
Ricky: Well simple, I love working in cabarets, I like working in films, but the most exciting time in my life was when I finished my contract in The Stork Room in London. I had the chance to work in all the theatres in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales with the famous magician Berty Green and the comic artist Tom. That was the best, these huge theatres and I was treated like royalty. We had the nicest digs (room and board). I felt great with all these live orchestras, fantastic stages and beautiful lights. Even the audiences and the money constantly reminded me that I had achieved a legitimate status as an actor and as an entertainer and not just a drag artist.
David: Were there many FIs competing at the audition in Germany for the part of Elke in the film Cabaret?
Ricky: I was told that there were many other interviews for the role of Elke. Mr. John Houston had interviewed me for a film six months before, which I did not get. George Sanders got the part and didn't look too good in drag. The film was cut and the role reduced. Bob Fosse told me that Mr. Houston recommended me to him. The day I made my screen test I was the only FI in Hall 5 in The Bavaria Studios in Munich.
David: Were you able to keep the costumes you wore in Cabaret?
Ricky: No . . . the wigs, jewelry and all accessories were mine anyway. The dresses . . . I didn't keep them, didn't even want them. Now come on, look at 'em! Would you? No big deal.
David: What's your secret for maintaining your quick wit and stamina all these years?
Ricky: The best answer to this question is "I like me" but "I don’t love me". I am a happy person and love living and life.
David: As we all know, life isn't always a "Cabaret". More than once fires have consumed many of your personal theatrical belongings, including a lot of rare memorabilia. Even vintage autographed photos of famous Stars like Lana Turner were stolen from your dressing room, but survivor that you are, you were able to "rise above". Would you consider these some of the lowest points or are there are other more tragic events in your life or career?
Ricky: What I have lost in fires or were stolen, I can live with or without them but nobody can take away my 'souvenirs' because they are all stored in my mind. The worst thing in my life was when I lost my own cabaret in London. It took me years to get over it.
David: What would you consider the highlight of your career?
Ricky: I had a lot of highlights in my life and I hope they’re not over yet. I consider myself 'Just that Little Girl from Little Rock', so everything that happened in my career has been a highlight for me. I did not know, being a simple person, that all these wonderful things would happen in my life. But as I told you before, the 'highest' highlight was my club in London.
David: Are there any lady Stars that you have idolized through the years and perhaps influenced your own stage act?
Ricky: Of course those ladies made my day. Lucy taught me how to be a clown and a lady, Lana bleached my hair, and Marlene, she gave me her waistline and a bit of her husky voice. Kim gave me her cool blond look and I borrowed the 'double entendre' of colored jokes from Mae . . . tongue-in-cheek, you know.
David: Do you have any hobbies or interests that occupy your time when you are not performing?
Ricky: Films and books about Hollywood are my passionate hobbies. I have about 5,000 films on video cassettes and about 400 books. The only problem is I can’t seem to find the time to see all these films and read all these books. Maybe when I get a little bit older....
David: Is there anything 'so very you' (and I don't mean your trademark shade of pink that as I understand you are not too fond of anymore) that perhaps you would care to reveal?
Ricky: Well I still like pink, but these are only backstage stuffs and they are really in shocking pink. There is no colour pink at all in my private home . . . orange! But my trademark all my life has been my 'Question Mark'. I wear it all the time, day and night. I have this 'Question Mark' as rings, on chains, as bracelets, broaches, you name it . . . I’ve got it. And these in rhinestones, diamonds, white gold, silver and platinum. I never go on stage without my "Question Mark".
David: I heard you are writing a book about your fantastic show life. Do you have a tentative title in mind for it and some idea of when it will be published?
Ricky: I do have a name for the book. Being superstitious, it's bad luck to tell the name before it's completely finished. It will still take a few years. I don't have much time to write.
David: You have met many famous people in your career. Are there any in particular that stand out in your memory?
Ricky: This is the part which is very delicate. It will be in my book but I will share a few secrets right now. I met James Dean in San Francisco and it was a little more than just a meeting. Here are the other names of some people I've met and behind each name is an amusing anecdote which I will reveal more of in my book:
Hunnington Herford ~ Ava Gardner ~ Jayne Mansfield ~ Horst Bucholz ~ Martha Rae ~ Michael Wielding ~ Hardy Krüger ~ Arlene Dahl ~ Mae West ~ Walter Gilles ~ Fernando Llamas ~ Josephine Baker ~ Ann-Margret ~ Roger Moore ~ Ginger Rogers and her French husband ~ Ella Fitzgerald ~ William Holden ~ Van Johnson ~ Elke Sommer ~ Sean Connery ~ Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor ~ Zarah Leander ~ Jack Lemmon ~ Alice and Ellen Kessler ~ Judy Garland ~ Liza Minnelli ~ Lorna Luft ~ Hans Jörg Felmi ~ Shirley Bassey ~ Betty Grable ~ Rita Hayworth ~ Lena Horne ~ Joan Collins ~ Helmut Griem ~ Ali Kahn ~ Thomas Fritch ~ Michael York ~ Paul Hubschmidt...
David: Oh Ricky dear! Could you just give us a 'little snippet' on your encounters with my lifelong idols Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald? How about Liza?
Ricky: On Judy Garland . . . like yourself David, I have been a Garland fan. I had the pleasure of seeing Judy from the first row at the 'Talk of the Town' in London three months before she left us all. She was so thin and fragile, so I had the strange feeling this would be the last time I would see Judy Garland. I was sitting there thinking of my 'souvenir' of Judy. I was doing a tribute to Judy at The Stork Club and Sid Luft caught my show. He was impressed enough to bring Judy the next night to see me. Mr. Luft came into my dressing room and asked me kindly to join Judy at her table. Wonderful to listen to this famous voice . . . we talked for about an hour and a half. As I was doing 'Born in a Trunk' with all the costume changes -from little girl to stardom- Judy was interested how I could do these quick changes and never leave the stage. In fact I was teasing Judy for a long time without telling her the truth. Of course I had the five boy dancers working in the dark, helping me make the changes without being seen - a secret then.
Ella, Ella! Oh Ella was a pleasure. I first met Ella in Miami, Florida in a nightclub. I visited her in the dressing room because a black entertainer was not allowed to mix with the white customers at that time. While sipping champagne I told her how much I loved her voice and work.
Next time I met Ella was in Berlin in the famous Cabaret Chez Nous. This place was beloved by many celebrities. Singers and actors came in whenever they stayed in Berlin. For once they were not the Stars and could keep their privacy while seeing our shows. Press was not allowed, but there are some pictures taken of local and international Stars like Josephine Baker, Hildegard Knef, the Kesslers or Dalida, etc.. Ella came after a Berlin concert and we had some girl chat. I think she was in a very good mood that day and someone asked her: "Come on, sing for us Ella, sing The Lady is a Tramp!" but she declined and said: "I won't sing that because Ricky does that in his show. It's his song"! Nice, huh?!
While talking she fumbled and kept on touching her wig. Discreetly I asked her what's the problem? "Ooh Ricky, I've been touring eight days and haven't had my wig done." I offered a favor to wash and set it but Ella had to leave Berlin in the early morning so there was not much time. I said "Just use for today your own hair, and I'll get it done by noon!" Ella leaned forward and whispered: "Honey, my own hair has just gone Back to Africa"! I fell out of my seat . . . pictures were taken.
As life goes on I was able to work six weeks with Liza [in the movie "Cabaret"], everyone should know by now. One day while we were waiting for the cameras to roll, Liza and I were in the make-believe 'Kit-Kat Club' set. Liza was checking out my fingernails: "Why do your nails look so real, Ricky?" "Because mine ARE real, and I don't chew them . . . psst . . . like you do!" We had a laugh. She continued to wear the green fake fingernails for the duration of the film.
David: If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?
Ricky: Nothing - absolutely nothing. I am sure that I would do it the same way again and again, the good mistakes AND the bad ones. . . Some people live and learn; I just live!
David: How would Ricky Renée like to be remembered in Showbiz history?
Ricky: Just to BE remembered would be enough for me.... What more do you want?
David: I hate to leave you now, but before I do, let me ask you this: If your Guardian Angel were to grant you one wish, what would you ask for?
Ricky: Unfortunately I don't think that I have a Guardian Angel and if I had one I would like to have THREE wishes, and on and on ......
"Here's Ricky Renée from the USA, what else can I say, keep it gay, yea! yea! yea! Well darling, thank you VERY much for including me in your interviews. It's really nice to know that someone is going to keep female impersonating alive, especially THE LEGENDS, (Oh, I said that word again!). As I'm making this interview I have your lovely face before me, the one of you as Judy Garland. It's just like talking to Judy, darling. Thank you very much and I wish everything well for you and everyone in America, as I'm now appearing in Hamburg, Germany. Thank you once again with all my heart. Bye-bye."
Visit Ricky's new Web Site at www.rickyrenee.com/rr-home.htm
NOTE: Many thanks to Ulrich Cazal and Lavern Cummings for providing some of the pictures for this interview, and a special thanks to Uli for transcribing all these answers into an e-mail to me.
* 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" at http://david-de-alba.com and you can e-mail him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org