De Alba on Ross 

By Entertainer David de Alba*


David & Robbie Ross 
 Las Vegas, 2001

  Robbie Ross is one of the top female impersonators from the days when everyone worked 'live' in places like The My-O-My Club in New Orleans and in The Jewel Box Revue.   He also had a very successful career as a high fashion hair and wig stylist.   My thanks to a dear friend, entertainer Robin Price for introducing me to Mr. Ross and making this interview possible.   The years are passing so quickly and so many of the pioneer female impersonators have passed on.   I am indeed grateful to be interviewing this very talented and sweet guy and that it is not too late to include him in my Celebrity Interviews Page so the whole world will know a little bit more about him and his contribution to the art of female impersonation.   Now that he is retired he donates his time and talent to groom the elderly in nursing homes.   If only these ladies knew that the hairdresser coiffing them is a famous Star himself.   My hat is off to you Robbie.   May God bless you!   So through the magic of the Internet, I present to you, the incomparable Mr. Robbie Ross!

Robbie 
 1967 David:  Robbie dear, where were you born and where did you spend your youth?   By the way, is Robbie Ross your real name or a stage name?

Robbie:  I was born Robert Arthur Bouvard, in Wichita, Kansas on Dec. 12, 1936.   The area that I come from in Kansas, looks very much like the farm that Dorothy Gale lived on in the picture The Wizard of Oz.   Every time I see that film it reminds me so much of my youth.   We moved from Wichita to San José, CA when I was 3 years old.   I was very fortunate to be brought up in such a lovely little town.   San José was a very small town then with beautiful orchards with all kinds of fruits and vegatables.   It also had a wonderful theater section for children, The Junior Theater, The Theater Guild, wonderful places to skate.   I skated all the way through my youth, through high school and was a competitive skater.   I took part in many school plays.   I enjoyed living in San José very much.

David:  Did you have a "drag mother" or a mentor who encouraged you to enter the female impersonation profession?

Kara Montèz Robbie:  Yes, this was at a time when I was about 17 years old, still living in San José.   There was a very nice club there called The Casanova, out on Almaden Road.   He was one of the impersonators there.   His name was Kara Montéz and he was very beautiful, a dancer, and I believe he also appeared at Finocchio's at one time in his career.   I recall seeing photographs many many years ago of Kara appearing there.   Possibly you would even know him.   I think he was before your time though.   You're much younger than Kara.

David:  Did you have any idols, male or female, from the Golden Age of stage and film that inspired you?

Robert Ross & his asst. Eva Rut
with Yvonne De Carlo, 
 Hollywood 1965 Robbie:  Yes, I did have quit a few idols while I was growing up.   In my locker in Junior High School I had pictures of Yvonne De Carlo and Arlene Dahl.   Those were two of my favorite female Stars.   Also I had pictures of Ray Bolger and Donald O'Connor.   I also admired Ava Gardner and Cyd Charisse very much.   The interesting thing is that later when I became a hairdresser in Hollywood I worked for Yvonne De Carlo for 10 years as her personal hairdresser.   I also created some wigs for Arlene Dahl for her nightclub act in Las Vegas.   Many years later [ 1968 ] I worked with Donald O'Connor in a show called "Little Me" in the Congo Room at The Sahara Club in Lake Tahoe.   It was quite a coincidence that years later I would meet these people that were my idols as a young man.

David:  Will you tell us your beginnings as an entertainer, like what type of act you did at first, and how your act developed as you gained experience?   Did you impersonate any particular Stars?

Robbie:  My beginnings as an entertainer started when I was a very young boy, not in female impersonation however, but I was a kid actor and did several commercials, studied dancing and took part as I said in many Junior Theater programs.   I skated for eight hours almost every day and I actually won first prize in the Single Freestyle Novice Men's Bay Area contest.   If it wasn't for my age now, I would still be skating.

Jan Britton & Robbie at 
Jewel Box Revue, 1950's When I first left home I joined the Air Force and was stationed in Beloxi, Mississippi, which was very close to New Orleans, Louisiana.   I was sent there because it was the communications school.   After I completed school I stayed on as an instructor.   In the mean time I fell in love with New Orleans, and of course that's where the My-O-My Club was located.   That was my second encounter with female impersonators.   I decided after I was discharged from the Air Force, that at one of the Carnivals there I would go in drag.   I had met several people who did that at Carnival time.   I had this very beautiful gown made.   There were so many wonderful dressmakers there at that time who worked for all the Burlesque Queens and female impersonators.   On Carnival day the owner of the My-O-My Club approached me and asked if I would be interested in coming to work for him.   I said, "What do you need, a singer or a dancer?"   That was the beginning of my drag career.   I worked there for about a year and a half.

Robbie RossThen I heard about The Jewel Box Revue and I wrote a letter to Doc and Danny who were the producers, and sent some photographs.   Fortunately for me around this time the production singer had just left the show so I was hired as a production singer and also did my own spot in the show.   I was kind of a bluesy type of singer; Saint Louis Blues, and songs like that.   Quite a few years later when The Jewel Box was appearing at Ben Massick's Town & Country Club in Brooklyn, NY, a number was written for the show called "Famous Ladies of the Palace", in which different people in the show impersonated Stars of that era; Jan Britton impersonated Marilyn Miller, Robin Rogers did an impersonation of Helen Morgan, Dale Roberts did the "I Don't Care Girl", Eva Tangway.

Charlotte Greenwood I impersonated a young Broadway Star from The Palace named Charlotte Greenwood.   Not too many people remember her now, but I was always an admirer of hers.   She was in many Broadway shows written for her in the early '30s.   One in particular that was a very big hit around the country was called "Linger Longer Letty".   She was a comic dancer much like Ray Bolger.   She's the lady that appeared in many Betty Grable movies after her career in New York moved to Hollywood.   She was always the second banana; someone's aunt, or friend.   I admired her so much and felt so much like her.   In this particular number I did "I Got Out Of Bed On The Right Side".   There was a lot of comic dancing and high kicks, a very strenuous number.   I had to warm up for about half an hour every time that this number was in the show.

Robbie with
Lynne Carter, 1957 Lynne Carter, the Star at The Jewel Box, followed me with his impersonation of Fanny Brice.   It was a very interesting number, and I would say one of the better written numbers for the show.   Lynne decided that he wanted to do an act with me, which was very unusual because Lynne appeared in the production numbers and did his wonderful Pearl Bailey act at the end of the show but very rarely worked with any other female impersonators except the people in the chorus and the show girls, etc..   He thought that that because I was so tall and skinny and he was bow legged that we would make a great comic team for a flapper number, which stayed in the show for a very long time.   It was just wonderful working with Lynne.   I learned so much from him.   I was really a greenhorn when I joined The Jewel Box.   Working on stage with him gave me the experience and the confidence to go on and do more interesting things.

David:  Did you work as a hairstylist before or after you performed in drag, or did you work in both professions at the same time (as I did)?

Robbie:  Yes, I did work both as a performer and a hairstylist, and a wig maker while I was with The Jewel Box.   I got an apprenticeship while we were in Chicago, Illinois.   At that time you could get a licenced hairdresser to sponsor you and work in his shop and study on the side to get your licence.   I met a very wonderful hairstylist there.   His name was Bill Harwood, and he did all the Chez Parèe show girls and many of the more wealthy women in town.   He gave me a wonderful education in salon hairstyling.   I made many of the wigs for the cast at The Jewel Box and then styled them.   I had a built-in business.

Robbie Ross, JBRIn 1960 when the Jewel Box was playing in Hollywood, we were at The Palace Theater at Hollywood & Vine.   I loved the city so much.   I had been there before but this time I decided that I was really getting tired of touring.   It was summer time and it was a very gay city then, many many gay bars, and I decided to make a career change so I opened a wig salon on Hollywood Blvd. and was there for a good 15 years.

The second year I was there while working in the salon one Saturday afternoon, in through the front door pops Yvonne De Carlo, looking absolutely beautiful.   She's a very striking lady.   She had seen a wig in the window that she liked.   I tried it on her and she bought it.   As a matter of fact she bought three wigs and a couple of hair pieces.   We became very good friends and I remained her personal hairdresser for 10 years, and did a lot of shows with her also.   I did "Little Me" and the national tours of "Applause" and "Hello Dolly" with Yvonne.   She was wonderful to me.   One day she came into the salon with her jewelry, clothes and her own photographer and gave me a press release.   She helped me get off to a wonderful start in Hollywood.   Some people can sit in Hollywood for years and nothing like that happens.   I just happened to be blessed.   I've always thought I had an angel on my shoulder, so to speak.

David:  Talking about your hairstyling career, I understand you made and styled wigs for some famous female impersonators such as Jim Bailey, whom I have seen perform many times.   (See my interview of Jim in this series).   Can you tell us how you came to do wigs for Jim, and were there other impersonators we might know?

Robbie:  Regarding Jim Bailey, I first saw him perform in the 60's at a club called The Valley House, in North Hollywood.   He used to do 3 impersonations per show, and I must say he was a great make-up artist.   However, I felt that someone with that much talent should be perfectly wigged.   He looked exactly like whomever he happened to be impersonating but I felt that some of his wigs were not quite right.   I remade the Streisand and Garland wigs, and a couple more.   He had a big opening at a club called Ciro's on Sunset Strip as I recall.   I dropped everything and got them ready for his opening night.   After Ciro's he called me from Las Vegas to fly in and re-style them.   I had a previous booking and was unable to do so.

Jimmy TaiI also styled wigs for Lynne Carter and Jimmy Tai.   Jimmy did a beautiful act in The Jewel Box Revue.   He was gorgeous . . . so very beautiful!   He is Japanese and worked with fans.   He and I are still good friends.

David:  Can you share any anecdotes from your Showbiz days that involved any well known names either in the Drag World or Hollywood that our readers in Cyberspace would enjoy hearing?

Donald O'Connor 
& Paula Stewart, 
 in "Little Me" Robbie:  I was doing "Little Me" with Donald O'Connor and Yvonne De Carlo and a woman called Paula Stewart [ The wife of comedian Alan King at the time ].   Paula's and Yvonne's wigs had already been sent to the Sahara Club where the show was taking place.   Donald O'Connor's wigs were all custom made with hair lace.   He played eight rolls in this particular play.   The changes were very fast.   I had just got his wigs finished under the wire in time to leave for Sacramento and take the bus up to Lake Tahoe.   It was very stormy and we couldn't fly.   I took the bus three times to the summit.   It was a horrible blizzard and I was scared to death that I wasn't going to make the dress rehearsal, and I had never missed a show in my life.   You know that feeling I'm sure.   I still dream about it.

I called Donald's secretary, Mr. Harrah, who owned the club there, and I said "Can't you send a Harrahcopter?   Don't you have a Harrahcopter?"   "Yes, we have a Harrahcopter, and by the way it is called a Harrahcopter, but we can't fly in this kind of weather."   It finally cleared up and I made it to the Sahara Club the next day.   The dress rehersal was half over and I was panicked when I walked in because I didn't know what to expect.   Donald O'Connor was so kind to me.   He said "Don't worry a bit about it", he could see that I was horrified.   He said "I've done the show many times before, and I know all the changes.   These are the nicest wigs I've ever had for this show. You went to a lot of extra work, which I appreciate".   He was just as kind as he could be, a real pro and a gentleman.   That evening I stayed up with Donald and styled all the wigs and did the final cuts on him and so forth.   The show opened the very next night and I will always be grateful for his generousity as a professional and it was great fun working with him.

David:  I understand you met the great Judy Garland once in Chicago.   For so many of us Garland fans out there, would you tell us that story?

Robbie:  Yes, I was fortunate to meet the fabulous Miss Judy Garland.   The way it came about; I was in Chicago apprenticing in Bill Harwood's beauty salon and she was playing at The Chicago Opera House.   In Judy's stage concert performances she always does a number called "A Couple of Swells".   Judy Garland 
Hobo ActIt's a hobo/clown act.   She had done this number with Fred Astaire originally in the film [Easter Parade], but in the theater she sometimes used other comedians.   In this particular performance she was doing the number with comedian Alan King.   I had met Alan through Paula Stewart when I did "Little Me", and we got tickets from some show girls that Alan King had sent over as a surprise.   My friend Bill Harwood and I went along with a few of the show girls from the Chez Parèe.   We were also asked to come backstage and meet Miss Garland after the show.

The performance was absolutely spectacular.   She sang for two and a half hours, never stopped!   It was just a brilliant show.   I became a huge fan of hers after seeing her in person, even more so than when I had seen her in films.   We were in the line to meet her, must have been a hundred people, and she was very kind to everyone.   She had a little dressing table set up with her lipstick, eyebrow pencil, eyelash curler, and grease paint.   She was just as kind as she could be to everyone, "Thank you for coming", "It was a pleasure meeting you" . . . she said something different to everyone in the line.   I've worked with many people in the theater, celebrities and otherwise, that would never take that long after a show was over.   When the show is over, they're OUT, and they're GONE.

Angela Lansbury in
Sweeny Todd The only other person that I ever saw do that was Angela Lansbury.   I was doing a show in Los Angeles called "Pirates of Penzance" and she was playing in "Sweeny Todd" next door at The Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.   Every night after the performance she would stand by her Cadillac Limousine, sign autographs and meet her fans for at least 45 minutes.   I though that was very kind of her and very sweet.   She's a very hard working lady and she probably wanted to get home and go to bed too.

Robbie at 
Apollo Theater,
in Harlem, 1958 David:  Did you design your own wardrobe or did someone make it for you?

Robbie:  I did design most of my own wardrobe for my personal spot in the shows that I worked in.   Some of the designers were kind enough to let me make suggestions and design for myself the production wardrobe.   Because I was very tall and thin they had to be heavyly padded and made to certain specifications.   I always got along well with the wardrobe people; Tony Midnite, and Frankie Page, we always had fun working together, so I was lucky to be able create some of my own costumes, (however I don't sew).

David:  What was the best part and worst part of working in drag?   Also the same question applying to your hairstyling career?

Robbie RossRobbie:  The best part of working in drag I would say is that at the time I was in the business after I left the My-O-My in New Orleans, The Jewel Box was just going on the road and was hitting the nicer clubs.   I opened with them in a place in Toledo, Ohio called Casey's Supper Club, which was a very elegant show room.   We also worked in a place in Washington, DC called The Casino Royale which is another very nice nightclub.   Then when we did the theater circuit we worked for Lowe State Theaters all over New York City, on Broadway and all the way out to Jamaica Long Island.   We also worked in theaters called the Chitlin' Circuit. They were the black theaters throughout the East Coast; Washington, DC, Philadelphia, places like the Apollo Theater in Harlem.   We were exposed to a variety of different cultures and life styles and I learned things that we were never taught in school.

The worst part for me was that I never, ever adjusted to wearing high heels.   I bought expensive shoes and I was one of those, even though I was tall, insisted on having very high heels because I always believed it made your feet look smaller.   I was so grateful when I finally quit working in drag that my feet didn't suffer anymore.   That was truly the worst part of working in drag.

The best part of my hairstyling career was of course, meeting certain celebrities that were very nice to me.   I mentioned earlier Yvonne De Carlo and Arlene Dahl.   I also worked for Sheila and Gordon MacRae.   I did their nightclub act at The Ambassador Hotel and The Coconut Grove.   Many other Stars would now and then just drop into the salon.   I worked for Jack Albertson, who was an Academy Award winner for a movie called "The Subject is Roses".   I did his hairpiece for that.   I also worked for his sister, Mable Albertson, who was a very well known character actress in Hollywood.   I was lucky enough to be asked to escort Yvonne De Carlo to the 10th anniversary of The Shubert Theater.   They had invited every celebrity that worked there for the last 10 years, and Yvonne had performed there in a Broadway show called "Follies".Robbie Ross as
Norma Desmond, 1997   She asked me to escort her to the dinner and gala party in celebration of this new show called "The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign".   We went to the play, and unfortunately it was a flop, but that night I did meet Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse.   Yvonne knows just everybody in Hollywood.   She was introducing me to everyone.   It was one of the most enjoyable evenings that I've ever spent.   If I ever had to relive another night it would probably be that one.

Robert Bouvard dressing a wig 
for "Les MisÚrables" Probably the worst part of my hairstyling career was the fact that I did do the road companies of Broadway shows and as most people know it's very rough out there . . . to put the show up, to get it going, to pull it down in a week or a few days and then set it back up in another city, especially big shows like "La Cage Aux Faux" and "Dream Girls".   I did "Les Misèrables" for four years.   Those kind of shows are very strenuous and take a lot of stamina.   I spent a great deal of time on the road because the money was better.   The last show that I did was Andrew LLoyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" in San Francisco, for 5 years, then in 1997 I retired.   I bought a home in Rohnert Park in Sonoma, CA, the wine country.   I just love it here.

David:  You traveled to many places in your lifetime.   Is there any place that you really enjoyed and that you might have selected as a retirement Shangri-La?

Robbie:  In all my travels I think my favorite city in the world is Paris, France.   I was there in 1985 with a show called "Dream Girls", which is a story about Diana Ross and The Supremes.   We were right down town near the Champs Elysees at a big theater in a major mall called the Palais de Congrès.   We were there for five weeks and we did only six shows a week in the evenings, no matineès, which was a great joy to find out, because with most shows you never get that kind of luck.   I just loved Paris.   I went all over the city, to the Eiffel Tower, and outside into the country to Versailles.   I must say, contrary to what most Americans tell you, the Parisians were very considerate and polite.   Many did speak English and were very kind and helpful at the same time.

David:  Have you ever considered putting the story of your long and varied career and personal experiences into an autobiography?   Our mutual friend Robin Price says that of all people he knows, you are "the one that should write a book!"

Robbie:  I am planning on writing a book, as a matter of fact you have given me the inspiration by asking me to do this interview.   When I left "Phantom of the Opera" and retired, two of the actors gave me tape recorders and said "You better write a book!".   I had not opened them or used them until I heard from you.   I find that it's very interesting and fun to do, and I'm sure I'll be starting on my book very soon, thanks to you.

David:  Is there anything that is "so very you" that perhaps not even your family or closest friends would ever dream and that you can share with us?

Robbie:  One of the interesting things that happened to me while I was in Hollywood shortly after I left The Jewel Box, (something that I don't tell very many people because first of all I don't think they would believe me when they look at this old geezer) that I did a screen test for a movie called "Myra Breckenridge" for 20th Century Fox.   This was a book by Gore Vidal and Hollywood was making it into a film.   Mae West and Rex Reed were cast and they were auditioning female impersonators to play the role of Myra, because as you know, the character was a sex change.   The first day I went to audition we all went in drag and there must have been 3000 female impersonators in the hallway.   The next time we were called back we came in a suit, mens clothes, and talked to the producers, and in the final call there were only six people asked to test and I was the last of the six.   I was very thrilled that I got to test for that part.   That will also be one of the most memorable moments in my career.   Unfortunately, they didn't use a female impersonator in the role of Myra Breckenridge, and I didn't feel too bad losing out to Raquel Welch!   Incidently, she was absolutly fabulous but the picture stunk, so I was so glad I didn't get the part.

Robbie Ross as
Norma Desmond, 1997 David:  Do you have any particular foods you enjoy?   Also are you a good cook?

Robbie:  I love Italian cooking best of all, it's my very favorite.   Yes, I am a very good cook.   So many years on the road before the big money came we were all chipping in our pennies, and Aunt Rosie, as many people call me, always had his electric skillet in his hotel room and I could whip up a meal.   In those days one person would check into the room and you would have two or three other people staying there that weren't even registered.   We called them "ghosts".   My room always looked like the set in "Gypsy" where Rosalind Russell is cooking on the skillet, eating Chinese food and has 20 kids hid out.   That was Auntie Rosie's room always.   I prefer to cook at home mostly, but I do enjoy eating out in a very nice restaurant once in a while.   My favorite dish is beef stroganoff if it's done right.

David:  Let me close with this thought:   If you could re-live an experience from your illustrious past what would that be?

Robbie:  If I had to select any moment in my life it would be in about 1965 after I bought my home in the Hollywood Hills and had met my first lover Bob Bowers.   We fell in love and it was a moment where we were laying on the roof of my house overlooking Hollywood and knew that we were in love.   That will be the most treasured moment in my entire life.

David, I would like to thank you so very much for all the work you're doing to create this Web Site.   I know how difficult it is, the amount of time and energy it must take.   It's such a wonderful idea because it's going to inspire a lot of young people who don't really know what's happening in the female impersonation world.   All I can say is when I was young I read a book called "Femme Mimics" that had some beautiful pictures of many female impersonators.   It really changed my life.   It made me want to examine that part of life.   I had a wonderful life and people that see this Web Site can realize that if you really do it with heart and a lot of passion people will love you.   Practice singing, dancing, piano, anything you can while you're young.   Take make-up courses, learn how to sew, etc..   That's what this is Web Site is going to do for younger people.   I think it's a marvelous thing that you're doing.   Thanks again so much for asking me to interview with you.     Robbie

* 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  paulryner@cox.net