De Alba on Tai 

By Entertainer David de Alba*

Jimmy Tai & David 
 Las Vegas, 2001

  Anyone who saw the original Jewel Box Revue may have had the good fortune to see Jimmy Tai perform on stage.   He was certainly one of the most beautiful and talented Asian female impersonator-dancers of the 20th century.   His grace, stage presence, seductive wardrobe and special wigs designed by the incomparable Robbie Ross made an indelible mark in Showbiz history.   I was fortunate to meet Jimmy through the modern miracle of the Internet and thanks to Robbie Ross, (whom I also interviewed for this series) who told me what a unique performer he was and what a fine person he is.   Unfortunately due to a fire Jimmy lost all of his priceless theatrical memoirs so there were very few photos of him in his beautiful costumes.   I want all of you Cyberspace Showbiz fans to see through my little window into the past, that beauty that graced the stage for many years....the ageless Asian Princess, Mr. Jimmy Tai!

Jimmy Tai, 9 years old 
 Hirai Dance Co. 
 Hilo, Hawaii, 1947 David:  Jimmy dear, where were you born and where did you spend most of your youth?

Jimmy:  According to historians, there are no islands in the Pacific that bear the majestic beauty such as one may discover on the chain of islands called Hawaii.   Well, I'm proud to say that I was born on The Big Island, in a dainty little seaport called Hilo, on April 4th 1934 . . . and David, ever since that event, the word "normalcy" just plain disappeared from the family's vocabulary . . . and Hilo, the "Peyton Place with palm trees" was never the same again!

My childhood and youth on the Island was more than anyone would care to bargain for.   It wasn't a happy time . . . and to make a long story short, many unseen historical events were about to happen, and destiny would change my life and everyone else's forever!   I was seven years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked.   Hilo is about 250 miles from Oahu where it all happened.   I wanted to publish a shocking account of my life as a kid in Hilo during the war years but I promised my dear kid sister I wouldn't.   She strongly feels it would ruin them.

David:  Is Jimmy Tai your real name or was it your stage name?

Jimmy:  As far as my name Jimmy Tai is concerned, my full and legal name is, James Tai Fujikawa.   It was my mother's second marriage.   He was my real father who didn't do anything for his family.   We are a reflection of our parents. Our love and devotion develops from what they reflect.   My father carried his secrets with him until his death.   None of us knew anything about him.   I only know that when he was a year old in Japan, his parents who were so poor, sold him to another family, who were coming to Hawaii to make their home.   Rumors were that he was Russian-Jin, a Japanese born in Russia.   I was not targeted [by his Slavic genes] as were my two sisters . . . you see, both always had reddish/brown hair and my sister above me had hazel eyes.   My father had peach-colored skin.   I got my olive skin from my mother who was Hawaiian born.   When I was young, I had brown/black hair.   It turned dark because of the grease we used those days.   Tai, in Japanese has two meanings that I know of; one is "beautiful", the other is me, "a black sacred carp".

David:  At what age did you know you wanted to be involved in Showbiz, and in particular the field of female impersonation?

Jimmy Tai 
 Age 22Jimmy:  As far as I can remember, members of our family were very talented.   They were all singers except me.   I was born with a frog in my throat.   However, I could do something they couldn't do and that's dance!   I was very fascinated with Kabuki, all done by men doing both parts.   To me the women parts are the most skillful if done right.   I must have been five or six years of age when the idea came to me about becoming a Kabuki Dancer someday.   Of course, when World War II started, everything Japanese went out the window!   Cultural things began to appear after the war in 1945.

David:  Did you have a Drag Mother or a mentor who helped you get started in the competitive world of Showbiz?

Jimmy:  I don't think calling Tsutae Hirai, my Japanese dance instructor in Hilo during the very late forties, my "Drag Mother" in any shape or form disrespectful.   She was, and still is, one of my favorite people of all times.   On many occasions I would be the only male student among a huge class of girls, waiting to be instructed, individually, on their dance routines.   She made the girls respect me and always treated me like I was special.   I have to admit how much I hated to do the male dances.   Somehow, I always felt like a dyke in men's attire.   We performed in theaters, church functions, and so on, that is all in authentic costumes and make-up.   The magic started when she began making me do all the female parts.   I became one of her top students.   Wherever you are Tsutae, I love you.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Tsutae "Ruthie" Hirai, 85, of Hilo, co-founder of Parker-Hirai Japanese Dance Studio in Hilo, Hawaii, died on May 2, 2004, in Hilo Medical Center.

David:  Do you remember your first paid professional gig?

Jimmy:  Yes, I do.   It was an elaborate penthouse party somewhere in Mid-Manhattan.   Two other drag performers, very beautiful, were present.   We put on an hour and a half show and were handsomely paid.

David:  Did your Asian roots help you or work against you in your pursuit of a career in Showbiz, where people are labeled and categorized by agents and producers like items in a Sears Catalogue?

Jimmy Tai at Joey Tone's 
 Powder Box RevueJimmy:  My mother once told me that one good advantage about being Asian is, you can't fool anyone about being anything but yourself.   There are advantages regardless of what you are.   The trick is knowing where to be and how to place your assets.   That's the name of the game.   At the moment, I'm only speaking for myself and I have lived all over in the major cities of the United States and had no problems with employment.   I mean places like Texas, New Orleans, and some of your foremost Southern States.   I've worked at some of the best places like Brennan's in New Orleans.   I wouldn't have gone into television, theater, and such, as roles for Asians are limited.   We are a type.   You can make a German look Irish but you can't do that with an Asian.   Going into that field never once entered my mind.   However, in nightclubs, Asian acts go over well.   Novelty sells if you've got something to sell.

David:  What was the most fun working in drag and what was the most tedious part?

Jimmy:  It's going to work and "camping it up" with the other drag performers and cast members.   We're in our own little world and momentarily detached from the reality outside.

The most tedious part is getting up from a rough night out and trying to get your shit together for the first show . . . and struggling as usual and forgetting to put your tits on!!

David:  Other than our mutual theatrical friend Robbie Ross, are there any other entertainers, past or present, that stand out in your mind because of their talent and humanity?

Actress Helen HayesJimmy:  I'll never forget my encounter with the great Helen Hayes at the renowned Tavern Club in Chicago in 1980.   After she had finished dinner with her two guests I was invited to chat with her in the library for over an hour.   It was a memorable night never to be forgotten!   She wrote to me from Chicago while staying with friends.   I met sometime ago, some of her very close friends from New York who knew Miss Hayes while they were struggling with their careers to get into the theater.   I also have a letter written to me from her home in Nyack, NY.   God bless her forever!

David:  How long did you work for The Jewel Box Revue, and what were some of the places you performed?

Jimmy Tai, Bamboo Pole production 
 Jewel Box RevueJimmy:  I must have worked with the Jewel Box for nearly five years.   I didn't work in drag at the very start.   I happened to be in New York in the early part of 1958 when I ran into Doc and Danny once again.   They were doing a Japanese finale and felt strongly that something was missing in that production number.   I suggested the Muslim Bamboo Pole number done by the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Co.   That made a sensation at their debut in the US.  Jan Britton I self-taught myself to do it.   Doc and Danny agreed and helped in putting that number together with the support of the male and female ponies.   My picture appeared as a male dancing through four criss-crossed bamboos at the Town and Country in Brooklyn.   It was in one of those souvenir books around 1959.   Bare chested dancers in exotic costumes brought out the four 20 foot Bamboos, criss-crossed.   I stepped in and out with fans in an exciting syncopated beat.   It went faster and faster as it built into a dramatic climax.   By this time the entire cast appeared in gorgeous Geisha kimonos and wigs.   The stage looked sensational!   At the beginning of this finale, Jan Britton did an awesome dance 'on point' in a beautiful pink kimono and Geisha wig to the tune of "Sayonara".   He was truly a beauty and an artist of the highest caliber!   Robbie Ross and I agree.

Jimmy Tai 
 costume poseThen came the word "drag".   After dancing as a boy in that production number in several places, Danny told me I had to go in drag or else!   I never did American style drag but it didn't take me long to learn.   I appeared with two additions at Robert's Show Lounge in Chicago, twice at the enormous Tivoli Theater on the South Side, twice at Ben Massick's Town and Country Club in Brooklyn, NY and the Chitlin' Circuit Theater in South Yonkers, NY . . . the list goes on and on.

Jimmy Tai at 
 The Jewel Box RevueThe gown in the photo on the left, reclining on the divan, was designed by Billy Baker.   Kenny Blair made a lot of wardrobe for The 82 Club, and so did Tony Midnite.   The costume on the right, designed by Tony, is a male Japanese Kabuki outfit - - - with pants.   I wore a lot of Tony's creations.   He really had the golden touch! . . . Just fabulous!!   He and Frank Paige were at the top of the world.

David:  Will you please describe your stage act while at The Jewel Box Revue to those of us who unfortunately may have missed it?

Jimmy:  When I opened my brand new spot at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1959, I felt like the luckiest drag performer in the world!   I had everything going for me.   Doc Benner and Danny Brown, owners of the Jewel Box Revue, bought me an elaborate Japanese temple backdrop.   It had an entrance with a golden gong and a beautiful Japanese bridge with surrounding bushes.   I stood on the bridge with a jewelled umbrella as the curtain opened.   The expert lighting by Bob White added to the magical set.

Doc and Danny were always good to me, that is from the time I first saw the show in Seattle, Washington at The Show Box in 1953.   I never imagined that a female impersonator show could have such beauty and artistry.   It was awesome!   Danny met me through a mutual friend, and after that he chased me all over Seattle like I was the last piece of bagel in a Jewish delicatessen.   I always had respect for Doc and Danny and they knew it . . . but honestly, the oriental set was a knock out!   It did what it was meant to do . . . take your breath away!  Chunga Ochoa The orchestration, "Katsumi Love Theme" from the movie "Sayonara" with bolero and Latin rhythms was played by the renowned Ruben Phillips Orchestra.   The dance number was choreographed by the incredible "Chunga", the one and only "Barefoot Contessa" of all times!   I was also a showgirl and was featured in the Japanese finale with the entire cast.

Jimmy Tai at Joey Tone's 
 Powder Box Revue 
 Montreal, Canada 1963The costume was designed with the expert touch of Kenny Blair, an artist and friend.   It was a magical piece of imaginational done in pastel green.   It came with a beautiful sheer lime skirt . . . everything flowed!   A beautiful and delicate tropical bird, all hand made with feathers of multi-colored greens, clinged to my back as an obi, and clusters of giant green feathers flowed delicately to the floor like a waterfall from its tail.   I danced with fans to "Love is a Many Splendored Thing".   After some drum beats I threw off the skirt and did some jazz dancing to "Whatever Lola Wants Lola Gets".

Robbie Ross's masterpiece, the glue on cap wig with a perfectly weaved hairline with great precision on lace, front and back, was truly a work of art.   He split the pony tail, which was 49 inches long, into three sections.  Robbie Ross 
 Mid 1960's He jeweled, wired, and braided each section about three inches wide.   Both braided ends cascaded to my cheeks into a curl with green tear drops.   The middle braided piece flowed gracefully from the top and fell like a waterfall into bangs.   People, including the Showbiz drags, gasped when they saw the finished product.   Like Robbie use to tell me, and proved it many times over, "Your face is one thing . . . what's on top of your face is another."   I'll never forget Robbie for showing me the tricks of the trade and making my Showbiz experience something to remember.

I danced with a jeweled umbrella and fans.   As the music worked towards a climax, I made a complete full circle center stage in a crawling shuffle that made the bird appear like it was ready to take flight.   I always got the audience's approval on that sequence.

David:  Your Jewel Box days were so memorable, but I know your drag career didn't end there.   Please tell us what followed.

Jimmy Tai, JBR 
 Frank Paige costumeJimmy Tai, JBR 
 Frank Paige costumeJimmy:  The performers of The Jewel Box Revue never had a contract with Doc and Danny.   You could leave the show at a moment's notice or get fired equally as well.   All belonged to the AGVA.   Anyway David, I left the show because, like Robbie Ross would say, "It was tanabata time!"   I fell in love and was ready to trade in Sushi for some good Jewish German Sauerbraten.   After making my love nest somewhere on 62nd Street, N. Brooklyn, I did several 'gigs' around the NYC area.   I did a lot of shows with my dear friend Richard Carlson.   We had some memorable times and he's a very nice person.   Fun times were in the forecast . . . I joined The Powder Box Revue with Joey Tone.   Our first stop, Montreal, Canada was at a place called Mocambo.   I worked at the famous 82 Club in Lower Manhattan for about eight months.   I loved working with those talented drags, however, I didn't fit in the 'mixing scene' with customers . . . felt uncomfortable and had to make an exit.   Needless to say, Kit Russell staged some unforgettable production numbers there.

David:  Do you have any regrets in your life today about a past opportunity that you didn't pursue?

Jimmy:  Yes, I sure do!   If I weren't influenced by ignorant individuals who made my life miserable, mainly because I was the only boy in Hilo doing female parts, I would have continued my Japanese dancing and probably be in Kabuki today.   My advice to people with talent and dreams . . . stick to the things you love and believe in.   Most important is, believe in yourself!   It is your life and don't give anyone the right to change that.   I was weak and didn't have proper support so I quit dancing at 15.   I wanted to leave Hilo so badly that I quit school while in the 11th grade and miraculously went into The Merchant Marines and worked on ships as a civilian.   My second wish was to see the world so I did just that for four years.   I was just 18 years old when I shipped out from Seattle, San Francisco, and the East Coast.   I didn't go on passenger ships . . . these were very rough ships like tankers and Liberty Ships.   I worked as a 'saloon mess', strange title for 'officer's waiter', and of course, that too is another story.

David:  What was the happiest point in your life?   How about the lowest point other than your home fire that destroyed your belongings?

Jimmy:  When I was with the Jewel Box in Washington, DC at the Howard Theater, I received a Western Union telegram from a special someone from Hicksville, Long Island.   It was brought to my dressing room.   It read, "I love you and need you.   Love, Donk".   I was like popcorn popping all over the place!

Jimmy TaiMy lowest point was at the Apollo Theater in Harlem where I opened my new spot.   I know I made it appear that it was my highest point in the earlier question, but David, there was another side to the story.   Well, my eldest sister, who had a great part and influence over the family, was touring the US and by coincidence had a stop-over in New York with her husband and three very young daughters.   I told her that I was doing 'Drag' and convinced her that it was a profession as respectable as a man doing a women's part in Kabuki.

At any rate, she was on her way to The Apollo with her family when suddenly they were caught in the middle of a mob of demonstrators who were picketing the theater.   The signs said nasty things like, "QUEENS GET OUT OF HARLEM".   At the time those responsible were Malcolm X and his band of Muslims.   My sister was scared to death for her family and headed back to the hotel.  Jimmy Tai & cast 
 Jewel Box Revue Meanwhile, I was wondering why those five reserved seats (management made an exception) six rows back in the center were still empty.   I was close to doing my spot.   I had the shakes.   I called their hotel several times until finally my sister answered.   She said, "Why is this happening?   I can't bring my family over no matter what!"   I said, "You are the only one who can tell folks in Hawaii that what I'm doing is all right."   "Sorry I can't." was her final answer!   I was disappointed.   I was truly in pain and just about heartbroken!   When my spot came up I couldn't think or hear the music.   I was beyond awful.   I missed the cues and my make-up was running because I couldn't stop the tears.   I kept seeing those empty seats!   The band leader thought I was having an OD.   I don't think anything could top that incident.   Just to note, in that run for almost a year I appeared as a showgirl in the production numbers and continued to do my 'spot' with the Bamboos and the entire cast.

David:  Do you have any particular interests or hobbies that occupy your time nowadays?   Do you have any pets?

Jimmy:  As far as a hobbies are concerned, I'm simply giving them up to prevent accumulating items hard to eliminate.   I'm only being practical.   I'll be 70 in three years and wisdom tells me to travel light!   Just being alive seemingly is a full time job and boredom would be the least of my problems.   I have no pets at this time in my life.   Nevertheless, I'm fine and in good shape.

David:  Do you favour any particular foods?   Are you a good cook or would you rather eat out?

Jimmy:  Although it's rare when I eat traditional Hawaiian or Japanese foods, I do favor them.   However, I like pasta so Italian food would be high on my list of favorites.   Of course, to me, there's nothing better than a perfectly charred steak cooked M/R with a double baked potato.   I'm not what you call an above average everyday cook but I can do a few specialties with finesse if push comes to shove.   And occasionally, I enjoy going out to restaurants and enjoy somebody else's cooking.   Besides, I don't want people I know worring about me being all cooped-up.   Next thing you know, they're all dragging me out on "Mother's Day".

Mayor Daly with Jimmy Tai,
 Chicago, 2000David:  Is there something so "very you" that not even those closest to you would ever guess and that you care to share with us?

Jimmy:  Wow, what a question but here goes.   I may seem outward to most people but down deep inside, I'm a shy person . . . not from timidity I could assure you.   I learned from the wise how to force out what I really and truly felt.   I don't like to brag unless some butt-hole tries to put me down or challenge me for no reason.   If anything I do is good, I prefer to hear it from someone else.   Modest? . . . Yes I am.   The results are better that way.

Jimmy Tai & Phyllis DillerDavid:  I heard that you are retired from Showbiz, but if you could get involved as a producer or even perform yourself, would you consider a cameo appearance or a backstage role?

Jimmy:  Well, going into Showbiz doesn't enter my mind, but life is full of surprises, who knows? . . . A cameo appearance or backstage role?   My only answer to that would be . . . maybe.   At any rate, God knows I'll always keep in touch with you.

David:  If your Guardian Angel were to grant you one wish, what would that be?

Jimmy:  My wish would be to take good care of my six remaining sisters who are still living today.   They gave me love regardless of who or what I am from the very beginning.   The infinite beauty in them never changed.   I love them dearly.   God bless them and thank you, Guardian Angel.

Jimmy Tai, Chicago, 2000 Dear David, you seemed like a miracle from Heaven when you found Robbie, and through your warm and thought provoking interview with him, we met.   I am grateful to you beyond words for having the patience to wait for my interview answers and for giving me the opportunity to say something about myself.    We may sometimes reminisce about our past but it doesn't really surface or come to life until someone, a multi-talented person like yourself, makes us realize that there was more glamour there than we imagined!   I do know this much David, somebody up there likes and is smiling at you! You are a precious jewel and an exciting personality as well! The best of everything to Paul [your webmaster] also, please forward a million thanks to him.   Keep up the wonderful work and intentions.
Love as always,     Jimmy Tai

Should anyone wish to contact Mr. Tai, his address is:

James Tai
P.O.Box 10270
Chicago, IL 60610

NOTE 1:  A big thanks to Jimmy's friend Jacqueline Barton for transcribing Jimmy's answers into e-mail and helping me correspond with him through the Internet.

NOTE 2:  Many thanks to Ken Spaulding and Tony Midnite for providing pictures for this interview.

* 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 and you can e-mail him c/o