De Alba on Shaw
By Entertainer David de Alba*
Aleshia Brevard, formerly known as an FI by the name of Lee Shaw, is an important personality that I decided to interview, first as a female impersonator who worked at the world famous Finocchio Club in San Francisco, CA., but years later after going through sexual re-assignment surgery, a talented actress in a number of movies, a television personality performing in some of the top TV shows of the day, a stage performer, writer and director, to name a few of her accomplishments.
I had more or less closed my series of female impersonator interviews due to the fact that by 2007 most of the famous ones that worked live are no longer with us here on Earth. I did get to interview some of the best and a few are still alive and well. I am focusing this interview with Aleshia on Lee Shaw, the female impersonator. Much has been documented over the years after her surgery, but I would like to present on my Web site, an entertainer who graced the stage at Finocchio's during it's hey day. It is my privilege to introduce to you now Aleshia!
David: Aleshia dear, where were you born and raised, and if it's not presumptuous of me to ask, what was your name when you were a boy?
Aleshia: David, your question is in no way presumptuous even if the "early years/the name/or the'boy' aspect" are not something I recall with delight. I did not enjoy that early persona. My birth name was Alfred Brevard Crenshaw, although everyone called me 'Buddy', everyone but my paternal grandmother, that is. To Miss Minnie Lee I was Alfred Brevard. Can there be any doubt that I was born somewhere in the South! Yep, in 1937 I came squealing into existence in the Appalachian Mountains of far eastern Tennessee.
David: Who were your female idols when you were young, and did any of them influence your Showbiz career with their look, style, or performing talent?
Aleshia: In the very beginning I thought I was Miss Ginger Rogers, but I soon grew out of that. I matured into Veronica Lake.[Picture on right] Many a youthful hour was spent in front of the bathroom mirror with a white Cannon towel draped over my head, admiring my daring peek-a-boo bang. All of my film idols were female and they imprinted me, deeply.
David: When did you first appear on stage as a female impersonator? Did you have a close friend or drag mother at the time to 'show you the ropes'?
Aleshia: I auditioned at Finocchio's for the summer season of 1959, based solely on a photograph I'd submitted. Before having that audition photo taken, I'd never been in female attire. Talk about an untrained 'New Nanette'! I would have never gotten hired at the most prestigious impersonation club in the country if it had it not been for Stormy Lee, Finocchio's star exotic dancer. [Picture on right] People HATED Stormy, I'm well aware of that, but she put me under her protective wing on the night of my audition. I don't want to confuse anyone, David, but I have to use the gender pronoun "she" out of my respect for Stormy. She always thought of herself as female, and, as you know, later had gender reassignment surgery in Morocco. But on the night of my audition it was Stormy Lee, terror of the dressing rooms, who told Mr. Finocchio to hire me... even offering to train me. "She's beautiful," Stormy told Mr. Finocchio during my audition number, "and if you don't hire her someone else will and you'll be sorry." The rest, as they say, is history. Stormy Lee put me in her 'bastard-pink spot', taught me how to be a lady, and later persuaded me to open my big mouth and sing. She was my big sister.
David: Where did the stage name Lee Shaw come from?
Aleshia: Lestra LaMonte [Picture on right] gave me that name the night I auditioned. "What's your name?" he gruffly demanded. "Lisa," I blurted. It was the only name that popped into my head. It had never dawned on me that I might need a stage name. "Too feminine!" croaked Lestra, "You're Lee Shaw." For the next several years that was the name to which I answered.
David: Do you remember how you were introduced to the stage by the emcee?
Aleshia: Oh, I remember, indeed. It sticks with me because after he gave me my name Lestra la Monte dragged his paper machet gown on stage and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, introducing America's Long Stemmed American Beauty Rose, Lee Shaw". I made my frightened entrance from the wings wondering, "Where on earth did he came up with that?" That was how Lestra introduced me until I left the club in 1962. I won't go so far as to say, however, that Lestra was especially kind to me. I was an amateur, he knew it, and therefore had not a shred of respect for me. He certainly had no interest in showing me the ropes. I think it must have seriously annoyed such an old vaudevillian-pro that the audiences adored me.
David: In one of the photos taken of you at Finocchio's I noticed that some posters of the entertainers were still adorning the walls. Soon after Joe's second wife, Eve, took over the club she removed all the pictures, remodeled the stage, and cut the number of musicians. When you were there, was their any mention of Joe's first wife Marge?
Aleshia: Mention!!!!!! The woman haunted backstage. From every ounce of gossip I've ever heard, and there were tons of it around, Marge Finocchio was responsible for turning the club into a Mecca for all things drag. I've heard the story told many times that every night, until she got robbed, 'The Madam' was famous for taking home with her the expensive furs used in the show. Marge Finocchio was a dressing room legend.
David: What type of act did you have on stage? Since everyone was required to work live, did you sing or dance, and if so, what type of songs or dances did you do?
Aleshia: Hhmmm? In some respects I think this question represents the dividing line between the club's seasoned, professional impersonators and the scatterbrained kid I was when I opened at Finocchio's. I came to 'the club' with no act; no experience; no idea what was expected of me. I was young, pretty and feminine - end of story. It didn't take me long to discover that 'the stage' can be your home and 'the audience' can feel like family. I realized I belonged in show business on the night I first put in my signature number, "My Heart Belongs To Daddy", peeling out of a red knit sweater to reveal a lacy, merry-widow. The number was patterned after Marilyn Monroe's star turn in "Let's Make Love", and audiences loved it.
David: Some of the FIs you worked with were still there when I started in 1971. I know you worked with Jackie Phillips. He was one of the really nice ones and a friend to me, in and out of the club. Sadly he passed away in November of 2006. Which FIs impressed you the most, personality and/or talent?
Aleshia: I was truly enamored with what I considered the glamour and sophistication of Finocchio's headliners. I'd never even dreamed such a showplace existed until my paramour priest (yep, you heard that right!) took me to Finocchio's. I was spellbound, and then Lucian as Sophie Tucker made his entrance, fabricated a story about having a training school for impersonators, pointed a bejeweled finger at me and said, "And this, ladies and gentlemen, is my star pupil. Isn't she beautiful? Stand up and take a bow." That was all it took! I'd been called "beautiful"; I'd been called "she". I leaned over to my 'long-time-escort' and said, "This is what I want to do."
Later, when asked to audition at Finocchio's, tossing you to 'sink or swim' into the show was how they did it, I was put in a dressing room with Jackie Phillips, gifted comic extraordinaire. [Picture on right] Jackie went out of his way to welcome me, keep me calm, and make an already stressful situation less the ordeal. Jackie Phillips was a Star off stage as well as on.
I was hired and from then on my every off-stage moment was spent in my dressing room, agog, learning the finer points of stagecraft and being schooled in survival techniques in a world I did not understand. Gilded impersonators, or not, the outside world has never been gentle on those considered 'different'. Seasoned female impersonators at the top of their game were my first professors. I am forever indebted to those who tutored me: the effervescent, Kara Montez; the nurturing lyric soprano, Ray De Young; droll Elton Paris; riotous Reggie Dahl; and, of course, Stormy Lee, my guiding light.
David: Where did you develop your acting skills? Did you have any formal training outside your stage performances?
Aleshia: If a performer listens to their audience it becomes clear what works and what does not. I kept one ear finely tuned to my audience and in time developed a great respect for them. That was my first valuable lesson in theater. I went on to earn a Master's Degree in Theater, and later studied film technique with John Heath Studio in Hollywood, but the basic stage technique was first developed on stage at Finocchio's. The fundamentals remain the same, my dear, no matter where you're practicing them.
David: Do you feel that your years impersonating a woman on stage in any way prepared you for your life after sexual reassignment surgery?
Aleshia: Doctor Harry Benjamin, gender guru, was my doctor and he sincerely believed my nightly appearances at Finocchio's were an acceptable training ground for the life I would experience as a woman. Just goes to show how much some men, doctors or no, know about women. A female impersonator's glamorous turn in front of a paying audience in no way resembles a woman's day-to-day existence. I think maybe that's why it's called 'impersonation'! Still, the focus and professionalism I first mastered at Finocchio's did serve me well as a professional actress - it was also the solid foundation on which I built as a university professor of theater after leaving film, television and theater tours behind.
David: Were there any famous people that you knew were in the audience or that you met backstage while working at Finocchio's ?
Aleshia: Oh, mercy, the list is long: Errol Flynn, Sal Mineo, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis & Gary Merrill, Nancy Kwan, José Greco, Shelley Berman, Tallulah Bankhead, Ernestine Anderson, Beatrice Kay, Phyllis Diller, [Picture on left with cast] Carmen McRae, Joan Bennett... and that's just off the top of my head. As you well know, David, in those days Finocchio's Stars were respected and sought after.
David: By the time I started at the Club, it was known in the business as "The House of Hate". Since you were there years before me, did you witness the same instigation between the entertainers, staff, or owners Joe and Eve Finocchio?
Aleshia: Interestingly enough, Eve was very kind to me.... until I said I was leaving the club to have surgery. [See rare photo of a young Eve Finocchio on right] Oh, sure, I hated having to remove my makeup and despised dressing in men's clothes before leaving the club - but that was the law. What I detested most was how Mrs. Finocchio's sister, Maria, who sold tickets, would call out "Good night, Lee Shaw," - or whomever, as we were exiting the club. She was pointing out to lingering customers how impersonators looked 'off stage'. I always felt that was very unkind. Maybe it didn't bother anyone else, but I wanted the 'image' I'd created on stage to remain the one that my audience took home. Now, as far as 'tension' between the entertainers goes - well, let's just say we had too much free time on our hands. The phrase 'snake pit' comes to mind.
David: Eve was always quick to 'let people go' at her whim, but she did not take well to a performer quitting on her. What were the circumstances of your exit from the Club? (I understand it got a little nasty).
Aleshia: I was at Finocchio's for a short time, only close to three years, leaving to have surgery just before tourist season 1962. 'The Mister' and his wife Eve were NOT happy with me. They threatened "You'll never work again". The AGVA union representative chimed in on that threat. In The Woman I Was Not Born To Be, Temple University Press, 2001 (my memoir currently under film option and development), I describe my subsequent hasty departure from Finocchio's, from San Francisco, and from female impersonation. I was running for my life.
David: Have you been back to San Francisco and Broadway since Finocchio's closed in 1999?
Aleshia: The building has since been renovated and now houses Pier Five Law Offices. When I first met the producer who holds the film option on my book, he took me back to the old Broadway stomping grounds so he could film me reminiscing and get a feel for what it would take to recreate Finocchio's as a film set. Memories came flooding back once I walked up those front steps, as I'm sure they would for any of us who cut our teeth in that grand old drafty barn. Ah, youth, huh?
David: Did you find just as much discrimination as a pretty guy and especially as an FI....or did you find it just as bad once you physically became a woman and the word got out about your new persona?
Aleshia: You do keep coming up with these interesting questions, do you not? For me those early years were MUCH more difficult from the standpoint of discrimination, basically because I was sorta 'betwixt and between', fitting comfortably into nether straight or gay society. Gay men by definition do not want a woman; some straight men can't handle that a woman might have had a penis. Go figure! The transition period was difficult because I didn't feel I was "a guy" and society wouldn't let me forget that my label was male. Is it any wonder I left that past as far behind me as possible?
After surgery I buried deep my gender history by living in stealth, having a career, and marrying men who did not know of my past. That was easier from the standpoint of discrimination, but it is a horrific strain knowing that life may blow up in your face at any moment. I had to grow into accepting and loving myself - something that is possibly true for everyone but seems an essential process for those who live life marginalized by society.
David: After your run at Finocchio's and some time after your surgery you appeared in a number of movies and television shows. How did you make this transition, and were you playing a role or were you often the subject of an interview?
Aleshia: It was Finocchio's, both the audience and the entertainers with whom I worked, that ultimately gave me the confidence and belief in myself to attempt a professional career in Hollywood after surgery. Because no one said it was impossible to do so, I worked in film and television. I think life was an easier transition back then. Still, I wasn't oblivious to the risks. As Aleshia Brevard I was living TOTALLY in stealth, trying to forget that Alfred Brevard, Buddy, or Lee Shaw had ever existed. Basically in those first film and television shows in Hollywood I was asked to do some variation on 'the showgirl' role that was so popular at the time. Until I got a little clout from my year on Red Skelton, the time with Dean Martin, Andy Williams, and Leslie Uggums, all my early appearances had me appearing in a corset or hot pants. For example, on the Andy Williams Show I was some sort of Viking Warrior Princess (in very brief armor) doing a skit with Flip Wilson. With Larry Hagman in his early series, The Good Life, I was his father's caretaker (in very brief hot pants)... are you getting the picture?
David: What do you feel were your most significant movie or television roles or appearances, and why?
Aleshia: My "significant roles" (if we're talking actual roles) were all done on the stage. Never in film or on television did I win the impressive roles that I had the opportunity to play in theater - Maxine in 'Night of the Iguana' ; Sabina in 'The Skin of Our Teeth'; Joanna Markham in 'Move Over, Mrs. Markham'; Bertha in 'Hello From Bertha', or even dear Truvy in 'Steel Magnolias'. That said, let me state unequivocally that I am exceedingly proud of my stint on The Red Skelton Show, plus each and every one of the films and television variety shows in which I appeared. To be an actress had been, after all, my life-long dream.
David: When you are not working in the show business field, how do you pass your time or entertain yourself? Do you have any fun activities or hobbies?
Aleshia: Basically, I write - day in and day out! With my collaborator, Gina Grahame, I have recently finished INSIDE/OUT, a gender based stage play. My novel, "Bilbo's Bend", is currently with the editor. Like tender grapes, dreams take a lot of care.
David: What kind of foods do you enjoy? Are you a good cook...or do you prefer to eat out?
Aleshia: I'm Southern, remember? So, yes, I do enjoy cooking. Now that I live alone, however, I no longer sling pots with the same ease or regularity I once managed when married and raising three boys.
David: If you were to believe in fairies and you were allowed three wishes to come true in your life now, what would they be?
Aleshia: You have some doubt that I believe in fairies? Okay, okay, I'll just let that one smolder and create a scenario from its own ashes. "Three wishes", huh? Okay. Wish One: I want our play, INSIDE/OUT, to find its home in a good theater, and to develop a following. Wish Two: Happiness and good health for those I care about - and even some I do not. Wish Three: If world peace is such a far-fetched concept, can't we at least have less hatred, prejudice, and ill will than is currently defacing our planet?
David and Paul, thank you for contacting me about doing this interview and including me in your website. You are doing good work and it must come from the heart . . . otherwise why would you bother? I, for one, am glad that you do. Aleshia Brevard
If you wish to contact Aleshia, visit her Web site at www.aleshiabrevard.com
* 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 at email@example.com