Amapola Interviews David de Alba
Amapola Interviews David de Alba
Amapola has sung professionally since she was five, and hosted the longest running magazine variety show on Channel 20-KEMO TV, in San Francisco, California. She has also set her mark as a romance author. She now resides in Monticello, Florida. Visit her website at www.amapola.net
A personal comment from Amapola: The Web Site David de Alba and Paul Ryner have made as a tribute to David’s colleagues and friends is one of a kind. I do not see any other Web Site like it on the Net. These souls that have left the Earth will always hold David in high esteem and reverence for the thoughtfulness of creating this Web Site tribute. I love visiting David de Alba’s Theatrical Web Site.
David de Alba has no agenda, but his Web Site is a living tribute to other performers. It was fortunate that Paul Ryner -David's Webmaster and partner of many years- knew exactly how to interpret and execute David’s vision into a wonderful Web Site created to keep these entertainers memories alive. David had the warmth and kindness to share his Web Site with other performers, something unique in this field as there are not many who love sharing the spotlight with other name entertainers. The late Emcee Carroll Wallace from Finocchio's invented the introduction: "And now ladies and gentlemen, the charming and warm personality of David de Alba!" - Quite appropiate. Now, some of the music critics and David’s new Web Site fans call him: " The Cuban Legend from Finocchio's - David de Alba”. This writer’s comment - Bravo!
Amapola: Very few people know about your owning your own salon named: "Heri The Hairstylist of the Stars" at the Potrero Hill District in San Francisco. Tell us about this venture, David.
David: Well Amy dear, in the early 1970s when I was living in that area in a fixer-upper home we bought, I heard that a lady by the name of Ann Polich was retiring and selling her salon in Potrero Hill, pretty close to the home I bought …..and the rest is history. It was a very special hair salon at which I was the owner and operator and my Mom Tila, who had just retired from her teaching position in Skokie, Illinois, became my salon’s secretary and personal helper, and quite a hit with all my customers.
I made many innovations, like making it a unisex salon by doing hairstyling for men as well. When Ann had the shop she only worked on women. I also started doing fancy wig work which included most of the Finocchio Club’s cast. All kinds of services were added, like facials, make-up, and of course every type of service connected with hair. I was even asked to write a little column for the local newspaper “The Potrero View” in which I gave advice on hair and skin care, and it ran for a long time since it became quite popular among the locals.
The shop was featured on several television documentaries. The first was in 1979; “Bob MacKenzie’s Segment Two” on Channel 2, KTVU TV-News; next also in 1979, “Saturday Live with Dan Weiss” on Channel 4, KRON TV; and then “Luis Echegoyén of Noti-20” on Channel 20, KEMO TV who did another mini-documentary, this time in Spanish. I understand that Channel 4 won an award for the piece they did on my salon.
Years later, in 1986, Lorimar Productions came to the salon to film a TV movie with Tony Curtis called “Spies” and the late Newspaper Columnist Herb Caen covered it in his column ‘The Friday Fishwrap’. A feature was also done in the local newspaper, The Potrero View. I wish you could have been there . . . Days after the film sequence was done, people from the neighborhood were still taking photos of the salon from the outside.
Here’s a bit of trivia for anyone who may remember my former salon: The reason my salon was selected for a scene in “Spies” was, (as I was told by the host at The Brasserie in The Fairmont Hotel, a restaurant where I had a midnight breakfast quite often) one late night a group of people from Lorimar Productions who were looking for the right hair salon in San Francisco to film that particular scene, came in to the restaurant for an informal meeting. After photographing many salons, fancier and more ‘hip’ than mine, they were at a loss for where to go because the LA people were not impressed with their findings. Then the elegant host (forgive me for not remembering his name after so many years have passed) suggested they check out Heri The Hairstylist salon in Potrero Hill. After finishing their breakfast they drove to my salon in the wee hours of the morning and photographed it inside and out from the windows on the street. The reason it was selected, I was told later, was because the LA people felt that my salon had the warmth of the Mama/Papa type stores of yesteryear, and because inside on the walls were photos of many of the great movie Stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, hanging in silver frames.
Even Tony Curtis was impressed when he came to the salon and said to me and my mom as he glanced at each face: “Many were my friends and most of them are gone now.” Then he asked: “And where is my photo?” I told him that the person who ordered them at the time couldn’t find an appropriate studio shot. You see, they were not photos taken from film strips, but all studio publicity shots. Years later I sent an e-mail to Tony asking him for one and he sent it to me by snail mail.
In April of 1999 Tony Curtis saw my Web site and a photo of him and me together in my hair salon where I recalled the encounter fondly and he was very touched. He sent me an e-mail saying: “Dear David, thanks so much for the support in your “Celebrity Scrapbook”. It really means a lot to me!”
What I miss even now in the Year 2005 is some the ladies who became not just loyal hair customers, but good friends of mine and my mom’s and also loyal fans of my theatrical career at Finocchio’s and other venues. As Producer Luis Echegoyén put it so eloquently: “At Heri’s Hair Salon, if someone has a personal problem, David’s mom Tila, who has several degrees including Psychology, takes care of the inside while Heri does the outside.“
Amapola: David, do you have some cute anecdotes from your childhood in Cuba that you want to share with your readers?
David: At my Grandma Emilia’s farm (my father’s mom) where my parents used to take me occasionally on the weekends, I saw a beehive that hung from one of the posts that was part of a well, and me being so naïve then, took a little stick and started to poke at it. Well the angry bees swarmed toward my face and I was bitten all over. I learned my lesson the hard way.
On the other hand, there were some pleasant memories too. I used to pick up these lovely soft skinned herbal green worms that walked on a cherry tree and put them in a glass jar with many poked holes in the lid. After a few days they turned into the most beautiful brightly coloured butterflies, and I would release them to fly free.
I also remember fondly how every December my parents would take me from where we lived in the Province of Camagüey to celebrate Christmas in Havana and to see my idols, singing Stars Olga Chorens and Tony Alvarez at the CMQ TV station at noon, and then later on in the early evening to a famous radio station named “Radio Progreso”.
Many years later after I had left Cuba I had the honour to meet with Olga & Tony in Miami, Florida and see their revue at The Everglades Hotel. After their show I introduced myself to Olga, showing her a photo of her and I taken in Havana during my childhood. Somehow it cliqued in her mind, because she called immediately to Tony who was nearby, by his nickname “Chinito”, please come over and see this photo!” He also remembered me. I got to perform upon their request in their revue. What a thrill it was to have my singing idols watch me on stage, and the best thrill of all was that they looked proud of my performance!
Amapola: I know you have a tremendous list of fans and friends. Is there someone in particular you want to mention here in our interview?
David: About Charles Blair of London, England:
We became friends because of our love and appreciation for Judy. He even came twice from London to visit us in San Francisco. He saw me perform at Finocchio’s and the night he was there I did especially for him my loving tribute to Judy which he never forgot. Years after Charles had passed on, a British gentleman who knew him well e-mailed me to tell me that Charles thought the world of David de Alba and his drag impersonations. This meant a lot to me.
On one of Charles’ visits to San Francisco I did a one night concert in a plush nightclub called “The Roaring 20’s”. The show was sold out and packed that night with all sorts of people, both fans of mine and club regulars. After I did my International Boy-Chic act, backed by a live quartet, Charles Blair very elegantly introduced my Garland act to the audience. The funny thing was that there was a drunk in the audience that started to heckle Charles. When he said that he worked with Judy on a movie, etc….the drunk shouted: “Yeah, sure, so did I!” Charles’ close companion Michael was laughing for days afterwards and months later as he told people in England what happened that night to Charles in San Francisco as he introduced David de Alba on stage!
David: About Billy Tweedie, "The Glitter Man" of Northern Ireland:
David: About Dee Dee Jeziorski of San Jose, California:
David: There were also some loyal fans from my hair salon clientele who attended many of my performances and who actually became very good friends, not just to me, but to my Mom Tila and partner Paul Ryner. They have since passed on and I can’t mention everyone here, but they know they are always in my heart and in my nightly prayers.
Amapola: What happened to your American based fan club in PA.? I hear it lasted less than a year on the Web.
David: This was one of the nicest things that ever happened to me. A very nice young man by the name of Mark Seydel, who was in his early 30’s, approached me by e-mail saying that my Web Site was a shrine to many entertainers and it was time someone paid back David’s kindness towards fellow performers. He wanted to interview me and create for me a fan club if I would give him permission to do so. I said yes, of course, and upon his request, new photos of me on stage, never seen before on the Internet, were sent to him. He did one of the loveliest Web Sites ever done for any female impersonator, as Ms. Bob, a well-known FI Historian from The Bay Area said in his comments in the Fan Club Guestbook. He said that he had never seen a fan club site so well designed, dedicated to an FI. Coming from Ms. Bob, who knows what he is talking about, that was quite a compliment to Mark’s Web Site work.
Mark used to call me at night and chat for hours and he even became a Judy Garland fan because of me. He was like an Earth Angel sent from Heaven to me. Wonderful things happen in my life but they don’t seem to stay very long. I am reminded constantly by the strong hand of Karma that my life is not meant to be a constant state of paradise.
I knew that Mark had some health issues and personal problems to deal with in his life that he spoke of quite often to me, but I never thought that he would fall so far and so quickly. One day in 2004 the fan club went off the Web for good, although he said it would be back after his health and finances improved . . . but it never did. Anyway, it did last almost a year. So Mark my dear, if you are still with us on this Earth and wish to return to me, to at least say a hello on the phone, please do so. I really miss hearing the lilt of your charming voice and I will always wish you the best no matter what!
Amapola: How did Linda La Blanche appear in your life?
David: After the musical director and piano accompanist at Finocchio’s, Bill Bullard passed on, Linda became my new musical arranger and provided the accompaniment for CDs I recorded in the last few years.
Linda came from a cultural European family background. As a pre-teen she played a piano concert at Carnegie Hall. Also she was the conductor of her high school band for four years, a prestigious position that few people could have achieved, since her band was not a typical high school band, but kids who were excellent at their craft. So here was a person who had both classical music background and a talent for pop music. As an adult she played many fine venues in Europe and eventually became a respected music critic and reviewer, based on her varied theatrical experience.
We met in the simplest and unexpected of ways. First she wrote to me a very complimentary e-mail about my Web Site. We continued to correspond and she began telling me about her intriguing theatrical life and the many Stars and interesting entertainers that she met and worked with in her younger years . . . and I was fascinated. What can I say, she was speaking my language, showbiz. During this time she purchased some of my CDs. She was just another online customer, but liked a lot my musical selections.
We really became acquainted with each other through long talks on the phone. At the time, I was living in Bullhead City, Arizona and she came twice from Southern California to visit me. Later on she did an interview on me and a critique review on one of my CDs. She asked me if she could arrange a few songs for me and play them on her grand piano and fancy synthesizer for me to be able to record some new songs beyond my vast Finocchio Club repertoire. In those days most of my arrangements were done by Bill Bullard and the well-known orchestra leader, Jack Fisher.
Now Linda has become my Theatrical Angel. Best of all, she is my new and dearest of friends and someone that I can trust, and that’s quite rare to find. It’s also quite comforting to me, because all of my loyal friends and fans, including most of my Finocchio Club co-workers and lovely lady customers from my hair salon have passed on. So now Linda somehow fills some of that void in my heart, though I still miss dearly those folks every day of my life.
Amapola: What was it about impersonating people that attracted you?
David: The forté of my act was my loving tribute to Judy Garland; then when Liza Minnelli hit the heights during her Cabaret movie days, she was added to my act. But of course I always had my own International Act called Boy-Chic in which I sang in Spanish and English and a bit of French, in my own voice and style, and in the act I included a loving tribute to my Cuban singer, idol and friend Olga Chorens, a tribute to Edith Piaf, Shirley MacLaine, and others.
I was attracted to these particular female singing Stars because of their strength, vulnerability, stage presence, body movements, and in Judy’s and Olga’s case, their stellar vocal quality.
Amapola: When was the key turning point of your career?
David: I guess when I started working steadily at Finocchio’s, and after my long run ended, working there for years as a constant guest artist when needed by Eve Finocchio. That was when I was really branded as a professional drag artist in The Bay Area. During that time, and to this day I continue to do shows on TV, radio, in theaters and cabarets, unalike most of the Finocchio performers that once they left, put a stop to their career.
Amapola: You learned your skills as an impersonator. How did you accomplish this and how long did it take? What problems did you encounter during your learning process?
David: I started watching the best of the female impersonators in the Biz as they prepared themselves to go on stage. I was introduced to the drag world of entertainment when I first saw some of them in Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1960s. . . then years later by observing some of the wonderful FIs at Finocchio’s. Then and there was when I began perfecting my craft, especially in making up and learning tricks of the drag stage trade.
My learning process took from the mid-1960s to the early part of the 1970’s. I didn’t have any problems during the learning process. The trouble was that there were some FIs in Chicago and at Finocchio’s in San Francisco that were not the most kind people and I was picked on verbally and teased because I was not part of their so called ‘clique’.
Amapola: Do you have a favorite impersonator, or are there several favorites?
David: I know I will have many impersonators that I know personally becoming upset with me, because they feel I should mention their names, but to me singers like the master-illusionist Jim Bailey, and the late Craig Russell top my list. Then at Finocchio’s were the incomparable Lavern Cummings and The Great Lucian. But of course there were others at the club that I also appreciated immensely who were not singers, but excellent dancers, like the international dancing Stars René de Carlo and Marlo Adame, both from Mexico City, dear Bobby De Castro who was from Cuba (like me), and last but not least, my favorite emcee of all time, and also a good friend, the always elegantly costumed Carroll Wallace.
Amapola: We all pay our dues, as entertainers, if you don’t mind my asking, when was the worst time of your career?
David: The worst time in my career was when we had to leave the Bay Area forever. My long time life partner Paul Ryner had lost his job of 21 years after the company sold out and moved to Texas. I had to sell my hair salon and our newly acquired exquisite home in Santa Cruz, California. Of course any chance to guest Star at Finocchio’s ended. To rub salt in the wound, a day before escrow closed on our home in Santa Cruz and before leaving for to the home we purchased in New Mexico, I received a phone call from Southern California from the director of entertainment for “La Cage”. He was planning to have me Star as his Judy Garland Act for the new club he was opening on Broadway in San Francisco, to compete with Finocchio’s. If I am not mistaken it was going to be at the old Mabuhay Gardens where I had the pleasure to perform with the Johnny Rojo Band.
Amapola: Did you ever feel that your fans invaded your privacy?
David: I was very lucky that most fans that followed me in the Bay Area never invaded my privacy at home. They came to our home when invited to parties we gave and they followed me from performance to performance all over The Bay Area, always loyal but never in a way that I felt smothered. Of course, I have never given out to strangers, my home address or my private phone number, so that helps to maintain one’s privacy.
Amapola: How did you deal with a rowdy crowd?
David: I was very lucky that I never really had a rowdy crowd. Of course at Finocchio’s on Friday and Saturday nights (referred to as motel nights) there were some patrons that were loud at times because of their drinking, but I was fortunate that I was never attacked verbally. One time in my life after completing a concert at San Francisco State College, a drugged-up young hippie looking guy came back stage to criticize how I did my Judy Garland Act. It hurt me for a while, but I forgot about it quickly, because I knew my act was done impeccably and people always applauded me for it, and he was out of line anyway, bursting backstage without permission.
A very important lesson I learned from Bobby De Castro at Finocchio’s, was to always play to the women in the audience and not to the men. That way somehow it made them feel more secure and that I was not trying to compete with them. That would help somewhat to tame a rowdy crowd. Also rather than getting upset, as some of the other entertainers did when heckled, I would focus my attention on those people and even try to get them involved in my act, and win them over in the end. Those kind of people always sat in the first row and that made it harder because it is always nice having an appreciative crowd in front, not just for the performer’s sake, but because people behind them tend to imitate their behavior.
Amapola: What do you like most about your work?
David: What I like most, and I am sure that includes all performers (at least the ladies) is make-up and hair time, costuming properly for the part I am playing, and then of course the anticipation of seeing who is in the audience. (At Finocchio’s we played quite often to famous people). Perhaps best of all, the applause and recognition from the audience that all of us entertainers (impersonators or not) live for!
Amapola: Are you basically a happy person?
David: I try to be as happy as possible during my stay here on Earth. Certain times I feel life’s happenings become just too hard on me mentally, because I have to deal with people who are not kind at heart, but this happens not just to me, but to other folks too.
I do get depressed at times because of many factors outside of my control, but then I count my blessings and smile again. But as time passes by, people I have known throughout my life, including family members, loyal fans, friends, hair clients and co-workers from Finocchio’s pass on and leave me behind. That makes me at times a little sad.
My parents Tila and Heri Sr., and my partner Paul and I believe that it’s our Karma to live comfortably, but no matter how frugal we are and how hard we work, we can never get rich. Money seems to evade us. I know on this Earth having a lot of money doesn’t buy you health and happiness, but my dear, it surely can ease many things that us poor folks have to deal with in our everyday lives.
Amapola: What career would you have undertaken had you not become an impersonator?
David: I have always had dual careers in my life, first as a cosmetologist and then as an entertainer. I guess if the latter never came through I would have done hair until the end. I do like working with animals a lot and am very knowledgeable about their care, so I probably would have enjoyed owning a pet shop. I once applied to work in a zoo in Northern California, but didn’t pass the State test. Imagine . . . most of the questions were about math and logic, nothing that had to do with caring for animals, so that ended my chance to work in that field . . . back to dressing hair and performing in drag!
Amapola: Tell me about your latest interview by some students from the University of Berkeley, California.
David: I am asked quite often to be interviewed by different professionals in the Biz, but most recently some students from the Dept. of Theater and Drama from UC Berkeley decided to interview me about Finocchio’s and some of the performers that I worked with. They, via student Jilly Gómez who e-mailed me on their behalf, told me they saw my Web Site and liked my loving tribute to some of the cast members I had the pleasure to work with at Finocchio’s. They thought, who better than David de Alba who is still active theatrically, to participate in this special interview. You see, most of the cast from Finocchio’s prime years have passed on, and the few of them who are still alive are not interested in ever working in drag on stage again and are retired from the Biz for good.
This interview was lots of fun but a little bit painful to me, since I had to dig up many old buried memories and make them take life again along with bringing back to life, on paper, some cast members. It’s easier when I can talk about them on stage, but putting things down on paper takes an accomplished author, as you are nowadays considered my dear Amapola . . . but I did my best and it came out quite fine for being an amateur writer.
Oh, by the way, I was told by the students that this interview would be archived at the UC Berkeley library for future generations to know about the San Francisco Landmark called Finocchio’s, and also about some of the entertainers who gave so much on that stage to so many thousands of people who waited at least an hour in long lines every night on Broadway to get into the club.
Amapola: David, I wanted to surprise you with my latest book to come out in August, 2005, 'Promising Skies' where I mention you and some of your former Finocchio co-workers, but I understand that two other authors beat me to it. Is this true?
David: Well first of all Amy, thank you for mentioning me in your book. To my knowledge thus far, I am mentioned in an autobiography by a well-known female impersonator from Minnesota whose book is entitled "This is Lady Patra North - Secret of My Song" and it came out in 2002. He talks about his experience seeing me perform as Judy Garland at Finocchio's; and now in 2005 James R. Smith came out with a wonderful book about San Francisco called: "San Francisco's Lost Landmarks". In it there is a section dedicated to Finocchio's and some of the performers that graced their stage over the years. Mr. Smith speaks about my three theatrical acts and with my permission, included a funny antecdote about the club taken from one of my Finocchio CDs. I am very grateful to all the authors that have helped immortalize my theatrical career through such fine books.
Amapola: What is your advice to some of the young people who are thinking of becoming impersonators?
David: Once in awhile young female impersonators may ask me a question or two via e-mail after they have seen my Web Site and what I have done in my drag theatrical career. I try to give them my best answer / advice, but in the end I find that they do what they want anyway, so it is often just a waste of my time. So I have decided not to do so anymore if I can avoid it. You see, the present generation of FIs are into a different bag than the drag entertainers of my day, and before when Finocchio’s was in its heyday.
Now they like to participate in pageants and win contests, and of course to be crowned “Queen” of whatever, (a la Miss America or Miss Universe). They prefer to go by the title of Miss or Ms. instead of Mr., as we were announced professionally on stage in the past. Some of these new generation FIs even have plastic surgery to get real breasts . . . totally unacceptable in my time. Also they lip-sync to recordings and don’t want to (or can’t) sing ‘live’ as we were required to do. The days of ‘live’ entertainment is passing into history. Even performers like you Amy, know that there are very few clubs nowadays that have a live band to work with.
Most of the new drag entertainers are not interested in the history of FIs and what those pioneer female impersonators stood for. Many of them are not even acquainted with the legendary female Stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Thank God there are still a few of us legitimate FIs left, trying to carry the torch, as in the case of such talented actor/ impressionists I know like Danny La Rue, Ricky Renèe and Criselda Crescini in Europe; and Jim Bailey, Jimmy James, Lady Patra, Anita Mann and myself here in the USA.
Note: I want to thank you with all my heart dear Amy (Amapola to your fans) for having taken valuable time from your busy life to interview me. Now I can add another fond memory of you on my Web site by virtue of this interview. I will never forget the happy times I had when we both were living in the Bay Area and when I was invited twice to be a guest artist on your well-known TV show filmed live in San Francisco, [Video capture on right] and the many fun times when I went to see you perform at ‘The Tonga Room’ in The Fairmont Hotel and at other gigs you did.God bless . . . your friend always, La Leyenda Cubana, David de Alba.
Visit the award winning Web Site "David de Alba’s Theatrical Arts & Tributes" at david-de-alba.com