I was creating a Web site for someone who considers himself a "drag queen". I was doing a search on the Internet and came across the name David de Alba again and again. I visited Mr. de Alba's wonderful site and for the first time saw the art of Female Impersonation. I kept reading and found that David was so much more - Singer-Impressionist, Recording Artist, Dancer and Celebrity Interviewer. I knew I had to contact him. I got a prompt reply from David. After listening to his wonderful CDs and watching his Videos I was captivated by the art form and David himself. I created the Official International David de Alba Fan Club, which has been a big success. Now I have the honor of interviewing the Cuban Legend (La Leyenda Cubana) from Finocchio's:
Mark: David, please explain to the readers the difference between you guys at Finocchio's who worked 'live' backed up by musicians and most FIs who pantomime these days?
David: About pantomime FIs: Many of them are excellent in their craft of pantomiming, some of whom I have seen on stage and even interviewed for the Celebrity Interview Series of my own Web site, but they don't have to purchase expensive musical charts, or worry about being convincing on stage while trying to sing a complicated medley and remember all the words as I had to do then at Finocchio's and still do when I do a gig somewhere. I know a lot of them reading my answer here won't like what I say, but I have to be true to my inner feelings.....I and many other people I know, in or out of 'The Biz', would rather see a live revue as in the good old days when we had The Jewel Box, Finocchio's and The 82 Club, versus a pantomime FI revue.
Mark: David, will you share a story with readers of this interview about Finocchio's backstage? I know you do in your CDs, and very colorfully at that, but perhaps you have one that you did not include that you would like to share.
David: - There were The Eve-ettes, a chorus line created by choreographer Joel Noble named after Eve Finocchio (who always said to me she was shy)...her name bearing Eve-ettes would be announced on every show. Most of The Eve-ettes did not give a hoot about their jobs (with the exception of some classic acts who dubbed as chorus line dancers such as René de Carlo, Marlo Adame, Reggie Dahl, and Coquís). Of course, when they went on Mrs. Eve Finocchio would be glued to her seat at the front of her club with the cash register in front of her, watching her kids in awe.
Many times if she was not in a good mood after the third show she would slip upstairs where our dressing rooms were to reprehend them. One night she told them that she and Mr. Finocchio were paying a huge bill at the cleaners to have their costumes cleaned, and that ladies picked up their gowns when walking on stairs and not drag them as they did. On the other hand, on another Saturday night she would come into their dressing rooms and compliment them 'ad infinitem'. Also Mrs. Eve Finocchio would have every night, a new set of rules, the latest changes of production acts and who was to be the opening act, and notes like "There will always be a fourth show if there is an audience or not.", to allow singers that had to break a new arrangement to do so with the trio headed by Bill Bullard.
Mark: David, I own your CDs and Videos, which I would like to compliment you on, as they have brought me much entertainment. How do you accomplish such a difficult task with no record company or financial backing?
David: You see Mark dear, it has been very difficult for me. Even famous singers need their record label companies to back them up and to take care of the recording costs, the distribution and publicity, etc...and many times such companies drop the artist for whatever reason, and they are all alone not knowing how to get a new record going. Now here is me, the poor Cuban Legend, trying to get my material out while my singing voice is still in good shape without any monetary backing and only an improvised recording studio in my home. I do have my wonderful partner of many years, Paul Ryner, who helps me with the CD labeling, the liner notes and anything he can do to get the product ready to market. Then there is Miss Linda La Blanche, a wonderful soul, putting in long hours free of charge to me, arranging new song material and playing the backgrounds just because she is my dear friend and a fan of my theatrical work.
Any famous singing artist has behind his/her career perhaps hundreds of recordings backed up by famous recording companies, but to find a female impressionist who has produced eight CDs by himself is not very common in the world of Drag Showbiz, as my dear friend from Ireland, Billy Tweedie used to say to me. He encouraged me to record and leave something behind for others to enjoy, and before he passed on he did get to hear and even review some of my CDs. It's sad that many great singing artists that worked at famous clubs like The Jewel Box and Finocchio's never made a record or video, and the ones who did one or two, as in the case of T.C. Jones and Lynne Carter, unless you find a rare item on e-Bay, are lost forever. So this is why I, like Blanche DuBois, "depend on the kindness of strangers" to market my recordings, with the aid of my own Web site and now via the this new Fan Club that you so kindly formed for me, my dear Mark.
Mark: Well, David, I have, since becoming acquainted with you, become a Judy Garland Fan. I thank you for that. When did your fascination with Judy begin and did it in any way influence your getting started doing Female Impersonation?
David: My fascination with Judy Garland started when I was a teenager in the early 1960's in Chicago, Illinois. (Yes, I have been a teenager once or twice in my life). Two lesbian lady partners who owned a little Mama and Papa food store introduced me to Judy via her new Carnegie Hall record. From then on I began collecting Judy Garland records. I also joined her two fan clubs; one in the USA and one in England. Best of all I got to see Judy in person three times. The last time I even talked to her and told her of my devotion to her and that I impersonated her on stage. She kissed me on the cheek and said in her inimitable Garland style "Do you really like me that much?"... and then added "If I didn't have to leave Chicago tomorrow morning on tour, I would love to catch your act!" . . . A few months later Judy died in London.
Mark: David, I have seen you in some extraordinary costumes. Were they custom made?
David: While living in San Francisco I found out from one of my hair customers at my shop, Rosana, who was a former Cuban strip-tease artist, about a very talented African-American costume designer by the name of "Jheri of San Francisco" whom she had used previously. He copied as close as possible from photographs, the hobo, clown and pierrot costumes that Judy Garland had worn at one time or another as part of her act. Also a sweet lady friend of mine by the name of Bess Polachek made a few more outfits for me, and last but not least, a former Finocchio Club performer and also dear friend of mine, Robin Price made some gowns for me. Later on, after singer Lavern Cummings retired from the stage for good, I bought some of his beautiful costumes and many of his musical charts which I used at Finocchio's from then on, and later on at other venues I played."
Mark: David, please explain the difference in your opinion between drag queen and female impersonator.
David: Most people associate the word drag queen with a male acting out an extreme caricature of a female, with huge phoney boobs, a big teased up wig that no real woman would wear, and at times being rather dirty on stage, touching his body parts and talking in a filthy manner. Of course all drag queens don't do that, but many do.
Singer Lavern Cummings, Emcee Carroll Wallace and I who worked at the world famous Finocchio Club of San Francisco found the word "Drag Queen" a put-down to the professional art form of impersonating ladies on stage. We called ourselves "Female Impersonators", "Female Impressionists" or "Drag Artists". Even Eve Finocchio hated anyone calling her FI employees drag queens. To me the word "queen" is a put-down uttered by heterosexuals and even many gay men to refer to a male who is gay but who acts, or is by nature 'femme'. Anyway the word "queen" sounds so old . . . at least "princess" sounds more youthful, don't you think? Just kidding folks! ;o) I know there are some men who call themselves Drag Queens and who are comfortable with that terminology. More power to them. That's all I can say on this subject without getting crass.
Mark: What do you think can be done to revive the art of female impersonation and do you think it is possible?
David: It's hard to revive this art form because most of the revue shows that are still around, at least here in the USA, are all pantomime with the exception of course of the emcee who introduces the acts. Mr. Joseph Finocchio used to tell Lavern Cummings in a loud voice so we could all hear, that he and Mrs. Eve Finocchio received hundreds of letters from men who wanted to work at Finocchio's, and that singers were dime a dozen. Lavern answered him once when the cast was thinning out "Where are all these people Mr. Finocchio?" That's your true answer right there. You see, even then there were not that many men in drag who could convincingly look and sound on stage like a real woman.
Mark: I see the names Billy Tweedie and Charles Blair many times in your Web site. How did these important people come into your life?
David: The late Irish record producer and promoter Billy Tweedie was a great Judy Garland fan. I never got to meet him in person unfortunately, but corresponded with him by phone and via snail-mail, and later on via e-mail. He became a great fan of mine at first and then a good friend. He always spoke well about me saying that in his eyes I was a Star in the field of female impersonation and he meant it, because he was not a phony. He even influenced me to start my recording career. I once told him that I was considered by some theatrical agents in the Biz as a Novelty Act. He stopped me right there cold by saying to me that I should never promote myself that way because I was a true entertainer of the stage way beyond the frivolousness of a novelty act. After he passed on I dedicated on one of my CDs, the Irish song "Danny Boy" which incidentally after I heard he was gravely ill, I sang over the phone to him a few hours before he passed on. He exclaimed that I made his day. Well, he made mine too and he shall be missed by me always.
Dear Charles Blair was connected with the Judy Garland British based Fan Club for years and that's how we first met. Eventually he came twice to the USA to visit and stayed at our home in San Francisco, CA. He saw me perform at Finocchio's and I did Judy for him. He was also present at a one night concert gig I did at The Roaring 20's in which he introduced my Judy Garland Act, explaining to the audience that he worked for Shepperton Studios In London for years and that he was involved in Judy's last movie "I Could Go on Singing". I still remember that there was a drunk in the audience who shouted something funny back to Charles. Michael, Charles' young lover at the time, was roaring with laughter, later telling people back in England that his Charles got heckled at David's concert.
A sweet thing about Charles that I found out about from someone in England after he died was that he always used to brag to everyone at the Garland Club about his Cuban friend in America who did a terrific Judy Garland Act on stage and he even played one of my videos to them. I was especially flattered by the complement because he knew and worked with the real Judy. Best of all he was a dear friend to me and also to my partner Paul, and I really miss him a lot.
Mark: David, Please let the readers know how your family reacted to or feels about your career?
David: Well, everyone in my family by now knows what I do on stage. I can't speak for all of them, but the ones I care about most, my mother and my late Grandma María as far as the women of the family were concerned, have always supported me all the way. Also my father has seen me on stage many times and liked what I did and said that if anyone made fun of me, that person better watch out, because he would defend me physically if he had to. Thank God, nothing like that ever happened, since I have been lucky to have nice audiences who came to see me especially when I did concerts outside Finocchio's and who applauded my theatrical work.
Mark: David, After seeing your videos I became aware of just how much the title "Dancer" would be warranted in a description of you. When and how did you get started in dancing and how much do you consider your dancing to be an integral part of your act?
David: Thank you for asking about my dancing, because most people who read about me nowadays think I only sang, but when I started performing during my teenage years in Chicago in the mid-60's I was only a male dancer. When I was just a child in Cuba, I even danced in some fancy grammar school show productions in a theater called "Teatro Casablanca".
I used to do different Latin dances, jazz routines, and even played a Peter Pan type character dancing to "Sleigh Ride" with a full orchestra at Wright Jr. College in Chicago in a Christmas Show. I reprised that particular dance at The Chesterfield Club on holidays and later on at KEMO-TV in San Francisco in the early 70's. At Finocchio's I sang mostly, but did incorporate some dancing into my Latin routines (thanks to Bobby De Castro's insistence). Once after seeing me dance Mrs. Eve Finocchio asked me if I wanted to become one of her beloved Eve-ettes, which I graciously declined. I didn't want to go from a main singing act in her show to become a chorus dancer, even if that were to guarantee me a more permanent job in her show. When I did concerts around the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Miami area for the Olga & Tony Revue, I also did some dance routines separate from my singing impressions.
I danced for many big affairs all over Chicago during the mid-60's at the beginning of my drag career, which was encouraged by some people including a few FIs, at a popular night spot, The Chesterfield Club. I even received a trophy from the Coca-Cola Company "to a promising teen" at The Mac Cormick Boys' Club in Chicago. I danced to West Wide Story's song "Cool" with some of my Senn High School girl classmates who liked me and enjoyed performing. They were behind me on stage as my back-up dancers, but most of the time I performed alone on stage. I was never a great dancer, but I would say, yes, a good dancer, because I felt the music in my soul and projected that feeling to the audience. By the way, in my current Video Memoirs Release of 2003 there is some footage of me dancing on stage in San Francisco, California.
Mark: David, I know this interview is running long, however, you recently told me a story about Russell Reed that I found very humorous. The story had to do with Russell being emcee sometimes at Finocchio's. Can you tell the readers this story.
David: I omitted this anecdote from my two Finocchio CDs because they were getting too long and we decided I did not have enough material left over to do a third volume, so this particular funny story never saw the light of day. I will relate it to you Mark as a special bonus to this interview for the fan club.
You see, my Finocchio dressing room-mate and friend "The Ton of Fun - Russell Reed" as he was billed, was really a very smart man behind all his jolliness and his poking fun at his own weight. If he were to be alive and performing on stage these days his "fat jokes" wouldn't go over as well, because there are so many obese people here in the USA these days. Here is a cute anecdote:
When Russell was asked to be the emcee of the show because Carroll Wallace was off, you should hear the embellished speeches Russell would make to introduce each act. It was as if he wanted to show Joe and Eve Finocchio the eloquence he delivered over Carroll's style of emceeing. I remember that Russell was very excited to be the emcee, even if it was just for that night. He was suppose to wait at the wings until a performer was through with his last act and take at least one bow before appearing on stage to 'milk applause' and introduce the next act. Well, Russell entered the stage while Lavern Cummings was holding his last note and excitedly started applauding him and looking at the audience....this of course, infuriated Lavern! In my case, I did not mind because I knew he didn't do it to steal a scene, but only because he loved Showbiz and that Finocchio stage!