David de Alba at Finocchio’s

| Nov 27, 2017

de Alba as Boy Chic and Salome at Finnochio’s.

Finocchio’s emcee Carrol Wallace announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s bring to the stage the warm and charming personality of David de Alba!” and out walks David in a feathered and spangled gown, coiffed and made up as Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, or BoyChic, singing, dancing, and imperson- ating the ladies he admires.

The club on Broadway is big, well-lit, and classy, still concerned enough about its early days as a pick-up bar in the Tenderloin that the owner’s policy for performers is “Come in as a boy; leave as a boy.” In other words, don’t be seen standing on the street in drag or mingling with the customers. Somehow Eve Finocchio’s favorites, a chorus of Eveettes, was exempt. Employees were either Pets or Pests, although David was able to manage staying some- where in between. Employees nicknamed Finocchio’s “The House of Hate.” Early each morning, performers reported last night’s infractions to Mrs. Finocchio. When David approached her about that she answered “David, I listen to everything they tell me, but I only listen to what I want.”

David worked at Finocchio’s from the early 1970s until 1989, at first steadily, then sporadically as a “guest spot performer” at the beck and call of Mrs. Finocchio. Today, David remembers those years as the best in his life. He hadn’t grown up dreaming of becoming a female impersonator, but when the opportunity came it made sense. He’d been perfecting those skills for years.

David was an only child, born in Camaguey, Cuba. His father, Heriberto Garcia, worked for the railroad and his mother, “Dr. Tila,” was an elementary school teacher and principal. They had a house in town, a beach house, and a Chevrolet Bel Air. The family spent time at grandmother Emilia’s farm and enjoyed an annual train trip to Havana, where David heard Olga Chorens, his first idol, at the Radio Progreso station. She was a star whose spectacular voice and dramatic style David admired, and he took a photo of her.

When Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, promising moderate reforms, David’s family was one of the many thousands who decided to come to the United States. David was sent ahead to Brewster Hall, a Florida boarding school. Young, suddenly alone, and not speaking the language, David had a nervous breakdown. The school helped “put the parts back together.”

After a year at the classy Graham-Eckes boarding school, David got a scholarship to Greenbriar Military School in West Virginia. His stay at Greenbriar lasted only one year: “Me clean a gun?” he says now. “That school didn’t make me butch, but what I got was discipline which has helped me the rest of my life. You had to be impeccably dressed.” David joined his parents, who had moved to Chicago, and finished high school there.

The family had lost almost everything, received no government help, and could only get dish washing and busboy jobs at $1 an hour. David earned a half-scholarship to the American School of Beauty Culture, where he started his hairdressing career. A hairdresser friend asked if he could make up David as Judy Garland for the Halloween Ball, “since you look so much like her. Can you sing?” David certainly could, and studied singing, while starting what became a huge collection of Judy’s recordings and memorabilia.

David first performed in Chicago clubs like the Chesterfield but distinguished himself from other female impersonators by actually singing. “All the boys were just lip-syncing, then called pantomiming, to Eydie Gormé and other stars, but not trying to impersonate.” David became known as “the male Judy Garland.” Once he saw her perform and still regrets that no camera caught the moment when she kissed him on the cheek. By the 1940s and ’50s, Judy had a big gay following, and the question “Is he a friend of Dorothy?” was code for “Is he gay?”

David de Alba (top right, dressed as Salome) appeared on a Finocchio’s postcard produced in the early 1980s. David is the only one still performing professionally and the only one who has done and will do a special live concert tribute to Finocchio’s to keep the club’s legacy/history alive.

David saw firsthand police harassment under Mayor Dailey, and in 1969 he moved to San Francisco and began working at Vyolet’s Wig Salon on Polk Street. At that time, he met Paul Ryner, his longtime partner. A chance recommendation from a realtor brought David and Paul to Potrero Hill; they bought a home for themselves on De Haro Street and one for David’s parents on Rhode Island Street. A hair salon in an art deco building at 18th and Kansas Streets became available and David went for it. He remembers that Tila, his mother, became his “personal secretary and therapist for the many ladies on the hill who came; everyone loved her because of her attitude.”

When location scouts were working on the television pilot Spies to star Tony Curtis, they heard about the cozy salon on Potrero Hill run by a son and his mother. When they saw the signed photos of movie stars on the walls of Heri, Hairstylist to the Stars (remember David’s birth name), that cinched the deal. At one point, the Potrero View gave David a beauty-tip column, “Ask Heri.”

The filming crew brought excitement to the Potrero Hill neighborhood. One local brought her wedding photo for Mr. Curtis to sign. Another exclaimed, “I just used the same john where Tony Curtis sat!” Tony, recalling his Some Like It Hot days, told David, “I take off my hat to you for working in drag. It’s difficult!”

By this time, David was in his 20s and performing regularly at Finocchio’s. (He had been introduced to the club through styling female impersonator’s wigs at his salon.) There were four shows a night for straight audiences full of tourists. He became the club’s only Cuban bilingual singer, often singing songs such as “La Virgen de la Macarena” made famous by Olga Chorens, but “I’m Gonna Live Until I Die” became his theme song. David’s Chicago stage name, Heri del Valle, difficult for the emcee to announce, was changed to David de Alba, and he dubbed his singing persona “BoyChic,” a take on the Yiddish endearment “boychick.”

Life was good for David as he moved between the salon and the club. The years passed quickly. David’s mother helped run the salon, and his father found a group of fellow expats from Camaguey at the local Cuban Club. David says he was “often flabbergasted that . . . I was performing in front of stars like Richard Chamberlain, Sergio Franchi, Colonel Sanders, and Arthur Murray!”

But there were always pluses and minuses about Finocchio’s. The pay was dependable, but you didn’t know how long you’d be working. “We don’t fire people; we just let them go,” was the club’s unwritten policy. Dealing with the jealousies and politics among employees took getting used to. One performer was let go for refusing to wear the orange costume Eve Finocchio had picked out. But Finocchio’s was also known as “the Elephant’s Burial Ground,” a place where older performers could continue their careers.

David de Alba at his Las Vegas home surrounded by his collection of Judy Garland memorabilia.

David took trips to Miami to watch Olga Chorens perform. Chorens was amazed to see the photo of the little boy from Cuba, now a Finocchio’s star. She thought so highly of his act that she offered David an award, a rare tribute from the impersonated to the impersonator.

But 1989 was not a good year. Just as an offer to “be our Judy” at a new Cage Aux Folles club came, Paul lost his job. He and David moved to Las Vegas, and David’s parents followed.

A more difficult period came in 2008 when Tila died. “That’s when the umbilical cord was broken. We were like twin souls and now there is an emptiness,” he says.

David is at a bittersweet stage of life when many friends and family have died and memories become increasingly important, “But at least I’m blessed to be able to go back to a pretty past.” He’s not interested in returning to Potrero Hill. He comments that when he visited San Francisco in 2003, “It was like I’d been in a coma and woke up to a broken dream” — the beauty shop was closed, and Finocchio’s had become a lawyer’s office.

David continues performing twice a year, “stronger and with more essence,” getting together with Las Vegas fans and responding to emails from around the world. He’s in touch with Olga Chorens, who conducts a radio show at age 92. His “Frozen in Time: An Evening at Finocchio’s” played in Las Vegas on April 24. “Now I’m a teacher like my mother, teaching the American Songbook and about Olga, Judy, and Liza [Minelli].” Videos featuring David de Alba are on YouTube, including an interview with the Potrero Hill Archives Project, which this year gave David its Potrero Hill Performer of the Year Award.

Tourists were once told, “When you visit San Francisco you must see two things — the Golden Gate Bridge and the boys at Finocchio’s.” The bridge is just fine and David de Alba keeps the other possibility very much alive.

Peter Linenthal is the author, illustrator, and sometimes both of more than a dozen children’s books. He the director of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill Archives Project. He asked us to let readers know that they can contact David de Alba at cubanlegend@cox.net.

Republished with permission of the author. This article first appeared in the Newsletter of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

Photos courtesy of David de Alba.

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Category: History, Impersonation

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  1. Carollyn Olson says:

    Another fantastic interview with my dear friend David. He remains an icon and one of the rare few keeping the original female impersonating talent alive and well. As Michelle said above, David’s shows are a “must-see” Las Vegas. David is the best of the best and always will be. Love, Carollyn

  2. MichelleTheTall says:

    This is really a concise, in-depth interview! I have seen David perform at his revival shows and tributes to Judy Garland. He keeps the art of impersonation alive. Whenever David plans a show, this is a must-see event if you are in Las Vegas! Be watching the show bills!

    Take care, David!

    Love,

    Michelle