David de Alba conducted this interview in the early 2000s. He has graciously allowed TGF to republish it.
I heard in the past from Lavern Cummings and Robin Price about a wonderful drag performer, Libby Reynolds. Unfortunately he was before my time at Finocchio’s and I never saw him on stage. Just last week I received an e-mail from Libby complimenting my website and Celebrity Interview Series. I told Robin Price and he urged me to add Libby to my series. I asked him if he would grant me an interview session and he accepted with enthusiasm. I can see from my preliminary correspondance that Libby is a person that lives by his/her own rules and has no qualms about speaking out. I understand that he is one of those rare people that if you number him among your friends you can consider yourself LUCKY. Here is an interview with raw, in-depth answers from an entertainer with a wealth of experience in the art of female impersonation. It is my honour indeed to offer Libby a permanent home on my Celeb Series, so the cyberspace world can forever remember the incomparable Libby Reynolds!
Libby: I WAS BORN IN A TRUNK AT THE PRINCESS THEATRE IN POCATELLO IDAHOOO . . . no, no, no, no; that was Vicki Lester in A Star is Born. I was born Raymond Gumieney, December 1st 1932 at 41 Broadway, at the foot of the East River, practically under the Williamsburg Bridge, on the Brooklyn side of course; the last of eleven children. Talk about being depressed during the depression years, I ask you. It was very hard on mother during those years David. You see she had had it with my father and told him to get out! She still had kids to raise and had one in the oven, that was ME. She gave birth to all eleven of us at home with the aid of a wet nurse.
A lot of poor families in those days moved like clockwork, one or two months here, two or three there, and so on. Thank God mom knew how to budget, even when there was no money. We only managed to move three times in four years. That was a real record breaker, especially for a poor family. We moved from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, my birthplace, to that very famous street where Jackie Gleason lived, Chauncey Street; even went to the same schools he did; PS.73 and Our Lady of Lourdes, the biggest cathedral in Brooklyn at the time. We lived there about a year, almost two, and here comes the moving van. We only moved a few blocks away to Hopkinson Ave, right next door to the public library. After that we made our big and final move to MacDougal Street. We were living there when I moved out to ‘make it on my own’ as the old adage says.
I was the only family member to ever make it to high school, a big thing to the rest of the family. During my youth I guess I did what most kids did; played hooky, (a lot), joined the band at Volunteers of America and played French (wouldn’t you know it) horn, which outraged the Monsignor at Our Lady of Lourdes, because I was their featured singer in the school choir. I also belonged to the Boy Scouts and this should really break you up. Practically all the other members were, as you might say, ‘my private stock’. When I finally graduated Jr. High I went to Metropolitan High in Lower Manhattan, a stones throw from what is now Ground Zero. I should have chosen to go to their annex which was Performing Arts. I didn’t last long in high school. You see, I realized there was a real world out there and I wanted to be a big part of it, so I quit school and took my first job.
David: Did you know at an early age that Showbiz was going to be part of your life?
Libby: As a kid growing up I was always asked to sing at family gatherings and knew that I really loved it when they did ask. What kid at an early age really knows the potential they have? Evidently stage mothers do, ask Gypsy Rose Lee,(oops). I remember as a young kid going to the movies at the Saturday matinée, which only cost three cents with the special ticket your mom got the prior Wednesday Dish Nite, and then they gave you a comic book and a Bit-O-Honey bar, and you saw two full features, a serial, two cartoons and News of the Day. Your mother would usually pack a lunch and send you off for a few hours of fun while she had hers in the sack with your old man. Especially during the war years the local movie houses did their part for the war effort. Most parents prayed for Saturday to roll around. After going to see a few Judy Garland pictures, I dreamed of either meeting her or performing with her. I guess you might have called them my wildest dreams or fantasies. I was happy enough to be able to see her on the big screen, before Vistavision and the likes. She was truly a Star to be born.
David: Did you have a drag mother or mentor who showed you the ropes when you entered into the realm of Drag Artists?
Libby: No David, I never did, although my real mother always did support me and my love for the lifestyle I was leading. She helped me dye or bleach my hair. I guess real mothers have a sense of what’s really going on with their kids if they know or care enough to read between the lines. Her biggest dream was for me to call her ‘mother’ as opposed to ‘ma’ or ‘ma ma’. It was sad in a way because I never realized how much it really meant to her until after she passed in the Spring of 1953. I had sent flowers to the funeral as ‘Ma Ma’ when it finally hit me it was too late to do anything but sob and regret. So to any of you kids out there, remember what my aunt said to me when she saw me crying alone out on the street in front of the funeral parlor, “Kid, you lost the best PAL you will ever have in life.” (So true).
David: How did you get started in the difficult but often rewarding career of female impersonation, and where did you get the stage name “Libby Reynolds”?
Libby: It all started in the fall of 1957. I was out of work and depressed and walking up 2nd Avenue [in New York]. There was a little place, Club Capri, that used to have drag shows that I was quite familiar with from my bartending days. It had been an after-hours bar. I thought to myself, why not ask for a job as a singer, (balls, I had them). The manager asked had I ever worked before as an entertainer and I told him the truth, NO. I don’t know why he gave me a tryout but thank God he did because he opened a whole new world for me. I knew in my heart that I would get the job if he knew a good voice when he heard one, that was no problem, but getting out there and facing an audience was another thing. They had what they call a floor show, no stage just the floor and 5 feet away was the audience. I didn’t even have a rehearsal. Maybe he thought to himself “Let the bitch sing and make a fool of herself and perhaps leave.” I got out there and sang my ass off with all the love for music in my heart. I was scared shitless. My voice trembled, my knees were knocking, you name it, it was happening to me. The audience was great and they really liked me, I could tell. So began a new and wonderful life for me.
At that time I had no stage name and was going under the name of Ray Reynolds. That was to change after my next job in the business. After a disagreement with the boss I went to work at another club just up the avenue a few block away called The Ace of Clubs. By the way, all the show clubs at that time were Mafia run. Glad to say I never had a problem with any of the joints I worked in. So maybe I was very fortunate that my audition at the 82 Club was a flop. At The Ace of Clubs I was automatically hired . . . no audition, just on hearsay. The only problem, and it really was no problem, was that there was a queen running the show by the name of Ray Leen (who was featured in the book Femme Mimics). She said there was no way we could have two Rays in the show. I had originally chosen ‘Reynolds’ because of my sister-in-law who had to change her name from Goldman to Reynolds due to bigotry in the ’40s, and the ‘Libby’ came from my ex-boss’s wife. She also was Jewish. Hence Libby Reynolds. I have always liked the name and it also went over big with Ray Leen. Problem solved.
In that show [Ace of Clubs] was a very light skin colored queen named Vicky Vogue whom I had known for a number of years. We were very close friends and when the new owners of the Ace took over, Vicky and I left the show. When we were working there it was being run by Trudy Heller. She originally managed The Supremes. I would later work for Trudy again at the very elegant Versaille.
David: Tell us how you came to perform in Doc & Danny’s Jewel Box Revue.
Libby: After the Ace of Clubs Vickie & I went to try out for anything we could get in the well known Jewel Box Revue. They took one good look at my legs and said “Forget it! How would you like to be a chorus boy?” Hey . . . what the hell, and Vickie got to be a show girl. At that time The Jewel Box had only one big show and Robbie Ross was there. It was in the Spring of 1959 and we opened at Robert’s Show-Lounge in Chicago, Illinois. The show was gorgeous, the room was tremendous and the audience fantastic . . . finally the big time, but small pay!!!! It was a tremendous learning experience for all of us, don’t let anyone shit you.
David: OK, it sounds like you were already becoming a road warrior at your young age. What happened after The Jewel Box Revue closed?
Libby: When The Box road show disbanded I went to New Orleans to work at the My-O-My Club. Jackie Gordon, who had been with The Box as La Star was fired due to some racial remarks she made at Robert’s (all Black club) joined Jamie Powers and myself to go to New Orleans. She had invited herself, put me down to Pat Waters who ran the show, kissed his ass and was ‘in like Flynn’ . . . and I was out on my ASS. (Sweet queen wasn’t she.) I returned to New York and went on with my life doing club dates through various agents. (Fought with my old man daily. He wanted a husband, not a wife! ha ha ha.) C’est la vie. LIFE’S A BITCH only if you let it get the upper hand . . . I refused to.
David: I read somewhere in a gay gossip column that you “had something going” with actor Raymond Burr when you were living in New York. Is there any truth to it?
Libby: Regarding Ray Burr I met him while bartending at the Main Street Lounge in Greenwich Village. I had my back to him while at the register when he ordered his drink and I knew instantly who it was. It was around closing time and he asked could he stay while we all checked out and I said fine. He wanted to go to breakfast so I took him to a wonderful Italian joint in Little Italy on Mullberry St. (very very Mafia). He asked would I like to bring some friends along. I brought along the head bartender and his date. While at the restaurant the owner took Ray and myself on a tour of the kitchen, etc.. He had a ball.
He dropped me off at my place and asked could he have a night cap, so I said yes. The cab waited for him while we had a drink, and I won’t go any further. He was a sweetheart. I saw him to his cab which was still waiting just as another cab pulled up. It was my roommate at the time Joey Tone, a sweetheart of an entertainer. I introduced them and Ray was off into the night. We had a few nips while we dished Burr, and finally went to sleep. Two minutes later I got a call from Ray asking me to join him at the Plaza Hotel and said not to worry about the cab, it would be taken care of by the doorman. We had a few more nips and hit the sack. You’ll have to read between the lines for your own answer. The next morning I dropped him off at the airport while everybody gawked and called him Perry Mason. He had been in town to visit a burn victim fan who had admired him; some little boy who just adored Perry Mason, as most of us did.
David: Were there any female singers of the time that you liked and that perhaps influenced your own singing style?
Libby: I guess there were so many that I really enjoyed like Ella, Sarah, Dinah (Washington that is). Oh there were so many but in my opinion the greatest of them all was Lady Day (Billie Holiday) who I had the greatest pleasure to meet at a gay bar in New York. She was one of the nicest persons I’d met in my life. And then about six months later I was working as a bartender at the same place. It was called The Terrace Cafe on 44th St., and she came in right after I had opened the doors for the day. She ordered her usual double Gordon’s Vodka with a Coke back. About an hour later a couple who just got married that morning stopped in for a quick one before going to Niagara for their honeymoon.
When Billie found out that they adored her she left the bar, (she was staying at the King Edward Hotel just down the street) and came back with an autographed picture for them. She was very kind, considerate and most of all loveable. She also told me to keep my ears open, that come around September of that year a new singer would be coming on the scene that no one had ever heard of and that the first time you hear the recording you’re not going to know whether it was male or female. She was right . . . and the singer was Johnnie Ray. (I’m praying to God that you have heard of him?)
David: Did you have any professional training in singing? What type of songs did you do?
Libby: The only training I ever got was in Grammar School & Parochial School. I excelled in Music Class, A+ never lower. As for the songs I did on stage, you name it, although I love Gershwin standards. I adore the blues; The Lonesomest Gal in Town, (arrangement borrowed from Tommy Dee of Anne’s 440 Club S.F.), Hard Hearted Hannah, Long John Blues, Sweet Georgia Brown. Ballads; All About Ronnie, Summertime, Guess Who I Saw Today My Dear. They all went over big with the audience. Name it, I’ll sing it if I know the lyrics.
Libby: As for what I did at Finocchio’s, all I did was sing; that’s all they would let me do; they were a real pain in the ass. You see, everything changed after Marge [Joe Finocchio’s first wife] passed away. Joe thought because he had money that the society elite would accept him. But they never did, and that didn’t go over too well with either one of them, Joe & Eve. She was a very rude person. She told Tommy Dee (God rest his soul) after his interview “YOU BELONG IN A SMOKE FILLED ROOM!” Tommy being the professional that he was didn’t bother to reply and just thanked her and left. As for the Club itself, it was a real toilet compared to the 82 Club in New York. And what about that garbage of having to do four shows a night; I never heard of that in my life before Finocchio’s. One good thing I like to think of is the fact that they needed a singer and they requested me. I didn’t ask them for anything.
David: Do you have any interesting backstage memories you care to share with us?
Libby: I was working at Finocchio’s when Robin Price came into the scene. We more or less dressed in different dressing rooms until I was allowed to clean out the old wardrobe room to make it a dressing room for myself.
Well, there was enough room for a few more, so Al St. Claire asked if he could come and dress with me and naturally I said yes, and bring Robin along with you. As you well know David, there were always little groups that seemed distant themselves from others; nothing personal but why not make-up with those you really enjoy being with.
Libby: Robin and I lived at the famous Grey Ghost, (Vaseline Flats), a very well known building in San Francisco, just down the street from City Hall. As a matter of fact Lavern Cummings lived there also along with Mickey Martin, Mgr. of the ‘party of 4′ which included Tommy Dee, Reggie Mason, Donnie Miles and Larry Winters. Mickey, Reggie and Donnie all lived together on the third floor just down the hall in the other direction. It was one hell of a building to live in.
David: What is this story I heard about you and Jackie Phillips getting into trouble with the Artists’ Union?
Libby: Jackie and I were brought up on charges for going downstairs to the little bar for a nip between shows on Halloween night. AGVA [American Guild of Variety Artists] suspended me for two weeks and Jackie chimed in, “If he gets two weeks, so do I.”
David: What did you do after leaving Finocchio’s?
Libby: Before leaving Finocchio’s, also referred to as “The Old Elephants’ Burial Ground”, I had been in touch with Don Winters who had left Finocchio’s and had gone to work at The Jewel Box Lounge [not associated with the original Jewel Box Revue] in Kansas City. When I told him of my leaving Finocchio’s, he suggested I talk to his boss about going there. I did and opened there in December of ’63. While working there the light boy whose name was Timmy McKay was a real sweet kid so we put a little paint on him, threw on a dress and that my dear was the beginning of another career! He never turned on a light again, unless it was to go to the can. Catch my drift?
Starring in that show was Skip Arnold, aka Magnolia Calhoun, a wonderful & very talented entertainer. Gene Evol, aka Brian Mahoney was also in the cast. It was a mixed show, half live for the few of us who did work live and the rest was pantomime. It was all screwed up, but the owner loved this one number I did called “Long John Blues.” His name was John also and if you are at all familiar with the song you will understand why he liked it so much. He insisted I sing it every show, even when I was supposed to be lipping it. One of the other acts, who, I don’t know to this day, had put itching powder in one of my gowns. The owner also had another club down the street which was gay and the only act there didn’t need any help from anyone. It was none other than [the notorious] Rae Bourbon. I waited out the holidays in Kansas City and then threw all caution to the wind and motored on to Chicago with Lover & puppy dog in tow. The puppy was given to me by Lucian a few months before leaving Finocchio’s to go to The Jewel Box Lounge in Kansas City, and was a cute mixture of Australian Silky Hair and Mexican Chihuahua, the most unusual looking thing you ever saw. We called her Weed because that’s what she looked like, a scrawny weed. She was so tiny and she thought she was Attila the Hun!
Libby: Food . . . I simply love it, and don’t put me in a kitchen. For instance where I am now living the kitch’ is long and narrow and I have access to practically everything I need at arm’s length. There isn’t an inch on the walls in my work area that isn’t being utilized. All my friends just shake their heads in disbelief and think I’m nuts, and I tell them yes! for FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD (Oliver you know).
David: Do you have any particular kinds of foods you enjoy? Living in San Francisco at that time you had a vast variety of cuisine from all parts of the world to choose from.
Libby: When I first arrived in S.F there were two great eateries, Gordon’s & Jackson’s. The food in both places was very good and the service the best. They both of course were gay and simply MAAVELOUS DAHHLING. I’m sure they are both gone by now. Another place was Alliotto’s but perhaps a little too commercial.
David: If you could relive one happy memory from your performing career, what would that be? How about a sad moment you would like to forget?
Libby: A bunch of us got together and did what they called a showcase out on Long Island. The place seated about 500 and I was the opening act. I did my first number S’wonderful and the place went up for grabs. You’d think that they were all let out of jail and this was their first night out on the town. They were so appreciative and I could actually feel the love coming from them. I was so taken back and stunned that I actually started crying, but they wouldn’t have it. They started screaming MORE, MORE! I tried to compose myself and went on singing and quivering all at the same time.
It was the most wonderful feeling in the world. It has never reappeared, sorry to say.
A sad moment? Tobi Marsh, Rickie Doyle, Joey Pheasant & myself were all roommates in 1960 and they all worked the 82 Club at the same time Tony Midnite was there. Rickie, myself, Jamie Powers, Tommy Dee, Frankie Bennett and Jerry Stuart, all of us ex-JBR members, went on the road to Binghamton, New York. The show was a huge success. We were on our way to Rochester N.Y. when we encountered an accident which left the driver dead (Jamie’s husband) and the rest of us in the hospital, but that’s another chapter in itself.
David: You have so many interesting memories of your Showbiz career. Have you considered writing a book someday?
Libby: I’ve thought about it a number of times but where the hell do you start, and don’t tell me to start at the beginning because if I did I would have to go back to the womb. I guess I’ll just have to re-think that one more time before making any commitments.
David: Are you still active in Showbiz or are you 100% retired? If not, would you like to do a comeback sometime, possibly for a charity event?
Libby: I haven’t appeared in about 6 years, and to say I won’t again is out of the question. As long as there is a little fight in me I’m ready for it. So long as the shimmering, glimmering lights are still on, who knows, even if it’s doing a benefit.
I still have a lot to give even if it’s only to show how the performers of yesteryear respected the stage and its audiences.
David: If a gorgeous Blue Fairy Prince on a white horse were to descend from the skies and grant you a wish, what would you ask for?
Libby: If The Blue Fairy came by to give me anything I wanted I couldn’t ask for anything for myself. After a 4-way bypass and beating cancer a year and a half ago I am very fortunate and thankful to still go on with my many wonderful friends. I think I should like to see an end to all the troubles of the world. I maybe a cockeyed optimist, but so long as our flag still flies, there’s hope. GOD BLESS AMERICA, LAND THAT I LOVE.
At this time I would really like to take the opportunity to thank you for your kind offer to see what I’m all about. I hope I haven’t offended anyone, and I shall always think of this as a good & wonderful thing you were able to give me.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT,
Libby passed away peacefully on June 19, 2006, at 12:45AM at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, California at the age of 73. Her ashes were buried at David Greenberg’s Dancer’s Studio in S.CA. Libby dear, may you rest in peace. I know you will have fun seeing some of your Showbiz friends Up There once again.