My 17-year quest to find Jerri Daye began in May 1995, when I interviewed Betty Leonard, manager of the State Bar in Flint from 1958 to 1985. Betty was showing me her photo albums, including one fabulous Polaroid of two female impersonators flanking bar owner Melva Earhart.
One of the impersonators looked spot-on like Kim Novak in Vertigo.
Did I mention the photo was fabulous?
Betty identified the Novak lookalike as Jerri Daye, a celebrated drag performer at the State in decades past. “Oh, you have to talk to Jerri Daye!” she said.
Something in the way she said it told me that I had to talk to Jerri Daye.
I got further incentive when someone showed me a business card from the State Bar from the 1960s with “Jerri Daye” and a phone number (with an old-time “CEdar” exchange) written on it in ballpoint.
Person-to-person contacts are key to the practice of oral history, a method known as the “snowball effect.” This is especially crucial in researching the queer past. Yet historians can chase only so many leads.
Yeah, and also projects aren’t really supposed to go on for decades and decades.
Meanwhile, my research focus shifted from Flint to Ann Arbor to Detroit.
Jump ahead to the summer of 2003, when I came upon references to an entertainer named Danny Windsor, who had performed at the Ten Eleven in Detroit. He had also, according to issues of Metro Gay News from 1977, opened the Eagle’s Nest, the first gay bar in Muskegon.
I found an address for a Danny Windsor in Muskegon Heights and wrote a snail mail letter, asking if he was the same Danny Windsor who performed at the Ten Eleven and owned the Eagle’s Nest. I figured if I had the wrong person, he wouldn’t recognize the bar names or reply with some awful anti-gay diatribe.
Lo and behold, a few days later I got a package of stuff, complete with newspaper clippings and a black & white head shot. It was, indeed, the same Danny Windsor. We made plans for me to drive over from Ann Arbor and do an oral history.
Danny had many tales to tell, including how he’d been an extra in The Wizard of Oz at age 14 playing a flying monkey.
He had opened for Judy Garland at the Palace in New York in 1951 as part of a novelty nightclub act called Doodles and Spider doing comedic pantomime. The duo also appeared on Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater before parting ways.
At some point in the interview, he brought up Jerri Daye. Danny knew Jerri from when they performed at the Diplomat Lounge in the early 1960s. According to Danny, Jerri was living in Las Vegas. He gave me a phone number.
When I called, the number had been disconnected.
A few years later, while visiting with Jeffrey Montgomery at the Triangle Foundation office, Jeff pulled out a yellowing cardstock program to show me. It was from the Diplomat, and there among the other performers was Jerri Daye, known as “The Face.”
This Jerri Daye person was taking on legendary status for me.
Over the years my beloved husband Rick has made some great historical finds for me on eBay, including glasses and matchbooks from gay bars, various LGBTQ related press photos, and even a scrapbook from the Ten Eleven from the 1940s.
My third or fourth year of grad school, he found a 1972 issue of a tiny national gay magazine called David that contained a profile of Danny Windsor. The article had many bits of new information about Danny and his career that we hadn’t talked about when we met.
And in the back of the magazine was a curious classified ad that offered audio tapes of records and TV shows for female impersonators to lip sync. Inquiries could be sent to David Hummel at a post office box in Royal Oak.
Around the same time, Detroiter Chris Hauck started a blog listing as many of the city’s gay bars as he could find. Beyond creating a rich, grassroots archive, the site began to serve as a forum for people to share memories of different bars.
Through Chris’s website, I located Russ Knight, another person I’d long been seeking since first seeing his name as a deejay in a display ad for Morey’s in an early issue of the Gay Liberator. As it turned out, Russ Knight was a pseudonym (not unusual in that more closeted era). His real name was Ray Cooper.
In October 2011, I took Amtrak down to Texas and interviewed Ray, the kind of glorious talkers that oral historians relish. Ray told me about deejaying throughout Detroit and living in the Park Lane apartments with lots of gay tenants.
He shared his apartment with Patrick McGee, his lover at the time, who performed in drag in the late 1960s and early 1970s as Trisha Trash.
At some point in our extended conversation, he mentioned a guy who supplied tapes for performers, “someone with a German sounding name,” he said. I told him about the classified ad we’d found in David magazine. “Might his name be David Hummel?” I asked.
“That sounds right.”
As it happened, David Hummel was still alive and residing in Traverse City. The puzzle pieces were all falling in place.
When I drove up to meet David a month later, he told me about giving his vast collection of American music recordings to the Library of Congress five years before. He pulled out his scrapbooks (since given to the Bentley Historical Library), and showed me his copy of the Diplomat program.
Dave knew Jerri Daye. What’s more, he knew Jerri’s real name: James Pascoe. But they had lost touch.
When I got home and hopped on the Internet, a search brought up a James Pascoe in Las Vegas. At long last, It turned out to be him.
Holy Cold Case, Batman! I found Jerri Daye!
I cashed in my frequent flyer miles and got an airline ticket to Vegas.