My 17-year quest to find Jerri Daye reached its fruition on February 16, 2012.
Such build-up and anticipation often end in a stinging disappointment. As a child of the original Star Wars, I still feel the let-down at The Phantom Menace and Jar Jar Binks—with apologies to Jar Jar Binks fans.
Meeting James Pascoe, a.k.a. Jerri Daye, was anything but disappointing.
I arrived in Vegas a couple days before, stayed a night at Circus Circus, took my niece and nephew to dinner, caught a UNLV women’s basketball game with my dear historian pal Marcia Gallo, and enjoyed a night as Marcia and her partner Annie’s guest. At some point I took a dive on a curb and tore open my knee, a bloody mess, so I was hobbled by the time I arrived at the house Mr. Pascoe shared with a roommate on White Mountain Street.
A graceful man of 75 greeted me at the door. Behind his glasses I recognized the eyebrows and the twinkling eyes familiar from photos I’d seen of him in drag from when he was younger. I gushed my thanks at his kindness in talking with me, of finally finding him.
Pretty much everyone knew him as Jerri so I called him Jerri.
As I set up the cassette recorder and clipped a mic to his shirt, we chatted. He had called his long-lost friend Danny Windsor, who by then was living in a nursing home. Jerri wasn’t sure Windsor recognized who he was, but was glad to have connected with him nonetheless.
Then commenced two hours of conversation, duly recorded for my dissertation project.
He started by telling me how he became a female impersonator as the result of a fall at age 17 or 18 during an ice-skating performance at Madison Square Garden. While holding his female partner in the air during part of the routine, he hit a piece of popcorn, slammed into the ice, and suffered a collapsed lung, effectively ending his skating career.
They said, “You’re not skating anymore.” And I was in New York, and I had a few friends and there was a club there, a very famous club called the 82 Club, probably the most famous drag club in North America. Big, big production shows. It was a mafia joint. They spent an awful lot of money putting the shows together. And they said, “Well, if you can walk on blades, you can probably walk in heels, so give it a whirl.” So, I became a show girl.
He told me about riding the Greyhound down to Detroit from Sault Ste. Marie while in high school in the early 1950s to hang out at the Hub Grill across from the gay bars on Farmer and Bates. Gay life in Detroit provided a reprieve from the harassment he experienced as a femmy boy in the Upper Peninsula.
It used to be hard because I lived with my aunt, and they’d go, “Hey Su!” They called me “Suzie-Q” in high school. “Hey Suzie-Q!” and my aunt says, “Who are they talking to?” and I said, “I have no idea.” Kids are very cruel, very cruel. So that was rough times. So, when I got to Detroit, needless to say, all the stops came out.
Jerri recounted touring with the Jewel Box Revue, first seeing Danny Windsor doing his comedy routine at the Ten Eleven, and later performing and emceeing at Bookie Stewart’s Diplomat Lounge and the Gold Dollar Show Bar.
His description of Danny Brown, founder of the Jewel Box Revue, captures a slice of gay male history that has been lost.
He was just so bizarre, and he wore so much make-up on the streets, he had so many bad facelifts, and he’d come to the club at night and we’d just hate it, it looked like a mask. People would look at him and go, oh! He was everything, he was a typical stereotype fifties and sixties fairy type person, you know, one of those lavender, lavender lads, as they always used to call them.
In the late 1950s, Jerri got a gig at a straight club in Flint, where State Bar owner Melva Earhart saw his show. The two became fast friends. He recalled visiting the State when it was a small, somewhat sleazy hole in the wall on Union Street in downtown Flint.
And we’d go in after our last show … and we’d put pants on over our drags, over our dress, and we’d put a skirt on and pull that up. And we’d take a cab over there and in the cab we’d take that all off, and so we’d be, reaching in the cab, and the make-up case, and so we’d be in full drag and arrive at one-thirty in the morning, god we were a sensation. All these glamorous women in this little dump in an alley. Hello.
We also went through the old Diplomat program from 1961. He shared his memories of each of the performers and, so vital to doing LGBTQ history, told me their real names.
Edie Lloyd, whose real name was Edward Lloyd Ruby, came from Florida. She’d once danced on the Jackie Gleason Show.
Bobbi Johns, a.k.a. Robert Swetman, haled from Biloxi, Mississippi, where his brother worked a shrimp boat. “He used to send us these wonderful packages of huge shrimp in dry ice.” Jerri said. “We used to have big shrimp feasts at the Diplomat.”
Jerri said he’d once shared a house in Pingree near the Diplomat with Jack Genore, who performed as the memorable Fat Jack. Genore was also from the Upper Peninsula and his performance at a talent night contest had led to his joining the troupe.
Toni Albright a.k.a. George Cunningham, the last Jerri knew, was working for racetracks, sewing silks for the jockeys. I made a mental note to see if I could maybe track Cunningham down.
Vicki Marlane, originally Douglas Sterger, had worked in carnivals before coming to Detroit. Jerri explained that Marlane fell in love with the show’s light technician and the two were together for 20 years.
And Win Wells, who used his own name, did the marvelous drawings that illustrated the Diplomat program. When Jerri and Wells were playing a club in New Hope, Pennsylvania, Wells paid a visit to the baths in New York. There he met director Silvio Narizzano, who captured his heart and took Wells to live with him in London the next day.
Jerri’s career took him around the country and around the world. He left the stage in the mid-1990s. Later, he worked behind the scenes for Siegfried and Roy. Show biz was his life. “Do I miss it? Terribly. Of course, I do. Of course, I do,” he said. “It’s the only life I ever really knew.”
I typically end oral history interviews with a sort of legacy question. At the close of our recorded conversation, I asked Jerri to reflect on the changes he’d witnessed.
I’ve watched things turn around in my age a great deal, when you’d just be so ashamed and so afraid to let anybody know you were gay, because you couldn’t work, you couldn’t do anything. But I was in a business where nobody really cared. But I’d see other people … They came in a gay bar, they parked three blocks away, four blocks away. In Detroit. In Detroit, to go to the bars.
From Jerri’s perspective, such secrecy was no longer so prevalent or necessary.
“I’m glad that I’m still around to see that things seem to be changing for the better, and people are showing so much more respect for each other as human beings.”
After the formal interview, I took Jerri for a late lunch and drinks at a country club. Everybody there seemed to know him. I could see why he used to command stages and captivate audiences.
Jerri and I kept in touch via Facebook until his death in May 2014.