Sunday 12 May 2013

Interview with Aleshia Brevard: Part 4

Monika: Before you started your movie and theatre career you were a female impersonator. How would you define this kind of vocation? Could it be regarded as a piece of art or just another form of entertainment or show business?
Aleshia: As I must always stress, Monika, the only assessments I can make on ANYTHING are based on personal experience. I cannot speak to the experience of others. Nowhere would this be truer than when answering your question concerning female impersonation. There are many people, both straight and gay, who are devotees of impersonation as an art form. My experience ‘backstage’, behind the façade at Finocchio’s in San Francisco, was limited and merely a respite during my gender journey. I was a neophyte, a “new Nanette”. I became a headliner at the prestigious nightclub in the late ’50s and early ‘60s because of how I looked, not because of any professional expertise and/or show business acumen.

Publicity shot from Finocchio's in
"My Heart Belongs To Daddy" costume, 1962.

I was quite impressed, and at times awed by the long tradition of the art form and by the professionalism of the impressionist with whom I’d suddenly found myself working.
They taught me a great deal about the business of stage and the importance of playing to one’s audience. I will always be grateful for that introduction to show business, even though without exception the concept of gender reassignment was abhorrent to my fellow performers.
The professional impersonators with whom I worked obviously did not identify as female, yet were all artists in their own right. My assumption, therefore, would have to be that there are possibly as many takes on the profession and on individual impersonators as there are individuals who self-identify as impersonators. 
Monika: At the start of your career in the late 50s you got a job in the prestigious female impersonation nightclub in San Francisco called Finocchio's. How did it happen?
Aleshia: As with most of the advantages that have come my way, it was a fluke that I ended up at Finocchio’s. The club was the acknowledged premier club for impersonation in the United States; I was an untrained interloper who had never been in ‘drag’ previous to my audition. I’d never even seen a professional ‘drag’ show prior to visiting Finocchio’s in the company of the priest with whom I lived. Even today it’s impossible for me to believe I was offered a job at the prestigious nightclub. All I had going for me was youth and stars-in-the-eyes.
Oh, sure, when I first saw the show I was besotted with the glamour, but my decision to audition was far more ‘bluff’ than ambition. My priest benefactor had been getting on my nerves with his insistence that I needed a career; that I needed to work toward “something”. So I impulsively said, “I’ll be a drag queen!” I was very young and equally foolish.
For my audition, I was thrown on-stage as a “visiting artist”. Sink or swim. I swam – at least enough to get myself hired as a member of the chorus. The hitch was that Finocchio’s had no chorus. I was being given a test, a training period for which I would be paid a nominal $50 per week. The second fluke came when I put “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” into the show as a specialty act and was immediately bumped to headliner status, with a salary to match.

A shot with comedienne Phyllis Diller,
backstage at Finocchio's circa 1960.

Monika: You said that your problem with Finocchio’s was that for you it did not feel like ‘impersonation’ because at long last you were presenting yourself as the woman who had secretly lived sequestered away for far too many years.
Aleshia: Wow! That’s certainly true, Monika. From the moment I stepped onto the Finocchio’s stage, I felt I was (at long last) being allowed to present my authentic self to the world. It was only a portion of my true being, however.
Soon a few hours nightly on stage was no longer enough. I wanted to be complete, on stage and off. It was during my time at Finocchio’s that I began to see gender guru, Dr. Harry Benjamin. From that point forward Finocchio’s stage served as a training ground for the future, as well as a source of income for financing my upcoming gender reassignment.
Monika: Did you have good relations with the other girls?
Aleshia: It’s not unfair to describe back-stage at Finocchio’s as a snake-pit. There were some very high-voltage divas in that cast. One of them was Stormy Lee, the club reigning exotic dancer and full-time holy terror. She had come up through the ranks, the hard way, and she was protective of her star status.
Ah, but it was Stormy who took me under her wing, mentoring my stage presentations and taking me for my first visit with Dr. Benjamin. Stormy’s gender reassignment followed mine by a year and we maintained a sisterly bond until her death in the early ’90s. My other working relationships remained ‘respectful’ but did not exist beyond the stage door – in large part because the other cast member’s held very negative attitudes toward transsexuality.

An early newspaper article on Charlotte.

Monika: You used to impersonate Marilyn Monroe.
Aleshia: Correction. Although it is true that the club advertised me as a Marilyn Monroe impressionist, that was never my intention. I was merely young, blond (on stage) and my most successful numbers were some of the same made famous by Marilyn Monroe.
At one point, following the filming of “The Misfits”, Marilyn came to the club to catch my act. After having said all that it may ring hollow for me to protest that I wasn’t impersonating the blond goddess of film. In truth, however, I wasn’t.
My stage presentations were nightly rehearsals for the woman I hoped to become. I was a fledgling, a kid in transition, and I was looking to develop a workable persona for life. Management wanted ‘Marilyn’ and as their blond ingénue, I most fit the bill.
Whenever I changed my hairstyle or color, it was always the management’s insistence that I return to what they believe made me most marketable. For me, however, each gesture, each inflection, was a lesson, teaching me what best drew appreciative audience response. This knowledge I added to my bag of tricks and took with me into the real world beyond the Finocchio’s stage.
Monika: How about the owners of the club – the Finocchio family? Did they interfere in how the shows were produced? 
Aleshia: It is my understanding that the first Mrs. Finocchio, Madge, had been a hands-on owner. One who controlled with an iron fist. It was said that each night she would deliver furs to the dressing rooms for her stars; then she’d take the furs home for safekeeping. That continued, or so the story goes until she was robbed at gunpoint on her way home.
But during my stint at Finocchio’s the family was entrusting the production numbers to producer and ‘Mistress of Ceremonies’, Lestra LaMonte. Lestra was a graduate from the vaudeville stage -- and also ruled with an iron fist. Aside from the two lavish production numbers, however, each artist perfected and performed their individual specialty numbers. It made for a great training ground.

A newspaper blurb from years at Finocchio’s
as an impersonator, Lee Shaw.

Monika: You worked in the club for three years leaving soon to have your gender reassignment surgery. Did you ever regret leaving the club?
Aleshia: Regrets? Are you kidding? I gleefully fled in the dark of night! Because Mr. Finicchio, backed by my AGVA union representative, refused to let me leave the club (even though my contract had expired), I sold my wardrobe before leaving my dressing room and skipped town before my next scheduled appearance. No, Monika, there were no regrets. I had been very lucky to get the opportunity to work for the Finocchio family and develop my stage persona, but the time had come for a new life to begin.
Monika: Through Dr. Benjamin you met and became friends with Charlotte MacLeod. Could you elaborate on your friendship with her?
Aleshia: Charlotte’s reassignment, as you probably know, followed Christine Jorgensen’s ground-breaking surgery in Denmark. Both Charlotte and I were bred, born, and raised in the South. I was from the eastern end of Tennessee; Charlotte was raised in the western portion of the state. In my mind’s eye, dear Charlotte will forever remain the very prototype of the Southern Belle. One could almost hear crinolines rustling as she approached. She was a true sister in every sense of the word. Sweet to the core.
Let me stress that I have tremendous respect for women like Charlotte, women who follow their dream to put transition behind them, settle comfortably into marriage, and who are content to dedicate their lives to motherhood in suburbia. Charlotte was certainly the prototype for women of that ilk in our community. She lived out her life in stealth, never feeling any need to look backward.
I often wonder why in today’s gender community some are quick to dismiss such a life as irrelevant. Women like Charlotte helped pave the road for us all. Although she is no longer with us, Charlotte will always claim a piece of my heart.

A production number shot with
Stormy Lee (on the right), circa 1960.

Monika: Did you have other transgender friends or you preferred living among cis women only?
Aleshia: Can’t say there was ever a conscious choice made concerning the women with whom I socialized. Seems life just throws certain people together. Other than Charlotte and Kathy (nee Stormy Lee) I knew no other transsexuals. In those days there weren’t many of us around, you know. Charlotte, Kathy, and I remained friends, of course, each of us having married and settled in Southern California.
Charlotte and her husband lived relatively close by in San Fernando Valley, and like me, she was raising a brood of stepchildren. They often joined my husband and me for well-deserved dinners out. Our husbands were never aware of our histories, so that offered an added sense of security.
Other than these two women, however, my female friendships were with cis women, generally the wives of men with whom my husband worked, women I met in school, or other actresses from the entertainment industry in which I was still working. I hasten to repeat that it wasn’t a conscious matter of preference, more a result of the decidedly heterosexual lifestyle I was living.


All the photos: courtesy of Aleshia Brevard.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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