For over twenty-five years, I’ve been researching the life and work of a unique American nightclub and vaudeville performer, Ray Bourbon.
Almost forgotten today, Ray was probably the most prominent and influential gay female impersonator of his day. He released dozens of 78s and lp records – about ten hours of material in all – giving the most detailed and comprehensive look at the work of a pre-Stonewall performer we have.
Born at the end of the 19th century, Ray’s career spanned from the 1910s to the late 1960s. Ray claimed that he grew up on a ranch about ten miles away from the west Texas town of Sierra Blanca, near El Paso, and he got his start in theater when his parents sent him to school in England. He said he worked in music halls and got tips in pantomime from a then-unknown Charlie Chaplin. Coming back home in the mid-1910s with the start of World War I in Europe, Ray claimed to have ridden with an old family friend, Pancho Villa, on raids in Texas and New Mexico – in drag.
The truth of Ray’s family and origins was only recently revealed.
In the 1920s, he broke into silent movies and was put under contract as a bit player, doing stunts and acting alongside major stars on the Paramount lot, including Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, and with major directors such as Cecil B. DeMille.
Ray worked in vaudeville and began a long successful career in nightclubs and the stage in the 1930s. Ray was one of the key performers of the early 1930s “Pansy Craze“, when gay nightclub revues became a fad among sophisticates and were highlighted in the popular press – one of his shows in San Francisco was famously raided by the police, live on radio.
In the 1940s, Ray owned his own nightclub, the Rendezvous, in Los Angles and was a popular attraction in major cities. He performed a one-man show at Carnegie Hall. He was admired by people like Bob Hope and formed friendships with stars of the day, like Jean Harlow, William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd, Mae West, and many others. Ray even toured in two of Mae West’s plays in the late 40s and early 50s in roles especially written for him by West.
In the 1950s, facing crackdowns by local police on gay nightclubs, Ray was arrested n several cities because he appeared on-stage dressed as a woman. Taking an idea from recent news stories about Christine Jorgensen, Ray concocted a hoax, announcing that he had a sex change and released an album of his routines called “Take a Look at My Operation”. (In reality, he had an operation for cancer and the resulting publicity drew more attention from police, cracking down on Ray’s “lewd” stage shows.)
Still touring in clubs around the country in the turbulent 1960s, and almost making it to Broadway with his own show, Daddy Was a Lady, in 1966, Ray’s story came to a dramatic close in 1967 when he was arrested for murder in Texas, ironically winding up back where he started. Despite calls to his many friends in show business, no one would help him with his case. He died in prison in 1971, working on his unfinished memoirs and written about in the local press as an odd, eccentric old man.
This website tells Ray’s remarkable and sometimes bizarre story.