“Daddy Was a Lady”: The Surreal Story of Ray Bourbon’s Aborted Broadway Comeback

When I first started researching Ray Bourbon in the 1990s, I kept hearing about something called “Daddy Was a Lady”.  At first, it seemed as though it might have been the proposed title for Ray’s unfinished memoirs.  Or perhaps some kind of solo revue or autobiographical show. A few years later, when I obtained letters Ray wrote from prison and had some interview contacts, it became more clear.  Daddy Was a Lady was a play – Ray’s comeback show that would have taken him to Broadway.

But, it didn’t work out as Ray planned.

The Script

The story of the ill-fated production begins in late 1960.  Billy Barton, a long-time friend of Mae West, was in Kansas City, writing material for Ray.  (Tom Parkinson, “Circus Trouping”, Billboard, Dec 19, 1960, p 174).  Barton worked with Mae West in the mid-1950s when she dubbed him “Mr. Sensation”.  He had a lengthy career as a circus aerialist and was openly gay.  (You can see a photo of Barton and Mae at Flickr.)

In 1981, Barton wrote a short piece describing his involvement with Daddy Was a Lady.  (Billy Barton, “Mae West: Mistress of Mystery? Almost…”, The Mystery Fancier, Vol 6 No 6, November/December 1982, pp 2, 18). 

When he was writing material for Ray in the early 60s, Ray gave Barton a copy of the script for Daddy Was a Lady and asked him to turn it into a novel.  “I thought the play was too dated; besides, I knew absolutely nothing about crafting murder mysteries and wasn’t remotely interested in writing mysteries, so I declined,” Barton said.  According to Barton, the play was written by Ray and Mae when they were appearing together in Mae’s revival of Diamond Lil, around 1949-50.

“The opus was called “Daddy Was a Lady”. The plot concerned a wealthy and famous female impersonator living in Soughhampton [sic] enroute to England for an important theatrical engagement.  In the opening scene, while his wife and family awaited him downstairs, he is confronted by a blackmailer whom he murders and puts in one of the trunks bound for England.  The plot then culminates in a hilarious mixture of murder and madness and mistaken identity which only a mind like Mae’s, abetted by Ray’s weird sense of humor, could invent.”

Unfortunately, Barton didn’t keep a copy of the script. 

The Production Comes Together

In 2019, I exchanged emails and did a telephone interview with Gregor Benko.  In 1964, Gregor had just finished his freshman year at Kalamazoo College and was invited by a senior at the college, Larry Fisher, to tour in Daddy Was a Lady.  Gregor was offered the part of Ray’s son in the play and a job as a cook for the troupe of actors.  He turned down the offer but talked with Larry about the show as it came together.

Larry Fisher, right, in the cast of Kalamazoo College’s Festival Playhouse production of Waiting for Godot in 1964, just before he directed Daddy Was a Lady. (Kalamazoo College Archives)

“[O]ne of the colorful details that Larry described to me as the plans for his coming summer directing of the traveling troupe for “Daddy Was a Lady” were evolving [was] a letter he had received from Mae West. It was in the form of a recording  which supposedly began with a violin playing the Meditation from Thais, then segued into Mae West’s voice:  “Dear Larry, I feel like I’m up to my tits in shit.”  

“The part offered to me, a 19 year old dumb hick from Ohio, was as  the Bourbon character’s son, supposedly from his earlier life as a married man, but now he had come out and was a great celebrity drag queen.  I think I was not to have any speaking words, and was to be “hidden” in a window box for the entire second act, while Bourbon did a drag act and his colored trained dogs repeatedly pissed on the window box on cue.”

Gregor isn’t sure how Larry was asked to direct the show.  He recalled that the star billing for the show would have been shared with Mae West.  Gregor remembered that the play was actually written by Mae West, but she couldn’t get it produced – part of the reason she agreed to be in it was that Ray was taking it on tour.

Larry told Gregor that Mae was scheduled to start with the play, showing up in a pink trailer with a bunch of musclemen accompanying her in an expensive car.  Larry was amazed that West has such a filthy mouth – he was also also convinced “she was a bull dyke and the men were just for show”.  In this early stage, Mae had to drop out of the production due to health reasons and was replaced by Hermione Gingold.

Cripple Creek, Colorado

Daddy Was a Lady finally got off the ground in the summer of 1964.  By this time, Ray was the sole star and West and Gingold weren’t associated with the production.  The show opened in June in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

The local paper devoted a two-page article to the production, including two publicity photos of Ray – one probably dating back to the 1940s or 50s.  (Ray Herst (?), ’Daddy Was a Lady’ Promises to Be ‘Dynamite Stick’ at the Grubstake’, Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, June 19, 1965, pp 37-38.)

“”It’s the dynamite stick of ’em all.”

That’s how Rae Bourbon describes his new show which is having a pre-Broadway tryout this summer at the Grubstake in Cripple Creek.

“Daddy Was a Lady” sounds like a dynamo stick all right, but what kind of bang it will produce remains to be seen.

Its subject matter is as controversial as the civil rights movement and almost as much in the news and more so in today’s crop of literature.

It deals with homosexuality.

“It is strictly an adult show,” the veteran performer said.  “It deals with a subject that has been shied away from in our society and it discusses the problem very frankly.

“I want to stress it is an adult show,” Bourbon continued.  “It tries to show what a network there is of this thing across the country and the world.  It’s the furthest step the American Theatre has taken today toward creating this subject dramatically.””

The article goes on to discuss Ray’s career and his previous work on Broadway with Mae West.  The author describes Ray as “a man who will be 73 in August, but looks as if he is 50, talks and moves like he’s 35” and notes that, even though Ray had been on stage since 1913, this is the first time he would have the lead role in a Broadway show.

Ray explained to the reporter, “It wasn’t my decision to open the show here.  It was supposed to have opened last year but the World’s Fair interfered.”  According to Ray there was a lack of theater space when crowds flocked to shows on Broadway, holding over many shows for months after they were supposed to close.

“As Bourbon explains it, the first act and the third act are the dramatic part of the show.  The second act is a tour de force for Bourbon, an ex-vaudevillian.

It is here that Bourbon does the make-up and costumes for which he is well-known.  In this portion of the show, Bourbon becomes many women – some glamorous, some funny, some tragic.

“I’ll actually have a few people in the second act with me,” he said.  “But principally, it will be a one-man show”.”

Bourbon didn’t reveal that the script was written with Mae West.

“Bourbon admits to working on the script himself but won’t say at this point who the author is.

“I will only say that the author is a big star.  Everyone will know the name when it’s announced in New York,” he said.

He says that the show was written specifically for him and around him.”

The article then looks at Ray’s work with Mae West in more depth and talks about his love of animals and Ray’s dogs he has in town with him.  Bourbon told the reporter that the show would open in Detroit on September 13 and in New York the week after that.

Cast in the show as Aunt Emily was Octavia Powell from Dallas, who had been in show business for seventy years.    The director, Larry Fisher, had previously “worked with Gypsy Rose Lee in Auntie Mame and other shows, in addition to the Royal Shakespeare Theater in London, six summers of directing professional summer stock, college instructor in theatre at an Ohio college, and directing Zazu Pitts in “Curious Savage”.”

Original caption:  “ROOFTOP RUN-THROUGH – Lawrence Fisher, left, director of “Daddy Was a Lady,” runs through a scene for some of the cast members on the roof of the Grubstake.  Seated are Janice Bowden and Deen Gattis.  Standing are Pat Lee and Octavia Powell.”
Photographs by Stan Payne.  Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District, 004-213, 004-214, 004-215.

Original caption:  “DON’T TELL ME, SONNY – Octavia Powell as Aunt Emily, brushes off Deen Gattis as John Kane in this scene from “Daddy Was a Lady”.  The show opens Monday at the Grubstake in Cripple Creek.”
Photographs by Stan Payne.  Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District, 004-212, 004-216.

The Grubstake Hotel

Daddy Was a Lady was an adventure for everyone involved with the production.  In October 2000, I corresponded with underground cartoonist Skip Williamson about his work with the show.  In 1965, Skip was just out of college and was hired as Ray’s publicist for the production.

“During the summer of ’65, Cripple Creek, Colorado, isolated above the timberline high in the Rockies, was in a time warp that was more 1860s than 1960s. It was a motley olio of half-breed Indians, pistol totin’ prospectors, wooden sidewalks and a wild lawlessness that would have put 19th century Dodge City to shame.  Into this mix waltzed Bourbon and his cross-gender revue.

Rae Bourbon had been headlining at the Jewel Box Revue, an Outfit- run transvestite club in Kansas City.

And what an odd old bird he was.  He traveled the country tugging a ramshackle house-trailer.  His companions were his 18-year-old lover, Pat Lee (Also a performer at the Jewel Box Revue) and at least twenty-five dogs.

Mainly strays he’d picked-up along the road.

“If anyone hurts one of his dogs,” Pat Lee would coo, “the old darling goes ballistic!  He killed a truck driver who ran over one of his dogs.  I watched him do it.”  And, as if to accentuate metaphysically, Pat Lee tittle-tattled, “He lived in Haiti.  Rae is fluent in the voodoo arts.”

Our base of operations in Cripple Creek was the Grubstake Hotel, complete with swinging doors, a dancehall and every room had a pot-bellied stove and a brass bed. Tony Aleman was brought in to run the bar and restaurant. Tony was from the famous Aleman foot- soldier clan of the Chicago Mafia.  Rumor had it that this thick Sicilian had transgressed against the Chicago Outfit but, out of respect for his family’s service as enforcers for the Mob, he was allowed to live as long as he stayed away from the Windy City. Tony’s sidekick was a thick-necked thug known as Curly because he looked rather like Curly Howard from the Three Stooges.  Only instead of being a humorous foil for slapstick comedy, this Curly was a scary hombre with a particular hatred for all minorities – especially drag queen homosexuals.  Curly tended bar for Aleman.

Aleman decided to contact the “boys” from Hot Springs, Arkansas, in order to get a gambling and prostitution franchise happening at the Grubstake.  So before long a couple of toughs in sharkskin suits showed up only to be hit on by one of the drag queens from the show.  Unamused, they left Cripple Creek in a sour mood informing Aleman that if he ever showed his greasy ass anywhere near Hot Springs that he would suffer the indignity of death.

As one might imagine, this business did not set well with Tony and consequently a confrontation erupted between Aleman and Rae Bourbon.  Guns were drawn, heated words were exchanged and Aleman was informed that if he ever showed up in the Kansas City territories that he would be fitted with concrete shoes and unceremoniously tossed into the Missouri river.  Also, some days later, Curly ended up quite deceased, run off the road into a rocky gorge.

As a result of witnessing this and other tomfoolery I, and several members of the “Daddy Was a Lady” cast, were whisked off to a suburb of Kansas City where we were held at gunpoint for several days by diesel dykes who drove Good Humor Trucks.   The authorities informed my parents that in all likelihood I’d been murdered and tossed into a mineshaft in the Rockies.

The FBI, the Illinois Youth Commission and the State Police in five states were looking for us.  Somehow one agency or the other tracked us down and a deal was struck that if we were released unharmed nothing legally untoward would happen.  Consequently I made my way to Chicago for a little r&r with my friend, Jay Lynch.

Skip eventually turned his email into a detailed and lengthy blog post at the now-defunct Open Salon blogs where he explained that backing for the show came from the mob — the idea was to appeal to tourists and service members from a nearby military base to drive business to the Grubstake Hotel.  However, because of floods in the area, no one turned out for the shows.  Skip remembered them playing to a half-dozen audience members on a good night.

Still later, Skip turned his encounter with Ray into a four-page comic in Blab #18.  In 2016, filmmaker John Kinhart made a documentary about Skip’s career and turned Skip’s experience with Ray into a short film, available at Vimeo and as an extra on the dvd of his feature-length documentary on Skip Williamson, Pigheaded.

Bound for Broadway

A year later, in the summer of 1966, the trail picks up on Daddy Was a Lady in New York.  The June 6, 1966 edition of Daily Variety carried a casting call for the show.  The contact information was for Music Minus One, the record label that distributed Ray’s UTC albums.

It was during this time that Ray cast Randy Crain in the role of the son in Daddy Was a Lady.  In a letter dated December 18, 1970 written Ray to his friend Brian Paaul when Ray was in prison, he outlined more about how the show almost opened on Broadway.

“… there was only one unsatisfactory member in the cast, that was the son.  The man who did it was a little too old for an 18 year old sex symbol.  It was a case of a replacement that had to be made by the time I was to go to NY. A friend of mine in Kansas City show I’d known in California for years, said that he had just the right man for the part – Randy Crain.  He had done several little theatre things around Kansas City.  He got in touch with Randy; he read the part for me.  He was great.  … Since I was the author of the play as well as the book, gave me final decisions in the casting of the thing.  Later when we went to NYC to do the show, I took Randy with me, as he was the most import in the show other than myself.

“The producer who had been assigned to be my producer was something else.  He was a graduate from Yale Drama Department (Very Big Deal).  Not one minute of experience in the actual theatre.  But, knew everything!!!  The reason head been made producer, he had married the daughter of the man financing the thing, and the wife didn’t feel that her husband should start any place but the top.

“At the first get-together, he had a reading of the play.  (A reading yet?). He did the reading asking me questions.  The he decided there should be several drastic changes in the play.  (If he had known what he was talking about, I’d have been more than glad.  But, every suggestion weaken the play.). We argued for two or three days.  I saw no reason to rehearse a flop, knowing how easy it is to have flop without rehearsing it.  So, I simply picked up the script, Randy and I went back the trailer where the Blessed Ones were, hitched up to the car, and went back to Kansas City.

“Long distance calls from New York City were coming every hour of the day from the New York office.  After three days of this annoyance, the boss at the club said he thought I should talk to them.  I did.  Nothing came of it.”

The newspapers picked up the story of the show falling apart.  (Daily Variety, 10/19/66, p1 and “‘Homo’ Musical is ‘Castigated’”, Philadelphia Tribune, October 25, 1966, p 11.).

“Bourbon left the rehearsal hall Friday in a huff, accusing Wilson of trying to “castrate” the show by laundering the raw script, substituting a conventional pit orchestra for a “gutbucket” Dixieland band, eliminating chorus girls, etc.  Bourbon was said to feel the show wouldn’t work without its vulgarity intact.”

And, with that, Daddy Was a Lady – and Ray’s last opportunity to appear on Broadway – was over.  Ray was 73 years old as he entered his last few months as a performer at the Jewel Box and other small clubs.  Crain would continue traveling with Ray until the fateful day in November, 1967, when Ray’s car broke down, leading to the Blount murder affair and Ray’s conviction on conspiracy to commit murder.

Ray’s Lost Play

Today, there doesn’t seem to be anything left of Ray’s almost-Broadway show.  I’ve tried to track down the script for Daddy Was a Lady, but it remains elusive.  The Library of Congress and other archival collections have manuscripts for Mae West’s plays, but Daddy Was a Lady isn’t among them.  The Library of Performing Arts has no copy and no information on the aborted show.  I’ve been unable to find actors or the director associated with the production that might possibly have a copy of the play.

It may be that the only existing scripts for this lost Mae West-Ray Bourbon collaboration were tossed out with Ray’s other memorabilia and personal effects when he was arrested for murder.  But, I still hold out hope that a copy is out there, somewhere.  If you have a lead on where the script might be, let me know.

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