By Sean Patrick, West Hollywood, California
At the sprightly age of 82, one of show business’ and Hollywood’s best known darlings of the stage has stopped retiring.
As the original emcee and long-time performer at the iconic La Cage Aux Folles nightclub in Beverly Hills during the 80’s and 90’s, James Haake turned his character Gypsy and his extraordinary talent a naturally well-oiled entertainment and comedy machine.
What he didn’t realize was that without even trying, his flair and timing has also become a history of hard work, GLBTQ rights, AIDS awareness, and longtime friendships, just by being honest as well. He and his manager Dan Gore understand that the fashion and glamour of nightlife don’t mean much without a real night out, dressed and sociable.
Gypsy and James helped teach Dan the difference between the hype and the hip. Gypsy is still a success in show after show, and it’s a mission of Dan’s to again give Gypsy his own stage, and give a new home to where it all started.
They’re betting the timing is right, and if there’s one thing about show business that Gypsy will tell you, it’s all in the timing.
We all sat down for an early coffee at another one of the now West Hollywood’s longstanding eateries, The French Marketplace on Santa Monica Boulevard.
SP: It wasn’t hard to read up all the great projects you’ve worked on, since the news of your comeback is spreading very fast. You’ve got a resume as long as anyone’s arm, but more than that it’s obvious you’re very well loved around here. Where did you call home as a kid?
G: I grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, and I graduated in 1950. Near my town was a place called Millburn, and they had an Equity playhouse there called the Paper Mill, which is still around. During those summers in school, I took dance. I was the only boy in dance class.
Right out of high school, they had an open call, just like on Broadway. They had the Equity calls, and then they had open call. I tried out for a musical called Wish You Were Here with Jack Cassidy. I had a friend that got to sing, and I was a chorus boy. So, I went from musical to musical until my 30’s.
SP: People now associate you with drag, which you don’t do, but even so that’s not how you started.
G: Well to this day what I do isn’t drag, never has been. What happened was that I stopped dancing, and I opened a cabaret in New York on 58th and 1st, by the 59th Street Bridge. I had a house pianist and everyone would come in. By that time I knew everybody because I’d been working so much on Broadway. I did my little shtick, but I never did drag.
What I would do is wear a nice tuxedo, and just a pair of high-heels. My bartenders all had microphones, and they all sang Broadway things, and we were lucky because it became very famous. Gypsy’s, The Grand Finale, and Walter’s Apartment, those were all the big cabarets in the 60’s.
Around ’78, the after that the discos and the Studio 54’s and the drugs started to take the night life a different direction, so at the age of 50 I got out of it. I actually came to Los Angeles to retire. I’d done Guys and Dolls with Vivian Blaine, and she was out here doing a pilot with Norman Lear.
Anyway, she took me to the opening night of La Cage aux Folles and here’s the thing. The guy that was supposed to emcee was Benny Luke, who played Gloria, the maid, in the film, but it didn’t work out for him to be there that night. The film had gotten so much attention and it was perfect timing for the opening of the club.
It was all celebrities, and it was just mobbed. The show was there but it was just not quite together yet. One thing led to another, and everyone had heard of Gypsy’s, so I got tagged to do it, and history was made. I’d still never done drag, so as we went along, I said I’d wear beautiful gowns, and I’ll do everything, but I won’t wear boobs and I won’t wear wigs. So I wore hats.
SP: How much of Gypsy is in James, and how much James is in Gypsy?
G: Well, “Gypsy” to me meant something very different to me all these years than it did to audiences. “Gypsy” to me was a dancer. In Dan’s shows, which I’ve been doing for fourteen years, they’ve always choreographed me do some dancing in the opening numbers, so Gypsy was the dancing.
With James, there was never any of that, because James was where I grew up, and my family. And it was unpleasant.
SP: Gay people have it hard, especially as we stood up for ourselves, but what is fascinating to me is that someone like you has been through the very early days, before sexuality was even talked about much less homosexuality.
G: Especially here.
SP: All the way through to where Ellen is on TV and all the way we’ve come. Assuming you’re gay (laughs), I don’t like to assume.
G: Well in my case, I didn’t really come out until later. It wasn’t until I was working in Broadway. Then of course I fell in love with another dancer. But you know those were the days of the really bad stuff in New York, when they were raiding bars, and Stonewall down in the Village. People were being beaten.
SP: Did you find it was a safer haven for you on Broadway than it would have been in the Village?
G: Oh God yes, because you were so disciplined! I mean we were doing eight shows a week, with two matinees. During the day you’re doing ballet, jazz, taking classes. We all did that. We didn’t have the time. We weren’t afraid, we were just busy.
G: Oh look here! (smiles broadly at the waiter) Hello honey! I just couldn’t keep away from you! (to me) I’ve known Freddy since he was a tiny baby here. When La Cage was going, during all the Gay Pride parades we always had huge floats outside here. It always started on this end, near Crescent Heights and we were in and out of this place! (laughs)
SP: That was really the height of the start of our ‘new’ culture in West Hollywood. Your career has some very poignant parallels. Sexual freedom, not just gay sexual freedom, had just really taken hold. Recreational drug use took off. Add discos to the mix, as it were, and you get fewer numbers of live shows in clubs. That drew you out of New York.
In 1983 you met Mel Brooks, and through another wonderful chain of events you began a film and television career. Do you think AIDS had an effect on your audiences? Did they come to support, or did they run away?
G: It was never mentioned. I’ll tell you what most people don’t know. When La Cage opened in 1981, it was the very next year that this really started to blossom. This “AIDS” thing. We know that now.
But a lot of restaurants had these people, these big society people and they’d do big things and come into places like that, they wanted all the waiters to wear white gloves. They did it in Laguna. But the owner of La Cage here wouldn’t allow it. And we just went on. In certain places we had fans touching me, but we weren’t touching them. It was surreal.
The reverend Falwell actually ‘made’ La Cage in many ways! They were picketing out front. Well, they picketed some of the wrong stars, like Rock Hudson. He knocked the shit out of two of them, and then walked in. Yea, he beat the shit out of those two little ‘born agains’.
SP: Wow. (laughs) Was there secret support, or was gay culture forced back into the closet a bit?
G: Well support was secret because we were 90% straight. Another thing going on right then, this was all on the cusp of West Hollywood becoming a city! And as AIDS progressed, or we regressed in a lot of ways, because of the medical issues, they started becoming political. They wanted a gay mayor, they wanted a gay council. Gay people were making decisions about the city, down to the medians, the trees, the bricks that went in. And of course, it became one of the world’s biggest Gay Prides. If you’d have told me in ’82 that someday Gay people would be running this city, well. And we weren’t just pervs or twinks, or even bad drag queens in bars or guys picking each other up off the streets. We, of course, were bankers and lawyers, all walks of life.
SP: AIDS was kind of the last straw of being pushed around. We had to do it for ourselves in the beginning. It seemed no one was helping us.
G: For me, people might think of a flamboyant lifestyle, but I was so busy working in films and TV during all of it, while it was swirling around and happening, and I just kept on living.
DG: You have to remember the impact. They had an amazing cast when La Cage opened. Just so talented, and the whole camp thing was no longer a part of that show. It never was part of Gypsy or James’ work. But these guys were dropping like flies. The producers, everybody, were all trying to figure out what was wrong with these guys.
G: Our cast was fantastic but it wasn’t huge. We lost 4 in that first year. Nobody seemed to know. Marks would show up on somebody. And there were no drugs. Yet. This was all guess work.
SP: When I got here, things had already changed. I started here when they’d just figured out how to start treating HIV.
G: Well, there was also a lot of drug use, all around, not just gays by a long shot. A lot of drug use. Especially in those cast members.
SP: Was that a reflection of the Gay culture itself, or was it a response do you think? Maybe people just saying, fuck it, let’s just live our lives?
G: Oh you know how they are that way. It was going on all over. The straight people who were using drugs, and all up in Malibu and the industry, they all had their conclaves. And here was West Hollywood, so yes, but naturally that’s the way it would be in the neighborhood. I didn’t have the time to party, and I didn’t see myself as standing up for rights, I was just working.
SP: When you started performing in gowns, I was going to ask if you had a ‘drag mother’ but it’s really not the same thing at all.
SP: You’re a performer, and that takes a really good actor.
G: ‘Cause I wasn’t pretty. I’ve never been pretty.
SP: Well, that’s subjective.
G: Yeah? OK. Well. You must live a lonely life. (we all laugh)
But, I would always interact with the audience. And then I would take them from the reality into the fantasy of meeting stars, but it was also real. People would come in all the time like Helen Reddy and Eydie Gorme. And we’d have someone in the cast come out and sing their big number.
(a restaurant guest walks by the table and recognizes James, but can’t place him)
G: Oh, was I somebody at some time? (laughs). I was a poster boy for Forrest Lawn, but it got boring out there and I dug my way out!
(back to the table) But it’s, as you say, performance. We just did a big show in Tulsa.
SP: How was that?
G: Oh, I can handle rednecks, honey. It’s easy. As soon as I saw their chain of gas stations called “Kum and Go” I had my opening line. “Sorry we are a little late, but I got stuck at Kum and Go. There we were in Tulsa at one of the big casinos. Right across the street was Arkansas! So I said it was nice to be in Tulsa. A man yelled “ What about us in Arkansas? Without missing a beat, I said, “Let’s get something straight. I did not have sex with that woman.” That was the end of the show. They went nuts, and we had a great time.
DG: But as far as breaking barriers, we were so successful there that it became our own demise. They didn’t want a show like that to be a success. They wanted to see us fail. And they never brought us back. But that backfired on them in a way. We got so many supportive letters, because people could go and see a real show right there, and not have to go to Las Vegas, and they didn’t have to go to a gay bar and see a mediocre drag show. They said Gypsy did more for Gay rights in Oklahoma in one night than they’ve done in centuries.
G: Well, I make all the women, no matter what they look like, feel like stars. I don’t use curse words. But I destroyed the men. Oh, it was too much fun. I get them laughing, they’re seeing a great show, and once in a while with the right heckler I get to twist the knife a little. I say, “You’d better watch what I’m doing, because I used to be you.”
SP: What was your most monumental disaster on stage as Gypsy?
G: Well, if I talk to some people, they wouldn’t see it as a disaster. La Cage had a huge bar. It had a lounge, and there was a psychic reader. There were these tubes that you could sit at the bar and see the stage. It was a restaurant, and it was just a busy place all the time. So one night after a dance number, I came out on stage to do my bit.
Immediately the entire audience stood up and was applauding, and screaming with delight. I hadn’t opened my mouth yet. I’m thinking, my my, I must have done something really good tonight. I
was looking around before I realized that Milton Berle and Joey Bishop were standing behind me. They had dropped their pants. Of course Milton had boxer shorts on that went down to his kneecaps (winks) and there was Joey in his little shorts. The only thing you could do to beat Milton Berle was to say nothing. Because no matter what you say, he had the art to do you in.
So they’re standing there in their underpants, while I was doing my little facial things. When I looked around, I just said ‘thank you’.
SP: (laughing) Well, one of my other questions was about the funniest thing that happened on stage, so that must have been one in the same!
G: Yes, it was one in the same, but there was the time that Boy George was there in the kitchen. I didn’t know he was there. I went running through the kitchen to get on stage, and I had this little skirt that I had to put on right before, and there he was. He said, “ I have to kiss you” I told him “If I’d have know that I wouldn’t have put anything on!”
SP: Of all the iconic meetings! It’s very interesting because the term ‘drag queen’ is tossed around as if it is one thing. Neither of you had anything really to do with drag. You can’t really lump them all into one group. Gay men, Lesbians, Transgendered people all have their own inner struggles and they’re not necessarily the same. The only thing that’s the same is the struggle to live. Each one of those groups doesn’t really know much about the other, but we all banded together, even straight supporters, because there’s safety in numbers.
G: Yes, you see now you’re getting into a different culture. Like we’ve talked about, I was never into drag. You will find that in bars, drag shows in bars. You’ll find it in younger guys who make it a lifestyle, and maybe you have some transgendered people, and you have any of those who also sell their bodies, but they’re all completely different. I don’t live a ‘lifestyle’, I have an act. People familiar know what I’m talking about, but the first time someone describes it and they use the wrong term, they may lump all things in to the same category and completely miss it.
See with this, you have an evening out, where you have very good food. La Cage had fabulous food. I mean a great dinner, and evening and a show. A real show. That’s another era. We created that for ourselves in the 80’s and 90’s, and there were no others. That’s what we want to continue, not just redo.
DG: Oh yea, you have to think about it. When I went in when I was 19, I saw a younger guy doing Gypsy. It was at one of the regular clubs in West Hollywood. I thought it was hysterical. But then, I went in again, and I watched Gypsy doing the younger guys act doing Gypsy. Then I knew what the difference was. I’ve always been very selective with the performers I hire because I learned so much from Gypsy. People will come in with Drag Race on their resume, and that’s great, but that’s drag. What we’re trying to get going again goes way beyond that.
G: It’s funny because doing my show at La Gage, I didn’t really think of myself as talented, per se. I just did it, and it went over very well, and people tried so hard to copy it. But I was just doing it. I did a lot of film and TV during that time, and some of it was campy and most of it wasn’t. That’s where I thought my real work was happening. That’s where I thought I was really building something.
SP: But the show was close to people, and any acting coach will tell you, you can’t play the joke, you just have to let it go.
G: Well the thing that you can’t really get if you don’t have it is the timing. That’s for anyone in this line of work but I do it well. You can try to read the script but I have a knack for it.
SP: I think it’s a great time for it to come back on many levels. It’s pure live show business. I think we go through our phases as a culture and I’ve always said you don’t really do it if you can’t do it live. It’s not really a gay show, it’s not a drag show, it’s just real entertainment.
G: That’s what, I think he’s trying to do (nods to Dan). It’s something that you don’t see. Oh, you’ll go to a show, like a ‘Vegas’ night show. You’ve always been able in the gay culture to go to a drag show. But this is an evening out, and everybody goes and sees it but they’re also seeing each other.
SP: Your whole life has been around it all – the 50’s and the movies, Broadway, the sexual revolution and Gay rights, the Vietnam war and all the way through 911, AIDS, the heyday of TV, but you were just you, and never really completely immersed in any one of them.
G: I was right there with everyone, but I was just working so much. No matter what it is that’s what it takes.
(Gets out an album and starts to page through it. There are photos of Gypsy with a whole lifetime of show business stars.)
G: This is Boy George, that’s Carol Lawrence, here’s Milton Berle on his 80th birthday. And that’s not Bette Midler, that’s French Allen. (Flips a few more pages). Oh, it was great. Designers would send me gowns. I had gowns and gowns and gowns, and all kinds of stuff. By the way, million dollar legs. There were three of us then, in Hollywood. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and me. Lloyd’s of London (pats his leg). There’s Martha Raye. (There is a photo of Gypsy sitting at a table between twin sisters Dear Abbey and Ann Landers). I’ve never seen another photo of the two of these women together, they hated each other. How they got them both there I’ll never know.
(Points to the album) This is a Bob Mackie (original gown) I’m wearing. Olivia Newton John and Michael Landon’s ex-wife owned a boutique called Koala Blue. It became a huge chain. They came in to La Cage all the time and I went there. So when Livie got married, her sister and mother asked me to appear at the shower. So I had to call up Bob Mackie! He hated me anyway because he could never find out where I’d get all his gowns from! (I crack up). Oh I got them from Carol Burnett, Joan Collins. I had several that were made for Cher, but if she didn’t like them I’d get them.
SP: What’s cool here is that this kind of entertainment is actually new in a sense. I always laugh because some younger people will hear a great song on the radio, and love it long before they discover that it’s a remake! So in that sense alone it’s great timing for people to open up and see and art form that I think they’ll really get into.
G: And that’s why Dan is working so hard to make sure it’s relevant and updated and we make sure it fits. The impersonators can’t come out doing Eydie Gorme. Of course not, but who we draw from and how it comes together is the talent of this man (another nod to Dan). He knows what he’s doing. I mean he’s been doing it ever since with other shows and he’s a great success. He thinks we can pull this off. He’d better hurry, I’d say he only has about five more years with me, baby! (We all laugh).
SP: If nothing else maybe it will give a whole new generation the incentive to keep it alive, and constantly growing. I think people need to go out again. We’re spending too much time on our screens.
DG: We’ve got a place in Palm Springs, which is a great place. We’ve got a lot of support, and were also crowd funding for the next phase.
SP: I hope it’s a great success, and I really think that it’s also a huge piece of Gay culture and the best of show business. I think we owe it to ourselves to keep it alive.
Sean Patrick is a writer, musician, and vocalist. Catch his latest at www.SeanPatrick.us