When Judy Garland died of an accidental drug overdose in the bathroom of her London town house in 1969, a British writer sifted through the sands of a turbulent career marked by successive disappearances from the spotlight and triumphant returns to the stage. "Judy has been coming back since she was invented," he wrote. "She doesn't give a concert, she conducts a sance."
Twenty-five years later, an unemployed female impersonator refuses to give up his idol's ghost. Stalking around his Scottsdale shrine to the late star while dressed in full Judy regalia, the ersatz Garland excitedly plots a comeback of his own. "Call me Judy," urges hairdresser David De Alba as he ushers a handful of friends and neighbors into his memorabilia-filled living room for a Garland recital one Sunday afternoon earlier this month. "If you refer to me as 'she,' that is all right, too. It is easier for me to stay in character that way." At first glance, it appears that this would-be Garland needs all the help he can get. Although his tousled wig, fringed sheath and short, sequined jacket evoke Garland-wear of the early Sixties, the 44-year-old De Alba's physical being initially suggests middle-period Elvis. That similarity is particularly pronounced when the impersonator changes into a snug-fitting, gold-lam pantsuit, the same outfit he wore when he "did" Judy for the first time as a teenager at a Paris Is Burning-style drag ball back in 1967.
Beating critics to the punch, De Alba is the first to admit he's not exactly a dead ringer for the woman he's been impersonating for more than half his life. "Judy Garland I am not," says the Cuban-born De Alba, speaking in a heavily accented voice that makes the remark superfluous. "Sometimes somebody will complain that I don't really look like Judy or sound like Judy when I sing. Well, in Lady Sings the Blues, did Diana Ross look or sound anything like Billie Holiday? No!"
Still, using a variety of techniques honed over the past quarter-century--a fidgety gesture here, a woebegone look there, a whole lotta makeup all over the place--De Alba miraculously manages to capture the essence of the gal that got away.
"I am an illusionist," explains De Alba. "I do not give you Judy, I give you pieces of Judy. If I looked and sounded exactly like Judy Garland, I would not be in Scottsdale, Arizona, I promise you that. Instead, I'd be playing the Palladium in London and you'd pay $40 to see me."
But since De Alba moved to the Valley in 1992 when his companion of 24 years accepted a job offer here, nobody's been beating down the door for his services--at any price. Quite a comedown from his San Francisco salad days, a time when De Alba was doing four shows a night at Finocchio's, the female-impersonator revue that's as much a part of the Golden Gate tourist landscape as walk-away shrimp cocktails at Fisherman's Wharf, a time when his audiences included Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain and "the chicken colonel who always wore the white suit."
But if David De Alba has his way, a man in a Judy Garland costume will soon be as much a part of Scottsdale's tourist landscape as squash blossom jewelry and pastel-painted coyotes.
@body:In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland's wanderlust farm girl was blown out of Kansas by a raging tornado. In real life, David De Alba's flight from Cuba was prompted by Fidel Castro's takeover of the island in 1959, forcing the 9-year-old's family to send him to a boarding school in Florida. Several years later, he was eventually reunited with his family in Chicago, where the latent Judyphile soon developed a full-fledged case of galloping Garlandmania.
"Of course, I knew of Judy from the movies," says De Alba. "Who did not? Back then, though, to me she was just another glamorous star." Casting a heavily made-up eye around his gigantic collection of Garlandia (a pricey trove that includes a pair of purple pumps the actress wore in I Could Go On Singing, her last film), De Alba shrugs. "Who could know then that it would come to this?"
Certainly not the neighbor lady who innocently invited the star-struck 12-year-old into her home to listen to Judy at Carnegie Hall, an album documenting the legendary 1961 concert that many believe marked the pinnacle of Garland's live performing career.
Feigning body tremors that suggest electrocution, De Alba recalls his initial reaction to the live recording of that now-mythic concert. "To hear a person sing like that was such a shocking thing that I could not believe it," he gasps. "When I heard Judy's voice, I felt just like a cow when you brand him." De Alba didn't have to wait long to receive an even bigger jolt from his idol's branding-iron charisma. Just a few months later, Garland showed up in the Windy City for the world premiäre of 1962's Gay Purr-ee, a feature-length cartoon about French cats for which the singer provided the voice of an animated kitten. Acting every bit as excited as if that long-ago premiäre had actually occurred just the night before, De Alba throws a beringed hand to his throat. "Talk about being branded!" he exclaims as he reminisces about the first of two in-the-flesh encounters with his dream star. "After the movie was over, out on stage comes this tiny woman dressed in a lavender gown. She had her hair powdered with lavender chalk and she was wearing crystal slippers, just like Cinderella. The place went wild. Everyone was yelling, 'Judy, we love you!'" It is hard to imagine anyone yelling louder than De Alba himself, who finally met his idol when he and a group of fellow cultists staked out the stage door of the Chicago Opera House following a 1967 Garland concert. "Like a child, she said, 'Did you like me? Was I good? I hope so because I do it from my heart.' She was almost apologetic. I will never forget that humbleness." Learning of the 17-year-old's fledgling drag tribute, Garland gave De Alba an encouraging hug, then disappeared into her limousine.
After Garland left the theatre, several of the faithful decided to follow her limo back to her hotel. To his everlasting regret, De Alba decided not to join them; he later found out that Garland had invited those fans to join her for a late-night snack.
"That's how sweet Judy was," recalls De Alba. "All these people like Madonna, you cannot even get near them, let alone eat with them. Not Judy. She was the kind of star who would be hurt if people did not come up and talk to her."
Gazing wistfully into the air (picture Garland, her face framed by her hands, in the famous poster art from A Star Is Born), De Alba sighs. "There are others who can sing a pretty song, but none who can sing a song like Judy. She's the only one who can break my heart."
@body:"The nightlife in this town is devastating," De Alba says scornfully. "You see all the tourists walking up and down Scottsdale Road every night, but where do they go? Coco's and Denny's, that's where! This is their big night out! Scottsdale needs something like me."
But is Scottsdale's main drag really ready for a resident female-impersonator revue?
After investing thousands of dollars in Garlandesque getups and arrangements during his career, De Alba desperately hopes so.
Never mind that career opportunities for professional female impersonators are next to nonexistent outside of San Francisco, Las Vegas and New Orleans and a handful of other tourist meccas with slightly racy reps. Never mind that in today's female-impersonation scheme of things, caricatures of performers like Cher, Whitney Houston and Tina Turner are far more recognizable than impersonations of Garland, Mae West and Tallulah Bankhead, gay icons of another generation. And never mind that all the best-known female impersonators in recent memory (think Divine, RuPaul, Lypsinka and Dame Edna Everage) succeeded by creating their own over-the-top characters, not performing slavishly reverential homages to stars of the past. In spite of all this (and the fact that De Alba himself admits that younger members of his audience have trouble placing Liza Minnelli, let alone her mother), the Garlandizer can't wait to hit the stage again. "In the Sixties, who would dream that a man would go to the moon?" he says. "But it happened. Now we have liver transplants, again, because someone had an idea. All these things, they started with a dream. So why can't we get a club in Phoenix and bring in the tour buses to see me like they do in San Francisco?
"We had lots of tourists at Finocchio's, so I'm used to performing to conservative audiences, not just hep people like Robert Wagner. If they put me in a showroom in a nice resort--the Registry or the Phoenician would be nice--I think it can work here. But the only way it can work is if they bring in the Greyhound tour buses filled with customers like they did in San Francisco. That way you do not have to worry about where your business is coming from." And while he's waiting for his bus to come in, the self-described "male Judy Garland" also thinks it would be nice if he could mount a local production of his one-man play about Garland. A pastiche of song and monologue he first performed at an experimental theatre in San Francisco nearly ten years ago, the script is patched together from Garland's own words, dialogue De Alba culled from his massive collection of audio and visual tapes.
"Like my act, this is a very fancy presentation," he says. "I would only do the play in a theatrical setting. Someplace like the Herberger."
Don't even suggest that De Alba lower his sights to something a little more realistic, like a gay club, one of the few local venues that might be available to a specialized act such as his.
"The show I do is not a gay show," he snaps. "It's a very strait-laced performance. If I come out dressed as Judy Garland or Liza Minnelli, I represent that star in song and in costume. My show is not a tacky drag show that belongs in a cheap bar in the avenues."
Since De Alba moved to the Valley, his only Garland gig to date has been a less-than-spectacular engagement at Livia's, an intimate Italian restaurant located "in the avenues."
"I should have known that this place was not for me," fumes De Alba, who reels off a litany of creative differences with the woman who owned the restaurant at the time. (The restaurant has since been sold to new owners.)
"She told me, 'We have to keep the sound down so people can order.' I told her, 'No, no, no, no, no! My voice is more important than your damn Italian food!'" The final indignity, per De Alba, came when the owner introduced the act while wearing an apron. "I am introduced by a cook?!" De Alba shudders. "I think to myself, 'How low have I come in this town?'"
@body:Granted one wish, David De Alba undoubtedly wishes he could tap his high heels together three times, magically transporting himself out of the present-day Scottsdale and into a revisionist past filtered through sequins and chiffon.
"Life was all pretty in the Sixties," says De Alba, conveniently glossing over the wars, rioting and murders that marked one of the most turbulent decades in modern history. "In Psycho, when the shower scene came, people would scream in fear. In West Side Story, when Tony died in Maria's arms, people would weep. Now you go to see The Terminator and the people are yelling, 'Keel him! Keel him!' Today, we are in a very cold, brutal world with no softness to it.
"I loved the Sixties. I loved the Seventies. Up through the mid-Eighties, everything was gangbusters for me." De Alba curls his lip. "I haven't liked anything since." Not so coincidentally, 1986 was the year De Alba's companion (who prefers to remain nameless) began a career move that forced the pair to leave the Bay Area. After De Alba departs to change costumes, his partner smiles. "David really enjoys performing. This is a real treat for him. It's been a long time since he's had the opportunity to pretend he was someone else.
"As he gets older, it gets harder for him to do Judy, though," continues the companion. "When he did this ten years ago, reaching the higher notes was no problem and neither was fitting into the costumes. Age catches up with you, particularly in a field like this. When he was in his 20s, he could do the soprano stuff all day."
"On some of his songs, you do have to use your imagination," concedes Gloria Shor, an acquaintance who is helping to get De Alba's career back on track. "But on others, though, he's so on target, it's eerie!"
Shor's qualifications for booking nightclub acts? "I've been in sales all my life, so I thought I'd give this a try," laughs Shor, who currently sells industrial chemicals over the telephone.
Whether she can sell Scottsdale's resort industry on De Alba remains to be seen, but Shor is optimistic. "These buses take the tourists to Sedona during the day. Why shouldn't they take them to see David at night? There's really not much else for them to do, so what have they got to lose by taking a look at David's act? If you'll remember, they used to have live shows around town where the women could stick money down the men's pants, and they were very successful." Dressed in a flashy pantsuit outfit that Liberace might have deemed excessive, De Alba reenters the room and perches atop a stool.
Replicating Garland's trademark herky-jerky hand movements and facial expressions, he radiates the same sort of nervous energy that eventually turned off as many Judy watchers as it attracted. As if in a trance, he slips into automatic, with Garland as his co-pilot.
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A compulsive talker with a disconcerting habit of layering tangent upon non sequitur, De Alba suddenly begins parroting a Garland monologue gleaned from a 30-year-old episode of The Jack Paar Show. "It is so difficult be a legend, I sometimes feel like the Statue of Liberty," he announces to no one in particular. "People think that I am so busy being a star that I do not have time to go to a movie or dinner. So I just sit by the phone and wait." Catching something out of the corner of his eye, De Alba momentarily breaks character, curtly suggesting that the photographer put a stocking over the lens to soften the image. "The camera can be so cruel," he coos, slipping back into Judydom and delivering a long-winded monologue about how "she" lost the chance to star in Mame on Broadway when the producers cast Angela Lansbury instead. Never mind that nobody but the most delusional fan seriously believed that the notoriously undependable Garland was capable of handling the rigors of eight shows a week in a Broadway musical.
"The producers, they are afraid that right when I am in the middle of a big scene, someone will call out, 'Judy, sing "Over the Rainbow!"' and it will spoil the show," explains "Judy." "That's why I am not angry when the part goes to my darling friend Angela. You see, with Angela they know they will not have this problem because she is not associated with any theme songs like I am." Briefly returning to the here and now, De Alba weighs one of the many what-if questions that have kept Garlandites guessing for the past quarter-century: Assuming Garland had won the role, would she really have shown up at the theatre every night? The answer from the De Alba corner is a matter-of-fact "no." "But when Judy did show up, it would be worth the wait," he insists.
In spite of his shortcomings as a male songstress, David De Alba has a way with slip-sliding Garland monologues that may be worth waiting for themselves. How often do you see a man impersonating a woman who is offering fanciful rationalizations about why she was denied the opportunity to do something that was never a remote possibility in the first place? Assuming that's really what's going on. At any given moment, it's nearly impossible to determine whether De Alba is speaking for himself, doling out genuine Garland sound bites or simply riding the crest of a Garland-fueled stream of consciousness.
Call it psychological performance art. But whatever it is, De Alba has inadvertently created a dizzying form of theatre that arcs way over reality's rainbow. Now if he only had a stage. . . .