Clown princess: Tish Tanner, 1949-1999.
Timothy Archibald

Drag King

For a ceremony eulogizing "Tish Tanner" (née Garry Mangum), the trash-talkin' male comedienne who brightened up Valley drag revues since RuPaul was a boy, the final gathering was a remarkably staid affair.

Unless you count the spangly costumes, array of wigs, piles of costume jewelry and trays of makeup artfully arranged around the tchotchkelike urn containing the late entertainer's ashes, there wasn't a sequin in sight. And while many of the SRO crowd that filled the chapel of Sunset Funeral Home on Sunday were no strangers to professional cross-dressing themselves, not one mourner showed up in drag.

"This isn't the time to 'do face,'" explains fellow impersonator Dan Dold (a.k.a. "Lady Casondra"). "Mascara runs."

Dold was one of the more than 200 friends who came to say goodbye to Mangum, the anything-for-a-laugh guy who most intimates referred to by his stage name. (Even though there doesn't seem to be a consensus on the proper pronoun to use, for clarity we'll refer to Mangum/Tanner as "he" in this story.)

The 50-year-old Mangum died in his sleep on November 7, reportedly of natural causes.

If the eulogy looked like just another funeral service, the ambiance was anything but. Waiting in line to sign the guest book, a dapper gent in a designer suit sawed off a cell phone call. "Actually, I can't talk now -- I'm at a memorial service for a drag queen." Pause. "No -- I'm wearing flats. Bye, hon."

Inside the chapel, Tanner's own sendoff was only slightly more reverent.

Recalling a career spanning more than 20 years, friends provided an oral history of Tanner's greatest hits and bits.

Tears and sniffling were soon drowned out by laughter as someone described seeing the 300-plus-pound Tanner perilously swinging from the stage of the defunct Casa de Roma while lip-synching to "Would You Like to Swing on a Star."

Several friends mentioned Tish's ever-popular "Salvation Army," wherein Tanner roamed through the audience with a tambourine while dressed as a trailer-trash sad sack. Who could forget his comic deconstruction of the old Timi Yuro tear-jerker "Hurt," a gut-buster that culminated with the unwed-but-pregnant Tanner, a balloon under his muumuu, giving birth to a doll? And how many other drag entertainers could boast that they were listed under their stage names in the Phoenix phone book?

"Tish and I opened every fruit stand in this city," remembers Morrie Carter, a.k.a. "Ebony." "And we helped close a lot of them, too."

Whether he had his feet squeezed into a pair of size 14 women's shoes or was just schlumping around in men's bedroom slippers, all who knew Tanner agreed that the rotund dynamo left behind some mighty big shoes to fill.

In addition to his frequent drag gigs, most recently at Wink's and the 307, Tanner had long been active in AIDS fund-raising projects and as a gay-rights volunteer. For years, Tanner worked with Arizona Central Pride, most recently serving as vice president and secretary.

By all accounts, Tanner was something of a rarity in local female-impersonation circles -- a straight shooter who managed to stay out of the drag circuit's celebrated mascara-slinging melees, mostly by minding his own business.

"Tish was a total professional," says Felicia Fahr, a veteran Valley performer who frequently shared the bill with Tanner over the years. "He was always on time, always prepared and if you did something that was lousing up the show, he'd let you know to your face. With Tish, there was never any back-stabbing, not like you get with a lot of these other bitches."

Though not a bitch in the pejorative sense of the word, Tanner did have one big enemy. Namely, himself and his zeal for helping others, even to the detriment of his own health.

Plagued by a variety of medical problems for at least five years, Tanner continued to do it his way.

"Tish basically lived life on his own terms and did what he wanted to do," says Ted Rodriguez (a.k.a. Devina), a female impersonator who worked with Tanner for a dozen years. "Of course, if he worked too much or exerted himself more than he should have, he'd wind up paying the price."

But whatever lessons the corpulent cutup might have learned from stretching himself too thin were generally short-lived. He lost weight, then almost immediately gained it back. Ignoring circulation problems that forced doctors to drain fluid from his painfully swollen ankles, he'd be back onstage, feet cinched into high heels with the backs slit out. And even after he'd been warned that he shouldn't be drinking alcohol with the medication he was taking, Tanner continued to do one of his trademark club shticks: wandering through the audience, table to table, with a huge goblet, guzzling a communal cocktail made from slugs of customers' drinks.

"When he made up his mind he was going to do something, no one or nothing could stop him." So says Felicia Fahr, who was helping her friend mount the stage during a Gay Pride event when Tanner tore his leg open on a nail.

"Blood was spurting everywhere," recalls Fahr. "I said, 'There's no way you're going out there like that.' But he wouldn't listen. We just patched him up and out he went."

Although there's no official road map to female-impersonation stardom, Tanner's route to the drag limelight was particularly circuitous. Born in a Lubbock, Texas, backwater in 1949, Garry Mangum married, fathered twins (a boy and a girl) and was pursuing a career in journalism when his closet door swung open sometime in the early '70s. Following an amicable divorce (he still saw his children), Mangum headed for a new life in Phoenix and the rest is, well, local gay-bar herstory.

"When I heard he'd been married, I asked him why," says Ted Rodriguez. "He said, 'I'm from Lubbock. That's what you did then.'"

(Another friend offers a more intriguing explanation. "Tish told me they did it on a dare, which is exactly something he'd do. Supposedly, they only had sex once, but -- bingo -- twins!")

In addition to his mother, two children and an ex-wife, Mangum is survived by a brother and, possibly, at least one grandchild.

"Even those who've known Tish forever don't know the whole story," says Ernie Mendoza, president of Arizona Central Pride and executor of Mangum's estate. "He was -- and still is -- full of surprises."

Searching through Mangum's apartment recently, Mendoza finally found a file marked "WILL." "When I opened it, there was one piece of paper inside -- a recipe for a cake," says Mendoza.

Not quite sure whether this was a posthumous message to his friends ("Let them eat cake") or just the result of a sloppy filing system, Mendoza decided to play it safe: He arranged for someone to bake the cake, which was served at a postmemorial wake.

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address:


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