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.

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Dewey Webb