An Interview with Classic FI Pudgy Roberts

| Jan 10, 2022
Spread the love

by Ms Bob & Carol Kleinmaier

This interview was conducted in 1996 when Pudgy was 61-years-old.

Pudgy Roberts has been a professional impersonator since the late 1950s. He worked at the famous Jewel Box Lounge in Kansas City, the 82 Club in the East Village, NYC, and was the first female impersonator to be a featured act in burlesque. Pudgy is the author of the first “how-to” book on theatrical drag, Female Impersonator’s Handbook (1967). He was the editor of Female Impersonators magazine (1969 to early 1970s) and edited his own magazine devoted to professional female impersonators, Pudgy Roberts Presents The Great Female Mimics (1972). Early in his career he spent about a year in San Francisco with his new lover, Johnny. Pudgy and Johnny have been together for over 40 years now. This interview was conducted on August 13 and September 8, 1996. It appeared in a shorter form in LadyLike magazine #28 (December 1996).

Your given name is George Roberts and you are 61 years old. In all your old photos you look so thin, where did you get the name Pudgy?

My mother gave me the name as a nickname because I was quite heavy as a child. I lost the weight as I grew. When I started performing I weighted 110 pounds with an 18″ waist. I used Pudgy all the time. I felt it was a unique name and it fit, since I was too. I only use my real name, George L. Roberts, for legal purposes.

When did you start crossdressing?

I started dressing in my mother’s and sister’s clothes at age seven. I considered it normal to dress up. I was young, feminine and felt that was the part I was supposed to be or to play. My Mother caught me in drag one time, hanging out the bedroom window. We lived right across from the tracks in Chicopee, Falls, MA and next door there used to be men working on the tracks and the railroad lines. I would dress in drag, look out the window, smile at the guys and they would smile back, thinking I was a real girl. So, even at that early age I knew I was interested in the attraction of men and the appearance of men and all that.

When did you first perform in drag?

When I was about 10 years old I organized a show in a nearby cellar. I talked several of my friends into being in it. Somebody would do magic; somebody would do dancing or whatever, pantomime to a record even. I took my mother’s clothes and sang to the record player, rather than pantomime. I didn’t really rehearse for the show. I’d been dressing for three years already, so it had a quite natural feeling. I sang, since I wasn’t that enthused about pantomime. I thought everyone could do it and, of course, they can. So, I was a theatrical player at even that early age.

Actually, this was my first experience in public, too, since I dressed at home. I was brazen enough to walk down the street in drag with gowns trailing in back of me and not be bothered by people’s comments. Even now I can remember vividly what the comments were, but I wasn’t frightened by it. “You’re gonna get in trouble when you get home.” “I’m gonna tell your mother that you were out in a dress.” And I’d say, “She knows already.” She didn’t know, I don’t believe. But, it was something I had wanted to do and I was stubborn, even at that age.

When did you start to consider yourself gay?

When I was seven years old I was forced into oral sex by an older boy, who lived across from me. I only consented to it as long as he kissed me first. Although my family suspected I was gay, when I was 12 I wrote my mother a letter telling her. She never mentioned it. When I asked about two weeks later if she had received my letter, she said she had, but it was all right, as she already knew and tolerated it. My father never did, so I had a very withdrawn childhood. I guess my parents felt it was something I would grow out of, but even then I was aware of what I was and what I really wanted.

Did you ever live as a woman?

No, I never lived as a woman or ever wanted to. When I was young I did think of having a sex change, but in a few years I got over the desire. I guess I just accepted myself as I was.

You’ve had a very long-term relationship with your current lover. Could you talk about him and relationships?

When I was young I wanted a relationship. I never wanted an affair. I remember one New Years Eve going to bed with a sailor. He said, “I’m gonna get some tonight and I might not see you again.” I said, “With that in mind I’m not going to sleep with you.” And I didn’t. I got out of bed and slept on the couch.

How did your relationship with Johnny begin?

I met Johnny, my nickname for him, at a gay bar in Springfield, MA where I lived. His real name is Richard A. Baruth. He’s the one who is really responsible for a great deal of my success and my happiness, too. It was the middle ’50s and I had grown my hair almost to my ankles. Johnny was fascinated by the long hair. He asked me, “Are you a guy or are you a girl.” And I said, “Why? What difference would it make?” And he said, “What are you male or female?” And I said, “I’m both.”

I was about 21 and he was the same age. We’re just like five months apart or something like that. I met him several times. He was quite good-looking at the time. He was been married and had 4 children. He was not gay, but had a cheating wife, who he left.

One night I went to see him. I think it was our third date. We were getting to know each other more intimately, but I didn’t go to bed with him. I was late. I had stopped to watch a fire somewhere in the city and when I showed up he said “Where were you?” And I thought, “Oh, God. He’s got his hand inside of his coat. He’s got a gun or something. He’s gonna kill me ’cause he’s jealous or crazy.” Then he took out a little teddy-bear and he said, “Pudgy, this is Tuffy. Tuffy, this is Pudgy. I’ve had Tuffy for three years and I used to tell my troubles and problems to Tuffy and now I can tell my troubles to you.” And I realized how hurt he was, cause he had a cheating wife, and he felt unwanted and uncared for and he felt that I was the answer to everything. So I said, “Don’t go with me cause you don’t know what type of world this is,” meaning the gay world.

When I saw him the next day I had cut off my hair. All of it. I cried when I did it, of course. And he said “Why did you do that?” And I said “To make you go back to your wife.” He said “I’m not going back to my wife. You understand me. You’re concerned as a human being. I like you and I want to be with you.” I said, “Well, you can’t have both, either that life or this life. ” Because you know in those days you’d see the word “homosexual” in a book and you’d close the book and look around to see if anybody had seen you reading that word. Especially Massachusetts, very puritanical. In my lifetime I had 36 lovers. Johnny was the 37th.

I read that you started performing in the Army. Is this true?

I enlisted in the Army in 1955 and was stationed Ft. Dix, New Jersey in the 69th Division. I had absolutely no theatrical background or training, but I was in ten Service Club shows and I was the winner of all 10.

I was very frightened at the first show, but I knew the material really well. At the time Eartha Kitt was very popular and had several hits on the radio. I requested her songs all the time from the post station. I was fascinated by her because she sang in five languages and had an unusual voice. I did a good impression of her. I sang her songs with a live band they had at the show as I made love to the microphone. I was just in my army uniform, no drag at all.

I also tried getting onto the Bob Hope show, the show he did on army bases. I was going to do impressions and comedy in male clothes. But, I told them I could do it in drag, too. They said, “No, it wouldn’t fit in with the real girls there as well. And it would be too gay and you’re too gay.” So I never got the job.

And when you got out of the service did you keep performing?

I would MC shows at gay bars or friends’ birthday parties. Not in drag. I would do clowning. I was a professional clown from an early age. My favorite line was when I’d charge into, say, a birthday party in this huge costume, big ruffles, big hairdo and all these funny things, beep my horn and say “Hi, Kids! Where’s the food?!” (laughs) It made me laugh, because, if I had a full stomach, I could go on with anything.

When did you move to San Francisco?

It was in the early 1960s. We came to San Francisco because we thought the weather would be nice and at that time we were looking to expand into new things. I was doing art and writing and show business was the next step. I thought that there must be a lot of drag shows in San Francisco.

Did you find any places to perform?

There was a place called The Last Resort. They presented a review type thing, everyone performing one after the other with no storyline or plot. I also performed at a little show at the Barrel House Lounge on the Embarcadero.(1) Most of the performers were Black and show was called Robby Landers. I did singing, stand-up comedy, some drag and stuff.

Did you do any larger shows while you were in San Francisco?

Johnny had worked for a theatrical agency when he was married, so he knew the process of booking and all the hype needed and all. After the Robby Landers show at The Barrel House he started talking to the management about presenting Gypsy, the musical, there. He sold them the idea and we did it with scenery, props and all that. The funny thing is that he got the booking before we even had the show. Once the deal was set we had to get together a whole bunch of people to do it. That’s why I was the star! I played Gypsy. It was fun. I did partial comedy and partial glamour. I also directed and made the costumes. Johnny played Mr. Goldstone. And he and I were the producers. All the rest of the performers were unknowns like we were. I don’t remember their names. It was a long time ago. Some of them had been in shows before and were sort of professional. They had costumes and stuff and were really helpful.

What about the club itself?

The Barrel House was a huge space. It was real divey. Beers were like a quarter. The stage was about ten feet off the ground so you had to climb this ladder in the back to get on stage. It wasn’t made of flat steps either, it was like a pole. Very difficult to climb in heels. I had started working on my comic strip at this time and we used it in the show. In that costume, because of all the layers, its very difficult to move, let alone climb rounded stairs.

We ran about three months. I remember all of us crying when it closed. Many people came. Guy Straight(2), who was very big in the gay community, came down to see the show. So did Gypsy Rose Lee.

Gypsy Rose Lee came to the show?

Yes! She was in town and she came down to see it. She met the cast after the show. I was so starstruck thinking, “Here’s a celebrity coming to see me. Oh, God!” She was fun and very professional. She was a typical burlesque person she had that glamour and femaleness. It just inspired me. We didn’t know she was coming, so we couldn’t phone the press to take advantage of it or anything. I do remember one incident. When we were talking I wanted to be polite so I said, “Oh, what a nice pin.” And she said, “You like it? Here!” And even though I said, “Oh, I couldn’t,” she gave it to me!

Did you try Finochio’s while you were San Francisco?

I’d heard about Finochio’s. When we got to town I called them up and spoke to them. I never went for an audition. After all, I was just starting out and didn’t think I was that experienced or knowledgeable. I decided I wasn’t a real professional female impersonator, yet. I called them up again some years later when we were back in New York. Their show was strictly for tourists and they didn’t offer much money. By that time I’d appeared all over the country in burlesque. The Finochio show relied heavily on costumes, but wasn’t as good as the 82 Club in New York and I’d already performed at the 82.

Why did you leave San Francisco?

We heard talk of an opening for a comic stripper at the Jewel Box Lounge in Kansas City and there didn’t seen to be any drag work in San Francisco. So, we moved to Kansas City. When we got there I told the manager of the Jewel Box, “Well, I can do stripping. Regular stripping.” John Trisilo, the manager, told us that if I could do comedy I could have the job. “If you’re good, we’ll keep you. But, if you’re not, you’ll only work here for two weeks.” Johnny helped me as did the other kids in the show. I invented a lot of gimmicks so my act was equally visual and verbal. I was there for 6 months. Actually, Johnny is responsible for my entire career. He once asked me what I wanted to be and I told him, “a stripper in burlesque” and that’s exactly what he helped me become.

I know that you then left Kansas City and worked at the 82 Club in New York and had your own show at the Crazy Horse Cafe in Greenwich Village, but let’s talk about your dream of being “a stripper in burlesque.”

About 1972, when I left the Crazy Horse, there was a burlesque show in Brooklyn called Giddon’s Million Dollar Midway. All the acts were in tents. There was a burlesque tent and they had all the girls appear outside of the Midway so people would buy a ticket to see them on the inside. Many impersonators did burlesque in vaudeville, but none had ever been featured in burlesque itself. Not even in burlesque’s earlier years. I tried to get in as a female impersonator or stripper, but the agents couldn’t get me a job. Johnny, my lover, got me in, selling me off as a comic since I had my comic strip, which was a take-off on burlesque.

Giddon’s Million Dollar Midway worked several places in New York state and after I had been there for awhile someone said to the owner, “Did you see the impersonator in the burlesque tent?” And he said, “That’s no impersonator, that’s an entertainer.” This was the status I craved because, I was an entertainer. I wasn’t just a drag queen putting on a dress for the first time with no act. So they wanted to give me my own tent for six months. I was scared to run six months all across the country with a show like that in my own tent. It was a big responsibility, so I said, “Noooo,” but that was such a compliment. I never in my whole life will forget that.

I worked in burlesque for 20 years, but it was on its last legs and got so it was almost porno. I appeared in most of the main cities across the U.S. I worked in New York at the Psychedelic Burlesque Palace in Manhattan at 6th Ave and 42 St. in the late 1960s. I worked 12 to 12 everyday for four or five years. I was the mc as well as a stripper, but I didn’t really strip all the way because I’d say, “Oh, I’ll catch cold if I take off my clothes.” You see I wore a latex bust, which I invented, called the Treasure Chest, and a latex vagina under lace dresses, so you couldn’t really see anything. Well, you’d see what looked like a bust and a vagina through the dress, since a lace dress is semi-transparent. But, I liked the idea of teasing.

The audience would always say to me, “Are you a man?” And I’d say, “Well, do I look like a man?” And they’d say, “No.” “Do I sound like a man?” And they’d say, “No.” One girl used to come to see me all the time. I would see her between shows. Once she said, “You’re very, very pretty. I like your bust.” So I took off the bust and said, “Here!” She almost fainted. She thought maybe I was a sex change. She didn’t know that I was a guy with a rubber chest.

It was fun, but it was hard work, too. And the funny thing about this is that all day long I was working as a girl from 12 to 12. At the end of the night I would take my makeup off, dress in men’s clothes and the girls in the show would ask me to leave the dressing room. I said, “Why? It’s still me.” And they said, “No, it’s not still you. While you’re performing you’re a real girl. Everyone takes you as a girl, you look like a girl, everybody reacts to you as a girl. In male clothes you’re a man and all these women don’t have clothes on back here.” I said, “But, I’m not interested in women.” They said, “It doesn’t matter because there’s so much of a difference in your appearance and the feeling of it.” I was insulted.

You also wrote FEMALE IMPERSONATOR’S HANDBOOK (1967), the first “How-to” book on female impersonation. What gave you the idea? How did you find a publisher?

Johnny, again. In preparing my act I had learned so much that I wanted to share the information. I really wanted to help others find the short cuts to the profession. Johnny encouraged me to write it and helped to get it published. He presented my outline to Health Knowledge, publishers of Female Mimics, and they gave me two years to write it. Since it had already taken me two years to compile the material, I had it written in only two weeks. It’s been plagiarized many, many times. Lee Brewster has the rights to it now.

What are some of the ways you helped crossdressers?

I’ve always provided information. I still maintain my archive. For over 12 years I was the only crossdressing contact on New York’s Gay Hotline. I returned all calls at my own expense, even though many were from all parts of the U.S. and Canada. And every month I have 1,000 gummed labels printed up and send them all over the world. They say: “Free Information on Crossdressing and related subjects from the world’s leading authority. Pudgy Roberts, PO Box 126702, San Diego, CA 92112 USA.”

For several years, starting in 1969, you were editor of “Female Impersonators,” the successor to “Female Mimics.” How did you get the job? What did you do?

I went into Health Knowledge, who published Female Mimics, and Lenny Burton was there and I said, “Are you the publisher?” He said, “Yes.” And I said, “My name is Pudgy Roberts and I’m the world’s biggest authority of drag and you don’t know your ass from your elbow. You either make me editor of your publication or I’ll put you out of business because I do know what I’m talking about. You don’t!” And he said, “OK, I’ll make you editor.” But, I was editor in name only. I got them models, suggested articles and such, but they still did what they wanted. They wanted a porn-type publication and I wanted a publication about professional impersonation instead, so they didn’t let me have the final say on things.

In 1972 “Pudgy Roberts presents The Great Female Mimics” appeared. I only know of one issue. Were there others?

No, that was it. Here I had real editorial control, at least more than before. I created a publication which presented female impersonators as show business professionals. It wasn’t successful. There was an English publication with a similar editorial policy. But, even they gave in.(3)

I know there’s much more we could discuss from your colorful past, but do you have any plans for the future? Publications or Performance?

Yes, a great deal. I have a collection of jokes, cartoons, poems, limericks and humorous definitions called The Complete Comic Encyclopedia of Crossdressing that I am trying to find a publisher for and I have just started to work on my autobiography. I’m also planning to start a personal contact magazine called Crossdressing Personals.

I am working on an extravagant stage show for 1997 called When Queens Collide. It highlights me doing about 60 impressions (I do over 80 all together.) with a large cast of singers and dancers. Think of any spectacular show you’ve ever seen, it’ll be as good or better. I want smoke machines, bubble machines, the rain effect, every gimmick I can possibly come up with. As a matter of fact I just contacted a fiber optic company about the backdrop of color changing fireworks for Barbara Streisand doing “Happy Days are Here Again.” It opens with Bette Davis as the virgin queen and closes with Queen Elizabeth in a coronation outfit. I’ll be doing three male queens in it: Tiny Tim, Liberace and Michael Jackson. And it has a king, Elvis, of course. I don’t think they’ll be any other impersonators in the show because I want talent and they don’t have talent, unless they’re older. The young ones are too flighty and hard to work with. If somebody’s gay, fine, but it’s not too important since I’m going for a straight audience.

As someone who’s spent his whole life promoting crossdressing, do you have any thoughts on the current state of crossdressing?

Crossdressers, female impersonators, it’s all the same thing because it’s like “united we stand, divided we fall.” The gays have always used drag to promote themselves. A gay club having a drag show is legitimate. Every comedian, I guess, has done drag and now it’s even more popular. But, the thing is, they’re saturating the market and so it will dry up. Next year (1997) will be a very weak one for drag.

(1) The Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California (GLHS) lists The Barrel House as being at 88 Embarcadero and open from 1961-1963.

(2) The following information was provided by Willie Walker, Associate Archivist at GLHS:

“Guy Strait was indeed important in queer life in SF, especially during the early to mid-1960s. In 1960 he started an organization called the League for Civil Education, or LCE. He was convinced that a gay voting block could and should be organized to fight for queer rights. To this end he began publishing “LCE News,” the world’s first gay newspaper, in 1961. He was a true curmudgeon. His papers are wonderful to read – they are strong, humorous, and ironic. I was lucky enough to piece together a full run and get it microfilmed several years ago. I do recall seeing display ads for the Barrel House. It may be that a careful perusal will give you more info – and maybe even a review, Pudgy’s show.

Strait started another paper that ran concurrently in the mid-1960s. “Cruise News and World Report” survived a year or two before “US News” got wind of it and forced him to drop the name. A little later he started yet another paper, “Maverick,” which went psychedelic with it’s second issue, and joined the ranks with the Oracle and Free Press and other hippie papers. He co-owned the Poster Shop on Haight, and told me he was one of the Diggers. He was also a pedophile and pornographer, spending some period in a prison in Illinois in the 1970s.

He moved back to San Francisco afterwards, and was helped by Herb Donaldson during his last few years. He died of a stroke about 8 or 9 years ago.”

(3) Pudgy is probably referring to “The Drag Queens” (Gold Star Publications, Whyteleafe, Sueery, UK) which published three issues in 1972.

  • Yum

Spread the love

Tags: , , ,

Category: Impersonation, Transgender History

Ms. Bob

About the Author ()

Ms. Bob Davis, MFA, founder & director of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive in Vallejo, CA, served two terms on the GLBT Historical Society board of directors.

Comments are closed.