Craig Russell Remembered

| Sep 8, 2014
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The first and only time I met the late Craig Russell was at the After Dark Club in San Francisco. It was overwhelming to hear him go from a Carol Channing impression into a gravel voiced Louie Armstrong in Hello Dolly. He did Connie Francis, and if you closed your eyes you would swear Connie was on stage. I saw him backstage after the show to compliment his act. I told him I was one of the entertainers from Finocchio’s down the street and that I came to see him especially on my night off. He was very pleased and smiled sweetly. To this day I regret not having taken a photo of him with me. Unfortunately I didn’t think to bring a camera!

In 1965 he was the personal secretary to Mae West, which gave him an excellent opportunity to perfect his impression of her. He starred in two films produced in Canada; Outrageous! in 1977, which earned him a Silver Bear from the Berlin Film Festival, and Too Outrageous! in 1986. He had difficulty dealing with his success and the stress of a career in showbiz and died in 1990 at the young age of 42 in Toronto, Canada of a stroke as a result of his excesses. Craig improvised a mock epitaph years before for a Toronto Star story: “Here lies Craig Russell, 1948 to the year 2000, always at his best on a full moon. He died broke, cheated and abused by crooked promoters and agents. Buried in drag, she will be missed.”

Craig will be missed in the World of Live Drag Entertainment. I miss seeing him on stage and wish he was still with us here on Earth! Ladies and gentlemen of Cyberspace, I present to you images of “Craig Russell and [some of] His Ladies.”  (Title of book Craig Russell and his Ladies by Craig Russell & David Street, 1979, Gage Publishing Limited, Canada; an excellent book for any fan of Craig Russell.)

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Reflections on Craig from German entertainer Manuela Mock:

[caption id=”attachment_24271″ align=”alignright” width=”185″]David de Alba with Manuela Mock David de Alba with Manuela Mock[/caption]

I remember Craig Russell as a very dear friend and a wonderful artist on stage. Sometimes he did not take life seriously, but he was also afraid that life would fool him, and it actually did by taking him away much too early. His brilliant act on stage did not work in real life. He was a very shy person and very insecure of what he was doing. He was afraid and terribly hurt. He did trust in people and he did trust in life but in return he did get something that was close to zero from friends, agents, lovers and so on. They all took profit one way or the other.

In 1983 Craig was doing A Man and His Women at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt. Director David Lieberberg had seen him in Canada and took the risk to bring him over to Germany. Craig was almost unknown and the complete show was in English so it was kind of a risk for David, but it was big success and sold out for about 14 days. Craig won the Silberne Bär at the Film Festival in Berlin and also played at the Funkturm in Berlin. In Munich he did Hofbräuhaus, in Amsterdam the Carre-Theatre and later on the Kleine Komedie in Amsterdam. He played in Hamburg’s Congress-Centre and in MacAdam-Theatre. Before Craig played in this house there was also Eartha Kitt on stage.

Before he left to go back to Toronto he was arrested by the police and was broke. He almost died in a fire at some girls house in Munich. He met a terrible man named Jürgen K. in Munich. He tried to be Craig’s “Manager.” When I saw Craig for the very last time he rushed back to Frankfurt in fear, sitting in front of my door with a spoiled face. This “Manager” had locked him into a room two days before the performance, just to make sure that Craig will be on stage as it was said in the contract. He hit him in the face and ripped the complete upper lip . . . no surgery. When it was finally “repaired” by a doctor days later, it was a mess. It left a big scar. I told Craig to go back to Canada immediately, as I knew his parents were always waiting for him to come home. There was also a contract for Too Outrageous waiting for him. As far as I remember he left Germany in 1986.

The few years we did live together in a single room furnished with two dogs, one white rabbit, a bird and a lot of costumes and feathers were unforgettable . . . one day up, one day down and the next day Bacardí-Cola and fried chicken. All I have to say is that Craig Russell was unique and really outrageous. For those who have known him he was more than a female impersonator. He taught me a lot about life and one day he asked me: “Manuela, do you know what the word “STAR” really means? It’s “RATS” spelled backwards.”

Comments from FI Robin Price about Craig:

What I remember about Craig is that he seemed young and very talented. He did more impressions of more famous women in one show than anyone I had ever seen. All his impressions were perfect. I remember how impressed I was with his talent.

Entertainer, recording artist, producer Verne Langdon on Craig:

Verne Langdon

Verne Langdon

One afternoon when I stopped by the Ravenswood (Suite 611) to visit Mae, she introduced me to Craig Russell. I’m not sure whether or not he was her fan club president at the time; he could have been, although a membership card Mae gave me for that club shows a “Jack Thomas” as “active president.” Mae and Craig seemed very comfortable with each other. At that time Craig impressed me as being friendly but slightly reserved. Some time after this meeting, Mae let me know Craig liked to “imitate” her; as Mae added whenever the subject arose, “All the gay boys like to imitate me.” (From this we can assume two things: “gay boys” everywhere like to imitate Mae, and — by association — Craig Russell was gay. He didn’t seem “gay” to me … just … cordial. Oh, well. I’ve been fooled before.) This immediately hatched two burning questions in my enquiring mind: Do any of the “straight boys” like to imitate Mae, and if not, why not? (I never got the answer to either question, if I even ever asked either question!)

Later Mae let me in on another confidence, that when Craig was president of her fan club, she let him stay at her beach house in Santa Monica. One day when Paul Novak, Mae’s friend and companion for 27 years, stopped by to see how Craig was getting along, he was met by the young president of Mae’s fan club undulating around the place, bewigged, made up (including “those” eyelashes,) dressed in one of Mae’s heavily beaded gowns! There was also tangible evidence Craig had been quite busy trying on all of Mae’s dresses. BUSTED! Mae directed Craig to vacate the premises at once; those were HER clothes, and HER eyelashes, and nobody else was going to wear them!

Some years later, when Craig was performing at what was once The Millionaire Club in Beverly Hills, I went to see his act. His Mae West impersonation was stunning! He did Mae as well as she did! Craig was a real stickler for detail, including “those” heavy stage eyelashes, big bosom, and Edith Head or Travis Banton style beaded gown (I wondered if perhaps he’d “lifted” this outfit from Mae’s closet upon his quick exit out of it?!) After the show, I went backstage and met with him — he remembered me (good memory, as it had been several years since we met at Mae’s). He was very cordial, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see him that night, and tell him how much I enjoyed his work, because now he’s gone. I saw Outrageous! not long ago, and, as in his nightclub act before, he essayed Mae better than I’ve ever seen anyone else portray my friend. Craig Russell was an extremely gifted artist, and a nice guy — God rest his soul.

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Category: Impersonation, Transgender Fun & Entertainment, Transgender History

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About the Author ()

David de Alba is one of the last survivors of the golden era of female impersonation. Unlike most female impersonators, Mr. de Alba uses his own femme voice on stage. He is known for his outstanding live impersonations of Judy Garland at the world famous Finocchio Club and on countless TV appearances. He is also a celebrity Interviewer and recording artist.

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