Danny La Rue, cabaret drag artist and stage star, died on 31 May 2009. He was 81.
Born in Cork in 1927, he might have spent his life in the United States rather than the United Kingdom if it hadn’t been for a twist of fate when he was just 18 months old – The Guardian explains most fully:
Born Daniel Patrick Carroll in Cork, La Rue was the youngest son of a Roman Catholic cabinetmaker who had five children. La Rue never knew him. His father went to New York in the late 1920s with the idea of bringing his family over later, but died before this could happen, when Danny was 18 months old.
The young Daniel spent his first few years in Cork where, The Independent tells us, he first saw a female impersonator on the stage:
His first experience of theatre, at the age of five, was watching the Irish comedian Jimmy O’Dea as the dame in the pantomime Mother Goose at Cork Opera House. In 1937, the Carroll family moved to London and the young Danny’s love of theatre grew as he watched acts such as Arthur Lucan in the guise of Mother Riley.
It wasn’t long before he was on the boards himself, as the Daily Telegraph notes:
When the family home in Soho was destroyed during the Blitz, his mother, a seamstress, moved her children to the Devon village of Kenn, where Danny took a keen interest in amateur dramatics. “There weren’t enough girls, so I got the pick of the roles,” he recalled. “My Juliet was very convincing.”
According to The Independent, he carried this through into the Navy when he joined up in 1944:
On turning 17, he joined the Navy (1944-47) and served aboard HMS Alaunia, part of Lord Mountbatten’s task force heading for the Far East, as a steward assigned to the officers’ mess.He also performed with a concert party, making his début in a spoof of the play White Cargo, acting an African girl wearing a bed sheet as a sarong. In Singapore, he took part in regular shows staged for the Army and RAF. John Gielgud, whose Ensa company was on a Far East tour, told him: “I don’t like men who dress up as women, but you make me laugh.”
The Daily Telegraph reports that one other famous name tried to dissuade him from drag in his early years:
In 1947 La Rue was demobbed, returned to London and to his job as a window dresser. He auditioned for Forces Showboat, an all-male revue, admitting: “I can’t do anything but look good and move well.” None the less he was immediately offered a job in the chorus. During his time with Forces Showboat he met Jack Hanson, who became his companion and manager. He also met Harry Secombe during the tour and recalled that the singer tried to talk him out of performing in the show. Secombe told him he “wasn’t the sort of chap who should be dressing up as a girl”.
It was about this time that the young Danny Carroll acquired the stage name under which he became famous. The Independent tells us:
When the comedian Ted Gatty needed another male performer to make up the numbers in a show at the Irving Theatre, in Leicester Square, Carroll finally agreed to tread the boards again – on condition that his real name not be used, so that Huttons did not find out. Gatty came up with the pseudonym Danny La Rue. “You look wonderful in costume and you remind me of Paris, like the Follies,” he told Carroll. “You are also long and lean, like a lovely French street. So I thought I would call you ‘Danny the Street’ – Danny La Rue.”
He soon scored a string of successes in London cabarets, on the stage and on the screen, as The Times records:
His first television appearance was in 1953 on The Good Old Days, on which he became a regular performer alongside Roy Hudd, Arthur Askey and Ken Dodd. The show ran for 16 years. In 1964 he opened his own club, Danny’s, on Hanover Square in London, building a reputation for hard work by making an appearance there in the early hours after his variety hall appearances. In 1966 he became a staple of Secombe and Friends.
The Guardian offers this explanation of his success:
La Rue was never a gay icon, nor a butt of the feminist movement, a fact that sometimes surprised him. His core audience was, in fact, blue-rinsed ladies of a certain age who sent gushing letters congratulating him on his awards – showbusiness personality of the year in 1969, theatre personality of the year in 1970, 25 years in showbusiness award in 1976, and entertainer of the decade in 1979.
They wrote saying how much they admired his legs or his self-manufactured rubber bosom, presumably because they identified with him and were comfortable with his act – though it sometimes included raucous jokes that, coming from anyone else, might have caused deep offence. He got away with it, he claimed, because everyone knew that everything he did and said was just a pretence: he regarded himself as an actor.
La Rue suffered three disasters – one business, one professional and one personal – in the early mid-1980s; The Guardian relates the first two:
…restoring the derelict stately home Walton Hall near Stratford-upon-Avon, which he had bought for £500,000 – much of his considerable savings. He poured the rest into restoration and turning it into a hotel and arts centre, only to find that the two Canadian managers were conmen who had left him with a pile of unpaid bills, for which La Rue was legally responsible. The day after his 56th birthday, La Rue’s company went into voluntary liquidation and he was forced to sell his home in Henley to pay off the debt.
It got worse. In 1984 he took the lead in Hello Dolly! which was critically panned and closed soon after.
The Times notes that, although private about his sex life, he had formed one strong attachment:
Latterly he became more willing to talk candidly about his private life. He never made an open admission about his sexuality, saying in 2001 that he had been celibate for so long that it hardly mattered. But he had referred to his former manager, Jack Hanson, as his “life partner”. When Hanson died suddenly in 1984 it was a grave blow to La Rue, already in some distress after the liquidation of his company, Martell Securities, and a lack of stage work. He sold his home in Henley to satisfy the bank, became depressed and took refuge for a while in alcohol.
He threw himself back into his work. Nevertheless The Guardian notes that he was relatively rarely on television in later years, and explains the rationale behind it:
La Rue resumed his disciplined routine of personal appearances at pierheads and in pantomime, rationing his television appearances as always. Why, he asked, should people pay to see him on stage when they could see him for free on television?
The Times offers a different explanation:
Considering the extent of La Rue’s stage success, his television career was somewhat limited after the long run of The Good Old Days — producers wary, perhaps, of how to present him to a broad primetime audience. The comedian Paul Grady [sic] made a fortune in the 1990s with Lily Savage, a council-estate version of La Rue’s bawdy nightclub act. A long-time La Rue groupie, O’Grady did so with his mentor’s blessing even though La Rue found the character “demeaning to women”.
The Daily Telegraph acknowledges that his activity in later years wasn’t just limited to his stage work:
Having [reassessed his life after Jack Hanson’s death], he returned to cabaret, touring extensively in New Zealand, Australia and the United States and devoting much of his time to visiting hospitals and hospices. He also raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Aids charities, work for which he was appointed OBE in 2002.
The Times gets the last word, for its quotation of how La Rue wanted to be remembered:
“I want to die backstage . . . and when I’m gone I want my boobs dipped in gold.”
(Danny La Rue OBE, born Daniel Patrick Carroll on 26 July 1927 in Cork; died 31 May 2009 in Tunbridge Wells)