Danny La Rue,
Columbia SCX 6377,
For all our younger readers (ie those under 60) who might be wondering who on earth Danny La Rue was, I think it is fair to say that he made a living by dressing up as women. If you thought that that was all there was to it though, La Rue is at great pains to point out in his self-aggrandising hagiographic autobiography From Drags To Riches (a work in which no superlative is spared) to point out the precise nature of his dressing up. Danny La Rue was not a pure and simple drag act like many on the circuit, relying on exaggerated or outrageous characters that he had created, and he was most definitely not a transvestite.
Danny was very particular about his art form, ensuring throughout his career that he was never interviewed in drag or photographed backstage in the process of preparing his creations. Danny La Rue’s ‘women’ were lovingly created tributes that flattered the inspirational ladies he chose to immortalise. His ‘women’ existed in lavish, costly tableaux where no expense was spared, moving elegantly through fabulously realised settings that allowed La Rue to pay homage to a golden age of glamour and the fabulous feminine forms that graced stage and screen. There was no room for the drab scabrous likes of Lily Savage in La Rue’s world; all was beauty and grace, stylishness and glitz.
Danny La Rue’s beginnings were far from glamorous though. Born Daniel Patrick Carroll in 1927, the youngest of four children in Cork, Ireland, Danny’s family emigrated after his father’s early death, arriving in London in 1937 in time for the coronation of George VI for which I am sure the royal family were eternally grateful. The Carrolls moved into a house in Soho, which as well as being the heart of London’s bohemian quarter and epicentre of the UK theatre scene, was then also home to a large Catholic community.
Danny soon fell in love with the glitz and glamour of the West End and was stage struck from an early age. If he wasn’t spending his days hanging around stage doors, watching stars like Frances Day and Gracie Fields, he would head to The Metropolitan Music Hall on Edgware Road to watch the likes of Leslie Henson, Arthur Lucan and Randolph Sutton (the man who made On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep popular).
The Second World War put an end to Danny’s life of childhood glamour when his house was bombed during the Blitz, and he was evacuated to the village of Kennford, just to the south of Exeter. Danny found work in Huttons, a local outfitters and clothing store, where he took to creating lavish window displays and fashion shows, in what I can only imagine were scenes reminiscent of Are You Being Served?. And then, just after D-Day, Danny decided to volunteer for the Royal Navy, and use his skills with sequins and taffeta to help win the war against Germany.
Concert parties were a regular feature on board the ships and with no women serving aboard Danny’s ship HMS Alaunia, dressing up in women’s clothing became a regular occurrence. It was as a native girl from the jungles of Borneo in Leon Gordon’s White Cargo that Danny finally made his long awaited debut on a stage, albeit a slightly wobbly one in the middle of an ocean. And what a sight it must have been!
After returning from the war to Soho, Danny resumed working in a dress shop until he accompanied a friend to an audition for the show Forces Showboat. Danny’s friend did not get the part, but after Danny borrowed his friend’s costume he did. Also appearing in that show was Harry Secombe, himself just returned from the war. Secombe famously advised La Rue to quit the business after witnessing his act, something La Rue would remind Secombe of every time he saw him for the next forty years thereafter.
The show ground to a halt after empty houses and La Rue subsequently joined the wonderfully named all-male revues Forces In Petticoats and Soldiers In Skirts. It goes without saying that there was quite a lot of dressing up and drag involved. From there he moved into panto at Chatham Empire and then from 1954 onwards, gradually became a fixture in London’s West End and its burgeoning cabaret scene.
Danny La Rue made his name performing his increasingly elaborate drag act first at Churchill’s and then at its arch-rival, the subtly named Winston’s. From there it was a logical step to open and run his own club, the modestly named Danny La Rue’s in Hanover Square. Danny would own the club from 1964 until 1972 when it was sold to property developers, and would entertain the biggest names in showbusiness, falling in love with many of them (Judy Garland for instance) and falling out with a good many more (Bette Davis to name just one).
The 1970 album Hello Danny! was recorded at the height of Danny’s fame as London’s top cabaret performer. Now it is not a bad album by any means and serves as a useful record of La Rue’s act as it existed at the time. No, the main problem is that so much of La Rue’s act was visual. To witness Danny La Rue in person, in the intimate surroundings of a cabaret club with a bottle of chilled bubbly was half the thrill. To see first-hand the elaborate frocks, the lavish sets, the sparkling jewellery, the beautifully coiffured wigs, the sheer sumptuous extravagance and spectacle of Danny La Rue at the height of his magnificent powers. After removing all of that visual richness, all that is left is Danny alone in a recording booth, wearing a polo neck jumper and a pair of slacks, devoid of props and with nothing but his voice to rely on. Danny La Rue was a magnificent performer, but he was not a magnificent singer.
Take for instance Danny’s take on Jerry Herman’s Mame. The lavish Dixieland strings which wash over it all serve to mask Danny’s singing and create the ambience that is so sadly lacking. I can only imagine the lavish Gone With The Wind inspired sets in a live act, replete with mint juleps, southern belles and magnolia but the joy is all entirely in my fervent imagination and not sadly on the vinyl. His rendition of Do-Re-Mi is another number that makes me miss the visual spectacle of Danny dressed as Maria attempting to tutor a gaggle of miniature von Trapps to sing in tune. The irony being of course that the children on the record are all highly trained theatre school graduates already note perfect, while Danny warbles rather tunelessly, hitting a note every so often purely by accident and certainly posing no threat to the memory of Julie Andrews.
And so it continues. The soft shoe shuffle of Kennedy and Carr’s Hometown was probably a great number live, with Danny in top hat and tails, wielding a cane and flashing his bestockinged legs as he descended a staircase kicking away for all he was worth. The Umbrella Man is clearly in need of a troupe of cheerful grubby urchins dancing and cavorting around Danny as he offers to mend anything and everything by means of his ‘thingamajig’. The same synchronised urchins would also be a welcome addition to Flash Bang Wallop which sees Danny almost pull off a cockney accent amidst what would probably be a scene of waving jazz hands and syncopated East End jigging.
The (sort of) title track Hello Dolly which graces side two was something of a signature tune for La Rue and he became resolutely determined to perform in the titular musical himself, playing of course the lead role of Dolly Levi, and thereby in the process showing Barbra Streisand precisely where she had gone wrong back in the 60s. Dogged as ever, La Rue did eventually manage this feat in November 1983, opening in Birmingham before transferring to London in January 1984 where the show was almost universally panned by critics and closed only a few weeks later in March, leading La Rue into one of his many bankruptcies. But as we all know, the show must go on, the grin must be fixed and the frocks ironed flat for yet another audience. As I mentioned before, his ludicrously upbeat autobiography glosses over most disasters and moves on hurriedly to the next marvellous triumph, much like the man himself.
Hello Danny! is a useful memento of a great act but by no means the way he should best be remembered. For anyone who was lucky enough to see La Rue performing in his prime, the best memories may be those preserved in their minds, and not those preserved in the vinyl grooves of Hello Danny!. For the rest of us, well all we can do is say ‘hello’!