In the days before Lenny Bruce, no comedy act was harassed more often than Ray Bourbon. Consistently provocative and customarily raided, Bourbon's act skirted convention. Civic authorities unplugged his microphone in mid-performance and the venues he played were regularly threatened with padlocked consequence. When he wasn't sitting in the slammer for "lewd performance" or the now remarkable charge of "impersonating a woman," Bourbon was mailing letters of desperate agony to Variety. The June 3, 1970 edition featured a startling plea buried on page fifty-one, sandwiched between news of Jackie Mason's new production firm and a publicity photo of Homer and Jethro.
Brownwood, Tex. 76801
This is the town where they pulled Midnight Cowboy for being obscene. I am sure it must be obvious to you now what chance I had here for getting a fair trial. I'm hoping you will mention this as I seem to have been completely forgotten by everyone; especially ones I've done favors for. I'll be grateful for anything you can say to attract any kind of aid. I am now on an appeal. But I need help. The address of the jail where I'm in is 212 N. Broadway, Brownwood, Texas 76801.
Ray Bourbon was the stage name of Hal Waddell. Perhaps influenced by contentious reviews, Scotch and Bourbon ended their partnership. Bourbon took a showbiz hiatus, reverting to gigs in the modeling racket. A paper in Bakersfield ran an intriguing advertisement in the spring of 1931. The full page spread enticed shoppers to witness a showing of the latest fashions at Weill's department store. It noted, "Popular young club matrons will assist Mr. Rae [sic] Bourbon in modeling the new dresses, ensembles and coats. Notice: Mr. Rae Bourbon will model dresses in our windows Friday." Bourbon was posing in drag for afternoon housewives. Nothing peculiar was inferred in the publicity. It was as if a man dressed in female attire was a common occurrence in the California oil patch. As he modeled, Bourbon interacted with the conservative audience, inserting campy gags and salacious asides. From the confines of a small town department store, Bourbon developed an act.
Come July, Bourbon abandoned fashion modeling. He no longer needed the modest income. As his hometown newspaper explained:
Juarez Actor Gets Fortune. Hal Waddell's Father Leaves 1,500,000 Estate
The first thing Hal Waddell, female impersonator at Hugo's Lobby No. 2, contemplates after he gets some of the $1,500,000 estate left him by his father, is to quit working until midnight and getting up before noon. Waddell, whose stage name is Rae Bourbon, Monday was making plans for a future that he says contains $900,000 cash and $600,000 in Texas oil lands. He has been advised that his father's estate finally has been settled. 'I want to spend six months touring the world,' Waddell said, 'and then go for the legitimate stage.'
- El Paso Herald Post, July 27, 1931
Bourbon purchased a four thousand dollar Eton mink coat, the first of several jacketed investments. Bourbon would squander most of his fortune on ornate fabrics. No longer desperate for income, he was able to devote his leisure hours to stews of pretension. He hammered out a novel. Poverty row publishing house Smith and Co of Philadelphia gave a minor run to Hookers, pseudonymously credited to Richard F. Mann. The low-print run was surpassed only by its non-existent sales. The book detailed the adventures of an androgynous sex trade worker in the Texas gay underground. After the release of his novel, Bourbon announced a soon-to-be-released follow-up titled Meat Market: A Fairy Tale.
After this literary oriented respite, Bourbon re-entered the showbiz fringe with an act of drag queen lipsynchs. Small bars like the Hollywood Back Yard Cafe paired him with likeminded performers of oscillating competence. Bourbon joined with pansy acts George "Honey Boy" Hayes, Billy "the Male Jean Harlow" Beryl and several other ambitious drag queens for a touring revue titled Boys Will Be Girls. Remarkable for its time period, the showcase brought homosexual themes direct to the closeted corners of America - from the Torch Club in Massillon, Ohio to the Kit Kat Club in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Master showman Dwain Esper was the marketing virtuoso who ensured its success. Esper's ability to capitalize on shock value made him the exploitation ringmaster of the Depression era. He rarely schlepped a project that didn't feature drug use or sex scandal and his legacy lives on with his enduring Reefer Madness.
May 23, 1933, Ray Bourbon was arrested when Esper's San Francisco performance was raided by the police. The setting was Tait's Cafe. Variety gave a condescending assessment - and tacit endorsement - of the clamp down. The review started by describing San Francisco as "a swaggering tough town that likes its shows suggestive and its likker [sic] straight. But when it comes to pansy floor shows, that's a different manner. Tait's Cafe was the scene of four nightly raids when great big gorgeous policemen descended upon the spot and hauled off seven members of the Boys Will Be Girls troupe, sticking em in a nasty old cell. That blindfolded girl, Justice, pulled her eyeshade slightly awry, peeked out, noted the gowns and makeup of the entertainers and with tonuge in cheek - scheduled the hearing for the Women's court. There Judge Steiger on Friday (26) dismissed Rae Bourbon, Jean Russell, Neil Dorney, Fred Notl, Sam Silvers, Francis Blair and Eddie Lee, but held until June 2 Daniel Carson, manager, who took the fall for [Joe] Rosenberg and his cafe. City also rescinded the cafe's bear permit, and is doing everything possible to make it tough for Tait's. First raid, Monday night, was a colorful affair that incidentally was broadcast over KFWI as the show was remote controlling over station. After Rae Bourbon had done a Spanish dance in fem attire Capt. Layne stepped up to the stage, blew his whistle, and half a dozen coppers nabbed the boys. They gave 'em time to take off their dresses, then hustled 'em in the wagon which clanged to the station house with the gang of mascared, rouged, lipsticked impersonators who floored the tough Irish desk sergeant upon their entrance."
Most whom attended a Ray Bourbon gig dug the ambiguity of the "swish performer." The objections rarely came from audience members. As with the Lenny Bruce travails, it was more often pious church voices that incited public anger about the so-called lewd performance. Reuben's, a nightclub in Hollywood, was harassed by local police and placed Bourbon under arrest in 1936. Bourbon was "up for trial in municipal court for allegedly putting on an indecent performance." Par for the course, the indecency charge stemmed not from dirty words or descriptions of sex acts, but merely Bourbon's onstage admission that he was gay.
Hollywood was a good place for a nightclub performer to stake a claim. Simply by virtue of geography, a comedian could find random roles in celluloid. Bourbon and his piano aid Bart Howard were cast in a Marion Davies picture called Ever Since Eve. Earl Carroll with his massive Hollywood nightclub signed Bourbon to a contract as an afternoon regular on his infomercial-disguised-as-radio-program titled Back-Stage at Earl Carroll's. At the same time he entered a management agreement with a local venue called the Holland Inn, which was renamed Club Bourbon when Ray became house comic. The club lasted only a brief spell, likely due to police harassment, and closed at the start of the nineteen forties. Bourbon bounced from club to club, never short of work, always a profitable draw. When authorities padlocked one joint - another spot opened.
Outside of Hollywood, the torrid nightlife of Miami Beach was a welcoming atmosphere for Ray. It was at the comically named Delicate Frank's where Bourbon came to Beach prominence. There, Bourbon maintained a sidekick named Tiny Keys, replacing another occasional stooge, Frank Sherry, receiving local praise as "another Frances Faye." In a region famous for its debauchery, Bourbon's risqué style was embraced. His long list of Beach gigs included turns at the Drum, Charlie's Tobacco Road, the Cork Club, the Mayfair, the Tepee, Tony Pastor's and the Rumpus Room. "There was also a place he worked in Miami called the Jewel Box," says 89-year-old Woody Woodbury, a comedy regular from Miami's heyday. "That was what they called in those days a queer nightclub. Nobody thought anything about it. [Straight people] never went to it, I guess because it was a stigma on you if you were seen going to it. But we showbiz people, we used to go watch him." Miami Beach in the nineteen forties may have been the most sexually liberal in America. The Mexicana Bar featured "transvestite bartenders and waiters" and the Club Ha Ha where Bourbon gigged featured a roster of male employees who "wore makeup and sang dirty songs to the customers."
Dividing his time between America's urban tropics, Bourbon gained a substantial following. When he returned west for an engagement on the Sunset Strip it resulted in the most important break of his career. Mae West was present to witness what fellow comedians referred to as the world's greatest Bette Davis impression. Impressed, Mae West came backstage after the show. Bourbon was enlisted to play "Florian, the Swishing Waiter" in her Broadway show Catherine Was Great.
While Bourbon awaited the delivery of his eastbound plane ticket, he gained attention in a brief revue, Insults of 1944. Variety referred to the production as a "stage freak ... Nobody is insulted and it's Ray Bourbon all the way. Those who have revelled in this nightclub performer's antics will want to see him in a whole evening of his best routines. There are a few other acts around, but they merely serve as breathers for Bourbon." Variety found it impossible to review any Ray Bourbon performance without employing a barrage of homo-code. "It's a romp for Bourbon, donning skirts and violent pastels most of the way and really having himself a gay time. He calls for a drink after each strenuous session at swishery and pantomime, and real stuff it is too, or so it looked. Don't take along anyone who's squeamish - for they'll be shocked to no end." Critics were not as generous in Manhattan. Despite Ray's appreciative crowds at the Club Stevens and the Blue Angel, Broadway was vastly more fickle. Theater critic Harold V. Cohen reviewed, "Ray Bourbon is either amusing or nauseating depending strictly on viewpoint."
Catherine Was Great lasted six months. By the end of the year Bourbon had spent his entire inheritance. He had a pile of fur coats, mink stoles and flashy accoutrements to show for it - nothing else. Walter Winchell gave mention in a column: "Ray Bourbon, mimic at Deuces wears a white Hindu broadtail jacket priced at $1400." Like-minded reports gave mention to his "white mink Eton Jacket valued at $2300." Searching for his footing, mink-lined pockets empty, Bourbon approached his old friend. Mae West granted him a part in her Coronet Theater revival of Diamond Lil playing "Bowery Rose, the pansy shoplifter." The revival closed after twenty performances, but Bourbon parlayed it into a stint at the nearby Torch Club. Again, there was hostile press. The Torch Club "is dipping into dangerous waters for its pulling power," said Variety. "The lavender-scented policy might work as a penny-catcher once word gets around the soprano-hipped circles that new camping grounds have been established. On opening night the joint was loaded with ambiguous characters."
With his celebrity status increasingly cemented Bourbon grew more eccentric - and erratic. Walter Winchell reported that Bourbon hosted a Hollywood cocktail party in 1949 and qualified, "Those delicious canapes Ray Bourbon served with cocktails the other sundown were made from dog food." Bourbon took to placing classified ads filled with fullbore nonsense wherever he was gigging. In the back pages of the Miami News you could find, "VETERAN and wife desire 1 and a half to 3 room furnished apartment; considering a cage. Phone Ray Bourbon, Euclid 4965." Another stated, "WANTED. Old friends, scarecrows and witches. See Rae Bourbon, The Red Carpet, 1610 Alton Rd."
At the start of 1951 with his career in a lull, Bourbon placed an anonymous classified disclaimer: "REWARD for information leading to the whereabouts of RAY BOURBON and 1949 Smoker house trailer, serial No. 649142. Notify Box No. 511, Glendale Calif. or telephone collect CHapman 5-3784." The trailer in question was one he had been traveling with of late. An animal lover, Bourbon had a compulsion for amassing pets. As the years passed he accumulated more and more, with an eventual total of seventy-one dogs and cats. They traveled the country with him, hitched to the back of his car.
December 1954, Bourbon presented a heavily promoted revue at the Ivar Theater. Although Bourbon was able to pack smoke-filled afterhours joints, he overestimated his drawing power in a theater setting. Bourbon was unable to fill even half the Ivar's four hundred seats. The solo show took a bath. Snide reviews dismissed its "obnoxious results" and "smutty allusions." Further plans to take the show on the road were canceled. Angry Los Angeles investors lost thousands of dollars and Bourbon fell into debt. His alcohol consumption increased. The LAPD flagged him for speeding down the center of LaBrea. As he stepped out of the car crammed with feather boas, he insisted he was only speeding to make it home in time for "his children's feeding time." A reference to seventy-one canine and feline.
Prospects diminishing, Bourbon infused his career with a publicity stunt. Inspired by the widely reported sex change of Christine Jorgenson, Bourbon visited "surgeon Emerick Szekely," or fabricated as much, and returned to Hollywood in a blitz of triumphant sex-change publicity. Wire stories about Bourbon's procedure abounded and he immediately went to work devising a one-man/one-woman show based on his operation. Bourbon was booked into the Sunset Boulevard Melody Room. It brought in the curiosity seekers, but it also spawned outrage from moralist pulpits. The pious called for a crackdown and the typically aggressive Los Angeles authorities were only too willing to oblige.
The age old showbiz injunction to change your act led Rae Bourbon into court yesterday and posed a legal problem that may well call for a modern Solomon. It all started when a vet impersonator named Ray Bourbon underwent a sex change operation in Mexico some months ago and announced that henceforth the act would be Miss Rae Bourbon. Under that billing the performer was booked into the Melody Room on the Sunset Strip for a limited engagement starting Monday.
For a while, at least, it appeared that the engagement would be more limited than anyone expected. Seated at ringside Monday night for the first show were three uproarious gentlemen, one attired in a flaming red sport jacket. They laughed. They applauded. They pounded on the table for more. And when the act was over, they followed (Miss) Bourbon into (his... her... check one) dressing room and flashed their buzzers. Sheriff's deputies. The charge - impersonating a woman.
- Variety, August 1, 1956
Bourbon was outraged. He shouted from the courthouse steps. "Ridiculous! I am a woman!" The lunacy accelerated when Bourbon was brought to the county jail. Deputies spent an hour conferring whether to detain Bourbon in the male wing or the female wing. While details were hammered out, Bourbon was left sulking on a concrete bench wearing a velvet gown.
Bourbon was released on bond. Melody Room proprietor Jack Gordon honored the remainder of the engagement, but adhering to the bizarre law, Bourbon was under legal obligation to perform in pants for the rest of the run. One week later the Los Angeles County Public Welfare Commission labeled Ray Bourbon an "undesirable performer" granting sheriff deputies authority to close down the Melody Room on the grounds it was "presenting an indecent performance." The commission told Gordon they objected "to any booking of Bourbon regardless of what type of act might be presented." The Welfare Commission included Reverend Andrew F. Griffin who categorized Bourbon as "obscene and profane." The Reverend further objected to Bourbon "satirizing his own arrest for impersonating a woman" and complained, "this entertainer also drinks!"
November 1956, the Municipal Court ruled Ray Bourbon was guilty of impersonating a woman. He was sentenced to thirty days in prison. The publicity derived from his procedure and subsequent arrest would briefly revitalize his career. Any venue he played was sure to make a mint, but the critics remained dismissive. "Prior to the purported sex surgery, Bourbon was a slick, if blue, nitery entertainer," one wrote. "Now, as 'Rae' Bourbon, 'she' is merely a fat, posturing figure mouthing vulgarities with little showmanship and less taste, and displaying a series of gowns designed to pander to curiosity seekers. Whether the show will be raided remains to be seen, but it would be unnecessary. The public is its own best censor and, apart from the camp followers, it's doubtful that there will be many who will pay to see this trash."
Bourbon's career was then waxed in infamy. He entered on the ground floor of America's great comedy record craze. While Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman had the runaway best sellers, Bourbon out pressed them both with a total of twelve LPs. Irving Kratka and James Gardner, a pair that had mulled bankrolling some of Bourbon's shows, invested in an upstart vinyl imprint called UTC, which stood for Under the Counter. "Probably no other homosexual, and certainly no other performer, has had the effect on America's gay community that Bourbon did," Gardner reflected. "Rae went all over the country, appearing everywhere, and people remember him because he was there once. He would walk into a room, gauge the audience and figure out what they could stand. Then he'd push it ten percent above what they could take."
As social morals loosened in the nineteen sixties, Bourbon became passé. Gay liberation was a serious cause and Bourbon's high camp was little help. At the same time, Bourbon's shock value was less shocking in the wake of free love and grind house movies. Bourbon was an anachronism. He played private parties and recorded more records, but he was struggling more than ever. He felt it might be time for another Broadway show. He advertised a cattle call in September 1966. The show was planned as "a brassy musical comedy about homosexuality, murder etc."
Rehearsals for Daddy Was a Lady were stymied when Bourbon and producer Edward Wilson started fighting. "Bourbon left the rehearsal hall Friday in a huff, accusing Wilson of trying to 'castrate' the show by laundering the raw script," wrote the trade papers. "Bourbon was said to feel the show wouldn't work without its vulgarity intact." Bourbon grabbed a young performer he had cast named Bobby Randall Crane and never came back. Some reports indicate the show featured a sequence in which trained dogs urinated on cue.
He was growing obscure in his own time. He performed primarily at the Kansas City Jewel Box, although he would have traveled anywhere had anyone wanted him. "Bookings were no longer so easy to get, and funds were low," explained periodical The Advocate. Booked for a gig in Texas, "Ray started the long trip from Kansas City, where he had last appeared, in an old car crammed with everything he owned and towing his pets behind in a special trailer. Thirty-five miles from El Paso, the car caught fire. Everything was burned but the trailer, which was saved by a man with a tank-truck full of tree spray."
Bourbon had an old Broadway friend wire him enough to purchase a replacement vehicle. It too would perish after just two weeks of use, stranding Bourbon and his pets in the middle of nowhere. Ray managed to get a tow to nearby Big Spring where he registered his animals at Blount's Kennels while he bused to his next gig. Bourbon was determined to work long enough to cover his debts, return to Texas, pay the kennel owner, and reclaim his animals.
After several months, Bourbon earned enough to rent a large truck and bail out "his children." En route, he stopped at a payphone to let Mr. Blount know he was on his way. "Don't bother," said Blount. Bourbon's outstanding bill had been delinquent so long, Blount told him, "I've already disposed of them." Bourbon's animals had been sold to a chemical company for use in experiments.
Bourbon was in a state of shock. He drove right back to Kansas City. He opened the door of his apartment and was immediately attacked by an intruder, shot and robbed. Suffering a flesh wound and terrified by the encounter, Bourbon purchased a handgun. Angry, wounded, armed and paranoid, Bourbon began "an obsessive campaign to get his pets returned." As he became more and more desperate he started making "calls and threats about Blount."
Bourbon sent a pair of surrogates to Texas to investigate matters. One was the chorus boy Bobby Randall Crane, the other a young minion, Bobby Chrisco. He paid the boys to find Mr. Blount and question him, intimidate him. He lent them a truck and his new gun. "Ray gave them thirty dollars for the trip," writes Rand Riddle. "They planned to stop in Big Spring and find out where Bourbon's dogs were and perhaps rough up Blount." Instead, they stripped the plan to its raw essence. They found Blount and killed him.
The police recovered the firearm. "I'd just gotten my makeup on when a waiter came and told me that the [Kansas City nightclub] boss wanted to see me in the office," remembered Bourbon. "It was full of police and two Texas Rangers with warrants for my arrest, as well as warrants for Crane. I was questioned from 9:30 that night until 9:00 the next morning." The trial took place in Big Spring. Reports stated, "Mrs. Ruth Apple, manager of the Big Spring Retail Merchants Association, testified at one point that Bourbon had called the association to complain about Blount and had told her he was going to kill Blount."
Three homosexuals were on trial in the small Texas town. "The jury listened intently, but the whole thing must have sounded decidedly queer ... after deliberating for over four hours, the jury rendered its verdict." Crane was sentenced to ten-years. Ray Bourbon pleaded not guilty, but was convicted as an "accomplice to murder with malice." He was sentenced to ninety-nine years and transferred to a jail architecturally designed to emulate a medieval castle. Bourbon composed multiple letters to the trade publications begging for help. He even managed to stage a successful jailbreak, but after two hours awol, the now frail senior citizen wandered right back to the prison. Upon return he conceded to a guard, "I had nowhere to go."
El Paso Herald Post, July 27, 1931
Variety, August 23, 1932.
Oakland Tribune, May 24, 1933
Variety, May 30, 1933.
Los Angeles TImes, December 20, 1954
Variety, November 20, 1956.
Variety classified, January 17, 1956
Variety, August 16, 1956
Variety, November 19, 1966
Daddy Was a Laddy: The [Unpublished] Memoirs of Ray Bourbon edited by Randy A. Riddle
Woody Woodbury, interview with author, June 2004
Bobby Ramsen, interview with author, July 2011