At the height of his fame in the seventies and eighties Danny La Rue was the most famous female impersonator in the world. Credited as being “the man who made drag respectable”, he was the highest paid entertainer in Britain and commanded a huge army of loyal female fans. Glamour was the name of the game with Danny and on stage he was seen wearing fantastically elaborate and expensive gowns as he sent up such icons as Marlene Dietrich, Diana Dors and sometimes Miss World. “Women love me,” he said, “I don’t degrade them. Sleazy impersonators get their laughs by having people laugh at them. I do the reverse. I love laughter, glitter and glamour.”
A rib-nudging, hip-shaking imposter, Danny always maintained that he was simply a man who dressed up in a wig and frock for a living. Although his performances were accurately feminine, he rarely pretended to be a woman at all. Sweeping on stage at the beginning of a show, he would bawl out his catchphrase “Wotcher mates!” and his act was studded with masculine reminders. He had a natural rapport with his audiences and they flocked to see his shows, his West End revues were nearly always sell-outs, packed with coach parties, and in pantomime he was one of the smartest of all Dames.
Success brought him huge wealth – a top London nightclub, three houses, an hotel and yet in 1993, as a victim of a financial scam, he lost his entire fortune. Embittered but undeterred he continued working up until the end of his career.
Daniel Patrick Carroll was born in Cork on July 26, 1927, the youngest in a family of five. His father, a sailor, died when he was only six and the family moved to Soho. During the Second World War he was evacuated during the Blitz to Devon. At 15 he became a window dresser in a fashion store in the Navy and in 1944 he joined the Royal Navy for three years. There he was involved in concert parties, notably White Cargo in which he appeared for the first time in drag. Back in civvies he worked in rep and later was featured in the all male revues, Forces in Petticoats and Men Only. Spotted in 1950 by the producer and comedian Ted Gatty, Danny made his London debut in a drag revue at the Irving Theatre. It was Gatty who gave him the name La Rue, saying that when Danny was all dressed up in drag he looked as long as a street.
From Irving’s he moved to Churchills and in 1955 to Winstons, where he appeared for seven years in the company of Ronnie Corbett and Barbara Windsor. Night after night he appeared in a gallery of brassy ladies, and women of the fifties particularly influenced his act – Lady Docker, Elizabeth Taylor, Sabrina and Dors.
He performed annually in pantomime for Tom Arnold, first teamed as an ugly sister with Alan Haynes, and later as a Dame on his own.
He opened his own, now legendary, nightclub, Danny La Rue’s in Hanover Square in 1964, attracting more than 13,000 members and celebrities such as Judy Garland, Noel Coward, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Warren Beatty, Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret were just some of the regular patrons. The PR officer for the club was The Stage newspaper’s Peter Hepple. The success of the club was largely due to Danny himself and on stage his material was always topical, much of it written by Barry Cryer.
Whilst making nightly appearances at his club, he also starred in the musical comedy Come Spy With Me (Whitehall Theatre 1966/67), in which he managed to appear in several frocks and in 1968 he had his own TV special An Evening with Danny La Rue.
Queen Passionella and the Sleeping Beauty (Savile Theatre 1969) was one of London’s longest running pantomimes and was a personal triumph for Danny, as was his mammoth two-year run, At the Palace (Palace Theatre 1972), a lavish revue that was seen by more than a million people.
He toured extensively in Canada, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, with great success, eventually investing most of his earnings into Walton Hall, a stately home in Warwickshire that he turned into a hotel. For seven years it became a Mecca for his many showbiz friends and was dubbed by Liberace as ‘Danny’s Castle’. In 1983 he misguidedly sold it to two Canadian businessmen, although he remained the business figurehead of the hotel. The same year the new owners were arrested on serious fraud charges and subsequently jailed, leaving Danny with a string of bills he knew nothing about.
Shattered, he said that his survival was only due to his strong Roman Catholicism and desire for work. “They can take my money away from me,” he said. “But they can’t take my talent.” The same year he opened in the West End as Dolly Levi in the musical Hello, Dolly! (Prince of Wales Theatre). It was the first time the role had been played by a man, but unfortunately was not a success and closed early.
Feted and honoured by showbusiness, he appeared in three Royal Variety shows and was a firm favourite with the Royal family. He received numerous awards and was a prominent member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, being made King Rat in 1986. In later years, particular after the death of his partner and manager Jack Hanson, his career went into something of a decline. Tastes had changed and younger audiences found his style of humour passe. A one-man show, in which he appeared for the most part out of drag, was mauled by the critics. Yet he continued to tour the UK at a gruelling pace which put younger performers to shame. He worked for Duggie Chapman Productions on many occasions in variety and the faithful, if somewhat older, fans continued to flock to see him. On stage he walked slower and there were no high kicks, but the costumes and razzamatazz were as dazzling as ever. They had come to see a legend and a legend is what they got. Danny La Rue – the most glamorous female impersonator of them all – and the man who made drag respectable.