There were always two sides to Danny la Rue: one the tall and handsome Daniel Patrick Carroll from 10 Horgan’s Buildings on College Road in Cork, a man with broad shoulders who liked his after-hours pint and a bit of craic.
He served in the Royal Navy and once decked a drunken sailor for insulting his friend, Barbara Windsor.
The other was also tall but curvacious and voluptuous, Britain’s grand dame of drag who Bob Hope called the most glamorous woman in the world. Few could make an entrance as arresting as Danny’s alter-ego and no woman could walk down a staircase quite like her, not even Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind.
He could go from dandy to diva in the blink of a false eyelash but the split personalities never met. Dressing in drag was his life’s work, not his life’s passion and he always saw himself as a ‘comic in a frock.’
Part of the attraction with La Rue’s shows had always been the magnificent costumes, many of them costing tens of thousands of pounds.
“I’ve always been pretty cool about the costumes,” he explained when I met him in 2004 at the New Theatre in Cardiff where Danny was finishing an eight-week pantomime run as the fairy godmother in Cinderella.
“If I liked wearing them too much, I wouldn’t be good at it. I’ve never taken a frock home.”
We met in his cramped dressing room as he was readying himself to go on stage. He was as charming as his reputation. “Oh, it’s lovely to meet another Danny,” he declared in a surprisingly deep baritone growl, while delivering a crushing handshake. Apart from himself, I spied two leading ladies in his life. One stood at about 5ft 2ins, shuffling around the dressing room in a woollen cardigan and slippers.
“This is Annie,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without her.” That was Annie Galbraith — friend, confidante and designer of Danny’s costumes that often brought gasps from audiences.
The other was a little under 8ft tall, with a majestic, flowing blue gown, not unlike the kind of frocks he wore. She was his spiritual guardian.
“This is Mary of Knock,” he said by way of introduction. “She comes everywhere with me. I’m a devout Catholic and I take my altar with me everywhere. When I’m in a new place, the first thing I look for is a Catholic church so I can go to Mass.”
Danny, who died in 2009, would have been 90 today and the chances are he would still be treading the boards if he were still around and able. I had the temerity to ask him about retirement as he sat reading scripts. He shuddered at the very notion, declaring with a theatrical sweep: “Oh my dear, I shall keep doing this until I drop.”
It didn’t quite work out that way. Ill-health, failing eyesight caused by macular degeneration, and a stroke, forced him to finally give up the stage in 2006. All that was left were the glorious memories of a lifetime on stage.
Like any well practised ad-libber, he always had a few good one-liners to hand. “As a child I wanted to be a priest but my mother, Mary Ann, God rest her soul, said ‘He can’t be a priest. He’ll have a much bigger pulpit in his life’.”
For more than half a century Danny la Rue donned gravity- defying wigs, gorgeous gowns, and heels as high as goalposts as he stalked the stages of Britain, Ireland and Australia. “I’ve had a blessed life,” he told me. “I’ve made millions and I’ve lost millions but I picked myself up and dusted myself down.”
The fifth of six children, his father died when he was two and his mother brought the family to London seven years later. They were evacuated to Devon during the Blitz and he later served in the Royal Navy, sailing to Singapore as part of Lord Mountbatten’s invasion task force. While on board the ship he took his first steps to fame by getting involved in a concert.
After being demobbed, he plugged away in variety and revue. Spotted in the mid 1950s by the producer Ted Gatty, he made his London debut in a drag revue at the Irving Theatre off Leicester Square.
“It was Ted who gave me the name La Rue,” he told me. “He said that when I was all dressed up in drag, I looked as long as a street.”
From the Irving, he moved to Churchill’s Club and later Winston’s, where he presented a gallery of brassy ladies in lacquered wigs and extravagant gowns.
By the mid-60s, Danny was a big enough star to open his own club in Hanover Square and was the highest-paid entertainer in Britain. In 1969, he was the first drag performer to appear on the The Royal Variety Performance, a show he returned to on two subsequent occasions.
He must have impressed, as in 2002 Queen Elizabeth admitted to being a fan when she awarded him the OBE in honour of his charity work.
It was, he recalled, “the proudest day of my life”, although he initially thought the letter confirming his honour was a tax demand — but that was probably just another good one-liner.
Danny was gay but liked to keep alive in his public persona the possibility of having a heterosexual union. In October 1987, he announced, to widespread disbelief, that he was considering marrying a 42-year-old Australian millionairess. A week later, the wedding was cancelled because, as he put it, the media had turned their relationship into “a giggle and a joke.”
His career was guided by his manager and partner Jack Hanson, the love of his life. Tragedy struck in 1985 when Hanson collapsed with a brain haemorrhage and died at the age of 64.
“It was the lowest point of my life,” Danny told The Stage magazine. “But one night I had a vision of Jack and so I stopped. I had to.”
In 1984, he revisited his roots during an emotional return to his old Cork home. During the same visit, he packed the Opera House for a number of shows. His last performance in Cork was in 2005 when he played the Everyman Palace Theatre for a week during the Capital of Culture celebrations. The theatre’s then director, Pat Talbot, remembered him as a consummate performer.
“The man was a legend... a personal friend of Judy Garland and her daughter, Liza Minnelli, as well as of Princess Diana. He was very humbled to be invited to the Everyman... he made time for everyone.”
Danny La Rue’s last moments were spent in the company of Annie Galbraith who held his hand as he took his last breath. “I was honoured to have known him,” she said, echoing the remarks made 50 years earlier by Noel Coward, who described him as “the most professional, most witty and most utterly charming man in the business.” Happy birthday, Danny.