Female Impersonator Danny La Rue Dies, Age 81Date: 1 June 2009
Comedian Danny La Rue - who achieved legendary status as a female impersonator and pantomime dame – passed away last night (31 May 2009) at his home in Kent. Aged 81, La Rue had been suffering from prostate cancer and hadn’t been seen regularly on stage in over two years when, under doctor’s orders, he cancelled all performances following a stroke (See News, 28 Mar 2006).
A spokesperson for La Rue confirmed today: "Danny died peacefully in his sleep just before midnight last night after a short illness."
One of the most famous female impersonators in the world at the height of his fame in the Sixties and Seventies, La Rue became a Christmas tradition in and of himself, appearing in countless pantomimes over the years, not least the long-running Queen Passionella and the Sleeping Beauty. His last major panto appearance was playing the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon over Christmas 2005.
Speaking to Whatsonstage.com at the time about how Ian McKellen’s pantomime dame debut in Aladdin at the Old Vic had made the genre cool again, La Rue said: “When I’m on stage at the Ashcroft in high heels and a big wig, I’m the tallest fairy in town, so I’m delighted that Sir Ian has made panto dames respectable. But it’s not about fellers in frocks. Like Shakespeare, pantos are about good triumphing over bad. If you wave your magic wand over the morality, pantomime will always be cool.”
Born Daniel Patrick Carroll, one of five children, in Ireland on 26 July 1927, La Rue’s family moved to London when he was six and then, after their home was destroyed during the Blitz, relocated to Devon, where La Rue developed an interest in amateur dramatics. He joined the Royal Navy at 18 and started performing, often as a girl, in shipboard concert parties, which, once he finished his three-year service, led him to appearances in all-male military revues including Forces Showboat and Soldiers in Skirts.
In the 1960s, after years in regional rep, La Rue achieved fame on the London club and cabaret circuit, first at Churchill’s and then Winston’s, where he performed alongside the likes of Barbara Windsor. In 1964, he founded his own eponymous nightclub in Hanover Square, attracting a high-profile clientele, including Judy Garland, Shirley Maclaine, Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor.
He went on to launch a West End variety show, under the title At the Palace, extended for two years at the Palace Theatre. His other West End stage credits included Avis Bunnage in Oh What a Lovely War!, in which it’s believed he became the first man to take over a woman’s role in a West End show. In 1983, he achieved another first in the West End, becoming the only man to tackle the title role of matchmaker Dolly Levi (the role immortalised on screen by Barbra Streisand) in a revival of Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical Hello, Dolly!, which transferred for 12 weeks to the Prince of Wales theatre after an initial run in Birmingham.
La Rue was appointed an OBE in the 2002 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. His other accolades included being named Variety Club Showbiz Personality of the Year, Theatre Personality of the Year and Entertainer of the Decade. On television, La Rue’s credits included Tonight with Danny La Rue, The Good Old Days, Charley’s Aunt, The Queen of Hearts and Mr Bean, while his sole film role was as an army private in 1976’s Our Miss Fred.
La Rue’s long-time partner and manager Jack Hanson passed away in 1984 after suffering a stroke while touring with La Rue in Australia. The entertainer is survived by his companion and carer Annie Galbraith.
For Michael Coveney's tribute to Danny La Rue, click here.