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31 May 2019

Two own-voice impersonators

Sometimes we get only a snapshot of a person, and never find out what happened to them later.   Here are two trans woman surviving as performers, who are incidentally mentioned in books on other topics.  This is all that we have of them.

Loretta Zotto (193? - ?)

During the filming of Trouble Along the Way, 1953, about a failing Catholic college that employs a has-been sports coach (John Wayne) trying to regain his lost wife and daughter, director MichaelCurtiz (who made Casablanca and Mildred Pierce) was noticed spending time with Loretta Zotto, an extra on the cast.   Zotto was tall, beautiful, well-endowed and was compared to film-star Jane Russell.   

One night Judy Garland, Peter Lawford and Merv Griffin (who had an uncredited voice part in the film) went to the West Hollywood club, Tabu.   Judy said: “I hear there's a drag queen there who does Judy Garland better than I do”.   

They sat through three ho-hum acts, and then the star, billed as Stormy Weather, came on and performed “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St Louis, 1944 and “Over the Rainbow”.   Judy graciously conceded that Stormy sang “Over the Rainbow” better than she did.   Merv recognized Stormy, instantly, as Loretta Zotto from the film set, and Peter scored a date with her, and reported back to the other two on Stormy’s actual genital sex.   

Merv blew his chances of a better, bigger part in Michael Curtiz’s next film by telling him that they knew.

  • Darwin Porter.  Merv Griffin: A life in the Closet.  Blood Moon, 2009: 213-4.

Ruth Brown (194? - )

Ruth had a troubled career, divided between church gospel, drag bars and jail.  She  took the name of the well-known rhythm and blues singer, Ruth Brown, and was even presented in a night-club as if she were the Ruth Brown (several cis women also were so presented in other nightclubs).  

She was at the Stonewall riots, and performed at Harlem drag balls.

In 1976 Marion Williams, the gospel and blues singer, appearing at New York’s Town Hall encouraged the audience to sing along, but they were unable to match her range.   It was Ruth who stepped down from the balcony and sang a duet with Marion. 

A few years later, when Anthony Heilbut had produced Marion’s album I’ve Come So Far, a group of critics and fans were invited to hear her sing.   Among them were a group of what were taken to be church ladies, but were not.  Among them was Ruth who led the ladies in holy dance.   

Heilbut then got to know Ruth. In the late 1980s, he accepted her invitation to hear her sing at Sally’s Hideaway.  He describes her act: 
“She was indeed a powerhouse, a combination of Wilson Picket and Little Richard, but better than either.  She sang a typical soul repertory, including songs that predated her audience.”

·         William G Hawkeswood.  One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem.  University of California Press,1996 :86.
·         Chip Deffaa.  Blue Rhythms: Six Lives in Rhythm and Blues.  University of Illinois Press,1996: 263n9.
·         Anthony Heilbut.  The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations.  Alfred A Knopf, 2012: 22-5, 30, 34-5, 48, 70, 109.

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