The pioneering Kenny Kerr
Before Frank Marino flourished in drag on the famed Las Vegas Strip, that journey had been pioneered by the one and only Kenny Kerr. Back in 1977, he brought drag shows out of the shadows and made them accessible and popular on the famed Strip. The flashy Boylesque marquee as part of the Silver Slipper sign signaled to tourists and locals alike that it was okay to come in, have a drink and enjoy a night of comedy that you couldn't find anywhere else on the famed boulevard. He held court at the tiny Silver Slipper for eleven years.
Kenny Kerr passed away earlier today.
Kenny Kerr, the bad girl that Las Vegas fell hard for in the ’70s, died Sunday. He was 60.
The star of “Boy-lesque” was the Strip’s first must-see female impersonator, pulling a locals-heavy audience into a tiny casino called the Silver Slipper for 11 years with his deadpan stare, cutthroat wit and killer gowns.
“It’s now to the point where there are three things you have to see: Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and ‘Boy-lesque,’” Kerr said in 1988, when the show wrapped its long era at the Silver Slipper in anticipation of the casino’s eventual closure and demolition.
Kerr’s impressions of Cher and Barbra Streisand were matched by his comedic skills as the show’s saucy host.
Drag was still somewhat taboo when Kerr came to town in 1977, but by then, he had already been impersonating Streisand for years.
Growing up in Blue Anchor, N.J., he was 16 when a couple who saw him shopping at a mall noted his resemblance to Streisand. They soon had him riding the bus into Philadelphia to perform at night while he was still attending high school.
“These people had a show of the sort I do now and asked me if I wanted to work in it,” he recalled in 1982. They talked a lot of money. ... Most of my contemporaries had jobs for minimum wage or less.”
Going out on his own a few years later, Kerr and his original cast showcased their act for free at the Sahara and caught the attention of Herb Kaufman, the owner of Wonder World discount stores.
The Slipper show quickly became a low-cost novelty for locals to take out-of-town visitors. But it arrived fresh on the heels of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade, and for years Kerr said the question “Are you gay?” was one he had to dance around.
“It’s a question I can’t win by answering,” he said in 1982. “If I said I am gay, there are an awful lot of narrow-minded people out there. And If I said I’m heterosexual, a lot of people wouldn’t believe me.”
Kerr kept working after the Silver Slipper era, with long runs at the Sahara and Plaza followed by smaller casinos and gradually diminishing returns, as the rival “La Cage” revue proved fierce competition and the shock value faded over the years.
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Kenny Kerr photo courtesy of Eventful.com