When I sat down with actor and drag performer James “Gypsy” Haake and Carnival Cabaret producer Dan Gore—also Haake’s manager—they placed a portfolio on the table.
It was packed with photos from Haake’s days at the La Cage Aux Folles dinner cabaret on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, with stars including Dudley Moore and Hugh Hefner. Also included is what Haake said is a rare photo of Dear Abby and Ann Landers together—with him in between.
Haake, 82, recently came out of retirement and is performing as Gypsy once again. He will be emceeing Carnival Cabaret shows at Oscar’s Café and Bar Dec. 29-31.
Haake began his career as a Broadway performer after he graduated from high school in New Jersey. He had experience in a local theater; he lived there during the summer, he said, painting sets and dancing in shows. After taking part in an open audition, he was cast in his first show at the age of 19.
That first show led, in a sense, to his name “Gypsy.”
“Dancers, both boys and girls, who dance in the chorus are called ‘gypsies,’ because they go from one show to another,” he said. “I was cast in a show called Wish You Were Here that had a swimming pool onstage, and that’s where Florence Henderson got her start, and she was 19 also. She sang and got the lead song. Jack Cassidy was the star, and I went (on) to other shows after that.”
By the time he was 30, Haake had retired from dancing and opened a cabaret in Manhattan called Gypsy’s; notable actresses such as Christine Ebersole and Nell Carter performed there. Haake was at the club until 1978.
“The disco and the drug scenes came in,” Haake said. “No one was going to the big cabaret clubs, and they all closed.”
He befriended John Waters’ leading lady, Divine (Glenn Milstead), after seeing him perform in a theater in the early ’70s on the Lower East Side of New York in a show called Women Behind Bars. However, Waters and Haake were not a fit.
“He didn’t like me at all,” Haake said. “He said I was way too mainstream, because I didn’t curse, and I wouldn’t eat shit like Divine did in Pink Flamingos.”
In the ’80s, Haake began appearing in films and TV shows. He was noticed by Mel Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft, and was cast as Sasha in To Be or Not to Be.
“The interesting thing about my film career is 90 percent of the time, I had the best directors,” he remembered. “Sidney Lumet directed me in The Morning After, Robert Altman in Tanner ’88, and Mel Brooks? You can’t do better than that. … Everything I learned, I learned from Anne Bancroft in eight months.”
Divine died in 1988, on a day when he and Haake were supposed to get together for lunch. At the time, Haake was working on the set of Troop Beverly Hills. Divine had been selected to play the role of Uncle Otto on Married With Children. Instead, Haake took the part, and appeared in one episode.
“It was very hard to replace him,” Haake said. “Not only that, but sitcom television is so different from film. It was very difficult; plus, I was used to film.”
Haake’s drag career didn’t start until later in his life—when he became, oddly enough, an instant fashion model.
“It’s not like anyone else that does it. I had never been in drag, and I was 50 years old,” Haake said. “Vivian Blaine took me to Neiman Marcus, and she bought eight gowns (and) shoes. Agnes Moorehead had died, and we replicated her makeup and the eyebrows, and that’s how it went on. Designers would give me clothes, (and) flew me to Paris to do a Chanel show. By then, I was pretty famous.”
Haake’s drag routine is certainly unique. He doesn’t sing, and he doesn’t imitate anyone. Also, in his words: “No wigs and no tits.”
Gore further explained what makes Gypsy a rarity among drag performers.
“Gypsy is mainly an emcee,” Gore said. “It’s his emcee style that’s been so popular. It’s hard to believe that his performance in La Cage Aux Folles was as popular as it was. It wasn’t a gay bar; it was a very high-end cabaret that attracted very high-end clientele, wealthy clientele, and conservative clientele. Gypsy was the emcee in between the acts and impersonated celebrities. This was before social media, before e-mail, and before any of that. It was actually a phenomenon, because the power of word of mouth was a prevalent thing. Designers would come in and see all the celebrities in the audience, and it was packed to the hilt, and maybe 20 percent were current celebrities. They’d see Gypsy wear the dresses and were in awe, and they would make him dresses so he could tell the audience what he was wearing.”
Gore said he focuses on quality when he puts together his Carnival Cabaret shows, which feature a variety of drag performers.
“When you go to a drag show at a gay bar, there’s no director, and there’s no structure,” Gore said. “People are working for drinks or $20. We’re not striving to earn tips; we’re striving to push a higher level of theater involving men portraying women onstage. Everyone who is performing in this show isn’t from here, because the people in this town are not at the caliber of talent I would use, and they don’t have the ability to be in a structured show; they’re just used to dollars in their tits. There’s nothing wrong with that, though, because that’s where I get my acts, and then I tell them what we do, and I see potential in a lot of people.”
Haake said that at the age of 82, he still enjoys doing what he does, even after a handful of retirements.
“I do enjoy it, especially for someone at my age,” he said. “As far as living in the past, I’m talking about my past. I don’t literally live in it. People I knew such as Lana Turner are dead now and have gone before me, and I’m very current. When I open here, it’ll be like my first night (ever performing). That’s where my mind goes: It’s my first gig, and here we go! I’m always the alpha; I’m never the omega.”
Carnival Cabaret takes place at 6 p.m., Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 29 and 30; and 5:45 and 9 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 31, at Oscar’s Café and Bar, 125 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $24.95 for the show only on Monday and Tuesday (starts at 7 p.m.), or $49.95 for dinner and the show. The early dinner show on Wednesday is $69.95; the late dinner show is $99.95. For tickets or more information, visit carnivalcabaret.ticketleap.com.