Interview: Tommi Rose on LA CAGE Reigniting His Career & Passion

La Cage, an immersive variety show inspired by the La Cage Aux Folles nightclub, will launch the Hollywood Roosevelt’s iconic Cinegrill Theatre October 5th

By: Oct. 01, 2023
Interview: Tommi Rose on LA CAGE Reigniting His Career & Passion

Interview: Tommi Rose on LA CAGE Reigniting His Career & Passion

La Cage, an immersive variety show inspired by the La Cage Aux Folles nightclub (which opened in 1981 on La Cienega Blvd) will launch the Hollywood Roosevelt’s iconic Cinegrill Theatre October 5, 2023, and then run every Friday through January 19, 2024. Original La Cage member Tommi Rose steps into the formidable emcee heels of the La Cage Aux Folles nightclub drag legend James "Gypsy" Haake in this new re-imagined La Cage!

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Tommi!

You are not new to La Cage. You were a part of the original La Cage and you emceed Evening at La Cage, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and La Cage Follies at the Imperial Palace in Biloxi, Mississippi. What can Hollywood Roosevelt’s Cinegrill Theatre audiences expect to experience at this La Cage?

I think audiences are going to be in for a bit of a surprise. It’s not what the show isn’t, it’s about what it is! We’ve taken artistic liberties to give La Cage a new vision. Rather than a show about drag queen impersonating celebrities, although we certainly will pay homage to that factor, it’s more about what the nightclub in the original film might have been prior to being just a drag club. Imagine being transported back to the days of the Golden Era of Hollywood, but with a modern twist. Perhaps a floor show that you might have seen at the Copacabana or Coconut Grove. But with that modern twist, much along the lines of the “Moulin Rouge.” It’s La Cage meets “Cabaret,” meets “Burlesque,” meets “Cirque du Soleil.” You never know WHAT, or even WHO you're going to see next! It’s like I tell my audiences, there’s something for everyone! You just have to come and see for yourself.

Will you also be performing your celebrity impersonations and stand-ups?

This particular show, like most actually, but this one in particular is a living and breathing entity that can change on a whim. There may be times when I may be doing Carol Channing or Mae West, and times I won’t. We like to leave the audience guessing, but also knowing that they can see the show this week and then come back in a month and it could be something new and different. The concept of the show stays the same, but with the cast that has been assembled, along with the amazing talents of our musical director, numbers can be interchangeable at any given time. Not to mention the appearance of special guests throughout the run.

Can you tell us who you’ll have as rotating guest stars?

Of course! We already have Ada Vox performing on opening night and then Broadway leading man Cheyenne Jackson on October 13th. More guests will be announced soon.

Have you worked with any of the LA Cage cast or creatives before, Thoughts on them?

I have never met or worked with any of the cast, or anyone on the creative or production side of this particular company. I am thrilled to be a part of it. They have assembled an absolutely incredible cast of performers, and to work with such professionals on the production and creative side that are so dedicated, it is truly a joy. They have a vision the likes of which I’ve never seen. To be able to be a part of this and bring that vision to life is truly an exhilarating experience.

Do you have a favorite personality that you impersonate (including Carol Channing, Totie Fields, Mae West, Divine, Phyllis Diller and Charles Pierce)?

Mae and Carol are my two mainstays and have been for years. Carol has a very special place in my heart as she was also a personal friend for many years. As was Phyllis Diller. I actually have some wardrobe pieces that were gifted to me by both of those ladies, some of which I even wear in my show on occasion. And Charles, well, he was my mentor, my confidant and my friend. He coached me in so many ways and I’m honored to have known him. I was quite fortunate to have his personal stamp of approval and permission to perform any or all of his material. He joked that “…every other queen has already stolen most of it, someone might as well have my okay to do it. At least I know you’ll do it justice.” It’s with much thanks to his dresser and manager of many years, Kirk Frederick, that I’m able to have access to his entire collection. Kirk was kind enough to give me a copy of everything Charles had ever had recorded of his shows so that I could get it right.

Growing up, what did you envision yourself to become?

I really didn’t envision myself in any particular manner. I was quite confused as who or what I wanted to be. It wasn’t until I was watching Merv Griffin one afternoon to see my favorite comedian, Totie Fields. Merv then said he had a surprise guest and he introduced Bette Davis. The curtain opened and it was Charles Pierce! I was riveted. I was also about 14 or 15 years old, and here was this extremely talented and funny man in drag and performing an over-the-top rendition of Bette Davis. Now, I knew what drag was and I had seen a few things on TV, but NOTHING to the point of this level of genius! Without realizing it, I know that that was the moment I KNEW that’s what I wanted to do. I even told my mom that I was going to meet him one day. She simply smiled and said, “Honey, I have no doubt you probably will.” Who knew that I WOULD meet him and how my life would change thanks to him.

Interview: Tommi Rose on LA CAGE Reigniting His Career & Passion What was the event on July 4, 1976, that ignited your career as a female impersonator?

It was the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I was 17 and my parents let me stay home for the summer instead of going on the obligatory family trip to the family farm in Alabama. We lived in Orlando, and I had the house to myself and my stepfather’s 1974 Ford Gran Torino. Some friends and I decided that we should all go to Daytona Beach for the celebrations of the bicentennial. Now mind you, being 17 and a long blonde haired Florida surfer type boy in the 70’s was kind of the norm. And legal age back at that time was 18. So if you had pretty blue eyes and a smile, you could pretty much get in to any gay club if you flirted with the older guy working the door. So off we went to Daytona Beach, and we all went to one of the clubs to see the drag show on that fateful Saturday night, July 3rd. After the 10pm show, the host said that they would be holding their annual “Miss Firecracker” competition for amateurs at midnight and the “queens” that were in the actual show would help anyone interested in entering, to get ready in the back to get makeup on, borrow a dress and choose a number. My little group of friends agreed that we should all do it for a lark. Well, when the host come off the stage with her clipboard and walked over to our table, I was sitting at the head of it and she asked if I was going to enter. I said, “Yes, we all are.” She looked at me, then behind me and said, “We, who?” I turned around and my “friends” had vanished. I saw them in a corner, laughing! Well sir, I entered anyway, and in the back, I found a recording of an album I had, and I knew immediately what song I wanted to do. I proceeded to go on stage and lip sync Bette Midler’s “Dr. Long John Blues,” a song made famous, or infamous, back in the 40’s and recorded by Dinah Washington. All the other contestants were doing dramatic songs like “Lean On Me” by Melba Moore, or “Cabaret” by Liza... that sort of thing. Here I came out doing comedy. At the end of it all, through audience applause and cheers. I was crowned “Miss Firecracker Bicentennial.” I still have the crown! And I’ve never looked back. 47 years later, and only 2 ½ months away from my 65th birthday, I’m offered a role that reignites my career and passion with this show. I couldn’t be more grateful or humbled for this opportunity. This is something that doesn’t happen everyday to ANYONE in the entertainment industry. I truly feel blessed.

What was the overall atmosphere in 1976 in female impersonator acceptance?

It wasn’t easy. But I will say that throughout the South, drag queens back then were revered and respected within the majority of the gay community. We put performing queens on pedestals because they were the epitome of elegance and so glamorous. Even the comedy queens were loved.

When did the term ‘drag queen’ become more popular than female impersonators?

I think, like so much of our “lingo,” it’s more of a generational thing.

You spent over twelve years at San Francisco’s renown Finocchio’s as its headliner and emcee. Can you share some of your best memories of that gig?

It was where I pretty much cut my teeth on a microphone. Such great memories and so many of my fellow artists are now gone, but I treasure them and the memories they helped create. We had real “stars” that came to see us all the time. Carol Channing had her own table with a brass plaque drilled on to it. Although I didn’t meet her at Finn’s (our internal nickname) I do know that she was a regular, and it’s where I met Phyllis. She loved the show. I wasn’t doing her at that time, but another performer, who was kind of my guardian angel, J.J. VanDyke did do her in the show. He introduced me to her, and we became lifelong friends. Ernest Borgnine would come in with a group of friends and had the biggest belly laugh that was infectious. Everyone loved him. Another personal favorite and good friend was “The Hip Hypnotist - Pat Collins.” What a character and she know how to live. I so loved spending time with her whenever she was in the bay area.

You are not only Toucans’ Tiki Lounge’s resident Drag Mother with your drag revue Tommi Rose & The Playgirls every Sunday, but you are also California’s ONLY Disco Drag Dive DJ there. What initially got you into DJing?

Interview: Tommi Rose on LA CAGE Reigniting His Career & Passion It started mostly because I just happened to have had a very fast finger on the pause button of cassette tape decks! I also have an ear to hear music, feel the beat, the tempo and the key. I was able to mix music for drag performances that were one-of-a-kind mixes, LONG before computers were in every home. I was in a club one night and I knew the DJ and he knew of my prowess with matching music and beats and he asked if I wanted join him for a set. So he started showing me the ropes in the booth and I took to it like a fish to water, as they say. I loved it! And in those days, we mixed RECORDS! ALL on vinyl, aka licorice pizzas! And that was that.

What’s in the near future for Tommi Rose after La Cage?

AFTER? Honey, I’m doing everything I can to make sure this show hits and has a long and prosperous run. Not meaning to sound maudlin, but let’s face it. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for a 65-year-old drag queen, so for lack of a better word, this is kind of the pinnacle for me, sort of my Swan Song! And I’m here for the ride for as long as I can hang on! And I’m counting a looooong, smooooothe ride!

Thank you again, Tommi! I look forward to meeting all your ladies.

For tickets to one of the two show every Friday night through January 19, 2024, click on the button below:

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