Lavern Cummings is maybe one of the most convincing and famous drag queens that you’ve never heard of. A remarkable beauty with a signature soprano voice who “banished” the wig, was in a class all her own. Performing with the Jewel Box Revue, a traveling troupe of female impersonators, throughout the 50s, Cummings developed what is known as a “split-voice.” She had the ability to sing both low and high notes.
Eventually Cummings had contract role at a popular San Francisco nightclub, Finocchio’s, which was known for female impersonators who could emulate a female singing voice. She used the technique of dropping from soprano to baritone and audiences were really shocked seeing it really was a man in drag.
Fellow drag star Libby Reynolds reflected on Lavern:
“A customer one night, sitting ringside had come in right after my exiting the stage. He had quite a winning streak at the racetrack and was being generous to the entertainers who would appear one by one. They had all picked up a $20 bill that he had put on stage. When it was Lavern’s time she hadn’t picked up the $20, so he put up a $50 bill and Lavern left the stage at the end of her performance with the $50 bill still sitting on stage! I remember making a comment to Robin Price at the time saying I thought that perhaps Lavern should have picked it up, and Robin replied,
‘Libby, that was a sign of Class.’“
This info came from David de Alba‘s blog on Lavern,
“One Saturday night, backstage by the wings, Joe Finocchio was bragging in his charming Italian accent, to let us supporting acts know how lucky we were to have a job at his Club:
‘Mrs. Finocchio and I get a hundred a letters a month from people wanting to work here. Singers are a dime-a-dozen, and anyway we need some a new faces around here!’
Lavern heard this remark as he was returning from the stage and replied:
‘Mr. Finocchio, where are all these new singers? Anyway, what’s wrong with the old faces?’
Another Saturday, Finocchio took Lavern to the side but loud enough for others to hear:
‘Boy, your roots are a showing!’
Lavern used to comb his own hair over the front of his wig and had it tinted to compliment his natural blonde hair that was graying. Lavern answered emphatically:
‘Mr. Finocchio, with inflation nowadays and the salary I am getting here, I can’t afford to color my hair!’
Her only mainstream exposure (no RuPaul’s Drag Race back then!) Lavern was featured in a ’79 TV Movie The Golden Gate Murders, where she played Lavern Smith, sings and does the big no-no. She pulls off her wig! Watch below.
(via David de Alba)