Gay History: Francis Blair - Seattle's quintessential female impersonator
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Gay History: Francis Blair - Seattle's quintessential female impersonator
by Don Paulson - SGN Contributing Writer

Francis was multitalented, an actor, drag artist, musician, singer, dancer, stripper, producer, unionist, comedian, costume designer, and all-around nice guy. One contemporary Seattle drag artist who matches such expertise is the indomitable Mark Finley, who won Rebar Cabaret's prestigious 1996 "Drag Queen Spelling Bee." Mark has been famous ever since. Francis Blair (born 1913) was fascinated by drag from an early age and by grade school had a trunk full of women's clothes. In the 1930s, Francis in drag and his gal pal, Rita Kelsey, used to ride the Seattle street cars and fool everybody. Rita said, "My mother loved Francis and stole pictures of him from my wall, so I'd have to steal them back."

Francis was very ambitious and found a way to express his talents, including dancing in drag on the line, playing the organ for the shows, and even producing some of them at Seattle's last burlesque theater, the Rivoli. When Francis was dancing on line they put a screen between the girls and Francis, but it was an easy rapport as some of the girls were Gay. It was not uncommon for Gay men to dance on line at burlesque theaters - straight Jimmy Cagney danced in drag (along with Garden of Allah star Jackie Starr) on the 1920s vaudeville circuit and had no compunctions about it. During the Depression years, one made a living as best they could. Francis joined the dishwashers' union so he'd have a job between shows. One could see him at the old Broadway Market Café. Francis was passionate about show business and was an officer in the performers' union. "He was always bugging artists to join the union," Comedian Kenny Bee remembered. "Francis was motherly. He wanted to be the star and he was good to everybody."

When the Gay Garden of Allah Cabaret opened in 1946, Francis entered the most important period in his life, both performing and organizing the shows. He was already a seasoned artist and knew just what to do - his only real competition was another seasoned chanteuse, his equal, Jackie Starr. Both caught the eye of national columnist Walter Winchell, who described Jackie as "the most beautiful man in America." Consequently he described Francis as "the boy with the million dollar legs." But Jackie had the looks and often got the spotlight, as it is with people with beautiful faces.

Singing was Francis' strong suit at the Garden, but he also worked dances into his routine, and could do a mean strip as well as producing shows and designing costumes. When in Hollywood, he bought elegant dresses made for movie star Hedy Lamarr.

The camaraderie at the Garden was often passionate because it was a safe oasis in a searing desert of Gay hatred - but not always safe from internal squabbles of the entertainers, spats hinting at the tensions between the sexy young impersonators and the older men such as Francis and the younger Kim Drake. "One night Francis was nasty to me so I introduced her as a rare treat for the Garden of Allah guests, the last in captivity, one of the original logs skidded down Skid Road to her brothel on Post Street. Francis Blair has the skid marks on her ass to prove it. After all, at her age, if you'd been on as many vaudeville circuits as she has, you'd be wrinkled too. If you can't find 'it,' you can use her wrinkles." The bitchiness was okay for the comic roles, but when Blair did his star turns, Drake's lips were sealed.

In spite of the squabbles and rivalries of showbiz, the shows at the Garden were very professional. As patron Bill Parkin observed, "The entertainers at the Garden grew up with vaudeville, so they new how to put on a great show." Francis teamed up with house comedian Kenny Bee to do their Fred and Ginger song and tap dance routines and their outrageous and hilarious "Two Old Bags from Tacoma," dressed in authentic Victorian dresses or incredibly tacky clothes with large holes in their stockings and old hats. Issac Monroe remembered, "My first impression of the Garden of Allah was of a blast of noise and smoke. We came in during their 'Two Old Bags' routine. Everyone was screaming with laughter as they tore each other to pieces with insults."

Francis acquired an extensive reputation for the Two Old Bags routine and was offered a contract from Finocchio's as one of the "Two Old Bags from Oakland." Others who played the role before was asked to take out their false teeth, but Francis refused. One sad day, his lover and their dog were killed by thugs and, on the way back to Seattle, Francis was killed in an auto accident.