Once Again, Sandy Kay Steps into Judy Garland’s Shoes

Sandy Kay is one of the few entertainers left in Kansas City who performed at the original Jewel Box lounge. Camp recently met with Kay and Kirk Nelson, to talk about Kay’s new show, Over the Rainbow, A Night With Judy. The March 18 performance will reprise a role that Kay has played many times over the years. Nelson and his life partner Bruce Winter, aka Melinda Ryder, are the show’s co-producers.

I asked Kay whether he would prefer we use his stage name or real name, and he replied, “Just Sandy.” He said that most people only know him by that name anyway. He’s 57, a Missouri native and now lives on the Kansas side of the city.

“I used to dress up all the time. I lived as a woman for years, before I even started doing the shows. I used to live in Armourdale and Argentine and lived as a woman.”

He said he started dressing as a woman when he was 17 or 18.

“I went out and bought me this big huge pair of gold lamé shoes with all the straps, and I bought a little pleated gold lamé skirt and top and this big flip hairdo thing and I started going downtown,” Kay said.

He said he considered himself gay although he dated straight men, not gay men. He also grew his hair long and styled his own hair rather than wear wigs.

Kay said he got into drag somewhat accidentally.

“I moved over to the Missouri side, and there was the original old MCC church. It was on 31st Street. It was above a little ice cream parlor. And they were trying to raise money to move the church and get a bigger building, so they thought they were going to have a drag show. Well, they asked me, ‘Do you drag?’ and I said, ‘No, I just dress up as a woman.’

“ ‘Can you help out?’ they asked. And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do something.’ And I had no idea, because I had never done it, so I had no idea what to do,” he said with a laugh.

He said the idea came to him when he was watching TV with a friend.

“We were at home watching TV and one of the old Judy shows was on, and he said, ‘You’ve got to do her, do her.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do Judy Garland.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you can.’

“So I went out and got some makeup and an old wig and went to the thrift store and bought this bright pink lamé suit, and we played around with the makeup and it looked horrible,” he said with a laugh. “But finally we got it together, and I did Judy for the church and made a lot of money. And that was my first show ever. And that was back in the middle ’70s, probably.”

Kay said he had never seen drag shows before he impersonated Judy Garland.

“When I was a child, or younger, we lived off of Armour, and Troost was right on the corner. I used to walk up there all the time and sat in front of the old original Jewel Box and watch people go in and out. And they had the big pictures of the drag queens there, and that’s when I first saw what a drag queen was.”

The Jewel Box was a legendary drag bar, although it was not a gay bar. The entertainers were paid to do shows and did not rely on tips for their income.

Nelson said, “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, it was like whenever famous movie stars would come to town after their shows, they would go there for after-hour things. It wasn’t a gay bar thing. It was all straight people that went there. It was like going to La Cage in Vegas.”

Kay agreed. “Even when they closed off Troost and moved to Main Street, it stayed that way. It was not a gay club. We did three shows a night, six nights a week. The buses would come, and we’d do the one show, and the next bus would come in.”

One day when he was a teenager, Kay said, “I sat down at the table, and my father had remarried, and Dorothy was her name, that was my stepmother. And I knew something was wrong and I was young then, I think about 16, and so I said, ‘I have to tell you something. Something’s not right.’ I don’t think they used the word gay back then, I don’t know what it was, but I told them. And my father said, ‘Oh, we knew that a long time ago.’ And that was it, he laughed.”

I asked Kay whether that meant his parents were accepting and he said, “They were understanding.”

Kay went on to tell a story of how he was performing at The Jewel Box as a female stripper when one night his parents came in to the club. Kay said his show director announced on stage that they had special guests, Sandy Kay’s parents, in the audience and then came backstage and told him. His reaction was that he couldn’t do a strip number in front of his parents, but his show director told him, ‘You’re going to go out and there and you’re going to do the number like they’re not even in the audience.’

“So I went out there I stripped and did the whole thing,” Kay laughed.

Nelson interjected that the routine included stripping down to panties and pasties with a bra, and then the performer would remove the bra, showing the audience it was a real man.

Kay said, “It was funny because afterward, my mother and stepmother took all the girls and we went to Denny’s on 39th and Main, and we all had breakfast in full drag.”

Kay said that he first got involved with The Jewel Box by walking in the bar and asking if they were hiring. “The owner’s name was John Tuccillo and I knew he was just kidding, and he said, ‘We don’t hire women’, and he said ‘Oh, OK, I know what you are and da da da.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re not hiring right now. Are you a professional?’ and I said ‘No, I’ve never done this.’

“So he hired me, but just as a trainee, so that’s how I got my start.”

Kay credits Melinda Ryder for helping him get his start performing drag in the gay bars.

“When the Jewel Box closed, Melinda Ryder said, ‘Come on, you’ve got to come out to the gay bars,’” said Kay.

Nelson described how Kay started working at the bar Ebenezer’s Folly in the River Market. “Melinda said, ‘You have to start coming out in the gay community and being seen and let people know who you are,’ since Sandy was starting to think about entering pageants.”

In addition to the common practice of lip-syncing songs, Kay said, he and others often sang at least one song in a performance in their own voices as well as doing pantomimed comedy.

Over the years, Kay has taken several breaks from performing, once as long as 10 years away from the stage.

Kay has long been known for creating his own gowns and sometimes other performers’ gowns.

“I started out by going to thrift stores and buying gowns and gluing stuff onto them,” he said with a laugh. He said he taught himself to sew when he was still living at home as a teenager.

“My stepmother was cleaning the basement and she had this old Singer machine and I said, ‘What is that?’ although I knew what it was.’ And she said, ‘It doesn’t work.’ And so I took it and played with it and carried on and it worked.

“The first thing I ever made was a pair of polyester pants, and they were men’s pants, didn’t have a zipper or nothing, just elastic and you just pulled them up,” he said, laughing.

He said he’s never used patterns but just lays out the fabric and then does the rest.

“Patterns are kind of complicated, because I have a hard time seeing them, first of all. I just don’t like them. I can lay a dress down and it’s done, because I cheat so bad. You don’t want to take a look in the inside of it, but the outside is purty,” he laughed.

Over the Rainbow, A Night With Judy is at 8 p.m. March 18 at the Marquee Lounge in the AMC Mainstreet Theatre, 1400 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. Doors open at 6 p.m. The show is a benefit for Kansas City Pride. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door and available at www.gaypridekc.com. Parking is $2 with an AMC Theatre validation.

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