Up until 1971, Massey had only dressed in drag twice for the Mandrake Society’s annual Halloween Ball. The event was a fundraiser for St. Louis’ first LGBT rights organization, and the novice queen caught the attention of the legendary Miss Tracy.
“They were starting a new show and Tracy asked if I could fill in for two weeks and just help them out until they found another regular,” Massey told Vital VOICE last August. “So Miss Tracy sort of started me on this—and certainly on the way to the show I didn’t have a name, and they came up with one. Tracy always razzed me about being sweet and all that good stuff: ‘You’re just so fucking sweet—Sweet as candy.’ So I became Miss Candy.”
Known as the First Lady of Drag, Miss Tracy was born Rudy Hendrickson in Canton, Missouri where he excelled in theater and dance. By 1964 he was living in Los Angeles and working as a chorus line dancer when he was asked to play a woman in a straight club on the Sunset Strip. The 19-year-old dazzled that evening and immediately went from making $95 a week as a boy to $650 a week as a female illusionist stripper. Miss Tracy was born and the trailblazer would champion the art form for the next 40-years.
“Like Adam and Eve, darling—I’m Eve,” said Hendrickson in an interview shortly before his 2003 death. “As far as everybody else, that’s why they call me mother, because I’ve helped thousands get started. I created the first legitimate paying show in St. Louis in the late 1960s at Helen Schrader’s [in East St. Louis].”
The Stage Show which started out at Schrader’s and soon moved across the street to The Red Bull and later Faces was called “The River Queens.” Tracy eventually moved on, leaving Candy to keep the show running with cast mate Donna Drag, who along with his twin brother, Lana Kuntz; Empress of the Midwest, Claire Sheridan; Toast of the Town, Toni Taylor; and Mr. Edye Gregory were just a few of the marquee entertainers to strut the stage.
In 1974 Candy James entered the fledgling Miss Gay Missouri, America pageant—but with little intention of winning.
“When I was announced the winner, I was kind of surprised,” he said.
Indeed the performance of Liza Minnelli’s “Mammy” had dazzled the MGM audience, even though many had mistakenly thought that Massey, who sported his own hair, was channeling the late Judy Garland. The mistake proved prophetic as Candy James would soon become known for her dynamic but tender portrayal of the queer icon.
By 1977 Massey was at the top of his game and was tapped by former Red Bull owner Jerry Edwards to be the Show Director at his new late night entertainment complex, Faces. It was the East Side’s largest club and the pinnacle of after-hours LGBT nightlife.
“Jerry was probably one of the fairest people I’ve ever, ever, ever dealt with in drag,” said Massey. “He’s one of those people that, when he hired someone to do something, he didn’t care what it cost. As long as you did what he asked you to do, and you achieved that goal, he didn’t hassle you remotely. He was just so very, very good about stuff.
Candy James and The River Queens had become the regions preeminent female impersonation review. The show included two production numbers and in-between the regulars’ sets there was an hour of new talent which gave birth to the likes of Petrina Marie, Christi Cole and Melinda Ryder.”
“Just about everyone who became anyone performed with us,” offered Massey. “And it’s not that we made them anything—it’s just that we were the show to be at and we had as many people as we possibly could. We really tried to book people quite often and move the show around and change things.”
Midway through our interview, Massey reaches for a yellowed and tattered photo album from beneath a pile of papers. The well worn keepsake falls open to a page devoted to his mentor, the late Miss Tracy.
“Probably the person I trusted most—and I did my own thing, but I listened—was Miss Tracy,” Massey explained. “She used to just amaze me—and I certainly didn’t need protecting, but she felt that I did—and if anyone said anything to me or about me that was bad, she was more than willing to take them on.”
Indeed Tracy, Candy and their ilk not only shaped, but lived the history of the art form. From the days of police raids and drag performers having to recruit lookouts during St. Louis shows to the heyday of the Red Bull with Martha Raye and Phyllis Diller in the audience—they saw it all.
“The sad thing about what’s happening right now is that the bars themselves are not willing to invest,” Massey stated. “If you go anywhere now you’re hard-pressed if you can get $25 to perform (if you’re a name.) When Faces first started in 1977—everybody in the cast and our guests made $50 a night plus drinks and tips.”
“You couldn’t get $50 today if your life depended on it,” the legend continued. “Unless you’re Miss Gay America—people in this city aren’t going to do it. And it’s the bar owners’ fault… they’d say, ‘you know we can get a group of crazies up here and no one cares and they’ll all come and look.’ Well that’s very true. But if you want something good, you have to pay for it—and drag is not cheap.”
Asked if he has any advice for younger performers and Massey doesn’t hesitate: “Learn a skill—learn how to sew, how to do hair or build a set,” said the former Miss Illinois America, Miss Midwest America and Midwest Entertainer of the Year. “You’ll be self sufficient and won’t have to depend on others all of the time.”
Massey admits a lot has changed since the early days when The River Queens would hang fruit cans from the ceiling for lights and took turns standing at the record player to queue the next entertainer’s song after exiting the stage. But some things remain timeless and the veteran urges entertainers to be open to trying some of the time honored standards or Broadway numbers.
“I think the new kids who are coming up—they’re talented, but they’re missing a lot,” said the veteran who still performs weekends at The Grey Fox. “They’re focusing on current music, and that’s okay—but there’s an awful lot of clever, incredible stuff out there.”
BELOW: Listen to a 1990s interview with the irrepressable, Miss Tracy. This audio tape was found stored beneath the entertainer’s bed following her death in 2003.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF JIMMY MASSEY, JONAH GIBSON & STEPHEN ADAMS