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Kerr, a drag queen star in Las Vegas, dies


Kenny Kerr, the bad girl that Las Vegas fell hard for in the ’70s, died Sunday. He was 60.

The star of “Boy-lesque” was the Strip’s first must-see female impersonator, pulling a locals-heavy audience into a tiny casino called the Silver Slipper for 11 years with his deadpan stare, cutthroat wit and killer gowns.

“It’s now to the point where there are three things you have to see: Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and ‘Boy-lesque,’” Kerr said in 1988, when the show wrapped its long era at the Silver Slipper in anticipation of the casino’s eventual closure and demolition.

Kerr’s impressions of Cher and Barbra Streisand were matched by his comedic skills as the show’s saucy host.

Drag was still somewhat taboo when Kerr came to town in 1977, but by then, he had already been impersonating Streisand for years.

Growing up in Blue Anchor, N.J., he was 16 when a couple who saw him shopping at a mall noted his resemblance to Streisand. They soon had him riding the bus into Philadelphia to perform at night while he was still attending high school.

“These people had a show of the sort I do now and asked me if I wanted to work in it,” he recalled in 1982. They talked a lot of money. ... Most of my contemporaries had jobs for minimum wage or less.”

Going out on his own a few years later, Kerr and his original cast showcased their act for free at the Sahara and caught the attention of Herb Kaufman, the owner of Wonder World discount stores.

The Slipper show quickly became a low-cost novelty for locals to take out-of-town visitors. But it arrived fresh on the heels of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade, and for years Kerr said the question “Are you gay?” was one he had to dance around.

“It’s a question I can’t win by answering,” he said in 1982. “If I said I am gay, there are an awful lot of narrow-minded people out there. And If I said I’m heterosexual, a lot of people wouldn’t believe me.”

Kerr kept working after the Silver Slipper era, with long runs at the Sahara and Plaza followed by smaller casinos and gradually diminishing returns, as the rival “La Cage” revue proved fierce competition and the shock value faded over the years.

After spending much of the 2000s in Palm Springs, Kerr returned to Las Vegas and forged on in clubs and the Onyx Theatre as recently as last year, after the death of his longtime partner and a serious illness.

“One thing about troubles is you quickly learn who your good friends really are,” he told the Review-Journal last year. “People are always trying to stab you in the back. But lately I’ve been surrounded by so much love. I wasn’t aware of all the love that’s out there. I now appreciate the kindness that comes my way.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

 

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