In between the Fooks and Hwas of Chinatown's Gerrard Street is Ruby's. A 'greasy spoon' admist the chop suey and sweet 'n' sour pork? Most definitely - Not. Ruby's is an intimate and glamorous cabaret bar where you can have a quiet drink after work or arrive just before midnight and enjoy a great show, often with surprise star guests. The clientele is an eclectic mix of theatre staff and stars, gay's and hetro's and the occasional tourist. Ruby's is dedicated to the dreams of one Brian, better known as his alter-ego RUBY VENEZUELA - the grand dame of drag artists.
Graciously, despite a streaming cold, Brian alias Ruby agreed to be interviewed.
Brian was born in London and brought up in Plymouth. His playground was the group of hotels his parents owned that 'theatricals' stayed in."Even at primary school I remember all these glitzy people staying with us. Frankie Howard, Diana Dors and Danny La Rue, who was then earning £17.50 in the chorus."
Their influence was yet to become apparent, as Brian went on to train as a commercial designer, lured into the theatre briefly as a tenor singer, before moving up to London and securing a top job as the front window designer for Harrods.
But Ruby was never far away.
Invited to some of the great art balls of the sixties "and using some of the props from work, you're in a position to create big fantasies and I think the(Ruby's) outrageous, over-the-top costumes came from then." Rest assured over-the-top is an understatement but more of that later.
After 10 years Brian was fed up of London and went back to Plymouth to open his own hotel.
"It was a bit disastrous."
(Just a minor understatement)
"I jumped over a four foot wall, got the wrong end and went over the cliff and was on crutches for 18 months."
I politely didn't ask why he felt compelled to jump over a wall and we continued.
"This was followed by drinking a lot of red wine and feeling sorry for myself. Until one day at a friends hotel, where I was drinking lots of ports and brandies and feeling sorry for myself, a drag artist from Torquay had been booked who was terrible. My friend asked me to help out."
So Brian was persuaded to 'drag up' and sing a few ditties, wearing a large cape to hide his crutches and a feather headress he sat on stage and did a 20 minute slot
"and Ruby was born."
Life wasn't all fun. His father left with half a million pounds from the sale of the hotels, leaving only a note saying "gone to Australia" while his Mum was at the hairdressers.
"Daddy wasn't seen again."
Was 'Ruby' a problem for your parents?
"Not really, my mother always knew, she could cope with the Ruby side of it. My father was very staid. Maybe it was fortunate he left before she developed."
Cabaret bookings followed, as did fans.
"I became great chums with the artist Beryl Cooke, she liked big women and painted me a lot."
Encouraged by Ruby's success Brian and Ruby went to Europe. On their return they answered an ad in The Stage for "outrageous, over-the-top women" ie Ruby all over, which resulted in an audition
"in a scouts Hall in St Johns Wood at 11 o'clock in the morning, that's all I needed!"
Ruby got the job, playing in not a church hall but a starring role in Club Fantastic, to start Monday. Brian left the hotel business.
"That lasted 6 months. I was then asked to work for Robert Earl, who know owns Planet Hollywood/Rock Garden, he was just starting as a manager in the Shakespeare Tavern."
In 1982 Brian was given an invite he couldn't refuse to do the Vienna Festival, appearing in the Flip Flap show produced by the notorious, avant-garde Andre Heller. A show that included a yodelling spider on a staircase, alligator acts and china men swallowing live fish.
I hear Andre Heller was a bit difficult?
"It was a great honour to be invited but yes he's a very peculiar man, very temperamental, he could be nice but then he'd turn. His wife jumped off the balcony, she couldn't stand it but as a producer and director his mind was incredible. We had Fellini's make up artist it was very bizarre."
You must have felt quite normal?
"Well yes!" followed by a huge laugh "Not everyone was that bizarre, my friend Tys Clark (of One Mo Time) came over from New Orleans and we sang together."
Brian returned to London as Paul Raymond opened his revue bar, at The Windmill Theatre, Ruby appeared in Bizarre for a year, followed by Paris by Night.
Ruby was by now in her teens
"But she was being directed, Ruby doing an impersonation of Mae West and Bette Midler, but all the while I was feeling what Ruby wanted to be, coming out of the shell sort of thing."
Ruby became a grown up when Brian introduced Jo to Paul Raymond and Madame Jo Jo's was created. With Ruby along with other exotic persons such as Venus Flytrap, directing the UK's first Drag Club, where performers sang and didn't mime to records, was born. The Barbettes, as the group were known, wanted more exotic names and having gone through the drinks list Michelle acquired Martell and Bella got Artoire, having run out of suitable drink's names they went onto countries and Ruby got her surname, Venezuela, at last.
Again it wasn't all giggles. Having cut a record on the Hippodrome label, he spent the weekend promoting it, on the very first Terry Wogan TV Show - along with his icon Tina Turner and then on the Sunday at the DJ convention at the Hippodrome. That Sunday he was going to move his Mum to a new flat but postponed it until the Monday. He was getting ready to go down to Plymouth when he got a visit from the police. On the Sunday night three men broke into her flat, tortured her and beat her up for six hours for her jewellery. They were never caught.
"Being a landlady she had fabulous pieces" he explained "On the Monday I didn't recognise her."
Brian moved her to a home and went down every week to cook for the whole home and had friends look in and care for her during the week.
"My mum was a very alive person, a very Ruby type of person, although not so much make up! A big jolly woman." She subsequently died two years after the attack.
Brian stayed at "Jo's" on and off for 10 years.
Was the split from Jo Jo's acrimonious?
"No not at all, up until a month ago I was working there and at my own club, but it all became too much running between the two. I wanted my own club and when this place came up it seemed just right. When Jo Jo's was popular and the place to go it was fun but then it became mainstream and I've got nothing against Essex girls but when you've got 10-12 hen nights in and not a fella in sight to play to, well...(Raised eyebrows and a dirty laugh). I prefer straight audiences, the army and navy. I do a lot of charity balls and royal functions."
You mean supposedly straight audiences!
This sets off a huge roar of laughter and results in much dabbing of his spider made up eyes, not helped by the cold.
What was one of Ruby's funniest moments?
"Well I was at the Palace Theatre. I had this Shirley Bassey type outfit on, it was so tight I had to ask the stage manger to put my shoes on. I was doing my number and started to run from the back of the stage but it was too steep a rake (slope). I couldn't stop and went over the footlights and nearly killed the musical director and myself for that matter. I had to have 3 or 4 men pick me up sideways because I couldn't bend in the dress, carry me round and put me back on the stage to finish my number. Of course everyone thought it was part of the act!"
I should point out that some of Ruby's "outfits" can include six foot headresses, more sequins than John Lewis have ever sold - encrusted and swirled over skin tight sheaths with about 50 yards of net under them. So I felt compelled to ask -
So who makes your frocks?
"Me, and I have a couple of friends who help. Joan helps with my more difficult ones, like the caterpillar for the Ugly Bug Ball, she's even done monsters for me. I did the first Jurassic Park, coming out of a space ship six years ago. The film was quite boring after that! Kev helps , some are too big and heavy for one person to put through the machine."
The time it has taken to become Ruby, has it been worth it?
"Yes, I enjoy Ruby, she's a completely different character, with her I can get away with a lot more than Brian - I even made Prince Andrew blush."
Dare we ask how (not that I was digging for any dirt)?
"Fergie (who else - Ed) asked me to do the Xmas party at the palace. I said I'd love to but I'd have to come in as Brian and out as Ruby. Prince Andrew thought about it (Remarkable eh - Ed?) and then said " No, that's all we need is a photo of Ruby coming out of the palace (dull, dull, dull - Ed)."
Do you think Ruby will completely take over?
"I don't think so, she's too much fun, she's escapism that you can put away when you want to. The best thing is walking into a pub or club as Brian and they are talking about Ruby or the club. No one recognises me it's great. Mind you I went to Cameron Macintosh's party and no-one recognised me for an hour and a half, so I said to a friend I've got to go and change. When I got back, as soon as I got out of the cab - the doorman and bouncers said Hello Ruby,' Cameron came up and said 'Hello Ruby' and my friend said 'Much better isn't it, I'm glad I'm with you now!' "
Other roar with laughter and nose dabbing - "So there is that side as well. Being Ruby can be a bit dull especially with this streaming cold but by 12 o'clock I'll get going, kicking my legs in the air and it' ll be fine!"
Have you ever wanted to be a girl?
"No. Never! You ever see a girl that looks like this?"
We' ve both got the giggles by now and there's no stopping Ruby.
"I am amazed when women come up to me and say do I always dress like this? Mind you I did go to Sainsbury's once, in a pink fur coat, pink turban with three large feathers in it at half past eight in the morning."
You shopping at 8.30am?
"Well I was on my way home, I was trying to get a drink!"
Ruby is definitely a great girl and her mate Brian is a lovely bloke.
Ruby's Champagne Cabaret - 13 Gerrard Street, Soho, London W1V 6FL Open 6pm - 3am Monday - Saturday Table Reservations and details of News Years Eve Party: 0171 494 1060
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