Female impersonator Jim Bailey's onstage portrayals of famous entertainers were so uncanny — not just their voices, but also the mannerisms, costumes and hairdos — that sometimes people thought they were seeing the actual women.
But one couple in Las Vegas, seeing Bailey in his signature role as Judy Garland, took it a step further.
"The audience was from a plumber's convention," wrote Bruce Vilanch in a 1997 article for the Advocate magazine. "One plumber turned to his wife and said, 'I thought she was dead.'
" 'She is,' the wife replied, 'This is the daughter.' "
Bailey, 77, died Saturday at Pacifica Hospital of the Valley in Sun Valley. The cause was a heart attack brought on by pneumonia, his longtime manager, Steve Campbell, said. Bailey lived in Santa Clarita and had been retired for several years.
He had been a Las Vegas staple, but also appeared on numerous television shows beginning in the 1970s, including "The Ed Sullivan Show" (as Garland, singing "The Man That Got Away"), "The Carol Burnett Show" (as Barbra Streisand, singing a duet with Burnett), "Here's Lucy" (as Phyllis Diller) and numerous appearances on "The Tonight Show."
He did live, full-length concerts as his characters at major venues such as Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A., where he appeared in 1972 as Garland and Streisand.
"Bailey is a devastating talent and a phenomenon," Mary Murphy wrote of that show in the Times. Although she admired his Streisand, it was his Garland that got to her. "As Garland, he is magnificent," Murphy wrote. "He is sentimental and strong, like a lion and a kitten."
He hated being called a drag act, much preferring to be described as a "character actor" or "illusionist."
"I'm the puppet master, only you can't see the strings," he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1997.
He also didn't want to be known as camp.
"It used to be, and it's still true in some sense, that a man puts on a dress for laughs," he said in a 2004 Times interview. "I did the opposite, and people were fascinated by it."
He was born Jan. 10, 1938, in Philadelphia and showed musical talent at a young age. At 5, he began taking piano lessons, dreaming of a concert career, but his teacher suggested that he go into singing. An aunt enrolled him in the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music (now the University of the Arts), where he studied opera.
"The technique that I learned there, studying to be a lyric tenor — how to breathe properly, how to sing without a microphone, as well as microphone technique — is what has made it possible to do the kind of singing I do with my famous ladies," he said in the Times interview.
But he decided that more than anything, he wanted to be an actor. In the mid-1960s, Bailey moved to Los Angeles, where he auditioned for parts, mostly unsuccessfully, and appeared occasionally in small clubs doing comedy bits and singing. The first impersonation he developed was of Diller, and he worked it into his act.
The major revelation came when he was driving his car and a Garland song came on the radio. He began singing along, at first in the car and then later to a Garland album at home.
"As I did, I found my body was doing Judy moves that I had seen on her television show," he said. "And I thought, 'My God, I can sing like Judy Garland. What does that mean?' "
He worked it into his act, and it became a sensation. In about 1967, Campbell said, Garland showed up at a Valley club to see him. She ended up joining him onstage for a duet of "Bye Bye Blackbird," and they became friends.
The real-life Garland coached Bailey in imitating her, down to her famous ticks and gestures. "You don't want to do everything in the same song," he said she told him, "because then you won't have anything to do later on."
His popularity led to a Las Vegas lounge booking, where several celebrities saw him, including Ed Sullivan.
The 1970 Sullivan show appearance was key to Bailey's career.
"Before that, there were acts on TV with a man in a dress, like Milton Berle," Campbell said Wednesday. "But that was camp. Jim was doing it with class."
In his 20s, Bailey had a brief marriage that ended in divorce, but his primary personal relationships were with men. He and Campbell were a couple for several years, but at the time of his death, Bailey did not have a partner. He is survived by his brother, Claude, of Philadelphia.
After several years of appearing on stage as women, Bailey sometimes performed as himself. But his unadorned singing act did not find much favor with critics, and he returned to his "illusions." He didn't mind that, he said, especially when it came to Garland, who died in 1969 at 47.
"I feel like I'm continuing a career that shouldn't have ended," he said in the Sentinel interview. "A lot of young people who weren't even born when she was alive get to see Judy."