Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Real Two and Only......
John Kenley

My friend David Sinkler sent me an article about John Kenley who turned 103 years old on Feb 20th. If you don't know that name you don't know one of the most interesting people in the history of musical theatre. There are millions of stories and rumors about John Kenley, most are true and most were started by John himself.

Since John has by now out lived anyone who can separate veracity from rumor, all stories about him must now exist as the truth. It is hard to know how to start talking about John Kenley, but here is what I know. I have gathered it from rumor, recollection and personal experience.

From roughly the late sixties through the mid-eighties John Kenley produced summer musical theatre in the Ohio area. The shows toured Akron, Flint, Daton and Columbus in what was called the Kenely Circuit. It was very successful and attracted big name celebrities at big time salaries. The season provided work for hundreds of repertory cast members during the summer. A lot of young performers got their Equity card working a Kenley show.

John has worked in theater all his life. On stage as a young chorus boy in the Ziegfeld Follies, he danced his way up the show business ladder, eventually working with and ultimately out living many of the biggest names in show business. His memory of events and actors is sharp, precise and wickedly retold with the skill of a master thespian.

However, his career was always overshadowed by the fact that he is a registered hermaphrodite. He is one of the few people in the United States registered with legal identification as both a male and a female. Rumor has it that he lived the summer in Ohio producing shows as John, and spent the winters in Florida living as a woman named Joan. The two identities rarely intersected with mutual friends.

A director I know claims John recounted in detail a conversation between the director and a lady sitting next to him at a bar in Las Vegas the winter before. He did not realize at the time that the lady he had briefly befriended was the female identity of John Kenley. The director remembered the encounter well because the lady seemed to be very knowledgeable about the theatre .

I don't know anything about Joan, but I did work a couple of summers for John. My first Kenley show was one the afore mentioned David Sinkler co-wrote. It was the early 1980's when Kenley was a mere 78 years old. The picture above with his dog is probably him eight years earlier. Although, for some reason he always looked the same no matter what his age.

I took an immediate liking to John Kenley. I thought he was charming, funny, smart, gentlemanly and elegantly flamboyant. He was royalty but certainly not a queen. John Kenley is just one of those rare people you can never forget. I love great story tellers and he is one of the best, with a century of personal material to draw on. I was always trying to coax another story out of him.

The first time I met John was in the rehearsal hall at the theatre in Akron. On the first day of rehearsal I was the only one who had not worked with John Kenley before. The director said we were to start with our table reading and John would join us shortly. I believe we were several scenes into the show when the double rehearsal doors flew open. In walked a frail man in a cranberry vest, white shirt and black pants. A navy blue tie was folded around his neck like an ascot rather than tied in a traditional knot. He was not young but it was difficult to guess his age. His skin was almost iridescently pale without a trace of a wrinkle like the face of a porcelain doll, smooth and almost translucent. He wore makeup, but he was not "over done". His thinning hair slicked back on his head with the color of silver fading through the reddish-orange tint. He certainly was not macho in his ways, but comfortable and confident with his own sexuality, whatever direction it went.

The rehearsal stopped as every eye was on John Kenley. Silently he walked the long side of the table opposite where I was sitting. As he rounded the far end I stood up to shake his hand since it seemed he was coming around the table to greet me. He did not look at me nor even stop. He glided passed my outstretched hand without saying a word, then exited the double doors.

In a dramatic move he grabbed the frame with his hands pulling himself backwards through the doorway. Posing in an Erte´-esque back bend with his head arched toward the table he said,

" Once I was meeting a man in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. On the phone before the meeting he said, 'I don't know what you look like, how will I know it's you...' " John paused then quickly added, "I said to him.. you must be kidding ", and with that he disappeared through the door.

That was my official introduction to Mr. Kenley. From that moment on we were friends. He made everyone laugh and would without provocation occasionally kick his leg high above his head with balletic precision.

Being around when John would tell stories about his career was the best treat. We all told him 25 years ago to write it down in a book. He said he would think about it, but he would want to tell the "really juicy" stories if he wrote a book. We thought the ones he casually recounted were fantastic.

I haven't seen or talked to John in a long time. I can't believe he is 103. In the article about his birthday he credited his longevity to a couple of stiff Vodkas every night. I don't know how to get in touch with John to tell him happy belated birthday. If the Internet works like it should, somehow this will get to him.. but here is what I would tell him if I could.

Thanks for being my friend, John. And thanks for all the stories. I am still waiting for the call to do another season. It was always fun, which is what the theatre should be.

As you were,


Linda said...

You DO meet the most interesting people!!!

Snowflake said...

I am a relative (albeit distant) and family assures me there is NO TRUTH to the hermaphrodite rumors.