Sweet Charity, Tommi Rose!
Our Exclusive Interview with the Legendary Pride Award Honoree
By Kevin Perry
For many in the LGBTQ’mmunity, our heritage begins the day we come out of the closet. Most of us are raised by straight families, so we must seek out gay culture in order to fully embrace its history, herstory, and humanity. But Tommi Rose is the Rosetta Stone of Palm Springs. In addition to slaying and sashaying for 43 years, her encyclopedic knowledge of drag entertainment has tendrils that stretch back to the roots of a grand (dame) tradition.
“I was watching The Mike Douglas Show,” Rose recounts. “The announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Bette Davis!’ And the curtain opened up, but it wasn’t Bette Davis; it was Charles Pierce in drag as Bette Davis. I was fascinated. I looked at the TV and said, ‘Mom, I want to do that.’ She just smiled and said, ‘OK.’ I was 15 years old. This was 1975 in the south.”
This belle was ready to ring-a-ding-ding, so Rose (born Thomas Bank) gravitated toward nearest spotlight and never looked back. “When I started drag, I was 17, the first time I went on stage. Legal age was 18. This was 1976, so it was no big deal for a 16 or 17-year-old kid to get into a club. Just bat your eyes at the doorman; it was very easy back then. This was in Florida. I was a blonde, longhaired surfer boy.”
But those lemony locks would soon get sheared as Tommi pulled up anchor. “I actually joined the Navy and went into the US Navy Reserve and found myself in San Diego.”
Rose quickly established herself as a triple-threat, belting out showtunes and busting punchlines with equal proficiency, but it was her charity work that quickly got her name echoing all the way to San Francisco. “A friend called and invited me up to Finocchio’s” Tommi reminisces. “In 1936, Finocchio’s nightclub opened at 506 North Broadway and it became world famous. It was the pinnacle of THE place to work if you were a female impersonator with a live act.” It was the young starlet’s dream gig, and it immediately connected Ms. Rose to the very idol who first turned her coif. While at a nearby club with friends, Tommi was overjoyed to hear the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Charles Pierce!” The drag performer who had first inspired young Tommi was now her mentor and friend, grooming her for success on the burgeoning San FranScene.
But Rose soon learned that success would require beaucoup blood, sweat, and tiaras. “At Finocchio’s, we did three 75-minute shows a night, six nights a week. When you paid your cover charge, they allowed you to stay and watch all three shows because they were all different. As the emcee, I had to change costumes between every single act. I would wear between nine and 13 costumes per show and I never wore the same costume twice the entire night. So I would have up to 40 costumes a night. Costumes, shows, jewelry, wig. They never saw the same look twice.”
Never one to wallow in the negative, Tommi Rose aimed her stiletto-sharp work ethic at a health crisis that was ravaging the gay community. “I lived at 486 Castro, right above Walgreens at Castro and 18th, so I lived in the thick of it. Even before it was called AIDS, our friends were getting sick.”
An uncharacteristic hush descends on Tommi’s cadence as she continues, “So many are gone, my gosh. I still have my phone book from my days in San Francisco and it’s just red line, red line, red line. Very depressing.” Summoning her determination, Rose recalls, “We had a lot of friends who were nurses and they said, ‘We need funding for this. Doctors don’t know what to do." I was one of the original planners for very first fundraiser at one of the bars on Castro Street, and we started fundraising like crazy… We had a special fundraiser show at Finochio’s one night where we raised $80,000 in three hours. At that point, it was unheard of because it was still a disease that had no name. We literally called it The Disease with No Name Fundraiser.”
Among her 40+ wardrobe variations, Tommi was now wearing a cape; her heroism was making a huge impact. “It opened their eyes and drag became more prominent in San Francisco,” she beams. “If you needed a fundraiser, you hired drag queens.”
But money was only one facet of Rose’s boundless generosity, which was about to become amplified and galvanized. “I was working a show at Kimo’s one night. It was cold and rainy. Kimo’s was on Polk Street, which was hustler row. All the street kids. Most of them were homeless. It’s cold, wintertime, drizzly icy rain. And I’m seeing all these kids huddled together, and I started to cry.”
The memories elicit fresh tears as Tommi sobs, “It hurt my heart seeing all these kids who, many of them, were not just runaways from home, but had been kicked out of their homes for being gay. I couldn’t imagine that because I was a young, gay boy growing up in the south and my family embraced me. They said, ‘We want you to be happy, we know it’s going to be a tough life, but it’s your life. You have to live it.’ I had such amazingly supportive family members.”
And now, Palm Springs is fortunate enough to be part of the extended Tommi Rose brood. She visited the Inland Empire in the dawn of the 21st century and brought a luggage case overflowing with compassion, creativity, and “a chartreuse sequin green outfit that was made for me by Bob Mackie, and all that with red hair and off I go!”
She began DJ’ing at Toucans, spinning disco realness into a tsunami of groovy inclusivity. Rose was a blooming desert flower, and she finally pitched a residency proposition to the bar’s owners. “That was in 2002, so August 25th, I did my very first show, it was called Tommi & Friends. I brought drag friends in from Orange County and LA and San Diego, put together a show. The place was packed. At that point, Palm Springs had not really had a real drag show in about seven or eight years. At the end of the show, they said, ‘Can you do this every Sunday?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ And I’ve been there every-- we just celebrated 17 years.”
It’s a vibrant legacy that Tommi is ready to share with the world, starting at home. “My husband and I have been cleared for preliminary interviews and have our first official intake interview on Monday afternoon with Trinity Youth Services to become foster parents and looking at the possibility of adoption!”
But before she could don a fabulous housecoat and become a model matriarch, Rose had to take care of her failing health. “I got married New Year’s Eve to my husband and our wedding gift to each other was for me to get a kidney transplant. That was our honeymoon.”
Dredging up dark recollections, Tommi relives the day she got an ominous diagnosis from her medical team. “They said, ‘No, you don’t understand. You have to find a living donor. You don’t have a year. Dialysis isn’t working.’”
Fighting back a fresh wellspring of tears, Rose soldiers on. “So, I put a frantic call out on Facebook and in less than 24 hours, I had 11 people volunteer to be a living donor. The first person they tested turned out to be the perfect match. I kid you not, it was my stepmother in Florida. My own stepmother, no blood relation at all, was a perfect match. She’s a universal donor.”
Regaining her magnificent composure once more, Tommi concludes, “I got my kidney transplant in January and I feel like I’ve got a new lease on life.”
So, what’s the price of this lease? Answer: hard work, and plenty of it. Just listen to a typical week in the life of the hardest working gal in show business. “So, I have bingo on Thursday, I have Oscar’s on Friday, Saturday afternoons I host bingo at Toucans from 3 to 5, and then I’m at Oscar’s for the 8 o’clock show, I have two shows on Sunday, bingo back in Ontario on Monday, and every alternating Wednesday I have bingo back in Palm Springs.”
This golden girl is glowing with positivity and reflecting graciously on the career that brought her from the South to the dais of the Palm Springs Pride Awards.
“I’m 60 years old, when most people are ready to retire. My life is more full than it has been my entire career. With everything I’ve done, it’s just still going and still building and I’m just so grateful. It’s amazing… The universe has blessed me with so many amazing opportunities and they’re still continuing to come. My husband and I becoming foster parents, leading to adoption, having our own family, it’s just phenomenal. The shows are going great. So I just feel like we’re on this upward swing and hoping it never ends.”
From Mike Douglas memories to cabaret mastery, Tommi Rose has gone from inspired southern boy to inspirational SoCal diva. Her love of performing and passion for philanthropy have earned her a permanent spot atop the Palm Springs pantheon of drag royalty. Kudos, your highness.