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December 18, 2014

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Drag pioneer Kenny Kerr will be remembered for opening doors in Las Vegas

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Leila Navidi

Kenny Kerr, Las Vegas Gay Pride’s first emcee, rides a float during the 2012 Las Vegas PRIDE Night Parade in downtown Las Vegas on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012.

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Blazing a trail in style: Kenny Kerr helped opened the doors to the drag production show in Vegas.

Kenny Kerr was a maverick star who made his fame wearing tall wigs, gowns splashed with sequins and heavy stage makeup. He was naturally funny, sang in his own voice and helped forge a form of entertainment that formerly existed only on the fringes. Kerr was a genuine Las Vegas stage pioneer, the sort of performer whose influence is to be felt long after his death.

A Vegas star for 25 years beginning in the late 1970s, Kerr died Sunday morning at age 60. Kerr was a pioneer in Vegas entertainment with his cross-dressing, comedy-impressionist stage show “This Is Boy-Lesque” at Gaiety Theater at the old Silver Slipper hotel-casino across the Strip from Desert Inn. Performing hilarious impressions of Barbra Streisand (who would become a fan), Cher and Joan Rivers, Kerr had developed the show beginning in his teens, first in Philadelphia and later as a touring production when he was just 18 years old.

As he later said, Kerr showcased a version of “Boy-Lesque” at the Sahara, then was hired for two weeks at the Silver Slipper. He played that gig for a dozen years beginning in 1977 and was a headliner on and off the Strip for 25 years, ending with a run at the Plaza in 2002. Kerr is long credited with blending a classic female-impersonator stage show with a Vegas-style variety revue full of singing, dancing and comedy bits. He sang his songs rather than lip-synched, and most of his comedy segments were unscripted.

And, probably more important, “Boy-Lesque” was a show that stood on its own in a genre that was typically a featured attraction in such adult revues as “Lido de Paris” at Stardust and “Folies Bergere” at the Trop.

After his long run at Silver Slipper, Kerr performed at the Sahara (as a headliner), Stardust, Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel (now the Clarion), Frontier, Plaza, The Orleans and Suncoast. He also played a short stint at Cafe Nicole.

After his stint at the Plaza ended, Kerr played a limited run at Sunset Station in 2004. With interest in his shows waning in town, he hit the cruise-ship and cabaret circuit and moved to Palm Springs, Calif., in 2006. He moved back to Las Vegas last year, and his last appearance in Vegas was at Onyx Theater in Commercial Center on East Sahara Avenue last September.

Kerr had for years publicly feuded with the performer who eventually surpassed his long run as headliner in a production show, Frank Marino, who has starred in “Evening at La Cage” at the Riv and, currently, “Divas Las Vegas” at The Quad for 27 years. The two reportedly settled their differences years ago during a dinner at Bootlegger Bistro, and it is Marino’s show — along with many other featured performers and acts in the city — that remind of the brand of entertainment that made Kenny Kerr a Vegas icon.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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