The other day the sad news came across the wires that Jim Bailey had passed away. For many of us who had witnessed his masterful work over the past 45 plus years, it was a moment filled with an indefinable sadness. Whether you’d seen Jim in person or on television, you never forgot what you witnessed because it was artistry of the highest level.
I was fortunate to be able to call Jim a friend. As Director of several non-profit AIDS Service organizations, I brought Jim to various venues in New England on seven different occasions. I never ceased to be amazed by what I saw unfold, nor did I ever tire of watching the faces of the thousands who sat in the audience as the realization hit them of what Jim was able to accomplish on stage. He called himself an “illusionist” and the word is certainly an apt one and those who dismissed him as a female impersonator really missed the boat.
Whether performing as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee or Phyllis Diller, he made you believe you were watching the genuine article. He became those stars, never falling out of character – even in the dressing room before he would go on. The standing ovations that were a regular part of any concert, were deserved. You did not want the concert to end.
I first saw Jim when he made an appearance on Lucille Ball’s series, “Here’s Lucy”. As Phyllis Diller, he convinced me that it really was the daffy comic. Later when he guested on Carol Burnett’s Show as Barbra, I was mesmerized. He was Barbra and during those many years when Miss Streisand was not performing live, I reckoned I would have to be content with Jim’s perfect illusion after seeing him at Hollywood’s Cinegrill, capturing every gesture and vocal intonation that made Barbra one of a kind.
Audiences throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s flocked to see Jim and those who had seen Judy Garland perform prior to her untimely passing in 1969, stated emphatically, that Jim was as good as the real article. In fact in the 70’s he performed with Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, in a well received act, becoming a lifelong friend of Liza.
Jim’s appearances included multiple appearances at London’s Palladium, New York’s Carnegie Hall as well as the finest establishments in cities across the country. Along the way Jim received many honors including being named Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year on numerous occasions as well as receiving a People’s Choice Award.
HIV/AIDS in New Hampshire was a subject few wanted to discuss. Subscribing to the old adage of “If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist”, working for an AIDS organization brought with it many challenges. How to create an awareness and promote responsible behavior and testing was not easy. A New Hampshire Governor, when I invited him to attend an event featuring Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis informed me that “Republicans don’t get AIDS!”
In 2003, while considering various fundraising ideas, I remembered the impact Jim Bailey’s performance had on me and the packed house, when I’d first seen him. Fortunately the Internet made it possible for me to track down Jim’s manager, Steve, and discuss the possibility of Jim coming to New Hampshire to perform.
Working with Jim and Steve was a joy from the start. I’d worked with singers who would send along a 35 page Rider of demands with such requirements as a certain color of M&Ms in the anteroom of the dressing room, and the insistence that no other room on their hotel floor be allowed to be booked while they stayed there. Jim had less than a page of polite requests, all easily met. In fact working with Jim and Steve became the barometer by which I measured any other celebrity dealing.
Jim was a perfectionist giving 150% to every aspect of his performance. However, if he knows you know what you’re doing with regard to musicians, venue aspects, promotion and everything else, he gives you complete respect to handle those areas. And wonder of wonders, he’ll talk with every form of media to help promote the concert but even more importantly to get out the message of the work your agency does. Dozens of front page pieces and interviews surrounding Jim’s various appearances, did more to eradicate mistaken notions about AIDS in New Hampshire than anything else. Furthermore, requests for individuals to get tested and know their status, went up markedly after locals read about Jim’s performance and why he was coming to town.
Whether I had him performing at the world-renowned Ogunquit Playhouse, first as Judy and later as Barbra, or in Portland, Maine, a return to Symphony Hall in Boston, or in Manchester, Keene and Concord, New Hampshire, I sat there with the thousands of audience members feeling the same thrill I’d felt the first time I saw Jim. Jim’s appearances in Northern New England on behalf of AIDS Service organizations, brought in some $ 350,000 of needed funds for those infected and affected by this insidious disease.
In Keene, “Judy” sat on the edge of the stage and without a mic or any accompaniment, sang “Over the Rainbow” so perfectly, that when the song concluded there was a momentary lapse as the hundreds in attendance, wiped their eyes and then, as one, rose to their feet for a seven minute standing ovation.
I became friends with Stephen and Jim, regularly seeing them on visits to Los Angeles and often at the Hamburger Hamlet – now gone – on Sunset near Doheny. Off stage, Jim was modest, charming, very funny, and very, very loyal to his friends.
When I attended performances he gave at the Wilshire Ebell or the Music Box, celebrities and fans like Margaret O’Brien and Ann Rutherford, always shared wonderful stories about Jim and how they, having known Judy Garland, truly felt they were watching their friend Judy when Jim turned on the magic.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen Jim although I stayed in touch with Stephen and was always hopeful of perhaps doing one more show or thanking him one more time for using his talents to make the world just a little bit brighter. We’re all fortunate to have basked in the light of that talent and will never forget Jim.
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Paul E. Brogan is a frequent contributor to Highlight Hollywood and is author of the number one best-selling book, “Was That a Name I Dropped?”
Written By: Paul Brogan, Contributing Editor
Photographs are Courtesy: AP; JimBaileyWeb.com
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