By Silvia Sanza
Anyone who’s been around the Village for a while knows Tish—colorful, compelling, and a good neighbor. Tish grew up in New England to French-Canadian parents. He was the “petit garcon” which, garbled through half-French, half-English, became his nickname, Ti-boy.
Tish recalls running across the field from school, dressed in a suit and tie, to work at the woolen mills factory. He weighed 98 pounds and was expected to lift the same. He laughs and says, “I didn’t know I was so macho.” He made $18 a week, gave his mother $12, and spent the rest on tap dancing and ballet lessons at the Rhode Island Conservatory.
Tish sang at weddings, funerals, Sunday services, and Tuesday night devotions until he was 25. His closest friends were his piano teacher and her sister, the organist. It was unsettling to be a gay person in so small a community, always wondering if you were the only one.
One of Tish’s early jobs was at the legendary Celebrity Club in Providence, Rhode Island. It was believed to be the first integrated nightclub in New England. Musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald came to Providence and stayed for week-long engagements. One Sunday afternoon, Louis Armstrong was there. He was missing some band members and Tish heard the gravelly voice behind him ask, “Wanna do a set?” And so Tish performed “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “All of Me” with Louis.
Tish also worked at the Wonder Bar in Norwich, Connecticut. Six weeks into the job, the owner received a letter from the State Liquor Authority stating that it was against the law for a man to wear female clothes. So, his career as a female impersonator—the word “drag” was never used—was delayed. Tish didn’t want to break any laws but delighted in the obvious; he wore pants but lots of theatrical make-up.
Tish met his first boyfriend when he was 27. Philip was 24 and planning to get married when he visited a club in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where Tish was singing. Philip introduced Tish to his father, who had been a sergeant in the Korean War. It was a congenial meeting but his father threatened that if Philip kept seeing Tish he’d have to move out. Philip lived in his car for a few days and soon after moved in with Tish.
In 1952, Philip visited New York, found an apartment at 49 Macdougal Street, got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and came back to get Tish. They squeezed as much as they could into the car.
When Tish applied for a job at Moroccan Village, she told them, “I’d like to work here. I’m a female impersonator.” He auditioned, got the job, and began his reign in New York City. That’s where he started wearing wigs and exquisite gowns. He sang French standards in the style of Edith Piaf and “Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” as Mary Martin from South Pacific.
In the early 1960s, Tish briefly worked at the Heat Wave, now the Blue Note, as a male dancer in an ensemble of four guys and one girl named Helen. Soon, the manager connected Tish with his friend at Capri, which was located in the same building as the famous 82 Club. Off went Tish to Capri where booking agents regularly attended the performances.
Tish spent winters at the Crazy Horse on Bleecker Street, now Terra Blues. The Crazy Horse, an espresso house that let you bring in a bottle of wine, was next door to The Bitter End where Woody Allen performed. Bill Cosby worked in the cellar at another club on Bleecker Street. It was the heyday of nightclubs in Greenwich Village.
We now sit in Tish’s living room. On the wall behind him are two ornate mirrors and dozens of framed photos of Tish’s past. They highlight his days as an impersonator, his friends as impersonators, boyfriends, and four friends who had sex changes. On the wall behind me is a picture of his mother, four brothers, and two sisters. I ask if there is anything he wished he had done but never got to do. He answers, “Travel.”
Tish loves Bank Street. We reminisce about the old days and how the block has changed. The corner store was a butcher shop where Tish remembers buying steaks in 1956; then came a cobbler, followed by Ivan’s Tie Dye, which created clothes for Janis Joplin.
Tish recently turned 92 and continues to be one of Bank Street’s treasures.