“It’s your favorite number under the O—69!” says Linda Gerard (also known as Linda Fabulous, cause she is) into her head mic, during a recent Saturday evening at her legendary bingo night at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs. I love a dirty joke, especially out of the mouths of senior babes, and the 74-year-old Gerard doles ’em out like my grandma does Werther’s. She also intermittently breaks into song and works the crowd like a pro. Gerard lords over a room of devoted fans, bar-goers, and hotel guests every Monday night at Sissy Bingo, but this night is special. It’s also her record release party. Produced only on vinyl by the Ace, Fabulous Selections is a compilation of songs from throughout her career, from funky disco dance burners (“See the Cheetah”) to Broadway-style showstoppers (“Bright and Shining Day”). ’Cause though Gerard may be known as one of the Ace Hotel and Swim Club’s coolest attractions, she’s been entertaining for nearly six decades, and the sailor-mouthed, bingo-calling role she plays now is only the tip of the iceberg.
When I meet Linda in the lobby of the hotel an hour before bingo starts, she’s wearing a slinky black dress and enormous, crystal-encrusted glasses (eye-catching eyewear is kind of her thing). She has all the makings of an Advanced Style star. We grab a booth at the hotel’s restaurant, King’s Highway, and over black coffee (her) and a tiki-like rum cocktail (me), Linda tells me the story of her life, from her days on Broadway to discovering she was gay in her mid-30s to the long-distance romantic interest she recently met on the interwebs (“I think I found a lover on the email,” she says). When the hotel manager drops by to say hi, Linda points to me and says, “She’s interviewing me for a famous magazine! Isn’t that neat?” After he walks away she leans in and cracks, “If I were straight, honey, and 40 years younger he’d be perfect.” It’s easy to see why everyone loves her. But when I ask how it feels to be a Palm Springs icon, Linda says she doesn’t feel like one. In fact, when she first started working at the Ace four years ago, she was hired only as a cashier and a hostess. It wasn’t until people who knew she was a singer started coming in to eat that she unleashed her talents. “They’d say, ‘Linda, why don’t you sing?’ So I’d stand at a table and sing and I have a big voice so everyone would hear me,” she says. “And they’d start applauding.” Hotel management quickly realized they had a star on their hands and these days Linda’s abrupt dining room serenades happen on the regs. “Now people come and say, ‘Oh, we’re really not here for dinner, we’re here to see Linda sing,’” she says with a smile.
But performing for an audience isn’t anything new for Linda. In the ’60s she landed a gig as the understudy for none other than Barbara Streisand during her run as Fanny Brice in Broadway’s Funny Girl. She remembers when Babs called to let her know she’d be missing a show like it was yesterday. “Of course, the worst part is on stage, when [the announcer] comes out in front of the curtain and says, ‘Ladies and gentleman, in this performance the role of Fanny Brice will be played by Linda Gerard.’ And the entire audience groans,” she says. “But I did OK. At the very end, it’s my turn to come out for a bow and I bend down and I look up and the whole audience is standing. It was like, oh my god.” After a number of years on and off Broadway, Linda began to get famous, “and it scared the shit out of me,” she says. “You’re not treated like a person, you’re treated like an object. You have be there, you have to do this, the hair had to be perfect and the makeup. And it’s like, excuse me? I have a life! I have children and a husband.” So she ditched the N.Y.C. spotlight and moved to Provincetown, MA, to take a singing job at a cabaret. Unbeknownst to Linda, Provincetown was a gay resort and her summer there changed everything, particularly one evening she spent with the club owner. “She kissed me on my lips and something happened to me,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oooh, is that what it’s supposed to be like? ’Cause I never felt that with my husband.’ It was a new sensation.” In fact, she sings a song about it: “A Woman Starting Out All Over Again.” It’s just one of the tracks on Fabulous Selections, an inspiring retrospective from a lady who lives her life exactly the way she wants to.
Linda calls herself an OWL—an older, wiser lesbian—and it’s apt, I feel as though I’ve learned a bit more about being true to myself just in the hour we’ve spent together. When she says, “Oh honey, I got stories forever,” I believe her. And I want to hear them all. But she’s got some bingo to call. So I end our conversation by asking Linda what feminism means to her. And she does not disappoint. “Feminism means a lot of different things,” she says. “To me it means that I’m very pro-choice. That, how dare a man tell me what I can do with my body. That women should be paid as much as men and probably more because they’re better equipped and smarter. And that we should definitely have a woman president because we’d never have a war.” Amen.
By Lisa Butterworth
Image Credit to Ace Media Haus