I recently attended the annual Hookers Ball. It was a fun evening and a very successful fundraiser for Southern Decadence. Kudos to Todd Blauvelt for putting together such a wonderful event. While the performances were great and it was fun seeing friends, the highlight of the show for me was a vintage video of Southern Decadence Grand Marshal XXXII, the late great Donnie Jay, performing a number with current SDGM Rikki Redd in the background as a supporting performer.
As I scanned the room, it occurred to me that many of the young people in attendance probably don’t even know who Donnie Jay was. And that’s a shame because even in death, Donnie Jay is still worth knowing about. His impact on the LGBTQ+ community in New Orleans was profound.
Donald “Donny Jay” James was born on April 24, 1942. He grew up in Miami and moved to New Orleans in the mid-1970s. A natural-born performer, he always loved the theater. The stage was his natural habitat, especially if it was in a bar. His first performance in New Orleans was in 1976 at the Post Office Lounge (now the Corner Pocket). In 1977, he became a regular performer at Travis’ (now Grand Pre’s).
He went to Nashville in 1984 where he worked at the fabled Blue Bird Café. There he wrote and produced an original musical called Born to Sleaze. A very young Lisa Beaumann, who was in Nashville at the time, loved it. (You do remember Lisa Beaumann, don’t you? For heaven’s sake, google her if you don’t!) Upon returning to New Orleans in 1987, Jay began performing at Ziggy’s Lounge (currently Voodoo Lounge) and at We Are Family (currently the Black Penny). Around this time, he took a job as the Executive Chef at Andrew Jaeger’s House of Seafood, where Regina Adams (who is thankfully still with us) was the Assistant Chef.
In 1995, Donnie Jay was part of the group that founded “The Slutpuppies,” which performed at bars and theaters all over the city. The Slutpuppies found a permanent home at Mama Rose’s in 2000 and performed a monthly show until the group dissolved in 2004. The Slutpuppies were made up of such notables as T. Paul Dodson, Klorocks Bleachman, Sebrina, Regina Adams, Fred, Tiffany Rose, Todd Blauvelt, and many guest stars such as Marcy Marcell.
In 2004, Donnie Jay was named Southern Decadence Grand Marshal XXXII (the last time there was only one SDGM). The theme that year was “Daydreams and Fantasies: Welcome to My Harem.” At the end of his tenure as SDGM, Jay selected Regina Adams and Lisa Beaumann to be his successors. Jay is famously remembered for remarking one year, “Well, here we go again. Decadence is upon us once more. My God, have any of us sobered up from last year yet?”
One thing that set Donnie Jay apart from so many other spotlight and title seekers, was that he was actually committed to the betterment of the community. He was willing to do the trenchwork. He served on the Board for the New Orleans Alliance for Pride and was committed to raising money to combat the AIDS epidemic. He also raised money for the Gay Carnival krewes and served as Queen Apollo in 1982 and Captain of Dionysus in 1979.
In addition, he briefly did costume designs for the Krewe of Petronius, one of which for Captain Mickey Gill in 1991 is considered a classic. Toward the end of his life, Donnie Jay worked for Ambush, penning two regular columns, “Cookin’ With Donnie Jay” and “One Last Song.” His production company, Donnie Jay’s To Do Productions, eventually merged with Timm Holt’s Marigny Theatre.
From 2005 to 2007, he bartended and performed as part of “Divas R Us” at the Golden Lantern, which at that point in his life he considered his home bar. In 2007, health issues began plaguing Jay. He ultimately succumbed to a brain tumor on April 16, 2009, less than a week before his 68th birthday.
Donnie Jay was honored in 2004 by the Gay Appreciation Awards with its coveted Lifetime Achievement Award. After his passing, the GAA named its Performing Arts Award after him.
In one of his columns, Jay wrote: “The other friend I lost was one I have known almost as long, and that was Jim Lily. Jim and I went back to the old TT’s West days. The days when we would serve shots, not in shot glasses, but out of our customers’ foreskins. It was a much wilder time everywhere. Jim tended bar at a place called Partners and I was working at Travis’ and our circle of friends though separate, intertwined. We were passing friends at the time, but in later years he came to wait tables at Andrew Jaeger’s House of Seafood where I worked as a chef and we became much closer. Even after the place closed and I retired, we remained in constant touch. I last saw him at Big Daddy’s when I stopped in to see Rusty. That was about a month ago also. It gives one pause, at my age and only affirms my notion to live my life as full as possible, because you never know when the hammer will fall. Adieu Jim.”
I don’t remember the last time I saw Donnie Jay. But I do appreciate seeing him on the screen at the Hookers Ball—an event he would have loved.