3 min

Rusty Ryan

Dec 28, 1947 - Jul 28, 2003

ON THE ROAD AGAIN. Drag legend Rusty Ryan was founder of The Great Imposters, Canada's infamous drag troupe. Credit: Jan Becker

Rusty Ryan died last month of a massive coronary; he had just finished performing at Blowing Centre, Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

Born Robert Timbrell in Kingston, Ontario, Rusty Ryan was a trailblazer. He acquired his drag name 31 years ago when the legendary Craig Russell threw Timbrell in a dress and helped him with his make-up.

In 1972 Ryan formed The Great Impostors, a travelling show featuring a cast of famous “female stars” that toured from sea to sea for more than three decades. The Great Impostors was Canada’s foremost drag troupe. The original members were Ryan, Tammy Autumn and Michelle DuBarry. Danny Love and Jackie Loren were early Imposters, too. The troupe’s membership changed frequently over the years; the last Toronto appearance saw Ryan performing with DuBarry, Christian Jefferies and Dale Barnett at the Pilot Tavern for Pride 2002.

Right from the start, The Great Imposters struck out for backwoods Canada. Taking a drag queen review into northern Ontario in the 1970s was both brave and a little crazy. It must have helped break down some of the barriers.

“The road was a whole book if written about,” remembers DuBarry, “the endless miles of travel to get to the next gig, the packing, the unpacking, all the little ordinary bar hotels in the small towns. That was in the days, when we came into town, it was a big event and the people treated us like stars. We shopped in the daytime and heard the townspeople talk about those entertainers in town that dressed like woman in their show! Gasp!

“When they’d ask: ‘Where are the girls?’ Rusty would say, ‘They’re on their way.’

“We never had any trouble with our audiences, they loved us – especially Rusty who kept them in stitches.”

In addition to his stage acts, Ryan had some pretty good credits under his belt. Cast as a male or a female in commercials and movies, his appearances included wearing a skimpy outfit for a Special K ad, Jimmy the bartender in the Craig Russell films Outrageous and Too Outrageous and “dirty old man” in an episode of Queer As Folk. He toured with Frankie Goes To Hollywood and performed in a Platinum Blonde video. On the set of the TV movie Flowers For Algernon, Matthew Modine once said to Rusty, “You look like trouble.”

Rusty had a quick wit and a skewed take on things. I remember when a friend, Nicky Ray Finamore, decided to spring for a trip to Niagara for a group of us. He complained later that he didn’t get to do any of the things he wanted. “But we let you pay, dear,” Rusty responded, not missing a beat.

If anyone dared to leave their cellphone on during one of Ryan’s performances, and if they got a call, the unsuspecting caller would be treated to some very explicit sex talk.

Rusty was pretty casual about all his accomplishments. The only time he registered enthusiasm was when audiences showed their love. And they did: It could have been a bar, Legion Hall or a big banquet facility, the enthusiasm was the same.

Not that there weren’t some difficult times, like pinch-hit jobs being a courier or delivering flowers. In every case he forged friendships and gave unsolicited advice on how to run the business. Though a generous friend, harmony is not a word synonymous with some of the jobs Ryan did with other drag artists.

In 1999, Ryan hooked up with Vancouver agent Wayne Monson and things started to cook again. Since 2000 Ryan and his current Great Imposters show played 382 stages across Canada. Including DQ 2003, Rusty had performed in most of the DQs, the drag fundraisers for Casey House, and numerous other charity events, including Fashion Cares.

The final gig in Nova Scotia was part of Ryan’s first tour performing comedy out of drag.

Rusty wore his gayness proudly. He said he would never have wanted to be born any other way. He didn’t like women much, save for his sisters and me.

How to close without clichés?

Your folks acknowledged your work in your “formal” send off. I know you would have bitched about the way they put you in face. At least, your handsome nephew was handing out your “What The Fuck Are You Looking At?” buttons.

Of course you will be missed. By family and friends. By your latest stage partner Sunny Knight. By Sybil, your cat. And also by the people who work in your favourite diner. By the woman you met only once who remembers you, not as a performer but as, “a big man in a dress. Very funny. Very light on his feet.”

Rusty Ryan lived life on his own terms: his ground-breaking drag, his unparalleled sense of humour, the constant travelling and performing, ignoring advice on healthy eating. He died on the road; he was so happy to be on tour again. It was an early end to his stay, but he had fun while he was here.