Family Portraits: Robin Durand

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In 1991, Sally Jesse Raphael broke the mold with her program theme “Breaking the Stereotype: Lesbians Who Don’t Look Like Lesbians.” This was way before “The L Word” lesbian-chic era and about the time the phrase “lipstick lesbian” emerged. At the time, politics dictated that femmes weren’t supposed to get along, but upon meeting Robin Durand, a fellow Taurus and lipstick lesbian, we got along immediately. If you haven’t met Durand, she is a bodacious blonde with a powerhouse of a voice. I’ve been treated once or twice to her tear-the-house-down version of “I Will Survive.” What I didn’t know was that she comes from show biz lineage. A quick Google search of her family taught me that: During the 1950s and ’60s, her father, Tom Durand, was one of the main personalities on the popular radio station WTTM. He was the first voice heard on WTTM back in 1942, saying “testing, testing …” before the station officially signed on, and he anchored the morning program for many years assisted by his wife Billie. The two were local celebrities for many years.

PGN: So Ms. Durand, where were you born? PD: I’m from Trenton, N.J. I grew up in a row home in West Trenton, which is now a major drug area. It was a mixed neighborhood — a lot of Catholics as well as a large Jewish population from two big synagogues nearby. Unfortunately, after one black family moved in, all the people who lived there moved away. I think they call it “white flight.” It’s a terrible, shameful thing. My family chose to stay.

PGN: Family? PD: I have an older sister who still lives in New Jersey and is a mom now. She adopted a son, Zachary, or Ziggy as we like to call him, from the Philippines. He goes to Temple and I just found out that he’s moving to Chinatown, so I’m excited to have him close by! My dad was a radio announcer when we were growing up. It was a fun way to grow up because, to make extra money — there wasn’t a lot of money in radio back then — he would go around to different theaters, like the Bucks County Playhouse or the Lambertville Music Circus and interview the stars. We got to go to a lot of shows and concerts for free and meet some really interesting people. My dad had a morning show and, when I was a teenager I would say, “It’s so nice to be able to turn my father off in the mornings!”

PGN: I understand the whole family worked. PD: I was about 3 years old when I started. We had a lip-sync/pantomime act. Since my father was a celebrity in New Jersey, people came out to see the Durand family act. People thought that we were really singing. It was my first taste of the limelight. [Laughs.] I don’t know how anyone could have expected me to be normal when my mother would send me to school with notes saying, “Please excuse the curlers in Robin’s hair; she has a show tonight.” We did a performance at my school, which was pretty cool. I was a little celebrity.

PGN: What other theatrical stuff did you do? PD: I sang in the church choir. That started at a very early age. There was a theater company in Chambersburg, which was the Italian section of Trenton, run by a guy named Tony Petito. I was kind of shy at first and nobody, including me, knew that I could do the “Sing out, Louise” thing. I was always in the background or part of the chorus. At my high school, we had 4,000 people and I kind of got lost in the crowd. Then one summer, Tony got a chance to run the Washington’s Crossing Outdoor summer theater and he was putting on “How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying.” I don’t remember how it happened or what broke me out of my shell, but I got the album and learned “Love From a Heart of Gold” and went to the audition. I belted out the song and blew the place away. The character was this sexy red-headed secretary, Hedy LaRue, and I really got into it. It was a big surprise because they didn’t know I had that power. One of the reviews said: “When Robin Durand came on the stage with every inch of her joie de vivre, one audience member was heard to comment, ‘That isn’t a girl — that’s a whole parade!’”

PGN: Where did you go to school? PD: I took non-credit classes at Rider University. My sister was the more studious one. She was the perfect child with the straight A’s, and I wanted to study at one of the theatrical playhouses. My parents were really against it, but my grandmother gave me the money to study theater at home at Rider. They had a great theater program there that became very well known. The directors of the program also ran the Theatre in the Park in Trenton and it was there that I really came into my own doing musical theater.

PGN: Most unusual job? PD: I worked at a pet store for one day. I walked in, and the first job the manager gave me was the last. He told me to take a mouse, put it in a paper bag and slam it against the wall and feed it to one of the snakes. I turned around and walked back out.

PGN: Tell me about coming out. PD: Because both of my parents were into theater, we always had people at the house singing around the piano and, of course, a lot of them were gay. So even though I led a basically heterosexual lifestyle, I was always comfortable in the gay community. When my parents moved to Lambertville, I hung out at the Cartwheel and Prelude and had a few same-sex experiences. I also performed at the drag shows, where I would sing along with the records so I could be heard over the recording. I’d get all glammed up and all the drag queens wanted to borrow my clothes, so I guess I was a lipstick lesbian even before I came out! I went to the clubs because I had gay-male friends and then, one night, I was at the Zodiac and met this woman and knew that I was going to be with her. It was easy: I was immediately comfortable with it. That was 30 years ago and I haven’t been with a man since.

PGN: Back in the day, you and I were both lipstick lesbians. What were your challenges? PD: It could be difficult: There was always a political side to being a lesbian back then. I always felt that I was a strong woman, but because I looked feminine, I’d get attitude. Most of the time, I was dating fabulous butch women, so I always felt protected, but I remember at the opening of what was then the women’s bar in the 2/4 Club, someone made some nasty comments about lipstick lesbians. I wrote a letter that got printed in the PGN about the fact that there were all kinds of gay people in this world and we should all be entitled to express ourselves however we felt comfortable.

PGN: You and Ronni Rodriguez were a lesbian power couple back in the day. PD: I guess so, people knew us. Ronni ran the 2/4 Club, so she was very visible in the community. We’re still close to this day; I just spoke to her yesterday.

PGN: You were also friends with [the late] Karen Young, who was famous for the disco hit “Hot Shots.” PD: Yes, it was actually on my first date with Ronni that I met her. We went to Equus and Karen was playing piano. I’d eased away from the group and went over to the piano. I was softly singing along and she stopped and said, “Hey, come here, why don’t you sing something?” A lot of piano players/singers don’t like to share their spotlight, but she was really gracious. I sang “What I did for Love” and Ronni heard it and it sealed the deal on our romance! After that, Karen and I became friends and she actually helped me get singing gigs with her.

PGN: A memorable experience from that time period? PD: Back in 1976, the National Organization for Women sponsored a train ride. They had all female passengers and even female conductors running the train. I was invited by a few of the women who were in charge of the event to go to the Latin Casino to see Lily Tomlin perform. At the time, I was going through a rough patch and had been pretty much kicked out of my house and was living out of a bag, which I carried with me at all times. When we went to see Lily Tomlin, we got to go backstage. We wanted to get an autograph so I looked in my bag for something for her to sign. I pulled out a white personal vibrator and everyone laughed. She signed it with a big purple marker, “Thinking of you … Lily Tomlin.” Years later, I sent her a telegram when she was performing on Broadway that read, “I got your ‘vibe’ at the Latin Casino, would love to come see your show.” I went up with my partner and Lily’s partner, Jane Wagner, took us backstage to see her. When I thanked her for seeing us, she said in a low, playful voice, “The pleasure was mine … ”

PGN: You said you hit a rough patch; what happened? PD: I was in a really bad car accident when I was 20. I was headed for church one Sunday morning and a car, also going to church, hit our car head on. I was the only one seriously hurt and it took them two-and-a-half hours just to get me out of the car. They told my mother that they didn’t know if they could save my eye or if I would ever see again. I don’t remember much, but I woke up in the hospital with a pin through my knee, a cast on my arm, my face ripped up and 50 pounds of traction. I stayed in the hospital for five months and, on my 21st birthday, they put me in a full-body cast and sent me home. My sister had had a spinal fusion when she was 15, so they figured the family knew how to deal with someone who was bedridden. It changed me in a lot of ways: I still have things both physically and emotionally that go back to the accident. It put a real strain on my relationship with the family.

PGN: What’s up now? PD: Things are not bad, though I’m facing different health problems. In 2005, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and my mother developed Alzheimer’s disease. I was able to take care of her until she died, and now I’m focusing on keeping myself healthy. [Laughs.] In one year, my mother died, I went through menopause and I was diagnosed with MS! It was one heck of a year, but I’m doing well now. I think a lot of it is about attitude, and I work to keep mine positive.

PGN: What’s a good family memory? PD: My mom and I decided to take theater courses in New York at HB Studio. She was taking classes with Earle Hyman, who used to play the grandfather on “The Cosby Show.” [Note: He’s also related to the late Philadelphia singer Phyllis Hyman.] I was taking musical theater classes at the same time so we used to take the train together every Saturday. We were so similar that we could have a very volatile relationship at times, but those train rides allowed us to get closer and it was a nice period in our lives.

PGN: Favorite toy as a kid? PD: I had a Jackie Kennedy doll that I just adored. She was beautiful.

PGN: You are a true lipstick lesbian! I drew the line at dolls. PD: Well, you have a little bit of a sporty side to you, having two athletic brothers. In my case, even my dad was on the softer side. He was into jazz and classical music, he hated sports and loved the theater. We sometimes joked and said that he missed his calling. As you can see from his picture! [Shows a picture of her dad dressed to the nines and looking like Tommy Tune.]

PGN: Fun holiday memory? PD: Because my father had to be on the air at 6 in the morning, we used to have our Christmas before he went into work. I didn’t know it was strange, I though everybody celebrated Christmas at 4 a.m.!

PGN: You spoke about being in the Italian section of Trenton. What’s your heritage? PD: I’m Irish, English and, of course, French — D`u rahnd. I’m also proud to say I have some Cherokee Indian from my mom’s side. She’s from Oklahoma, and everybody from there has some sort of Indian heritage, don’t they? In this case, her grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. I have a picture of her at 104 years old with a long braid and a beautiful handmade outfit.

PGN: Any experience with violence? PD: We had a terrible occasion when we were in Trenton. This was when I was in high school. My father was out walking the dog and he came home and said, “Call an ambulance, I’ve been shot!” Since my father was well known, the state police were called in and a full investigation was launched, but they never found out who did it. I think, in the end, it might have just been some kids shooting guns down by the tracks who accidentally shot him and panicked. At the time, it was on the front page of the Trenton Times and The Trentonian.

PGN: Craziest theater experience? PD: Well, I don’t know about crazy, but in the’70s there was a show called “Let My People Come” that played at Grendel’s Lair on South Street. Two guys who were customers at my girlfriend’s club knew that I could sing and, when the lead actor in the show got tonsillitis, they asked if I could step in. I don’t know if you know the show, but it was really racy and, like in the musical “Hair” at the end, everyone gets naked. I did one show and was so uncomfortable they had to bring in the director, Otto Maximilian, from New York to try to get me to relax. The ironic part is that the show is supposed to be about being comfortable with your body, and I was so stressed by it, I only did about two more shows! Not a good fit.

PGN: Hobbies? PD: My cat is everything to me. He’s my baby. I don’t know if he’s a Taurus or a Gemini. And I still like to sing as well. Ronni’s coming to visit in June, so maybe I’ll come to your karaoke night and do “I Will Survive” for old-time’s sake …

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].