A Teddy Bear of a Ruby

Ruby Rims as a film goddess. | FREDERICK PICCARELLO

Ruby Rims as a film goddess. | FREDERICK PICCARELLO

Two shows this December will mark the 25th — and final —year in which drag artist Ruby Rims presents his benefit holiday cabaret variety show “TeddyCare” at Judson Memorial Church in the Village. Ruby acts as master of ceremonies for the two-evening showcase that will feature a dozen or so performers, including actress and singer Karen Mason and the Gay Agenda, a “two-man-musical-theatre-punk-band” comprised of Micah Bucey and Nicholas Williams.

TeddyCare benefits Judson Church, where Ruby has been a congregant for 30 years, and Metro Baptist Church’s Food Pantry. The tickets are $20 plus a teddy bear. Ruby estimates that the annual benefit has given more than 10,000 teddy bears to hospitalized children since its inception.

A longtime survivor of HIV, the teddy bear-ish Ruby is slowing down at 61 and so he and the event’s longtime music director, John McMahon, are hoping to go out with a bang. Ruby’s trademark has always been to mix bawdy fun with heart-filled responses to life’s darker sides. He lived through the scary early years of the AIDS crisis and did so in a dress, belting out show tunes at cabarets like the now defunct Eighty-Eights, where he performed and tended bar for many years.

The inspired Miss Rims takes her final holiday benefit bows December 7, 14

Ruby Rims at Dixon Place in 1982. | GONZOONFIRST@EROLS.COM

Ruby Rims at Dixon Place in 1982. | GONZOONFIRST@EROLS.COM

A New Jersey native, Ruby made his first solo trip into Manhattan for his 16th birthday. Arriving on the bus at Port Authority, he checked out the discount show counter and something told him to see an Off-Broadway play called “The Boys in the Band.” Ruby knew nothing about Mart Crowley’s explicit exploration of gay men’s sustaining and strained friendships in a homophobic world, but it was there he heard the immortal line: “Your lips are turning blue. You look like you’ve been rimming a snowman!” Prophetic? A high school chum had dubbed a young Robert “Ruby.” The last name… came later.

Soon, Ruby visited his first gay bar and became mesmerized by the old-school feather boa and torch song drag performer. Within a year, he was performing at a small gay bar in Newark — in one show making a memorable entrance on a horse, dressed as Kate Smith and singing “God Bless America.” To the crowd’s delight, the horse upstaged Ruby by reviewing his performance all over the stage.

Ruby has the distinction of being the first drag performer to entertain at Manhattan’s notorious sex club the Anvil in the late ‘70s. For a time, he worked there on a postage stamp-sized platform at patrons’ chest-level that was no mean trick to ascend in high heels.

“I was the Bette Midler of the Anvil,” he has said, giving a nod to the Divine Miss M’s time as an entertainer at the Continental Baths with Barry Manilow as her accompanist. At the Anvil, Ruby did shows from around midnight until the early morning hours for a very modest salary. The tips, however, allowed him to rent a room at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street.

Karen Mason, a longtime cabaret mainstay, remembers meeting Ruby in the 1980s at Eighty-Eights.

“I moved here from a suburb in the Midwest and even though I had done shows in gay bars in the 1970s in Chicago, I had never met a man named Ruby!,” she said. “One thing I do remember very clearly about Ruby was the first time I heard him sing Charles Aznavour’s ‘What Makes a Man a Man.’” That song about a drag performer includes the lines:

We let our hair down,

so to speak

And mock ourselves with tongue-in-cheek

And inside humor

So many times we have to pay

For having fun and being gay

It’s not amusing

Ruby Rims in a recent photo.

Ruby Rims in a recent photo.

“I knew him as a funny, smart, over-the-top personality,” Mason recalled, “and then to see him sing this song. I had never seen such passion in a performance of a song! All of the emotions of a lifetime came pouring out of him. It was amazing! How could you not love someone who was unafraid to share their pain? To say, this is who I am, with all my crazy, wonderful, and challenging experiences.”

Appearances in drag on Geraldo and Phil Donahue followed, along with performances all over the country, where Ruby appeared with the likes of single-namers Chita and Liza and Etta. Ruby once shared a dressing room with Ms. James, wherein they both let it all hang out, so to speak.

The Gay Agenda’s Bucey, who is the community minister of the arts at Judson Memorial Church and will be formally ordained in January, remembers meeting Ruby in 2009 when “he was one of the first people to reach out and welcome me in.”

Bucey calls Ruby a kind of “ambassador,” embodying the church as “a welcoming place.” He noted the essential contradiction of Ruby Rims: a gentle, lovable teddy bear in drag with the courage and roaring laugh of a lioness.

TEDDYCARE –– CELEBRATING 25 YEARS | Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Sq. S. at Thompson St. | Dec. 7 & 14, 7-9 p.m. |Tickets are $20 plus a teddy bear at Judson.org or 212-564-1058