Terri Gardener (December 13, 1919 - August 15, 2000) was a female impersonator. Gardener agreed to be interviewed by Keith Howes in Gay News in 1983, Alkarim Jivani in It’s Not Unusual (1997) and Steve Humphries in The Call of the Sea in 1997. In these interviews Terri recalled his war service as a female impersonator and gave a frank and honest account of what it was like to be a gay man at that time. Terri spent most of his working life as a female impersonator. His father had been the stage manager of a drag revue in World War I and Terri started dragging up between the wars. He learned how to speak Polari (gay slang) from two drag queens who went busking around London’s East End with a barrel organ.
At school, Terry played the lead in Mrs Mason’s Homely Kitchen, and it went so well that the teacher asked his mother if he could repeat it at a local pub.
He settled happily into his life as a ‘theatrical’ and he was just getting himself established in the theatre and music halls when, at the age of 20 in 1940, he was conscripted into the Navy. Terri’s life at sea was made bearable when he volunteered to take part in entertainment shows for the sailors. He was a cook in the officers’ mess sailing between England and Gibraltar, and was also a performer both at Chatham Barracks and in concert parties in Gibraltar. In 1944 he was in the army drag show: We Were in the Forces. He was one of the few to continue working in drag when the forces drag shows came to an end in the mid 1950s.
While in the Navy, Terri went to see a naval psychologist, who reported him for homosexuality. He never set sail again and, while waiting to be discharged, he was placed under ‘open arrest’, which meant that he had not been found guilty of anything except simply being homosexual. Eventually I was given this “dishonourable” discharge and thrown out – and they said “Away you go.”’
After the war, Terri was a partner with Alan Haynes for a while, and was then a partner of Barri Chat from early 1950s as The Pin-Up Girls of Comedy. Then and later he played dames roles in Christmas Pantomimes – Terry did it every year for 40 years. They formed a double act called ‘Chatt and Gardener’ and became close friends, sharing a professional relationship that lasted until Barri died in 1971. Terri said that he did not know anyone who disliked Barri, who possessed great charm. In 1983 Keith Howes described Terri Gardener as ‘imposing and rosy-cheeked’ and as someone who ‘exudes home-fire warmth and generosity.’ His flat in East London was filled with movie and theatre memorabilia. Greta Garbo was his idol. Terri spoke to Keith about Barri Chatt with love and affection. Their relationship was strictly professional. He told Howes: ‘I feel his presence all the time. Sometimes when I’m about to go out onstage, I’ll say “Dear God, Barri, I need you tonight.”’ Terri died on 15 August 2000 at the age of 80.
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