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FOR DEVOTED FANS, TV'S MR. HUMPHRIES GAYLY FASHIONS A CULTURAL ICON

Coming from our "city of no illusions," no self-respecting Buffalonian would pay $100 to go to an afternoon tea party, even with the queen herself.

Unless it was with fey Mr. Humphries, beloved sales assistant in gentlemen's ready-to-wear, who's always free in the popular Britcom "Are You Being Served?" on WNED-TV.

"He's up there with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, worshiped from afar by one and all," said gay poet Hanna Rogers. Plenty of Western New Yorkers forked over a C-note recently to rub shoulders with the Brit known for his neat little suits and, of course, to contribute to the public broadcasting station's fund-raiser in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

Sharing lots of finger sandwiches and dish puts the gap-toothed Mr. Humphries, aka John Inman, in absolutely the right setting. A true cult figure who has inspired Mr. Humphries parties here in Buffalo and in Britain, he evokes, in the television comedy, the days of genteel downtown department-store retailing.

Actually Inman did get his start in retail. The London-native said his mother used to ask "why don't you get yourself a proper job? Eventually, I decided to take her advice. That's how I ended up in the shop window of Austin Reed's" -- the tony menswear label once tied to Buffalo's garment industry.

But the future Mr. Humphries was not that happy at Austin Reed's. Since age 3, he had wanted to be an artist, and when they "started putting the lights on me and not the mannequin, I thought it was time to leave the world of menswear and go off and do what I really wanted to do," Inman said. Having created the favorite comedy character of the early '90s, he has been mobbed by his American fans.

He recalled one Christmas "doing a spot of toy selling at Selfidge's, the big London store. A friend came in and said (a director) wanted me to work with him. I walked out of Selfridge's and never went back."

Known for his walk -- "like a ballerina walking on hot coals," according to the "Are You Being Served?" companion guide -- Inman, now 64, says he's not camp like Mr. Humphries. He was engaged to be married once, 40 years ago.

"Does that mean because you wear a neat little suit and a tie you must be gay?" he added coyly.

In Buffalo, however, he does demonstrate the Humphries walk, along with signing autographs.

When Mr. Humphries first hit the scene "homosexuality was an incredibly taboo subject," said David Walker, a gay rights-advocate. "People were generally angry that Mr. Humphries had put on women's clothing, or a wig, or something like that. Yet today, nobody would bat an eyelid. Thankfully, things are very different now."

Mr. Humphries, Inman said, "has been very good to me.

"He makes remarks that I wouldn't dare say in real life. Mind you, he's never easy to play.

"It would be easy to go over the top and spoil it altogether."

Buffalo fans make sure to remain free every Saturday and Monday night for Mr. Humphries, because as one put it, he's "an outgoing, friendly extrovert, just as easily hurt as everyone else."

More than 90,000 Western New York and southern Ontario families tune in to see him.

In person as well as at Grace Bros., he's "warm and cordial," concurred Ron Santora, of Buffalo, the WNED program director who escorted Inman around Toronto and Buffalo.

"He's a pure professional, a very, very nice man to work with."

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