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Farewell to Buffalo's 'grande dame'

Members of Buffalo's gay community have organized two memorial events to honor the life and accomplishments of Daniel Winter, the beloved activist and drag performer who died a week ago at age 77.

The first, a drag show and fundraiser to pay for an engraved brick at the Cheektowaga Hospice facility where Winter died, is slated for 3 p.m. March 11 in the Underground (274 Delaware Ave.). And at 4 p.m. April 21, the communities Winter touched will gather for a celebration in Hamlin House (432 Franklin St.) for a memorial and vaudeville variety show.

Winter's eccentric alter ego, Vicky Vogue, was widely considered the grande dame of Buffalo's community of drag performers. Through a public career that spanned more than 25 years, Vicky Vogue appeared at dozens of gay pride celebrations, cabaret performances, fundraisers and community events -- dressed in increasingly outrageous combinations of loud couture, Max Factor makeup, outsized wigs and enormous glasses.

"There was no self-seriousness whatsoever," said Ron Ehmke, one of several local performers who claim Vogue as a kind of foremother. "It was a sense of total play, playfulness, joy in the act, and a joy that's transmitted to the audience. Whether that audience is sitting down in a cabaret somewhere watching him, or just encountering him on the street at Pride. Everybody would want to find out what he was wearing and just have their moment with him one-on-one, which he would gladly grant."

In a 2004 article in The News, Winter described Vogue this way: "Vicky can be serious, but mostly, she's just a dumb blonde who doesn't miss a trick."

Winter's life was unorthodox from the start. He was born to a large family on Buffalo's East Side and attended Kensington High School. He and his two younger brothers, Joey and Tommy, who were also gay, went out in drag as teenagers.

"This was not understood at all or tolerated in any pleasant way by his father, but his mother, Lillian, used to help them dress a bit, make sure their seams were straight," Winter's longtime friend, Tim Denesha, recalled. "She once said to him, 'I don't understand what it is you are, but I want you to be good at it.' It sounds like a Mae West line."

Later, both of Winter's younger brothers fell into alcoholism and committed suicide as young men -- a burden that weighed heavily on Winter throughout his life and career. Winter also struggled with alcoholism and thoughts of suicide, but managed to fight through it with the help of his second wife, Irene Winter, whom he met in the early 1970s and remained committed to until her death in 2008. Their marriage was far from a traditional one but rather a bond between friends, as Winter continued to have male partners throughout his life.

Winter never went about things the traditional way. In the mid-1960s, Denesha said, he and his partner, Keith, held a commitment ceremony in Buffalo's Unity Church on Delaware Avenue. "Of course it didn't have any legal standing," Denesha said. "But talk about being ahead of your time."

Later, he became the only white member of the Var-Son Community Choir, a gospel choir, and joined the congregation of Cedar Grove Baptist Church.

"He would get his hair dyed jet-black, and he had a permanent so it was real curly. And then he would go to a tanning salon to make his skin darker. There were people who thought he was African-American," Denesha said. "He certainly did not have a boring life."

His first job as a teenager was as a sales clerk in the record department at Sattler's Department Store on Broadway.

"He would watch the customers trying to decide which record to buy, and after they made their choice, he would slide the other records they were looking at into the bag also," Denesha said. "He lasted there about two weeks."

Winter, who is survived by several nieces and nephews, was a member of the Niagara Frontier chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, served on the board of its first gay pride celebration and wrote columns for the defunct newspaper the Fifth Freedom, among other outlets. Fellow Mattachine Society member and close friend Madeline Davis, with whom Winter appears in David Marshall's documentary film "Swimming With Lesbians," remembered him as "a star from pretty much the beginning."

"I would say that Danny and Vicky were two different people who knew each other very well. When Danny put on that makeup and particularly once he got the wig on, his voice changed and the rhythm of his speech changed. He was a little shier as Danny. He was right out there as Vicky," Davis said. "He was funny even when he was not funny."

From 1955 to 1997, Winter worked at Niagara Mohawk (now National Grid) largely as a customer service representative and also worked as a volunteer for Erie County Crisis Services.

As Vicky Vogue, Winter influenced many areas of the city's civic and cultural life. Vicky Vogue was twice named empress of the Imperial Court of Buffalo, a benevolent organization which raises money for AIDS organizations and other charities, and served as grand marshal of the Buffalo gay pride parade in 2006. In 2006, he was honored for his work as an activist and fundraiser by the Empire State Pride Agenda.

His legacy in the drag community will live on in Garrett King (a.k.a. Vanity Vogue), Danny Winter's close friend and Vicky Vogue's protege.

"I did try to fashion myself in many ways after her. Those are some big high-heels to fill, they really are," King said. "Vicky has been instrumental in helping create my own persona. I think that by being a Vogue, I definitely feel that I will make Danny proud."

For Ehmke, along with Danny's many admirers and Vicky Vogue's myriad fans, Winter's death represents a difficult double loss.

"He was who he was and she was who she was, and they were both self-created identities and both really powerful," Ehmke said. "It's kind of like we've lost two really important members of the community."