MUSKEGON, MI -- The beloved entertainer who added some Hollywood glamour to the Muskegon area passed away Saturday.
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Danny Windsor, who was 86, is being remembered for his role as a flying monkey and for his impersonations of women in show business.
Danny Windsor, a song-and-dance man and drag performer who as an adolescent appeared as a winged monkey in the classic 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz," died Jan. 19.
“You would be hard pressed to find anybody in Muskegon who didn’t know him,” said his good friend Debra Brown Hendrickson, who is also serving as the executor of his will. The two first met in the mid-1990s at a local bookstore event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of L. Frank Baum’s "The Wizard of Oz" and remained close friends until the end of Windsor’s life.
The story is that Windsor got his big break in 1939 while working on another show on the MGM lot. When one of the actors playing a flying monkey showed up intoxicated to the "Wizard of Oz" set, the production crew “put him in the harness because he could fit in it, that’s what he always told me,” said Brown Hendrickson.
He only worked three days on the set of "The Wizard of Oz" and appeared in the film as one of the winged apes that scoops up Toto in the forest. During an onstage interview with his friend Ron Gossett following "An Evening with Danny Windsor" performance at the Beardsley Theater in March of 2007, Windsor revealed that the stories surrounding his involvement with the production had been slightly exaggerated.
"Somehow it got reported that I was the monkey who flew away with Toto," Windsor said. "Really, there were several of us."
Windsor spent the majority of his adult life in Muskegon, but he was born during the Roaring Twenties in Santa Barbara, Calif. Raised by parents who were vaudeville entertainers, Windsor caught the performing bug early and was signed up as a child contract player and dancer for MGM.
“His grandmother started him when he was 10 or 12 years old,” said Brown Hendrickson. “And he was 13 when he played the flying monkey.”
When the Americans entered World War II in the 1940s, Windsor joined the military and was stationed on the island of Guam where he showed off his comedic skills in shows for fellow soldiers.
“When he got out of the military he had a vaudeville act called Doodles and Spider, it was him and a friend,” said Brown Hendrickson. The vaudeville show included “some comedy and some song and dance” and he performed in major cities across North America including Atlantic City, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Toronto, as an opening for more well-known celebrities.
Of all the famous showbiz women Windsor impersonated in his long running stage career, he was most well known for his spot-on Ethel Merman impersonation.
In the 1960s he came to Muskegon to perform at Northway Lanes, which brought in nationally known entertainers back then. "Danny came in to (Muskegon) to do a show and he really enjoyed the area and eventually moved here," she said.
One of the things that Windsor was known for was doing impersonations of famous showbiz women including a dead-on Ethel Merman. Windsor started performing the drag act in the 1970s and he continued doing the act until he was in his early 80s.
“He did that act quite frequently in Muskegon over the years,” said Brown Hendrickson. In addition to Merman, his act included impersonations of other notable showbiz women like Dorothy Squires, Totie Fields, and a character he called "Disco Dolly."
“It’s a long life and it’s a varied life,” said Brown Hendrickson about her friend. “It’s interesting. The neatest part about him as a showbiz person is he was a very kind and generous person. For the last 13 years before he had his stroke, he worked as a greeter at Meijer.”
Before suffering a stroke and moving into a nursing home in 2009, Windsor regularly demonstrated his hospitality and his exuberance for people and food by throwing lavish dinner parties.
Not only did he feed people at his house but, according to Brown Hendrickson, he would bring food that he had personally prepared to people all over Muskegon, whether it was the post office, the bank, Meijer or The Muskegon Chronicle.
In 2008, Danny Windsor acted opposite his longtime friend, Betsy Palmer in A.R. Gurney's play "Love Letters" at the Beardsley Theater (Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts).
Despite being a lifelong stage performer and an entertaining MC at various events and fundraisers in the Muskegon area, it was "The Wizard of Oz" that would always remain his calling card. Brown Hendrickson describes how he would he would faithfully sign autographs for "Wizard of Oz" fans near and far.
“People mailed him requests weekly from all over the world asking him to sign something from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” said Brown Hendrickson. “It’s a phenomenon like nothing you would ever imagine.”
“He loved to perform. An audience of one was not too small for him,” said Brown Hendrickson. “He was very much an arts person and a showbiz person and he made an effort to give back to the community. He was just a presence in this town and he brought a little bit of showbiz to Muskegon.”
Danny Windsor's big scene in "The Wizard of Oz" was the sequence where the flying monkeys ambush Dorothy and her companions in the woods. Check out the video clip below:
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