Monday, Aug. 28, 2006 | 7:22 a.m.
Their cat fight became a Las Vegas legend. Hiss. Poke. Two top female impersonators taking shots at each other. Jab. Hiss. Joan Rivers verbally pulling Barbra Streisand's hair. Hiss. Claw. Dueling drag queens: The media loved it and fed their feud. Hiss. For 21 years.
But Frank Marino and Kenny Kerr finally buried the hatchet, and now they're enjoying the double takes from a public that assumed they hate each other's guts.
"Now I enjoy walking into a club, saying hello to Kenny and watching jaws drop," Marino says.
Kerr continues: "I tell people we're registered at Tiffany's, and we're picking out our china pattern."
Shoulder to shoulder in a booth at a Strip restaurant, the entertainers behave nothing like Hatfields and McCoys. They've just eaten a dinner together, one of several they've shared since their reconciliation a few weeks ago. They're talking like old friends - finishing each other's thoughts as they look back on their famous feud.
"As you get older, you realize how unimportant little things like that are," the 42-year-old Marino says. "That five-minute high you get from the cattiness is ridiculous. I decided I could be using the energy for good and not bad."
Kerr, 53, concurs. "What Frank says about the energy it takes to be bitter is true. I would rather use that energy in a positive way."
The clash of egos began shortly after Marino arrived in 1985 to head the cast of "La Cage" at the Riviera.
Kerr was already a firmly established local performer. He'd arrived in 1977, and his revue, "Boy-lesque," became one of the most popular shows in town. It ran at the Silver Slipper for 13 years until the casino closed in 1989 and then at the Sahara, Stardust and other locations until the late '90s.
For the first few weeks the two got along fabulously, even going out to dinner on occasion.
"I looked up to Kenny," Marino says. "He had this established show, and I really liked him."
But then, others got involved.
"It was the media," Marino says. "Some reporters and columnists in town started spreading rumors. That started it."
The he-she said, he-she said went on for more than 20 years.
"The media loved the fact that there were two drag shows in town," Marino says. "The animosity and the miscommunications came through them. They played off the cattiness.
"People caused it, and we played into it."
Their fights were never vicious, more like the barbs that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby aimed at each other. Only Marino and Kerr had more sting.
"Once I said to the audience about Kenny that I thought he was so old he was starting to get senile, but he probably would never forget where he was when Lincoln was shot," Marino says.
Kerr recalls telling audiences if he couldn't remember one of his jokes he would just "point my microphone toward the Riviera."
Marino refused to go to the Golden Wig Awards, held at the Gipsy nightclub in an area known as the Gay Triangle. He says, "I told them I didn't want to be involved with it if the Wicked Witch was going to be there." Kerr bought a doll of the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz" and sent it to Marino's dressing room.
The two performers used to share hairdressers, makeup artists and designers, and the assistants fueled the feud, telling each headliner what the other was rumored to have said behind his back.
"We were both very young at the time," Marino says. "You believed the media and what others were saying. You even started to believe your own press."
Over the years, the two kept taking pot shots.
"It wasn't like church," Marino says. "We didn't turn the other cheek."
But when they bumped into each other in public or at social events they were polite. "We were very cordial whenever we met," Kerr says. During one five-year stretch that was fairly often since Kerr was dating a member of Marino's family.
Observers assumed they hated each other, but that wasn't the case.
"It's not like we were sitting back plotting things," Kerr says.
The two never saw each other as competitors. Marino says. "In fact there is more in common between us than not."
"Onstage, we do two different things," Kerr says. "His humor is different from mine."
Kerr is noted for his vocals and his off-color humor. Marino is an emcee whose jokes are clean enough for the whole family.
When Marino fought with "La Cage" producer Norbert Aleman last year, Kerr was poised to take over as star of the show. "I had a signed contract," Kerr says. But Aleman and Marino patched up their differences and the change in headliners never materialized.
Instead, the years of disparaging remarks came to an end. A mutual friend took Marino to catch Kerr's new show at the Suede Restaurant & Lounge. Afterward, they sat and talked for an hour and a half. They've become friends, going to dinner, bowling and chatting whenever schedules allow.
Kerr plays Suede on Fridays and Saturdays and performs around the country during the week. Later this year, he'll be starring in "Copycats," a new show under development in Palm Springs, Calif.
When Marino was feuding with his producer, he said he was going to open his own show. Now, he says he'll retire when his contract with "La Cage" is up in four years.
"Everything that has gone on is in the past," he says. "Where I am is a very good place. I'm happy to be in the show, I'm happy to be friends with Kenny, I'm happy with my entire cast and the producer, and I hope the future stays positive for me."
Would Kerr and Marino ever perform together?
"We hope to do a charity show around Christmas," Kerr says. "We're just now discussing what we want to do."
What they won't be doing is fighting.
"It takes a lot of energy to be catty and have animosity," Marino says. "Why waste the time?"
"And it makes you look ugly," Kerr says.