Danny La Rue, 81, a popular female impersonator who was the first man to take the lead role in a major production of Hello, Dolly!, died Sunday.

Mr. La Rue, who preferred to be described as a "comic in a frock," died at his home in Kent County, south of London, after a short illness, his spokeswoman, Pat Lake-Smith, said Monday. He had cancer.

Born Daniel Patrick Carroll in Cork, Ireland, Mr. La Rue lived from the age of 9 in London, where his widowed mother ran a dress shop.

Mr. La Rue first donned a dress to entertain fellow sailors while he was serving in the Royal Navy at the end of World War II. Back on land, he toured Britain in variety shows before breaking into London's then-thriving cabaret scene.

Mr. La Rue - he had wanted to adopt the stage name Danny Street, but found it taken and opted for the French translation - soon gained fame for his impersonations of divas, including Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of Britain's highest-paid entertainers. - AP