BEVERLY HILLS -- A wrongful arrest years ago in New York for impersonating a woman led Robin Tyler to becoming the best female impersonator of her time – yes, she really was a woman, a leading gay rights activist and a career in show business.
“I did Judy Garland, and I could really sing like her,” says Tyler. “But the guys in the show had to show me how to walk in (high) heels.”
On the other side of the country, the granddaughter of a former governor of California, Diane Olson was born into a life of privilege in Beverly Hills that could have led to debutante ball and society circles.
“My grandfather was the first Democratic governor of California,” says Olson. “He was progressive and ran on the platform of separation of church and state.”
On Monday, their two unlikely paths led to history when they became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California – the result of their lawsuit that knocked down the state’s laws against gay marriage.
Tyler, 66, and Olson, 54, who share a home in North Hills in the San Fernando Valley were married shortly after 5 p.m. by Rabbi Denise Eger in a Jewish ceremony on the front steps of the Beverly Hills courthouse where they were denied a marriage license each Valentine’s Day each of the last eight years.
Technically, they shared the moment of being the first same-sex couple to marry in California with Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon who were married also shortly after 5 p.m. in San Francisco by Mayor Gavin Newsom.
The two couples were allowed to marry on the eve of when the state begins to issue marriage licenses to same-sex partners because of their unique roles in lawsuits from Los Angeles and San Francisco that led to last month’s Supreme Court decision declaring the ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.
Their landmark marriages took place even as opponents of same-sex marriage, including Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese and other religious leaders, objected with their belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
On Tuesday, hundreds of same-sex couples are expected to jam courthouses in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other counties applying for marriage licenses, with many of them also marrying that day.
Among those will be actor George Takei, who best known for his role as helmsman Hikaru Sulu on “Star Trek,” and his partner Brad Altman. They will help open the wedding license facility in West Hollywood, where hundreds of couples are expected to get their licenses and marry Tuesday.
But on Monday it wa the two early marriages that stole the thunder.
Wearing identical three-piece, cream-colored suits, Tyler and Olson exchanged vows before a throng of relatives, friends, supporters, on-lookers and a national news media spotlight.
As the days counted down to when they could marry, the two San Fernando Valley women captured most of the focus in large part because of their backgrounds.
Tyler, a former comedienne and national gay rights activist who organized three national gay rights movement marches on Washington, D.C. Olson, the granddaughter of Culbert Levy Olson, governor of California from 1938 to 1942.
Understandably, in the days just before the long-awaited ceremony, they became slightly irritated at some of spotlight they found bothersome.
“Is there this much attention paid to what heterosexual couples (who are marrying) are wearing? The cake they’re ordering? The flowers?” Tyler asked about all the questions on their wedding arrangements.
Assured that there is similar curiosity about all weddings, Tyler softened.
“Well, okay,” she said. “I guess it is kinda big.”
But there were also some funny moments.
When a reporter for a Jewish publication seemed curious that she was marrying a non-Jew, asking questions such as whether they had a mezuzah on their front door and whether she believed in intermarriage, Tyler shot back:
"If women want to marry men, it's perfectly okay with me!"
“Stupid, I'm not,” says Tyler. “I knew this was about Diane not being Jewish. But I quickly told him, ‘We both believe in a higher power.”
Tyler’s name at birth was Chernick, which she says she changed when “I was in teens so my mother wouldn't know I was performing on high holidays.”
Both women also were supported by their families in their wedding day.
Tyler’s brother Robert Chernick and his wife Maureen came into town days earlier and rode on a float with the bridal couple in the Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade.
“They dressed as California Supreme Court justices and held up our hands in victory,” says Tyler. “Yes, we wore tuxedos, and they had signs saying "Supreme Court" hanging around their necks. Believe it or not, several gay people asked them for autographs.”
Also attending the wedding were Diane's sister, Debra Olson, and Debra's grown daughters, Chrysta and Kaitlyn.
It was Debra Olson who introduced Tyler to her sister almost four decades ago, and the two later become close friends and developed a relationship 15 years ago.
“She was sober, and in the program for many years,” says Tyler. “I began going to 12 steps meetings with her, and gave up drinking. We fell in love. But we had known each other well and been friends for years.”
For Tyler, her wedding day was a long way from the trauma in 1962 of getting arrested in a New York gay club and, she says, arrested by police who mistake her for a woman dressed as a man and charge her with violating the cross-dressing laws on the books at the time.
From jail, Tyler says, she called the New York tabloids with her story, ultimately becoming a cause celeb and attracting the attention of a local drag club owner who hired her to impersonate Judy Garland, who was a heartthrob of the gay nightclub crowd.
“I looked like her,” says Tyler, showing a visitor to her office photographs from that period showing a remarkable resemblance to the entertainment icon. “This wasn’t lip-syncing. The club had a 15-piece orchestra, and I could sing like her.”
She breaks into what is still a respectable Judy Garland vocal riff and for further proof shows off a video of her impersonation.
For her part, Olson just smiles and enjoys the moment. She is friendly but reserved.
“Because Diane is soft spoken she has never been on the front lines of the gay movement but always on the sidelines, totally supportive,” says Tyler.
“She never used her political pedigree about being Culbert Levy Olson's granddaughter, but when we sued to get married, she decided to make it public, because he ran on the platform of 'separation of church and state.' She turned to me and said, ‘Go for it.’”