Musician and gay cruise stalwart Matt Yee dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday December 13, 2023
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Entertainer Matt Yee joined some of his fans on a cruise. Photo: From Matt Yee
Entertainer Matt Yee joined some of his fans on a cruise. Photo: From Matt Yee

Matt Yee, a gay man who performed on gay cruises and in other venues, including San Francisco LGBTQ nightclub Oasis, died December 2 at Queens Medical West in Oahu, Hawaii. He was 64.

Mr. Yee had suffered from liver cancer for the last year, friends said.

Mr. Yee was a well-known fixture on Atlantis gay cruises for more than a decade, where he entertained and played the piano. Monica Mapa, a longtime friend and the sister of gay actor and comedian Alex Mapa, said she misses Mr. Yee.

"He was an exceptional musician," Mapa said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, adding that his sing-a-longs were "outrageous." Indeed, that was the name of one of his acts.

Mapa, a lesbian, said she first met Mr. Yee when she was her brother's plus-one on an Atlantis cruise around 2008. There was a camaraderie between all the performers, she said, and they would often meet in the ship's cafeteria after all the shows at around 1 a.m. for what was known as "French fry o'clock."

One of Mr. Yee's gifts was his humor, Mapa said, and his trademark outfits were muumuus from Hawaii.

"He was not self-conscious about making people laugh," she said.

She said that over the last year, Mr. Yee tried to do as much as possible.

"He went to his college reunion at Dartmouth, he went to Vegas to see Katy Perry," Mapa said. "He kept on sampling life until the end."

Mr. Yee "sailed around the world many, many times," Mapa added. "He also performed on land at Oasis and Martuni's."

D'Arcy Drollinger, the owner of Oasis and San Francisco's first drag laureate, said that Mr. Yee had performed at the club over the years.

"Matt was one of a kind," Drollinger wrote in a text message. "His enthusiasm and high-camp esthetic could turn even the most conservative audience into a raucous party."

Mapa said she last saw Mr. Yee earlier this year.

"I had an unexpected reunion with him in April when I was in New York City and he was there with his husband," Mapa said. "I spent two hours with him in Times Square."

Entertainer Matt Yee loved boas and muumuus. Photo: From Matt Yee  

Jim Gladstone, a friend and freelance arts writer at the B.A.R., described Mr. Yee as a "community builder."

"Matt didn't really draw a line between his fans and his friends," Gladstone wrote in an email. "He was a community builder. If you took the time to engage with him between his performances on a cruise ship, there was a good chance you'd become pals for life. Matt would introduce you to other folks in your city, he'd hang out with you if you visited Honolulu when he was in town, and he'd hit you up for restaurant recommendations when he was headed somewhere he knew you'd visited.

"He was a man of many appetites, but he was hungriest for genuine camaraderie," Gladstone added. "He made life on the road into a moveable feast of friendship."

Mr. Yee grew up in Honolulu where he began playing piano at age 3. He went to Dartmouth College on a vocal music scholarship and then went on to earn a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania, according to information from friends. He practiced as a corporate and real estate attorney briefly before deciding to pursue a career as an entertainer.

"Law practice was about fixing other people's problems," Yee told the B.A.R. in a 2015 article by reporter David-Elijah Nahmod. "I don't even like having problems of my own, so fixing other people's problems wasn't my cup of tea. I'd much rather make people happy by what I do now, creating that environment where people laugh, sing, and just be themselves with everyone else."

In addition to Atlantis cruises, Mr. Yee performed on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Princess ships.

One of his signature performances that he headlined was the campy, adults-only "Outrageous Sing-Along Show" on cruise ships, where his performances often featured drop-in appearances by show business friends including Chita Rivera, Idina Menzel, Patti LuPone, and out comedian Margaret Cho.

In a 2021 B.A.R article by Gladstone, Mr. Yee reflected on how the COVID pandemic brought an abrupt end to his performing because cruise ships were not sailing. That July, Mr. Yee performed at Oasis.

Mr. Yee is survived by his husband, Paul Hannigan, and two younger brothers and their families.

On Facebook, Hannigan posted: "Matt's family and I shall devote the coming days and weeks to quiet remembrance and recovery. In due time we will organize a larger remembrance that we all can share together."

Mapa said she will long treasure her friendship with Mr. Yee.

"His show was about embracing the moment and to be happy, and I think he went out that way," Mapa said.

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