is a city of drag queens and kings. Drag is popular in DC.
By the late 90s, Washington, DC had nearly 40 weekly drag shows, more than
New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta or LA. The
Drag Rag, a short-lived periodical of the late 90s, chronicled
the city’s drag scene.
is the town where Avis Pend’avis, founder of New York’s famous House of
Pend’avis got her start and learned her art. DC’s impresario female
impersonators created the first gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered
social and support group. In the 30s and 40s, Louis ‘the Magnificent’
Diggs entertained at what is now Bohemian Caverns. The irrepressible
Ray Bourbon captivated audiences at the Redskin Lounge on L St NW.
The Jewel Box Review, Craig Russell, Dame Edna, RuPaul and others have
followed those leads.
shows have been major entertainment here for decades. Their performers
have led the fundraising for community organizations and continue to raise
funds for each other when illness or bad luck strikes. Washington’s
Academy has made an indelible mark on the development of drag, training
its leaders and giving structure to an often disparate community.
the 60s, a Washingtonian seeking to express an alternated drag persona
could often only express his or her drag persona in private. Though
drag was not illegal in Washington, there were few opportunities for public
drag apart from Halloween revels. Major hotels would not rent space
for drag events. Clubs wouldn’t allow customers in drag. The
one refuge was private drag house parties, private drag balls at clubs
hired for the purpose, and private drag cruises on the Potomac.
Halloween at the Chicken
Hut, Mame Dennis with Howard Cooper the pianist
regular house parties became institutionalized as drag ‘houses’ and ‘families’.
The leader, or ‘mother’, often provided not only the opportunity for parties
but also instruction and mentoring in the arts of make-up, selecting clothes,
lip-synching, portraying a personality, walking, and related skills.
Those taught became ‘drag daughters’, who in turn mentored others, creating
entire ‘drag families’. Drag houses became the first social
support groups in the city’s gay and lesbian community. House names
often came from addresses of the house ‘mother’, such as Mother Billy Bonhill’s
Belmont House at 15th and Belmont NW, or associations with the ‘mother’s’
chosen personality, as Mame Dennis’s Beekman Place.
Kress created the city’s first drag organization based in large part on
those attending parties at his Hollywood House. Kress, better known
as Liz Taylor, noted “I strived to mold an elite group of people
whose social life would center around drag.” In the late summer of 1961,
Liz Taylor organized a group to make annual awards, called “Oscars” recognizing
female impersonations. The first Oscars awards came in 1962:
Best Actor and Best Actress. Leading local female impersonator, Jerry Buskirk,
aka Beulah transformed Ken Frye’s Costume Ball into the Miss Gaye
America title in 1962. The Miss Gaye Universe title was first awarded
in 1965 by the Oscars group.
Liz Taylor at home
the 60s, Washington’s Buskirk, Alan Kress, Alex Carlino (aka Fanny Brice),
Carl Rizzi (aka Mame Dennis), Mark Stewart (aka Patty Duke)
in Baltimore, and Ken White (aka Black Pearl), emerged as leading
figures in the drag community. As the community of female impersonators,
or ‘drags’, grew and staged annual competitions, these leaders became mothers
of their own houses: Fanny Brice led Henry Street, Mame Dennis led Beekman
Place, Beulah led Family Affair, Liz Taylor led Butterfield 8, Patty Duke
led Maryland House, and Kim Novak led Paramount Plaza.
in the mid-60s split the Oscars group. Withdrawing from Taylor’s
Oscars in 1965, Beulah Buskirk created the Awards Club with its own Emmy
awards. Mame Dennis’s Beekman Place and Brice’s Henry Street joined
the Awards Club.
for drag shows and competitions were a constant challenge in the 1960s.
The Uptown Lounge sponsored monthly drag contests, an event later duplicated
at Johnnie’s on Capitol Hill. Chunga’s drag shows at the Golden Key
Club in North Beach, MD were a popular Sunday event. The major hotels’
resistance to drag events was not broken until February 1968 when African-American
drag impresario Black Pearl staged the gala Black Pearl International Awards
at the Washington Hilton. It was the drag event of the year.
African American drag artists in the mid-60s, Bob’s Inn on upper 14th St.
NW became a performance site. Rosetta Minor’s ‘Black’ Nugget club
at 14th and Chapin NW was one of the few clubs to provide a haven for African
American drag queens and transgendered people. African American social
clubs also provided a private outlet for drag with drag fashion shows and
70s liberated local drag with an explosive increase in clubs featuring
drag shows. For club owners, drag entertainment offered an inexpensive
way to draw customers: performers provided their own costumes, make-up,
and music; the clubs provided space and a sound system. For female
illusionists the clubs offered a performance space and an enthusiastic
public. Clubs rarely paid performers. Drag stars collected their
‘coins’ (tips) from the audience.
1973, club-owner Bill Oates brokered creation of the Academy
Awards, a reunion of drag houses from both the Oscars group and the
Awards Club. The Awards Club itself and its Emmy awards continued as an
independent organization through 1988. The Academy Awards (now The Academy
of Washington) began a period of creative expansion. It created its own
performance space, Oscar’s Eye, on the third floor of Louie’s club at 9th
and Pennsylvania Ave. NW. The Academy also played a major role in
staging events at Washington’s gay cabaret, Waaay Off Broadway.
The Academy's Houses in 1976
club venues drew some of organized drag’s most talented performers to headline
shows. Many of these headliners learned their skills in the Oscars
group, the Awards Club and later the Academy. Club shows, such as
those at Bachelor’s Mill, Mr. P’s, Nob Hill, the Rogue, Remington’s, and
Ziegfeld’s, became training grounds for club performers. Among leading
club drag mothers, many veterans of the Oscars and the Awards Club houses,
were Adrienne Blackwell (Nob Hill), Xavier Bloomingdale (Mr. P’s and Club
Chaos), Ella Fitzgerald (Plus One, the Rogue, the Other Side, Ziegfeld’s),
Erica Kane (Mr. P’s), Sparkle Maharris (Rascal’s), Tina Santana, and Dana
Terrell. Each trained and mentored upcoming performers, many of whom
took the drag mother’s surname.
the 80s and 90s, drag specialized. Clubs oriented to specific interests
emerged. African American performers and customers frequented the
Nob Hill and Bachelor’s Mill clubs. Lesbian clubs, the Other Side and Élan,
offered drag evenings. In the 90s, Latino audiences and performers attended
shows at Escandalo/Deco Cabano, Ardiente, and Chaos. Drag clubs with
a country-western flavor have included Remington’s, Sheridan’s, the
Hunt Club and Freddie’s.
multiple club and hotel venues for drag came club and city-wide drag titles.
In the 70s and 80s the proliferation of club drag sites spawned multiple
club contests. The city’s annual Pride fest also added an annual
drag title in the 90s.
DC soon became a major participant in national drag pageants. Marc
King organized citywide preliminary titles for the Miss Gay DC pageant,
itself a preliminary for the national Miss Gay America title, one of the
country’s major drag pageant circuits. A number of club and other
local pageant titles such as Miss Bachelor's Mill, Miss Ziegfeld's, and
Miss Sweetheart have been preliminaries for the city title.
local performers have held the Miss Gay America title since 1998: Maya
Montana, Linda Carrero, and Sabrina White. There are now annual pageant
circuits for Latino performers, African American performers, and preliminaries
for other national pageant circuits. The Carrero (drag) sisters, Linda
and Sophia Carrero, created a local pageant circuit for Latino female impersonators.
has become a city of drag kings in the past decade. In 1996, Cheryl
Spector and the Lesbian Avengers inspired the first Drag King contest at the Hung Jury. In
the decade since, DC’s Club Chaos has hosted first Wednesday drag king
shows, one of the country’s longest running drag king events. With leadership
from Kendra Kuliga, aka Ken Las Vegas, the city has developed its
own drag king circuit.
drag community has always been a major fundraiser for the GLBT community.
Fanny Brice’s Showstoppers show raised funds for many city events and GLBT
institutions. The Academy itself has raised thousands of dollars
for its own members and for GLBT organizations and is a partner with the
leather community in the Brother, Help Thyself foundation. Club drag
shows have also raised funds for ailing performers and for city organizations.