from Teased Hair and the Quest for Tiaras
I got out of the cab and walked through the double doors that were propped open. A man sweeping the entrance said hello to me.
“I’m supposed to meet Wendy here,” I said to him.
“They’re in there.” He smiled and went back to sweeping the floor mats.
The Sweet Gum Head. I was walking into this classy club that had only been opened a few months. A show from out of town had been playing here for a short time, but was now gone. It was Danny Windsor’s show with Carmen Del Rio and Micky Martin, entertainers I’d heard of but never seen. I wanted to see the show, but never could afford the convenience of a trip to Cheshire Bridge Road. Yes, even though the club was a few miles from 12th Street, the cab ride, cost of drinks, and the ride home would be far too high on a budget with a zero balance. Even though Larry and Herman had cars that operated on whether their engines would start or not, driving around on someone else’s schedule never seemed to work. Our motto was if we couldn’t walk to it, we usually never got to it.
I strolled past the foyer into the club, my eyes trying to adjust to the darkness inside. The stage lights were on. The bar was in the center of the club. There was balcony seating, side seating, front seating…seating everywhere. The silhouette of black metal railings surrounding the oaken dance floor was just beautiful, I thought to myself. The place was huge. It could seat a hundred, two hundred, maybe a thousand people. Well, maybe not that many. I started to count the tables. I heard voices coming from the balcony.
“Rachel?” the shadow of an approaching figure said to me.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi, I’m Wendy.” The man had the biggest smile. It was as if his grin wrapped entirely around his head. He didn’t look like the drag type. He had a large nose, a big grin, and he, well, he looked like a man. He had a friendly and inviting face.
“How many people can be seated in this place?” I asked.
“Oh, about three hundred, maybe three fifty.”
“It’s pretty big,” I responded, still in awe.
“Well, don’t you worry your pretty little head about how many people we can get in here. We’ll pack the place. You’ll see.”
Others approached us from the darkness of the stairs. I was introduced to Tony Romano, Ted and Don. I didn’t know any of them. They were going to be the male dancers. (I always found that term funny since we were all male dancers). Tony was a singer and British Sterling’s roommate. British was the reigning Miss Gay Atlanta. Apparently, Ted was hired because he was cute and looked good in a tank top. He had a great smile, as well. And Don? Well, Don was a dancer, a real dancer and quite good at it. I thought he looked like Princess Anne. He had an English look about him.
“Hi, I’m Rhonda Blake, and it’s nice to meet you.” I didn’t know Rhonda, but had only heard of him. He was a cute man. Tiny, but cute with petite facial features and a heavy day’s growth of stubble. I wondered how he covered that up.
“Hello,” I’m Rachel, I said still fixated on his thick facial hair.
“Hey! Remember me? Allen?”
“Lavita!” I said. Finally, somebody I knew.
“Yeah, Rachel and I met along time ago before he was Rachel,” Lavita said. “I tried to pick him up at a party at the Kavanaugh mansion, remember that?”
How embarrassing, I thought, to bring that up. I was at one of the Saturday night parties at Richard Kavanaugh’s home. Richard would throw parties and all of his renters (he referred to them as family) and their guests were invited. One evening, Allen had introduced himself to me and then plopped down on the floor next to my chair, put his arm on my leg and then rested his head on his arm, looking straight up at me. At this time in my life, I had space issues, and he was definitely invading my space. He fluttered his eyes at me. Lavita Allen, I thought to myself, is flirting with me. A drag queen is flirting with me. Even though he was out of drag, each time he blinked his eyes, I could see Barbra Streisand looking at me. Now if it had been the real Barbra, well…but it wasn’t. It was a fake Barbra; a good one, but nonetheless, a fake one.
“Oh, you were just pretending to pick me up,” I said.
“No, I wasn’t pretending,” he snapped back while winking at me. “Come on, let me show you the dressing room.”
Lavita and I went upstairs to see the dressing room, and he showed me where my station would be. I was going to have my own dressing area with a makeup table and mirrors, and a rack for my costumes. It was unbelievable, though I kept thinking to myself that I didn’t have anything to put on the rack. All my clothes fit nicely into my bag, and thank goodness for polyester blouses and hot pants that didn’t easily wrinkle.
We had a cast meeting and then a rehearsal. Wendy was the director of the show and laid out the roles and rules that we would be establishing. He was the one who named the show the Red White & Blue Revue. The name didn’t sound too exciting to me, but I was new and what did I know about show names? Nothing. I kept my mouth shut and listened. Wendy would be the Liza Minnelli and Carol Channing of the show, as well as the emcee. Lavita would be doing comedy and the occasional Barbra Streisand act. Rhonda would be the glamour girl, and I would be the newcomer, though I wasn’t sure what that really meant. I was still trying to find my “drag identity” and couldn’t quite put myself into any one role. But one thing was clear. I wouldn’t be doing any of their acts, so there would definitely not be a conflict of interest. We would be working five nights a week, with two shows a night. And we would have rehearsals three days a week to learn production numbers. Of course, being new, I raised my hand and asked what a production number was. Humbly, I quickly learned that a production number was when there was more than one person on stage during an act.
That same day we worked on two production numbers,“Aquarius” from Hair by the Fifth Dimension, and “Millie, Rose and Mame,” a medley by Diana Ross. I had never even heard either of them, so I was learning from scratch. I would be working with pros, but they were nurturing and apparently saw my potential. But even then, I was still intimidated. After about three hours of hard work, we called it a day. It was Wednesday and the new show was to start the next Tuesday. We discussed rehearsing everyday before the opening day. I was okay with that, but I was concerned about the cab fare to and from the club. I was barely making do with one show a night and waiting tables at the Light House. I called Wendy to the side as we were wrapping up.
“Wendy, I have a small problem.”
“You don’t like the production numbers?” he said jokingly.
“No, those are great.” I was so embarrassed. “I can’t afford to take the cab every day to come to rehearsals. I live on 12th Street and my roommates have cars but I can’t always depend, you know…”
“That’s not a problem. Either Lavita or I can pick you up every day and take you back home if you don’t have a ride. We live near Little Five Points. We’ll just have to take a different way, but it’s not that far. Now, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.” As he reached up and gently twisted my nose, I had a feeling that I would be hearing that saying quite often.
“I don’t mean to put you out,” I said.
“It’s not a problem, so hush.”
“And one more thing.” I never found the right time during our cast meeting and rehearsal to ask about money, but I thought this was as good a time as any. “What is the pay?” I asked sheepishly.
“Oh, we’re getting paid twenty-five a night, but since you’re new, you’re working for free.” He saw the shocked look on my face. “Gotcha!” he said. “We’re all making twenty-five a night, plus tips. And that includes you. Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I replied in a daze. I was doing the math in my head. Five times twenty-five is…fuck! I’m rich! I’m fucking rich! Wait till Herman hears about this.
* * *
The first week of the show went as expected with good crowds and wonderful responses to our format. I heard that our show lacked the Vegas style glamour that Danny Windsor’s show had, but there would soon be a spontaneity with the show that would be found nowhere else. In other words, our show would be different every single night, and not even we would be able to predict the makeup of the show from one number to the next. There would always be a surprise, and that would be primarily due to Lavita and Wendy’s whimsical nature and personalities. The shows would be fun for the audience and more importantly, for us as cast members.
I was overwhelmed the first week, not only with the rigors of performing every night, but with the lack of numbers to rotate so that I wasn’t doing the same routines every evening. The audience was very mixed, but with a larger number of lesbians, a first for me to entertain. They were quite different in many ways than the male audiences, and thank goodness for that. They preferred real, whereas most of the guys were looking at the dresses and hairstyles, preferring glamour.
I was also a bit disappointed with the responses to my acts. Almost everyone in the audience had no idea who I was. What little fan club I had was still in Midtown or somewhere back in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood, so even as I walked through the audience between numbers, everyone was a stranger. It was a challenge to be working with well known entertainers when I was the least known, or in this case, not known. I felt overly scrutinized, and the first week was difficult. I pondered on a gimmick or some way to stand out so that people might remember me or at least talk about me. In Midtown, our gang was recognized, and if not admired or loathed, at least they knew who we were. I needed something. The right number, the perfect costume, maybe new hair. Just something. My hot pants, tied up shirt and laced up boots would be an image that wouldn’t last long on the big stage.
The Friday of the second weekend after our show opened, Larry and I went to Lenox Mall. It was still more of a strip mall then, but nonetheless, I had been paid and I was looking for a new outfit for the weekend and Lenox was the place to go. We just happened to walk by a pet store when I saw the cutest puppy in the window.
“Larry, it’s so adorable,” I said touching the puppy through the window. “Let’s go inside.”
We walked around in the store, fighting the urge to take home a kitten or puppy, when I saw a boa constrictor. It hit me right then and there. A boa constrictor in my act.
“Have you lost your mind?” Larry asked as if I really had gone loony.
“It’s perfect!” I said. “There’s a song called Jungle Fever and this would be perfect with it.” Larry stared at me.
“And where you gonna keep it?”
“In the apartment. Where else?” There was a pause and Larry rolled his eyes like there would be no need to dispute my decision. He had known me long enough to know that if I had made up my mind, there was no going back.
We soon departed the store with a six foot boa constrictor all coiled up in a burlap bag. We then proceeded through the mall to find the music and then cloth for the costume, all along with the snake in the bag as if it were no big deal to go shopping with a boa. No one questioned what was in the bag that I clutched to my side. We rushed home were I spent a short time learning the song…it was mostly moans and groans, and then I ripped the material into strips to make a Raquel Welch style prehistoric costume.
Herman was petrified knowing there was a snake in the apartment. Larry was not too comfortable with the idea either. And for me, I didn’t like snakes, nor did I dislike them. I was also terrified and I peaked in the bag every now and then, making eye contact with the beady-eyed creature. Am I really going to do this, I’d ask myself. What if that fucker bites my hand? Would it hurt? Would it let go?
That night I kept my act a secret. Number one, I didn’t want to alarm anyone that there was a snake in the dressing room, not sure of the panic that it might create; and secondly, I wanted it to be a surprise. I wanted to shock.
I was backstage holding the burlap bag waiting for my music to start. I should have been trying to go over the words to the song in my head, or making sure my new costume was covering all that needed to be covered. Instead, I was standing there building up the nerve to put my hand in the bag and pull the snake out. Hell, I hadn’t even rehearsed what I’d do with the reptile once I got it out of the bag.
The music started, and without hesitation I put my hand in the bag, pulled out the snake, and proceeded to sashay my way onto the stage. The crowd went wild. The adrenaline was running through my body. I had not rehearsed this, so suddenly I found myself improvising a snake act. For some reason, I quickly put the snake’s head into my mouth thinking it might look erotic. I was about to gag from the thought of what I was doing. More applause. Then I came close to the front of the stage, held the creature by the tail, and then began slinging the poor boa as if it were a lasso. Patrons in the front row were on the floor, scared out of their wits, their heads bobbing and ducking as I made circles with what I’m sure was a dizzy and confused snake. I soon returned to the center of the back stage to hit my final pose. The number was over. The audience wanted more, so I did a short encore.
When I finally returned to the side stage to get my breath, I put the snake into its bag and tied it up. My first thought was that I had put its nasty head into my mouth and I began to spit on the floor. My second thought was I did it. I got their attention. Now they would talk about me. And they did.
In the 1970’s, J.R. Greenwell was a premiere headliner for many years at the Sweet Gum Head in Atlanta, GA, and performed as a female illusionist across the country. He later earned a Masters of Education at the University of Louisville, and now devotes his time as a queer writer creating plays and prose at his home in central Kentucky. He is the author of a memoir, Teased Hair and the Quest for Tiaras, and a collection of short fiction, Who the Hell is Rachel Wells? For more information on J.R. Greenwell visit his Web sit at http://www.jrgreenwellmga79.com/.
Copyright © J.R. Greenwell.
Reprinted by permission of the author.