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Are today’s drag fans less into Vancouver’s drag court protocols?

Drag may be everywhere but Coronation Ball attendance was low, says QQ

Vancouver’s Empress XLIV Babette Co-Taylor, crowed March 14, wants to bring diversity back to drag shows. “I want to have drag performers, transgender, bi, straight, gay, live singers, comedians — I want to help the community remember that we’re all one,” she says. Credit: Victor Bearpark

In the past year or two I have sensed something of a drag renaissance happening in Vancouver.  In fact, drag is bustin’ out all over.

There have been drag shows in our town since at least the ’50s when the likes of Lee Leonard, Skip Arnold, and other stars of the Kansas City Jewel Box Revue and New Orleans’ Club My-o-My sashayed across the stages of the Smilin’ Buddha and the New Delhi Cabaret, but things really got going in 1969 when Dee Dee Ambrose headlined the opening of Champagne Charlie’s on Davie at Seymour.

My elderly peers and I may be forgiven if we feel that the ’70s were a sort of golden age of drag in Vancouver, if you consider this:

On a typical Saturday night in 1970-something, grinding out $20 a week as the gay gossip columnist for then-underground Georgia Straight, I might start my evening, after a beery afternoon at the Castle and the Ambassador, with the first show of the night at Charlie’s, enjoying the comic antics of Jamie Stevens and Stella Mae. A power walk would take me down Seymour Street to the Thunderbird for Starlette’s first set, then a quick hop over to The August for ted northe and Bill Harvey’s latest production. I could then choose between dashing back to Granville Street to catch Bobbie Callicoatte at Phase III or down the hill to BJ’s on Pender Street to wrap up the evening with Sandy St Peters, Mona Lee, and Charity.

Yes, that’s five, count ’em five, drag shows in one night.

Eat your heart out Peter Breeze!

The 1980s and ’90s saw a diminishing number of venues and a trend away from the big production numbers to more solo performance sets. There were always shining lights like Stefanie Blaze, Willie Taylor, Joan-E and others who kept the art alive, but it was nothing like when we were kids.

That seems to be changing, have you noticed?  Drag is everywhere you look. In neighbourhood bistros in New Westminster, on trolley tours of seasonal light displays, at the Christmas Craft Market, and wherever there’s a few square inches of floor space at seedy old beer parlours like The Cobalt, re-invented cafeterias like The Junction, or chi-chi cocktail lounges like 1181 and Lux Lounge.

Most of this excitement goes on well after my bedtime, but a few months ago I resolved to step out of my sleepytime zone and asked Oliv and Dave Davey Decarlo if we could make up a party to attend a show at the Cobalt where Peach Cobblah had been creating a scene in more ways than one. We teamed up with Leada Stray and Peeka Boo Northe and headed across the viaduct for a midnight show.

There I found that La Cobblah is giving things a new spin, a bit punk, a bit circus, and while guest star Wendy Ho’s big number, “Shit My Pants and Shake It Out The Leg,” with accompanying leg gestures to illustrate, may not have been much to my taste, the crowded dance floor loved it.

It was no Shirley Bassey’s “My Life,” but that was then and this is now. 

Taking pity on old drag fans, The Unstoppable Conni Smudge (apparently the adjectival title is now obligatory) has launched a successful Bruncheon at the Junction on Hot Fudge Sundays at the very civilized hour of 11am. That I can handle.

Alongside this apparent upsurge of men in dresses, we have just been through the season of the Ball, with a variety of events surrounding the annual coronation of Vancouver’s new Empress, where this year Babette Co-Taylor was crowned March 14.

With attendance in the low three figures, Vancouver’s Coronation Ball and pre-ball pep rally Ball Fever have become a sad shadow of the celebrations that once saw more than 1,000 queens, consorts, and camp followers jam The Commodore and frighten the neighbours on the Mall.

I can’t explain this contrast between the growing interest in drag and the apparent decline of the “official” drag court and all its trappings, but one long-time community member who was there at the creation of the court system, Jamie Lee Hamilton, posted this after the Coronation affair:

“I know people in the Court try hard, but they need to change things. Our community is huge and if a properly produced Drag Ball was offered up with production numbers and professionally hired entertainers I suspect that Vancouverites would flock to this event again. But it just seems the people running things are content with what they have. Too bad, because our community loses when only 100 people attend, because money from ticket sales goes to charities. If we don’t push for change the 100 people now attending will become even fewer, and I believe none of us want to see this happen.”

I think Jamie Lee is right. If the Dogwood Monarchist Society wants to survive they will have to find a way to engage a generation of dragsters who find the old pretentions and protocols tiresome.

But have no fear that QQ will try to relive his glory days keeping up with the drag scene. I need my sleep. 

Kevin Dale McKeown was Vancouver’s first out gay columnist, penning QQ Writes . . . Page 69 for the Georgia Straight through the early 1970s. Contact him at stillqq@dailyxtra.com.

Editors note: This column was corrected on April 28, 2015 to correctly attribute the Coronation quote to Jamie Lee Hamilton.

This story is filed under News & Ideas, Drag, Vancouver, Opinion
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