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Before there were circuit parties…

The DMS' annual coronation balls reigned supreme

STEEPED IN TRADITION: 'Steve and I want to put our own stamp on the reign, but both of us really value the history of the DMS and aspire to honouring it by being very involved and visible in the commu Credit: Rosamond Norbury photo

Ambassadors from drag courts across North America converged in Vancouver Mar 4 to honour our outgoing monarchs, witness the coronation of the 35th Empress and 33rd Emperor of Vancouver, and bow to the local courts’ tradition of… partying their asses off.

To thunderous applause, glamourpuss Jaylene took the evening’s main prize-the empress’ crown, fantastically set in a dogwood pattern of glittering Austrian crystals soaring nearly a foot tall. It’s a mighty weight but nothing compared to the historic responsibility that now rests on her and her emperor’s shoulders.

For the next year, Empress Jaylene and Emperor Steve Lobsinger will be expected to fulfill a hectic schedule of fundraising and court activities, and find time to represent Vancouver’s Dogwood Monarchist Society (DMS)-one of the “big four” in a drag court system spanning 70 cities from Edmonton to New York to Mexico-at as many coronations as they can travel to.

“Steve and I want to put our own stamp on the reign, but both of us really value the history of the DMS and aspire to honouring it by being very involved and visible in the community,” says Empress Jaylene.

The newly crowned monarchs will soon sit down with the DMS executive to map out their year in terms of goals and how to achieve them.

If you’ve never been to a Coronation Ball, you’re missing something extraordinary. It’s an event nearly as old as Vancouver’s organized gay community, steeped in tradition and outrageous pomp and circumstance. It also marks the start of another year of fundraising to benefit Vancouver’s gay community.

The balls are a major source of hilarious stories. Ask a queen about the massive food fight that erupted at the second ball (now known as the Potato Salad Brawl) over a balloting impropriety; or about the two feuding queens forced to sit at the same table in order to plug their electric headdresses in; or about the time the court entourage flew en masse to another city with the local baseball team.

Vancouver is considered one of the birthplaces of the drag court system, along with San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. To this day, our monarchs are known far and wide as having held some of the biggest and best balls on the circuit.

The balls were a precursor to today’s circuit parties-extravaganzas which were planned to the last detail to shock, or at least awe, each other and the civilians who flocked to them.

In various cities, empresses vying for that year’s title routinely made grand entrances into jammed ballrooms atop thrones held aloft by Grecian gods, on sleighs at the end of 100 yards of ship rope pulled into the room by Nubian princes, or simply dropped in from the rafters on a half-moon lit expertly, of course, by a soft blue spotlight. Politicians, Colt models, and non-drag partiers routinely attended.

The DMS reached its zenith, involving big money and big crowds, in the late 1970s to mid-’80s. Crowds would line Granville St outside the Commodore Ballroom to witness the parade of queens arriving, and cheer as they hiked their skirts and began the long climb up the staircase into the nightclub.

Times have changed though, and the event has become less theatrical, and more intimate.

“The crowds don’t come out like they used to,” says past DMS president Royden Oldford. “There are so many more outlets now for gay people to express themselves that the ball’s not the only game in town anymore.

“But it will always be the biggest, most fabulous drag night of the year!” he adds enthusiastically.

This year’s ball boasted a “Ball Mitzvah” theme to celebrate the step-down of 34th Empress Vivian von Brokenhymen, and drag king Emperor Buster Cherry, who are both Jewish.

Like the Oscars, the balls routinely run to overtime. This year’s ball was a very full seven hours of command performances by local and out-of-town queens, awards and presentations, and the final walks of the outgoing empress and emperor.

Only then did the performances by the four candidates vying for the 35th titles begin. And finally the actual coronation. Any longer and electric shavers would be necessary, someone joked.

DeDe, Vancouver’s ninth empress who just ended her Silver Jubilee, arrived at the Coast Plaza Hotel ballroom dressed tongue-in-cheek as a yenta goddess in a ’50s-style gold and turquoise silk dress by Benoit, complete with sequined beach bag of noshes in Tupperware bowls.

“The DMS is well organized and hasn’t lost its edge and ability to connect to the community,” DeDe says. “The queens are still the ones we see out there doing a lot of the legwork to raise money for the community. DMS has raised a heck of a lot of money over the years, and continues to today.”

The DMS used to put on a “beaux arts-style party ball” with dancing and elaborate, theatrical production numbers, bucking the American “crowns and gowns” formal pageantry, DeDe notes. But the balls have grown smaller in recent years, as the need for community fundraising soared.

The upside of the smaller balls is that the money saved on over-the-top production values is now given to community, continues DeDe, whose enormous ball cost $35,000 to produce in 1981, but nonetheless still managed to donate $20,000 to the pre-AIDS community.

Outgoing DMS president Imelda Mae Santos says the DMS’ two co-chairs, the emperor and empress, are the visible ones of a seven-member executive elected each year by the society membership. Together they come up with an overall plan, but the monarchs choose which causes they want to support.

Last year, Brokenhymen and Cherry chose the Richmond AIDS Society, the Little Sister’s Defense Fund, YouthCo and Vivian Ash House to support. Fundraising comes from many sources, but the ongoing Faux Girls show on Wednesdays at the Odyssey remains a main revenue source.

“The new empress and emperor make a beautiful pair,” says Santos. “Steve is not the usual showman, so it leaves more room in the spotlight for the rest of us!” she laughs, noting that she hopes to take a second run at the empress job next year, which has only been done once before.

Santos says she’d like to see more young people get involved in the DMS, an organization she describes as fun but purposeful.

Next year’s ball will have a theme that the community at large can sink their teeth into, Jaylene promises. She, too, says she’d like to see the event open up again to a wider circle.

With the annual ball now under her sequined belt, Empress Jaylene, her emperor and an entourage of princes, princesses and DMS executives will now travel to other courts, starting with Jaylene’s hometown of Calgary, to represent Vancouver, pay homage to the newest monarchs, put on a few knock ’em dead numbers, and then kick back, relax and enjoy the spectacle.