Calgary doesn’t have a reputation for being a huge centre of queer culture, but in a small corner of the Inglewood neighbourhood, one resto-bar has been quietly building bridges between the straight and gay community for 11 years.
Every Saturday at Club Paradiso on 9th Ave SE, the Carly’s Angels drag revue plays to capacity crowds of largely straight audiences who come out for a night of comedy, drinks and song, and a rare peek into the gay community.
Demand for the show is huge. Tickets are $45, not including dinner or drinks, and shows are sold out six weeks in advance. The 12th season of Carly’s Angels opens Sept 10, and tickets go on sale Aug 9.
Craig Taylor, who’s been performing in drag as Carly York Jones for 17 years, began Carly’s Angels in November 2000 and says he always wanted to bring in a straight audience.
“We’ve always catered to straight clubs since day one,” Taylor says. “It’s not near any of the bars that cater toward us. I was basically trying to enter a new market because I knew that there was a way to sell it to the straights, basically.
“What better way to introduce a lifestyle and an entertainment value in our lifestyle to a straight crowd? I believe that once you make them laugh, they will like you and remember you. I’m trying to make it light and fluffy so that people will actually say, ‘You know what? That was cool.’”
Carly’s Angels took time to catch on with the straight crowd, Taylor says.
“It was a hard sell. For the first two months we had to stack the audiences with the club owners, beer distributors and friends of the management to kind of get the word out. We went down to the Calgary Stampede to hand out flyers for the show. That’s actually become a skit that I do in the show,” he says. “Eventually, we started getting media attention from the local TV networks, which was easier to sell it than by going to these out-of-my-element places.”
Taylor says that he emphasizes making the audience feel comfortable and safe during his shows in order to ease them into understanding a community they may not know a lot about.
“I always say that if you’re not comfortable, feel free to leave. In 11 years, that’s only happened four times, and we get a lot of people who weren’t told where they’re being taken. Women seem to like to do that.”
Ironically, part of Taylor’s strategy for easing the audience into drag is to butch it up a bit.
“I try to make these guys feel very comfortable about where they are. I’m not trying to pass as a woman, and I don’t change my voice,” he says. “The stuff you do at a gay bar is different than the stuff you can do in a restaurant. There’s certain lines you can’t really cross. I’ve had times where I’ve had a community queen come in, and they’re used to crossing the line by sitting on someone’s lap and licking someone’s face. Many of these people have never seen something like this in their lives. There’s certain things that they still don’t want to do.”
The Carly’s Angels season runs from September to July, every Saturday, with shows changing up monthly. The Halloween, Christmas and Stampede shows are some of the most popular. Each show is two and a half hours long, with an intermission, and mixes drag, standup, lip-sync and dance, and includes a question-and-answer segment where the audience gets to ask the performers questions they’ve always wanted to know about drag queens.
“We have no holds barred. You can imagine how many times in 11 years we’ve been asked, ‘Where do you put it?’ Sometimes they ask us really deep questions, like ‘What does your family think?’ or ‘How did you come out?’ but mostly they’re very campy questions,” Taylor says.
“But when we get a question that needs to be appropriately addressed, I don’t care how long it goes, because that’s the stuff that really educates people. If I educate them, I’m doing my job. That’s why you find people who are ignorant, because they’re not educated enough. When people bring those questions up in a public setting and I have the opportunity to talk about it in a public setting, it’s beautiful.”