Can it really be 44 years ago that a thousand queens, queers, courtiers and hangers-on gathered at the Commodore Ballroom to crown the first elected Empress of Vancouver, Charity?
I well remember that inaugural Ball, not to mention the following year’s celebration at the Flame Supper Club in Burnaby, which devolved into a now legendary potato salad fight.
I remember the pomp and pageantry of several other coronations back at the Commodore too, and the fabulously over-the-top spectacle of Empress X Oliv’s ascent to the throne. That may have been the last Ball I attended, until this year’s event, which took place on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Life just got in the way.
But Saturday I found myself escorting our Empress II Mona Regina Lee, partly because I felt it was time to reconnect with my roots and partly to honour the memory of Rick Troke, more widely known as Empress I Charity, who died earlier this month.
I expected, with only a couple of hundred folks attending this year’s Ball at Performance Works on Granville Island, to find a mere shadow of the nights that 1,000 and more jammed the Commodore (in total violation of fire and health rules). But you know something? While the ranks were diminished, the spirit of fun, fantasy and community were as powerful as ever.
Sienna Blaze is crowned Empress 45 at the Dogwood Monarchist Society’s annual Coronation Ball on Saturday, March 26, 2016./JJ Nation photo
If you find yourself at Davie and Seymour Street sometime and have a chance to press your nose against the vacant storefront on the southwest corner, you’ll see through the gloom an open staircase leading to the basement. That’s where so much of this story began, back in 1970, when this was the home of Champagne Charlie’s, our first official drag club. Dee Dee Ambrose was the reigning diva, and her doo-wop girls were the whip-slender Sandy St Peters and the tall, legs-up-to-here Charity.
Champagne Charlie’s was a dimly lit poor man’s vision of the Moulin Rouge. All blood and bruises colouring, dark corners and cabaret tables fanned out around a tiny central stage area, not much bigger than your kitchen floor.
Each weekend evening, as the ’70s club music gradually faded, the room would be filled with the theatrical, booming voice of DJ Doug Reid announcing “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Champagne Charlie’s! . . . And now, the stars of our show, Mr Dee Dee Ambrose (pause for applause) . . . Charity! (more applause) and (pause) Mr (pause) Sandy (pause) St Peters!”
Charity’s signature number was “You’ve Come A Long Way From St Louis,” probably the Della Reese version, and in a swirl of purple satin gown, her high-kicks created a performance for the ages.
An undated photo of Charity from the Dogwood Monarchist Society’s archives, featured in the 2016 Coronation Ball program.
Within a few months of my arrival on the scene, the town was agog with the gossip of the impending opening of yet another drag venue, this one to be bigger and better and classier in every way. The founders of BJ’s lured Dee Dee, Charity and Sandy away from Champagne Charlie’s, and the ensuing rivalry went on until it was decided that the “stars” could do shows at more than one club per weekend, and a steady rotation evolved between Charlie’s, BJ’s, and The Thunderbird.
I would follow the entourage from club to club, sometimes sharing a cab with Charity if there was enough room in the back seat amidst the gowns and glitter, sometimes walking briskly down Seymour Street to catch the next set — with a detour to The August to see ted northe, Bill Harvey and Mona Lee offering yet another performance.
From this whirlwind of five drag venues and six or eight shows to choose from on a Saturday night the Dogwood Monarchist Society was born, a gift to the community from ted northe, Empress I of Canada, and the founders of the Imperial Court System in San Francisco.
In this image from BJ’s circa 1972, featured in the 2016 Coronation Ball program, Charity is on the left, rear row./Dogwood Monarchist Society archives.
After a vigorous campaign in early 1972 Charity triumphed over a half-dozen or so other candidates to earn the crown.
That first Coronation Ball on March 19, 1972 at the Commodore Ballroom was perhaps the first time every corner of our community came out to party together. And what a party!
But it was the evening of March 18, 1973, at Charity’s step-down and Mona Lee’s ascension to the throne, that we had some unexpected excitement and, in many ways, Charity’s own great love story began.
Mona won the 1973 election hands-down but she was not exactly Charity’s first choice. Supporters of the losing candidate took exception to Mona’s victory and started throwing the handiest thing on the table: potato salad! And thus the great potato salad fight of fond memory was underway.
More than 40 years after the infamous food fight, Charity (centre) stands with Mona Lee (left) and Empress of Canada II Avaughna Sanoir (right) on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery./Dogwood Monarchist Society archives
For some months earlier Charity had been courted by a handsome lad from Seattle, Dino Padgett, a co-owner of that city’s celebrated Golden Horseshoe bar. Dino, one of our community’s first openly trans men, remembers the night of Charity’s step-down:
“I had recently had surgery and my friends decided to play a trick on Charity and tell her that I wouldn’t be able to make it for the step-down. Then we drove to Vancouver and when the Seattle contingent made its big entrance Charity leaped from her throne and we hugged and wept and since nobody knew who the hell I was, except a few close friends, everyone wondered what the hell was going on!”
When the potato salad started flying, Dino turned to Charity and said: “This is nuts. Let’s get out of here. Let me take you home — to Seattle!” So under cover of flying menu items, the pair made their escape.
They retired to Dino’s hotel room and the next day called Charity’s roommate and asked him to bring by some of Charity’s street clothes. “So he brings us a totally mismatched outfit of tan checked pants, garishly striped shirt, and equally colourful sweater. Nothing matched. It was ridiculous!”
And so it came to pass that Dino, with Charity looking like an escapee from the circus, joined a busload of members of the Knights of Malta and smuggled Charity into the US. “When we went through the border, the head Knight assured customs guys that we were all returning Americans, and in we went!”
And that’s how we lost our first Empress to her American dreamboat!
For the greater part of her life, Charity was an icon of our past who would show up for special occasions, wow us with her artistry (makeup, hair, gowns, she did it all) and performance skills, and then vanish across the border until next time. This didn’t always sit well with the local drag community; some felt she got too much credit just for being the first Empress, but you had to admit that as an icon of our history, you couldn’t ask for much more glamour!
Charity finally got her legal status in the US sorted out and had a fulfilling 30-year career in the antiques business. Eight years ago she and Dino moved to Blaine to be closer to Charity’s ailing mother in Vancouver. The couple’s powder blue 1973 El Dorado convertible became a frequent sight in Vancouver’s Pride parades.
Dino and Charity attended the 2005 Vancouver Pride parade in their convertible./Rosamond Norbury photo
And so the circle that began, for me at least, in a dark basement lounge on Davie Street and reached its high point with the Coronation Balls that saw up to 1,200 sweaty costumed and bejewelled bodies crammed into the Commodore, has come to a close in the much humbler precincts of Performance Works, where a faithful 200 danced a waltz in Charity’s honour and passed the torch to another generation.
And lest you dismiss all this as a bunch of silly queens dressing up and playacting, you need to understand that it was our drag community, along with our lesbian friends, who kept our spirits up during the worst crisis to ever face our community. Men in dresses entertained us, rallied our sense of community and tirelessly raised funds for countless causes — as they continue to do today.
So a hearty congratulations to Vancouver’s new Empress 45 Sienna Blaze. You have enormous fuck-me-pumps to fill and a beloved tradition to preserve. You have my full support as you and your generation of drag artists reinvent the drag scene, guide it into a new era, and prove that it’s still a vital part of who we are.
(Kevin Dale McKeown was Vancouver’s first out gay columnist, penning QQ Writes . . . Page 69 for the Georgia Straight through the early 1970s. His Still QQ column for Daily Xtra runs biweekly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)