The Kook Toy Drive
by Steve Desroches
It’s a quiet December night in Provincetown. The Pilgrim Monument is lit for the holidays, as are the shops and homes along Commercial Street. The surf gently laps the harbor beach as the sound of jingle bells fills the air. Two elves smoke cigarettes as they greet a friend, another elf, but this one is drinking a beer. They’re hanging outside of the Grotta Bar below Local 186 on this particular night last year, which happened to be the date of the special election for an open Senate seat in Alabama. As the elves continue their cigarette break the door to the bar opens and a tipsy Santa Claus yells out, “Hey, that mother f**ker Roy Moore lost!” as the beginning riff of “Sweet Home Alabama” plays and the crowd inside cheers. “Well, what do you know,” says one elf, stamping out his cigarette with his green shoes curled up at the toe with a little bell hanging down as his friends run inside. “Christmas came early this year.”
There are lots of “Only in Provincetown” moments. And that was one of them. While it might sound like Santa’s elves swung through Provincetown for a night of carousing, the sighting of Christmas misfits is actually a sign that it’s time for one of the town’s most beloved holiday traditions, one that mixes the bohemian eccentricity of the Cape tip with its near-sacred credo of taking care of its own: the Kook Toy Drive.
For almost 20 years drag superstar Penny Champagne and Her Merry Band of Misfit Elves has held this annual rock and roll Christmas fundraiser to make sure the children of Provincetown and their families that are in need have a wonderful holiday season, as well as meet basic needs for the winter. Taking care of children and those in need is of course a hallmark of the holidays in many places. It’s how the funds are raised that makes it a decidedly Provincetown affair.
The idea started back in the 1990s when Scott Martino, one of the co-founders of the Gold Dust Orphans and husband of playwright and performer Ryan Landry, took a peak into a local toy drive box. With all due respect, he thought the toys looked kind of crappy. So for a couple of years he’d perform as his drag persona Penny Champagne with Landry’s band Space Pussy and raise a little money for a toy drive of their own. Then Martino founded the legendary weekly party titled Kook, which ran for about 15 years from the late 1990s through early 2000s, where he met Jennifer White, the manager of the old Vixen nightclub who had moved over to the Grotta Bar the same time Kook made the move. The duo revived the idea of the toy drive, and soon formed a working relationship with the Provincetown school system to identify families in need (anonymously) and find out specifically what the children wanted for Christmas, or the holiday season, to make the effort personalized. Over the years they went from raising about $1,000 in an evening to last year’s record topping over $10,000. That number is a remarkable testament to their efforts and those who participate, though in the beginning they needed to combat the persistent myth that all those who live on the Cape and Islands are wealthy.
“When we first started, we would hear all the time people question that there were people struggling in Provincetown,” says Martino. “Those that questioned it assumed everyone here is rich. There are a lot of people who had no idea who actually lives here. Who do they think washes the dishes, cleans up after them, and works to make their vacation or summer here? And there are people who fall on hard times, who get sick, lose their housing, who just need help sometimes. But attitudes have changed. We don’t hear much of that kind of talk anymore.”
Since it began, White and Martino estimate they’ve raised over $100,000, with every dime going to children and families in need in Provincetown. On the evening of the Kook Toy Drive, often called Christmas Kook, no one is paid to work the event. DJ Lisa “Rodd Hott” Bonenfant provides the rock music soundtracks as Darren Showers works the door. The bartenders donate all tips to the cause, as do those who perform. Martino giggles when he thinks of what has graced the stage of Christmas Kook, as while it’s for the children, the event most certainly is not. Over the years Christmas Kook has seen drag queen Qya Cristal’s sweaty impersonation of Whitney Houston with a cocaine ring around her nose singing a parody of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” Landry reading demented Christmas bedtime tales, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, singing “Like A Virgin.”
Perhaps the most anticipated moment of the night is “Tits for Tots,” when Misfit Elf Ahbi Nishman, and other women with ample breasts, allow those paying $5 or more to do a shot from between said breasts. The Christmas tradition began years ago when Martino called Nishman and asked, “Can I objectify you for a good cause?” After hearing what the evening was for, she said “Sure.” But at that time it was just to raise a large sum to watch Nishman jump up and down on a pogo stick, which, after some thought, everyone realized was dangerous in a nightclub with spilled drinks on the floor. “Tits for Tots” followed, and each year a long line forms, featuring every gender and sexual orientation, to participate in what has become a playful holiday institution in Provincetown.
“When you think about it, it’s really kind of sweet,” says Martino with a mischievous smile. “It’s all for taking care of children, and to do that with breasts, you know, which nurture and feed children, it kind of all make sense. It all comes full circle.”
Jokes and jabs aside, the Kook Toy Drive warms the hearts of many in the community, even eliciting significant donations from those who can’t attend, as well as local business owners. Confidentiality is never broken, as the Kook crew, who does all the shopping the very next day, sees only the gender and ages as well as the wish list of each child they are helping. Both White and Martino say it’s what they ask for that at times brings tears to their eyes. A little girl wanted a science kit, as she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. A boy asked for an office chair so he could have a comfortable place to sit while doing his homework. Another child asked for a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as he loved it so much he wanted to read it again and again. Other times it’s an entire family that needs winter coats, or food and fuel assistance. The Kook Toy Drive has become successful enough it can provide for everything on the list the Provincetown Schools give them, and despite years of decline, the number of families with children in town is on the rise. Provincetown takes care of its own, repeat both White and Martino. It’s part of what makes the town so special.
“It’s my most favorite event of the year,” says White. “When we all pull together to make this happen. It really helps a lot of people who need it. And every year the need grows.”
The 2018 Kook Toy Drive is on Tuesday, December 11 starting at 10 p.m. at the Grotta Bar at Local 186, 186 Commercial St., Provincetown Admission is $5, though donations are taken throughout the evening. Donations may also be sent through Paypal via the Kook Toy Drive 2018 Facebook page or by check to: Kook Toy Drive, P.O. Box 1001, Provincetown, MA 02657.