A History In Heels

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by Steve Desroches

Did you know that in 1912 a Broadway theater was named after famed female impersonator Julian Eltinge? And did you know that female impersonator Jim Bailey not only wowed audiences at Provincetown Town Hall, but also in television specials celebrating Super Bowl XII and the 1984 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies, and performed for four American presidents and a special command performance for Queen Elizabeth II? Or did you know that Craig Russell, another legendary drag act, won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival in 1978 for his role in drag in the film Outrageous!?

Jackie Beat. Photo: Dusti Cunningham

Chances are, sadly, you didn’t, as despite the enormous popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the history of the art form has largely been ignored. Back then, as men donned wigs and high heels in the most high profile of ways, a bit of the Liberace Effect was in play as ties to gender and sexuality were largely ignored while LGBT people still lived in shadows. Therefore, even as well known as they were, the mainstream straight world forced them through a heterosexual lens, sequins and all. Spasms of conservatism and puritanism further helped to erase these people from entertainment history, as did the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The history of drag lay scattered throughout far-flung archives, private collections, and in the memories of those who were there in the early days. Exploring this world of wigs and heels, comedian, writer, and radio host Frank DeCaro wrote Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business, a volume that is already being called the definitive encyclopedia of drag.

“I was not convinced I was the one who should do this book,” says DeCaro. “And then it hit me; I’ve been a drag hag since I was a toddler.”

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, DeCaro was attracted to all things sparkly and glittery, something he chronicled in his 1996 book, A Boy Named Phyllis: A Suburban Memoir. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, DeCaro’s life as a reporter gave way to a 1970s-variety-show-style career, including years as a correspondent on The Daily Show, host of the hit SIRIUS XM radio program The Frank DeCaro Show, and a columnist for The New York Times, as well as numerous television appearances that would rival the Landers Sisters. He’s a pop culture pundit with serious credentials to boot. So when publishing house Rizzoli went looking for someone to be the Indiana Jones of drag and do the archaeological digging required to uncover these stories, DeCaro was their guy.

The job was overwhelming, initially. Where do you even begin? He of course spoke to those drag queens he knew personally, but he also began with the performers of his youth: Jim Bailey, Craig Russell, Lynne Carter. While they all had passed away, YouTube provided documentation that indeed DeCaro was not hallucinating when he saw a drag queen at the Super Bowl in 1978. Every dusty box opened or phone call made revealed a whole new world in which he discovered nearly forgotten drag queens, female impersonators, or other entertainers who flipped gender roles on stage and screen. From the Cockettes to Lady Bunny to Flotilla DeBarge to Divine, Drag presents over a century’s worth of history, even dipping into the straight men that have donned drag, like Flip Wilson, Wesley Snipes, and Milton Berle. Even Bugs Bunny makes it into this campy tome.

The Kinsey Sicks. Photo: Vixen Pin-up Photography

“What I hope is that those kids out there that think drag began with episode one, season one of Drag Race learn something,” says DeCaro. “I mean Julian Eltinge was the RuPaul of the early 20th century. They named a theater after him right on 42nd Street! That kind of blew my mind!”

For those here in Provincetown, this book reads much like a “Who’s Who” of drag on the Cape tip throughout the years. From late greats like Arthur Blake and Charles Ludlam to game changers like Ryan Landry and Jimmy James and today’s roster of summer 2019 stars like the Kinsey Sicks and Coco Peru, Drag is dripping with faces very familiar to Provincetown. In fact, Provincetown is a stand out small town in a list of big city drag hot spots, the only locale of its size holding court with New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas.

Brittany Lynn. Photo: Alexander John Ortiz

Of all the places in the world DeCaro’s traveled, only Hawaii holds as special a place in his heart as Provincetown. And each and every time he’s here, he makes a point to see Dina Martina, Miss Richfield 1981, Varla Jean Merman, as well as Ryan Landry’s Showgirls, that wild and breezy Provincetown institution. When speaking of Provincetown, DeCaro’s voice lifts into an ease as he searches for a word to best capture his feelings for the town, settling upon “magical.” It’s the way everywhere should be, he says. Straight and gay, a spectrum of diversity all together. A town where a drag queen can ride by on a bicycle at two in the afternoon should be what every spot in the country should aspire to be, says DeCaro. And just as Provincetown is for everyone, so, too, is drag as this sometimes ridiculed, often ignored art form gains a visibility like never before.

“Drag is for everyone,” says DeCaro. “That’s why I love it so much. We are at a high point in the diversity of drag. Any gender, any age. There’s this amazing 11-year-old drag queen Desmond is Amazing, and then there’s Darcelle XV, who the Guinness Book of World Records named the oldest working drag queen at 89. All that matters is that when the spotlight hits, you are fierce.”

Frank DeCaro’s Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business is available at East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St. and the Provincetown Bookshop, 246 Commercial St.