Thirsty Burlington Makes a Comeback
by Steve Desroches
Top Image: Photos by Bobby Miller
Scott Townsend made two announcements last week. First, while the surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his colon was a success the pathology results showed the cancer is in his lymph nodes and he’ll need to start chemotherapy as soon as possible. The second was that his show One Night Only with Cher, which he performs as the beloved drag character Thirsty Burlington, opens this Memorial Day Weekend and continues on every Monday through the summer at the Crown and Anchor. The show must go on, indeed.
To use Townsend’s own words, he’s “a tough cookie.” When he received his diagnosis he said he had no other choice but to be positive. What’s the alternative; to stay home and feel sorry for yourself? That won’t change anything. As an icon of the Provincetown performance scene Townsend knows that the community energy here can be healing, and that’s where he’s seeking the fuel to build his internal strength to fight cancer. That, and of course, Cher.
“I thought, well if I need a colostomy bag I’ll just rhinestone it,” says Townsend. “You always have to ask yourself, ‘What would Cher do?’”
It’s Townsend’s performances of his own twist on the Queen of Pop Culture that have earned him not just legions of fans and accolades, but also the mark of highest approval from designer Bob Mackie, who dressed Cher for decades and says there is no one better than Thirsty Burlington. Townsend thrives off of performing. It’s more than his work; it’s a life force. But like performers all over the world, Townsend lost his creative outlet when stages everywhere went dark at the onset of the pandemic. And then when Provincetown adapted and created outdoor performance spaces, Townsend was hit with a nasty case of pneumonia. Under doctor’s advice, he steered clear of any type of crowds, having to turn down almost every chance to work. And then came the cancer diagnosis.
With wigs in boxes and gowns hanging in the closet getting back to the stage seemed a far-off dream. It was enough to just get back on his feet. But Provincetown rallied, says Townsend. The support has been overwhelming with townies and fans sending well wishes and reaching out. Townsend’s close friend Chris Kosiavelon and fellow drag queen performing under the name Bang set up a GoFundMe account to help make up for lost wages with donations pouring in (search Thirsty Burlington at gofundme.com). All of the love coming from Provincetown and afar has boosted his spirits and kept the positive energy flowing. It’s also, strangely enough, kept him still has he needs to rest, which means no rehearsing and strictly no singing as belting out the Cher seventies standard “Take Me Home” could rupture a suture.
Provincetown showed up in force, but what about the medical care he’s receiving? Going through the medical system can be anxiety-provoking enough, but as an LGBTQ+ person, it can be extra stressful. Being treated with respect and being heard are not foregone conclusions, so Townsend prepared himself to explain his work as a drag performer and ask questions relating to his treatment plan and career. But he never got the chance. Turns out his reputation as a drag star reached all the way to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
“They knew who I was when I walked in,” said Townsend. “Some of the paperwork actually said ‘Thirsty Burlington.’ The surgical team, the oncologists, they all knew who I was. They all knew Thirsty. When talking about the port I need for chemotherapy the doctor said, ‘I know you wear strapless gowns so we’ll put it someplace you can hide it.’ The nurses would ask me to say a few things as Cher and they’d come in my room at 2 a.m. to check on me and say ‘Oh my God! We were just watching you at the nurse’s station on YouTube. We’re totally coming to Provincetown this summer.’ They were all so thoughtful and caring about getting me back on stage.”
So, too, is the Crown and Anchor, which upon the news reaffirmed their love and support for Thirsty as the 2021 season gets underway. And Townsend’s medical team is optimistic that he will be ready by Memorial Day, able to schedule his chemotherapy appointments around the shows so that come each Monday night this summer he’ll have the oomph of Cher. As for the show, it’s been ready since the end of 2019 so Townsend is chomping at the bit. Just like his idol, Townsend is reinventing Thirsty. Over the pandemic and his recovery, he’s been working with his musical director and accompanist Mark Meehan on new songs, styling new wigs and costumes, and staging each number. To paraphrase the empowering anthem Cher sang in the camptastic film Burlesque, you haven’t seen the last of Thirsty Burlington.
“It’s going to be me, Cher, and the cockroaches,” says Townsend. “You can’t kill us.”
Thirsty Burlington presents One Night Only with Cher opening Memorial Day Weekend, Friday, May 28 and Monday, May 31 at 8:30 p.m. Poolside at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St. and then Monday nights at 7:30 p.m. June 14 through September 6. Tickets are $35 and are available at the box office and online at onlyatthecrown.com. For more information call 508.487.1430.