I love drag queens.
Okay, the truth is that I don’t know a whole lot about drag queens. I’ve been to the now-defunct San Francisco weekly drag club Trannyshack once. I’ve even attended a couple of the Miss Trannyshack Pageants. And, I have a soft spot for all of John Waters’ early films featuring Divine. But still, I wouldn’t consider myself a connoisseur of the art form. What I do know about drag queens, I love: They’re performers of the highest caliber, gender shape-shifters who are simultaneously vulnerable, sexual, larger than life, satirical, and really funny. Well, at least the good ones.
Here in San Francisco, not surprisingly, we are blessed with some great ones. And since 2007, four of them – Heklina (Trannyshack founder), Cookie Dough (of the Monster Show and Mary Go Round fame), Pollo Del Mar (2007 Miss Trannyshack winner and Mary Go Round cohost), and consummate performer Matthew Martin – have been doing live renditions of the late ’80s/early ’90s TV sitcom The Golden Girls. They perform two episodes per show, which take place every June (for Pride) and December (which always includes one of the sitcom’s two Christmas episodes).
The first time I really discovered the magic of The Golden Girls was during a cold Cleveland winter when my gay roommates and I would sit around smoking and watching back-to-back episodes on Lifetime. When I heard about the drag version, I was elated. It’s a campy match made in heaven, with characters Dorothy Zbornak, Blanche Devereaux, Rose Nylund, and Sophia Petrillo giving the queens plenty of opportunities to show off the smart, sexually charged, and hilarious sides of their personalities. Needless to say, I’ve attended every run.
“Are you Marc?”
The voice acknowledging me sounds a lot like the one I’ve come to associate with delivering some of Dorothy’s best lines, but I’m having a hard time getting my bearings – I see only dudes in front of me. I’m inside CounterPULSE looking for Heklina, who’s honored my request to check out a Golden Girls dress rehearsal. And then it hits me – like finally being able to see one of those 3-D pictures they used to have at the mall – she’s standing right in front of me. But she’s most definitely a he right now, far from the dolled-up character I’m used to. Heklina is wearing a Gary Numan tour T-shirt and Adidas track pants – there’s still plenty of behind-the-scenes work to be done before tomorrow’s opening night, and for that even a drag queen needs to be dressed comfortably.
The shock is just as great when Cookie Dough’s distinct voice, used superbly to portray the sassy Sophia, comes out of a man sporting a gray stubble and a Black Sabbath shirt. It’s not as though I thought drag queens never broke character, but you build up an expectation of what your favorite celebrities are going to look like up close and personal, and it can be unsettling when you’re confronted with quite the opposite. And come to think of it, every time I received an email from Heklina this week, I guess I was picturing her as Dorothy. My world’s been rocked, my mind’s been blown, and this is before I even meet Jane Wiedlin – the Go-Go’s guitarist who’s guest starring as Sophia’s sister in one of the episodes – or hear Pollo Del Mar (who plays Rose) talk about the time she passed out thanks to a poppers mishap with a dwarf in a wheelchair.
“This is the second time today I’ve talked about drugs they don’t make anymore,” says Jane. “Also quaaludes.”
“What’s quaaludes?” Pollo asks innocently.
Pollo is the baby of the bunch, having only started doing drag a year before this Golden Girls show launched. She’s the only one who shows up in drag to rehearsal, having just come from a World AIDS Day event. After she strips down to her underwear, I’m amazed at how realistic her breasts look, to the point where I wonder if she’s had some work done. “Don’t they look great?” she says into a backstage mirror, and I can’t tell if I’m supposed to agree or pretend I’m not staring. Since this has officially turned into backward day for me, I opt for the former, and yes, it turns out that I’m gawking at falsies and some amazing shading. “It’s all about the shading,” Pollo confirms.
Before the rehearsal begins, Heklina meets with the others to go over costumes, arguably one of the best and most important parts of the show. It might be said that clothes don’t make the man, but they most certainly do when he’s playing a Golden Girl. Sometimes all it takes is just one appliqué-filled sweater to set the audience ablaze.
“A place that’s been really great for us is Clothes Contact on Valencia at 16th and they have a section, or they had one, that was even called ‘Golden Girls,’” says Heklina when asked about costume shopping. “I’ve done a couple shows in Palm Springs recently and I decided to hit all the thrift stores. Not to be too much of a downer, but people die there and then their stuff goes to these thrift stores, and it’s a lot of great old-lady stuff.”
Everything’s going smoothly with wardrobe check until Heklina spots something on Pollo’s green dress. “What is that?” she asks.
“It’s jizz!” exclaims Jane, sending everyone within earshot into laughter. It’s no small feat holding your own amongst a bunch of drag queens, but Jane has no problem entertaining the show’s stars as much as they’re amusing each other. There’s camaraderie here, for sure, but there’s something else going on – even out of costume and between scenes, everyone is constantly performing for each other.
“The longer we goof around, the longer we’re here,” says Cookie, but the warning doesn’t slow anyone down. The joking, poking, and prodding continue all night, at one point prompting Matthew to ask rhetorically, in his best Blanchian Southern drawl, “Feel the love, Marc?” Later, after a small spat with Pollo, Heklina pleads, “Please don’t put this in your story. Drag queens can be so bitchy.”
“Can be?” shouts supporting cast member Laurie Bushman. Laughter ensues, and the fight is over.
Heklina mentioned to me earlier that “most gay men want to be one of the Golden Girls,” and it’s funny to see that each queen here seems to be well aligned with the character she’s playing: Heklina is the dry-witted centerpiece, Cookie is the cheeky matriarch, Pollo is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and Matthew is smooth and sultry.
As the night progresses – rehearsal ends past midnight, five hours after it began – the end of wits are being reached and walls are being hit, but there’s still room for last-minute improvements. The current lighting is deemed too harsh for drag makeup, and when Mike Finn, who plays the proprietor of the diner in the Christmas episode, mentions that it might be funny if he briefly stepped out of set and wiped his hands on the towel painted on the backdrop used for the Girls’ kitchen, everyone heartily agrees.
It’s a cold, wet opening night, but Golden Girls’ faithful – including quite a few friends of the cast and lots of gay men who probably know most episodes by heart – have filled in a good portion of the 99 seats at the 9 p.m. show. We’ve come to watch a couple of episodes from season two (Long Day’s Journey Into Marinara and ’Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas), but it’s more than that – there’s camaraderie in the audience as well. The crowd is relatively subdued – the front of the house manager’s girlfriend tells me after the show that the energy level usually rises later in the run – but it’s impossible not to feel like you’re part of a community while harmonizing with strangers during the theme song or following Pollo’s lead and clapping along to a Mr. Clean ad. (The old-school commercials played during set changes are almost worth the price of admission, especially the PETA one where Bea Arthur warns menopausal women that Premarin contains horse urine.)
There are a few tweaks to the episodes: most notably the inclusion of a couple of well placed Go-Go’s songs during ’Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas, but for the most part they don’t deviate from the script. (“With these rabid fans?” says Heklina. “Of course not.”) And despite a couple of minor flubs – including the fact that the alcohol in the lobby is inadvertently locked away before intermission, which means everyone hits the corner store and brown-bags it – the show goes swimmingly. The costumes produce the expected laughs, Heklina effortlessly delivers the best line of the night (“Blanche, I could get herpes listening to this story!” in response to a laundry list of men she was with one Christmas Eve), and Mike Finn’s towel wipe is a hit. The night ends with an only-in-San-Francisco birthday celebration for three audience members: Still dressed as Blanche, Matthew gives lap dances that nobody in the room will soon forget.
And for the foreseeable future, this production will, for the most part, continue to be an only-in-San-Francisco event. They’ve done the show in a couple of other cities, but they’ve resisted staging it in New York and L.A., mainly because keeping it here means keeping it below the radar, which in turn keeps away the cease-and-desist letters. With three-quarters of the Girls now residing in the great lanai in the sky, it’s more important than ever for someone to keep their spirit alive. And in San Francisco, it may as well be drag queens.
“ The Golden Girls were way ahead of their time in the themes they covered,” says Heklina. “The show is so heartfelt. It kind of came out of nowhere and was against all odds. It was this show played by old people, about old people, but it became really successful. You can just also tell that these women that are playing the Golden Girls really are great people.”
The same can be said of the men playing the women playing the Golden Girls.
Do It Yourself
UPDATED FOR 2011: The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes takes place at The Victoria Theater, Dec. 1-23. Tickets are $25 and you can find them at ticketfly.com.