Glitter and Be Gay

The inspirational extravagance of Seattle's Whiz Kidz.

The soggy old Northwest was beginning to dance to a whole new beat by the late '60s. "Hippie Hill" on the UW campus festered with new and colorful life forms. April 1968 saw the King County Sheriff's office lose it as 10,000 freaks converged unannounced on Duvall to listen to Country Joe and the Fish and watch a piano drop from the sky. Labor Day weekend compounded the felony as 30,000 gathered in a cow pasture in Sultan to roll in the mud to the strains of the Grateful Dead.

Even with all that liberation going on, one segment of society remained pretty much under wraps. In the gay ghetto of bars and restaurants scattered round the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, business and pleasure remained very much as usual. After work the closet cases gathered at the 614, while later in the evening the slightly less repressed boogied a bit at the 611 or checked out the action at the decidedly looser Golden Horseshoe. A bit north, dentists in black leather propped up the Handlebar; drag queens, their last coat of lacquer still drying, converged like exotic tropical insects on the Mocambo Room. With rare exceptions, each subspecies kept to its own haunts—or at least put on a suitable disguise when slumming at another's.

That cozy system began to crumble with the arrival in town of a conceptual terrorist going by the nom de guerre Tomata du Plenty, accompanied by his faithful Indian companion, Rhina Stone. In short order, the pair became the focus of an asteroid cloud of huddled locals yearning to breathe free: the lovely and talented Cha Cha Samoa; Satin Sheets and Benny Whiplash; Diva Lalume; Louise Lovely; and the unforgettable Gorilla Rose.

It's hard to give a precise date for the birth of Ze Fabulous Whiz Kidz, but no one argues that the third and last Sky River Rock Festival, in Tenino on Labor Day weekend 1970, was their triumphant coming-out party. From that point on, no great local freak event was complete without an appearance by the Kidz. In the beginning, they depended on the kindness of strangers for venues: Halloween and New Year's Eve 1971 at raffish Eagles Auditorium (now ACT Theatre); Valentine's Day at the UW HUB Auditorium; opening for Alice Cooper at the old, unimproved Paramount with a show so bizarre (entitled Puttin' Out Is Dreamsville) that even the headliner freaked out.

The Kidz might never have embarked on a theatrical reign of terror if they had been encouraged to strut their stuff behind gay-friendly doors. But those doors were uniformly closed to them: In 1970, queers were just as rigid as their nominally straight neighbors about gender roles. More rigid, if possible—you could do all the drag you liked, sweetie, or drape yourself in leather and chains until you could barely walk, but pairing a tutu with a motorcycle jacket was just out.

As the Kidz began to draw a following for whom such an outfit was the height of class, they also found a more or less permanent showcase for their high jinks: a struggling bar in the basement of the desperately d飬ass頓mith Tower called the Submarine Room. It was at the Sub Room where more than 50 of the Kidz' shows—"most thought up on the bus ride down there," du Plenty recalled— premiered and closed the same night, among them Fistful of Douche Bags, For a Few Douche Bags More, Desire's Playthings, and Chi Chi Paree's Topless Revue.

Even the shows' surviving performers have a hard time recalling exactly what went on in them. Look and attitude was the point: The Kidz made nonsense of gender identity—onstage and, often, in the street (or the neighborhood superette, for that matter). Far from trying to look like girls, the guys gloried in putting glitter in their mustaches while swathing themselves in chiffon; the girls, though they often donned a bit of token guy drag, were usually satisfied to emulate the guys and look like nothing on earth—but magnificently.

The Kidz were hardly originators of a style—in San Francisco, the Cockettes were already midnight-show veterans at knockin' 'em dead—but their peacock extravagance may actually have had more of an impact in Seattle because of the backdrop's relentless drabness. And the Cockettes and Kidz and others like them were part of a far larger, more amorphous movement—a movement to question all the unconsidered verities of their elders. The Kidz weren't the only people of the time to set up collective living quarters; on Capitol Hill and in the U District, it seemed like everybody was doing it. But few of the other collectives went by names as fetching as Lavender Shadows, Broken Arms, or The House of Savage Gardenias.

The Kidz could turn even the most practical necessities of life into an excuse for a show and a party. Chapel of the Cabaret Wedding was probably the best, and perhaps the Kidz' finest hour as well. It came about because Bob Diva (civilian name: Robert Ostrick) needed new hi-fi equipment capable of playing his 4-ton collection of vintage opera 78s. The only way Diva could think of to get his parents back East to spring for some cash was to get married. He found a willing partner of legally appropriate gender in fellow Kid Louise Lovely, and in colleague Palm Springs a fully accredited minister of the Universal Life Church. "The greatest show there ever was," recalls the bride, now better known as Louise DiLenge, senior vice president of Bumbershoot producer One Reel and costume designer extraordinaire for One Reel's Teatro ZinZanni.

You can party just so long, of course. In San Francisco, the founder of the Cockettes condemned his troupe for going commercial and went off on his own to found the Angels of Light, while the Cockettes themselves trouped off to New York to tank big time. In Seattle, too, the passage of time began to tease Kidz back into, if not the mainstream, at least a lifestyle not entirely devoted to sex, drugs, and thrift shopping.

After the high noon of the Submarine Room shows, there was a golden twilight at the Double Header Tavern, but unrehearsed high spirits no longer satisfied some of the most talented among the troupe. Tomata and Gorilla discovered that there was now a legit label for what they did—"performance art"—and hied themselves off to the Big Apple to practice it. Others found their feet in the music field—not, as you might expect, as "glam rockers," but rather as founding members of what was fast becoming punk.

And some, of course, died—of drugs, of the plague, or of "natural causes." But they shouldn't be forgotten. For a few brief years, Seattle was, for some of us, if not Camelot at least Fairyland, and the glitter hasn't entirely been cold-creamed away. The Kidz weren't all gay, not by a long shot, but their extravagant example did even more for gay people than straight by taking Rocky Horror's "Don't dream it—be it" out of the midnight show and introducing it into what is ludicrously called "real life."

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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