All across the country people are discovering the art of female impersonation, and drag shows are doing big business in most major US cities and many smaller towns. RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought attention to the art form to the masses, and drag is appealing to a wider variety of audiences than it has in years.
While dressing onstage as another gender dates back centuries and is found in nearly every culture from shamanic rituals, to societies banning female actors, to vaudeville and beyond, each generation has somehow made its unique mark on the industry. Pageants are a big part of the art of drag and female impersonation, with performers investing countless hours and serious money to perfect their craft and compete for cash, prizes and acclaim. Holding a respected pageant title can increase an artist’s booking fee and demand, and each of the national pageants has its own cache.
The Miss Gay America pageant is unique in that all contestants must be biologically male. No transgender performers, and no drag artists taking female hormone therapies or having undergone cosmetic surgeries below the neck are allowed to compete.
Long-time pageant owner Norman Jones is acknowledged as the force behind the success of MGA, owned since 2005 by Larry Tyger and Terry Eason, but without its creator, Nashville native Jerry Peek, the respected competition would not exist today.
Hollis sat down at a Nashville restaurant with Jerry this week and learned about his role in this major part of drag history and found out how he also made his mark on the world of female impersonation in their mutual hometown.
Hollis Hollywood: You opened the first drag bar in Nashville, The Watch Your Coat & Hat Saloon in 1971. A year later you founded the Miss Gay America pageant, which you sold to the first winner, Norma Kristie, after the third year. You weren’t a performer yourself, so how did you find inspiration to jump into the world of female impersonation? Take me back to the beginning.
Jerry Peek: The Watch Your Coat & Hat Saloon was opened originally as a Country & Western music bar. It was the first business on [Nashville tourist and entertainment center] Second Avenue aside from warehouses. We had it worked out so that if an artist like Little Jimmy Dickens was in town playing at the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night, he could book a show with us on Friday night in order to pay his band.
Back then we could get a popular Country & Western artist like that for $200-$300, which was relatively cheap. Unfortunately that meant we only did good business on Friday and Saturday nights. Obviously that concept would not have worked. I had heard about a successful bar in Indianapolis that had female impersonators, so I went there with my partner, Joe, and saw my first show.
To say I was knocked out is an understatement. Looking back, these performers weren’t even comparable with what we wound up with, but I loved the idea and what I saw. I brought back the concept to my (straight) business partner who didn’t really like the idea, but knew unless we did something different the saloon would go under. So he eventually said, “Take it and run with it.”
As an interesting aside, back then you could go see a drag show in Nashville, but instead of being at a club it was at someone’s house. People would call up their friends and everyone would come over to see the show. Female impersonation existed here, but it wasn’t easy to find.
HH: How did you recruit the performers for your first cast?
JP: I basically stole the best cast anyone could dream of from clubs in Indianapolis, Chicago and Miami: Criss Cross, Roxanne, Kerry Dennis, Tony Doran, and Charlie Brown. Later others such as Michelle Danielle, Danny Ross, Lenny Latoke, Tina Louise, and so many others came through our doors.
It was so different back then; our shows were SHOWS. We had three production numbers per show and they were all unique. If you stayed for the second show you did not see the same performances.
We had at least two comedy skits and the performers only did one song at a time, not a mix of songs lasting eight to ten minutes like you sometimes see today. Another way it was different is that it was a full-time job for the artists.
They worked five nights a week onstage, then on the sixth we had a sewing day. The entire cast had to come in and sit down and make costumes … a totally different situation.
One thing that was really different back then was the issue of harassment and safety because of discrimination and “blue laws.” It wasn’t a huge issue for us, but every once in awhile the police would come into the small Nashville bars, places like Juanita’s on Commerce Street, and hassle them.
To me that was harassment. So what was the use of starting my idea, which was so radical at the time, if I could expect the same problems? I went to the Chief of Police in Nashville and talked to him.
He told me that he did not see a problem and said the police would not hassle the bar as long as we obeyed the law. And he was true to his word.
I was scared even after talking to him, though, because I knew how it was back then. Two men just dancing together at a disco was unheard of.
HH: What was your clientele like? Did you have any problems with harassment there?
JP: Well, that was another interesting thing to me. It became very shortly a mixed [gay and straight] crowd. The mayor of Nashville at the time, Beverly Briley, brought people in two or three times to see the shows.
From the day we opened there were customers lined down the block, around the corner and up the next block. We would let two people out, then let two people in.
We never had problems from the crowds, except for one time. We had a small kitchen just inside the front door where my mother worked on the weekends making food for the club.
I happened to be working the door and three guys came in. I had a bad feeling about them right off the bat.
They walked up to the bar and ordered drinks, and I stopped paying attention to them. A few minutes later they pulled out a dildo and went around the club poking people with it. I approached them and told them they were going to have to leave.
Like an idiot, instead of making them walk in front of me, I let them follow me to the door. As soon as we got to the front door, one of them picked up one of the heavy beer mugs we used and hit me in the head with it.
Down I went. So he had this dildo in his hand, a big long thing, and started hitting me with it as I was lying on the floor.
My mother had never seen anything like a dildo before, and she started screaming, “He’s hitting him with a blackjack! He’s got a blackjack!” Well I was lying there and I heard her and I started laughing.
The guy looked at me like I was an idiot, and they turned and started to walk out. My mother was out from behind the bar by then and ready to take them on. As the last one was leaving, he shoved her and she fell and broke her hip.
Luckily it was a clean break and she wasn’t out of commission very long. But I’ll never forget her standing there screaming, “He’s got a blackjack!”
That was really the only time we had any trouble, of course aside from the fire that eventually destroyed the building in late 1973 or early 1974 and caused us to close. There were so many great things that happened there.
HH: You then went on to open the first location of the long-running Nashville drag club The Cabaret. I remember the location on Hayes Street, but there was an earlier spot downtown where it began, right?
JP: Yes, we opened The Cabaret downtown in 1975. There was a guy named Joel Vraderburg who owned most o
f the clubs in Printer’s Alley, which was the center of Nashville nightlife at the time. That was the place to go, especially for tourists. He was as close as you could get in Nashville to “The Godfather.”
I mean you didn’t mess with him. Plus he was maybe 6’8 and a 350-pound man. People feared him in this town, which was why he was able to operate these bars in town and serve liquor before it was legal in Nashville.
A friend of mine worked for him, and let me know one day that Joel wanted to see me. He asked if I would be interested in opening up a bar with female impersonation in Printer’s Alley.
Of course I said yes. He had a beautiful upstairs club with those gorgeous curved high-backed banquettes like you used to see in Las Vegas. So we opened up The Cabaret there and the same thing happened as on Second Avenue with the crowds, except this time it was mostly tourists who came to the shows. They absolutely ate it up.
We brought in Shawn Luis, she was a Miss Gay America, Lady Baronessa, who also went on to win MGA, China Nyuen. It was an instant smash.
The problem there was that tourists only came to Nashville in the summertime. Now the city has tourists year round; tourism booms in the winter here.
But this was before Opryland and all of the other things that bring people to Nashville throughout the year. So relying on tourists to keep our bar successful was not a good plan.
I learned about a spot on Hayes Street in Midtown that was available. We moved the club there, and once again it was instantly standing room only. We had a frightening incident about two weeks after we opened at that location.
The dance floor was absolutely packed one night and someone dropped a smoke bomb right in the middle of it. Naturally panic broke out. People didn’t know what it was at the time and everyone was running and chairs were flying.
I was running out the front door looking for Joe while he was running out the back door looking for me. It was a madhouse. Luckily no one was seriously hurt. A bouncer had some respiratory problems from inhaling the stuff because he stayed behind trying to help people get out.
We found out who did it, because the guy who was responsible told us. It was one of our competitors, also a gay man, one of our own. I was at The Cabaret on Hayes Street for the first six years before getting out of the nightlife business altogether for a number of years. Leaving my partner and best friend Pat Blalock was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.
HH: The Watch Your Coat & Hat Saloon was the host of the first year of the Miss Gay America pageant. MGA was the first national pageant for female impersonators and remains the longest running pageant in the United States, if not the world. How did you conceive of a beauty and talent pageant for drag queens?
JP: By that point I had gone to several other clubs around the country and seen lots of talented performers and noticed there was a lack of recognition for female impersonators as an art form. There was a magazine back then called David’s, a small publication that listed all of the gay nightclubs across the country.
You would look under a state or a city and see where the gay bars were and what they offered. If they listed drag shows, I sent them a letter announcing the Miss Gay America pageant would be held at the saloon. We ended up with contestants from twenty-two states. Norma Kristie from Arkansas won the first pageant and Charlie Brown was first-runner up.
HH: Did the bars that sent girls have preliminary pageants?
JP: In my letter I suggested they have a contest to pick someone to enter, but all I ever got was the applications in the mail, so I’m not sure who did or didn’t.
HH: Describe that first Miss Gay America pageant. What was it like?
JP: To me it was amazing because we had everything from dancing with fire or batons, to one performer who set up a sprinkler thing that sat behind a curtain and came out and did “Singing In The Rain” with a couple of dancers. That held up the show for about twenty minutes and we had to mop the floors before the next contestant could go onstage.
HH: That explains the strict pageant rules about set-up and takedown times in place now.
JP: Absolutely. The first pageant went fairly smoothly, though, with no major problems. At that time I made it a point to have all straight judges, because I didn’t want someone to accuse contestants and judges of having potential personal conflicts.
I agree with the way [current MGA owners] Larry and Terry choose judges now, but at the time that was my attempt to keep things fair. That first year Miss Gay America was covered by the local newspaper with a story and pictures; the next year was too.
The third year the pageant was held in Atlanta at the Continental Hotel; we had fifty-two or fifty-three contestants. After that year, Norman Jones (who as a performer was the first winner, Norma Kristie) bought the pageant from me. I founded MGA, but I want it to be clear that I acknowledge Norman as the reason for its ultimate success.
HH: Did you remain involved with Miss Gay America after Norman took over the reins?
JP: No, not at all. I had nothing to do with it after the third year. I didn’t even go to any of the contests. If it hadn’t been for Norman, there would be no Miss Gay America now. I started the framework, I conceived of it, but he made it what it is today.
My ideas were bigger than my pocketbook. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to do it, first of all. Secondly, in Atlanta we didn’t make enough money to come up with the prizes I had advertised.
We eventually settled that, but it was a total embarrassment. A lot of it was my fault. I had invested too much in the glitz and I lost my passion for it because of my mistakes.
At that time I wouldn’t have even thought about sponsors; it never crossed my mind.
Norman and I didn’t have bad words or anything; he from the beginning had seen it like I did, as something special.
He didn’t like a problem like that coming up, and after he bought it I just sort of lost interest in anything related to female impersonation or gay nightlife for quite a few years.
Jerry Peek lives in Nashville with his partner of 41 years, Joe Heatherly. He is currently working on his memoirs, enjoying life as a homemaker and spending time with his son and daughter-in-law, grandchildren and great grand children.
Hollis Hollywood is an entertainment blogger and follows the drag beat. Her work comes from her website www.hollishollywood.com.