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Younger gay guys: please don’t forget the drag heroes of the past

Arguably, drag has never been bigger with the RuPaul phenomenon showing no signs of sashaying away anytime soon but are younger gay men in the UK spending too much time watching stateside queens and not enough time learning about homegrown gay culture?

Author Ian Elmslie was one half of the glorious cabaret act Katrina and the Boy and has just released his new book: A Marvelous Party. He wants us all to remember the queens and kings of days gone by.

As Katrina and I arrived at the launch party of “Open the cage, Murphy”, the fourth instalment of Paul O’ Grady’s exhaustive memoir, he greeted us with a poignant observation.

“There’s fuck all of us left.”

And he’s right. When Katrina and The Boy joined the twilight world of the gay cabaret circuit in 1990, we were introduced to a colourful cavalcade of drag queens, each and every one a legend in their own time.

Katrina and The Boy with Lily Savage

A glance at the “hymn board” in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern would alert your attention and applause to the very best in the business.

Her Imperial Highness, Regina Fong, would hold court on Monday night, leading the audience to heights of participation that not even the crowd at Rocky Horror could dream of scaling.

Thursday night was Workers Playtime with Lily Savage, the undisputed queen of the circuit, and a sure-fire guarantee of foul-mouthed comic genius played to a packed and adoring house.

The seemingly-immortal Lee Paris and Jimmy Trollette would lead the Saturday night singalong, with the best male voice in town raising the roof to the likes of “Sweet Caroline” and “Delilah”.

If you were still able to stand the next day, you would stagger along to Sunday School, overseen by the Super Destroyer Adrella, who wouldn’t be let off the stage without her infamous impersonation of Liza Minnelli, barely visible behind clouds of baby powder.

We lost Adrella in 2012 but her amazing Liza impression should never be forgotten

Of all these legends, only Lily and Jimmy are still alive and while we’re strolling down memory lane, let’s not forget others who took the final curtain call with the crowd still calling for ‘more, more, more!’

Candy du Barry, Dockyard Doris, David Desire, Nicky Young, and possibly the greatest of them all, the incomparable mistress of the belly laugh gag, the brilliant Phil Starr.

In the 90s, you could travel to all four points of the compass around London and find bars and clubs with regular nights of cabaret, all now long-gone and barely in memory.

Iconic venues like the Royal Oak in Hammersmith, the Black Cap in Camden, the Black Horse in the East End and the Gloucester in Greenwich are now restaurants, straight bars or empty tombs, with only the RVT, Two Brewers, The White Swan, Halfway to Heaven and the George and Dragon still flying the rainbow flag for this glittering lynchpin of our community.

The Black Cap in Camden closed in 2015

Too many gone. And forgotten? I hope not.

If we really are 1 in 10 of the population, then we have to fight ten times harder to preserve our history.

Every time a bar or club closes the doors for the last time, or a drag queen takes the final bow, we lose a little bit of the magic that makes the LGBT world a spectacular celebration of ourselves.

Some might say that cabaret has had its day, and in the words of the all-conquering Dame Edna Experience, all the kids wanna do is “fucking dance”.

But, oh what a world you might be missing!

There is still a wonderful collective of performers who go out to work in the early hours of the evening, pat on the pancake, stick on the lashes, apply the lipstick and go into battle, all in the name of entertainment.

The old guard of Dave Lynn, Lola Lasagne and Sandra are rubbing shoulder pads with the new queens on the block, Miss Jason, Tanya Hyde and Mary Mac, to name but a glorious few.

And maybe, if you lift your face from your phone, take a break from searching for love on an app, and look at a stage, you may experience a shared joy that no amount of blue “like” thumbs could ever match.

The sequined baton is being passed on, and those that we have lost are remembered and honoured by those who still stalk those hallowed boards.

Let them entertain you and give them the support they need to keep the memory of our lost drag queen loves alive.

Buy Ian Elmslie’s book, A Marvelous Party here!

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17 thoughts on “Younger gay guys: please don’t forget the drag heroes of the past

  1. I was fortunate to see all of these marvellous acts but I would like to add a few more names to the list Marc Fleming (Auntie Flo) whose acid tongue and quick wit was second to none, and another stalwart of The Black Cap Mrs. Shufflewick whose act the majority of the audience knew backwards, Tony Paige standing around six foot even without the high heels and his wonderful singing voice and David Dale whose face at times seemed to be made of rubber both of whom I am happy to say are very much still with us as are most of members of two of the many wonderful mime acts from that period The Harlequeens and the Disapointer sisters whose costumes and performance could leave you speechless.
    Their talent can still be enjoyed there are a number of videos of so many of these acts on Youtube so please take the time to watch and enjoy.

  2. My self Known as Bunny Thomas
    (Thomas Bunn )
    Adored all of them the presence the scene they inhabited the Conan the joy they gave I was mainly in A bunny Outfit with beard and moustache but was influence by all those greats like Mrs Shuffleick /aka Rex Jameson Marc Fleming
    They are mentioned much in the book
    “Sorry Darling It’s Way Past Time “ by
    Thomas Bunn/Bunny Thomas
    Most if all I miss my close mate
    Larry Grayson who died 7th Jan 1995
    What Christmas days we shared
    To think as I type this ( without checking) that’s ive 23 years ago
    Memories are the stuff we are made of
    ( search the book ) it’s very cheap they tell me on Amazon. Ebooks even cheaper
    order from any good bookstore
    May your flange forever Flapp !💋💋💋

  3. Hi I have only ever seen Lily savage out of the Drag Queens and I totally agree with the sentiment behind the piece but Iknow of one Drag Queen who works with the same type of professionalism as any of the older Drag Queens .He has style and talent He makes his own jewellery ,dresses,and styles his own wigs .He is funny ,sings and dances too .He is very much an old style drag Queen He has very high standards and values so I believe there are some left who are up and coming His name is Brenda LaBeau

  4. As much as I can relate to these wonderful acts mentioned. Seen the majority of them over the years I would also like to mention that there were many brilliant Drag Queens north of Watford also. Some very well known acts who did the circuits over the years. It’s not all London acts that should be remembered.

  5. And please don’t forget the Northern Queens who have been around for an age including the wonderful Billie Raymond, who is still appearing at Pride events across the UK and world wide as well as the occasional performances.

  6. Great article. I was lucky enough to have known some of these acts over the many years that i have not only been on the scene, but also worked in an East End pub in the 70s, where it is quite true that as a 5″ 6″ shortie, Tony Page would tower over me. Lol. I am surprised that no one though has mentioned in their comments Lee Sutton, who i saw in early 1970 in the Union Tavern. Maybe its an age thing as i am 64, and was watching drag acts when i was nearly 16. In many ways he was for me one of the most original live acts at the time.

  7. You’re all so fabulous. Talking of great voices do you remember Cher Travesty banging out “Ernie the fastest milkman in the west” on her little keyboard? Poor Jason, he passed away far too young.

  8. My very first show (hypnotist) was in the RVT on a Sunday afternoon and I was “bricking it”! I had already polished off a quarter bottle of brandy but still nervous! Found I was sharing changing “room” with Adrella who said she had the perfect solution to help calm me and promptly produced a large spliff which we shared, it would have been rude to refuse! We had quite a laugh backstage and my little spot on stage went well……I can´t remember, lol, but more bookings came in after that.

  9. I go even further back and well remember Terry Gardner and Barri Chatt! I always got a good laugh from Phil Starr. Marc (Auntie Flo) Fleming was to be feared if you were near the front at the Cap. Shuff always great and Masie Trollette well, fantastic.
    Great days the sixties and seventies, I’ll never forget the nights spent in the great venues.

  10. I’ve certainly not forgotten you, Dave Dale! Absolutely awesome shows.

    Lily and Adrella were some of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Skippy The Fox!

    R.I.P. the left-field candidate, Rose Marie, whose rendition of ‘Bobby’s Girl’ was something to behold! Tragically murdered when he met the wrong person at IIRC Traffic in Kings X.

  11. Sandy Graham, Derrick Reece, The Dumbells,
    Ron Storm, Steve Francis, George Logan (hinge and bracket) guys in disguise, just a few more names from my memory

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