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Not Quite Mainstream : Gender bender: Although the Queen Mary’s drag show isn’t the shocker it once was, it still draws gasps and giggles.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Who hates wearing pantyhose?” sniffs the Joan Rivers look-alike, doing that ribald, let’s-bare-it-all-ladies humor Rivers is famous for.

About a dozen hands go up in the audience. “Good. Now how about the girls?”

This kind of gender-bending humor has been a staple at the Queen Mary in Studio City for 29 years, making it the second oldest show bar featuring female impersonators in the United States. Only Finocchios in San Francisco has been operating longer.

Four nights a week, men in glittering gowns and billowing wigs lip-sync to hits by Diana Ross and Bette Midler and tell jokes that make the bachelorette parties that crowd the stage blush and giggle--and come back for more.

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“The minute you came in the front door your reputation was shot to hell,” says a performer who looks like Phyllis Diller with thin, blood-red lips. “So live it up because it’s difficult to live it down.”

In point of fact, however, although the Queen Mary was outrageous and limits-testing at one time, it might seem to some to be as quaint as a slightly eccentric maiden aunt in an era when the Los Angeles Board of Education has set aside a month honoring gays and lesbians. And when people dressed every bit as extravagantly as Margo St. Jaynee--his girth squeezed into a shiny leather miniskirt that bulges like an overstuffed Glad bag as he bumps and grinds to “I’m Too Sexy"--can be seen traipsing down Main Street in the local gay pride parade.

But the club in the square aquamarine building at 12449 Ventura Blvd. still packs in suburbanites such as Lee Crates, 60, from Simi Valley, who first came there 15 years ago. “It was fabulous,” she said after a recent show.

Her son-in-law asked to have his picture taken with Anna E., the Latin bombshell of the cast, who, like a few other cast members, lives as a woman.

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“Did you see those boobs?” Crates asked in awe.

Julie Carpenter was making her first visit that night. The 36-year-old woman from Santa Clarita said she’d always been “a little curious” about drag shows but didn’t know what to expect. “In a way it takes some of the fear away,” she said, referring to people whose sexual roles are outside the mainstream.

Robert Juleff, the Queen Mary’s co-owner, said the club is an outgrowth of an idea his mother, Mickey Lee, had about 40 years ago. Hoping to increase business in her Valley restaurant, named The Mick, she decided to bring in entertainment featuring men dressed as women.

Even though it was the conservative early 1950s, the concept took off. She later sold the restaurant, opened the club a short distance away and took her son on as a partner. A picture of her, a statuesque-looking blonde in a long gown, hangs on the back wall of the club, illuminated like a museum piece by a small overhead lamp.

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Juleff said the club has changed to keep pace with society over the years. In the early years, state law required the performers to wear male attire under their female costumes. Customers back then would see shirts and ties peeking out from a V-cut gown, and nylon-covered legs ending in a pair of shiny black wingtips.

“The idea was to make sure you could identify them as boys,” said Juleff. Not that there was much chance of confusion at a time when the performers were far less skilled as female mimes. Shows then tended to be campy, clunky affairs, said Juleff.

Juleff said everyone in the club became so accustomed to wearing two sets of clothes that when the law changed and allowed the performers to abandon their male undergarments, there was real anxiety. “When I came to work and said, ‘You don’t have to wear shirts and ties any more,’ they were unprepared,” he said.

At one time, there were three shows a night. But now, with the recession cutting into family entertainment dollars, the performers do one show lasting about four hours.

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Another modern touch is the effort the club makes to attract large groups, offering special rates for birthday parties and bachelor and bachelorette affairs. “It’s sort of like Chuck E. Cheese’s for adults,” according to Juleff.

After each show the performers mingle with the crowd, answering questions and posing for pictures. “I feel people have preconceived ideas about female impersonators,” Juleff said. “Once they speak with them and understand them, they can have a good time.”

By adapting and changing, the club has survived while many others have failed. Charging only $5 to enter--plus a two-drink minimum--nobody is getting rich, Juleff said. But everybody is getting paid.

That’s no small thing, said Blake Warner, 27, of Los Angeles, one of 10 cast members. He plays Joan Rivers on stage and performs several other celebrity characterizations.

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“Of all the clubs I’ve worked at in L.A., this club always paid,” he said. “Also, the cast is really cool. It’s not a snake pit backstage, like some clubs I’ve seen.” Warner was backstage getting ready for a Saturday night show. A half-dozen other performers sat nearby, squinting into their mirrors, dabbing on thick layers of makeup while a radio played popular music in the background.

The transformation from man to woman takes time and the effect can be startling. A dour-looking man with hunched shoulders and a round, nondescript face shuffled in, sat down and got to work on the easel of his body. An hour later, he arose as a woman with flowing hair and a much more erect, confident bearing. There was a knowing smile on his lips.

“There is a different way of thinking,” commented Ariana, a 31-year-old Asian man from Venice, who was sitting in another corner of the dressing room. “As soon as the wig and makeup are on I become quite feminine.”

Many people find watching that change unsettling, and Warner plays on this in his act when he strips from a female to a male on stage in a number called “What Makes a Man a Man.” Warner likes to watch the way the faces in his audience change as he sheds one sexual persona for another.

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“Some people are fascinated, some are angry, some are amazed,” he said. Although the audience knew going in that there are men under the makeup, seeing one emerge from his costume “shatters them.”

Warner’s view of sexual roles might be expected from a man who began his entertainment career as an illusionist. “It’s all drag,” he said. “There’s no such thing as normal. It’s all an act, all a costume. If I were a cop, I’d be eating a doughnut right now.”

Warner said that when he came to Los Angeles in 1987 he tried to break into show business the conventional way. He was a dancer and comic, as well as a magician. He got a few jobs, but wasn’t having much success.

“When I worked at the Comedy Store I was like everybody else,” he said, laughing. “I put on a dress and went around the world,” touring Japan, Taiwan and Canada with female impersonator revues. “Go figure.”

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“Six minutes,” a man called into the dressing room. The performers hurried with their finishing touches, straightening waistlines, reapplying lipstick.

Out front, a mixed crowd was filing in. There were straight couples, a bachelorette party of eight--the future husband was home watching the children--and a few lesbian and gay couples.

The show moved quickly, beginning with some jokes, several lip-syncing performances, and a live version of “The Girl From Ipanema” by Ariana, a trained singer. As he sang, he strolled through the crowd, which pressed forward to push dollar bills into his hands.

Ariana said later that he recently auditioned for a part in the film version of “M. Butterfly,” the Broadway play about a male Chinese opera star who led a double life as the female mistress of a British diplomat.

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Ironically, the film’s casting director was not worried about his ability to play a woman. “Their comment was I didn’t look Asian enough.”


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