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COVER STORY : Hip Again : With their ribald humor and lavish costumes, drag queens make a comeback at venues such as the Queen Mary in Studio City.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Butch, Queen of the Valley, is on a gender-crossing joy ride, holding hostage the sensibilities of yet another whooping, cat-calling, ready-to- rock Friday night audience:

The onstage diva and emcee at the Queen Mary bar Show Lounge on Ventura Boulevard, Butch’s job is to prepare audiences for the sleight-of-body acts to follow: men dressed as women, tap dancing, lip-syncing and somersaulting across the stage, impersonating stars such as Diana Ross, Madonna and those black-habited nuns in the Whoopi Goldberg movie “Sister Act.”

Billing himself “as the oldest drag queen in captivity,” the 60ish performer prances about in a sequined evening dress and stylish hat, a cross between actress June Lockhart and somebody’s acerbic grandmother.

But the off-the-cuff put-downs are all Joan Rivers.

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“Hey girl, don’t look like such a prune!” he tells one frowning twentysomething woman. “We’re here to impersonate you. So, don’t be a bitch!”

Drag queens are back.

Hip during the 1970s, some say overlooked during the 1980s, their ribald humor is making a comeback in venues across Los Angeles--this time with audiences who just a few years ago might never have considered men dressing as women tolerable entertainment.

The newfound popularity, club owners and performers say, has come in part from the crossover successes of such films as 1992’s “The Crying Game” and this summer’s critically well-received “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” about three drag queens (including veteran British actor Terence Stamp) on a bus trip across the Australian outback.

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“Priscilla brought in a new ilk of audience,” said Queen Mary owner Robert Juleff. “The parents of people who were our customers before the movie.”

The drag queen revue “La Cage aux Folles,” based on a film and popular Broadway play, which has played in various local venues since 1984, has inspired like characters to pop up on stage and in the movies.

The drag queen subculture is the subject of a soon-to-be-released film starring Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze titled “To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” about three New York City transvestites who get stranded in a Midwestern town.

And on Tuesday nights at Tattoo in Beverly Hills, a 67-year-old drag comedian named Gypsy hosts a female impersonation revue that on a recent night saw former Playboy playmate Barbi Benton and 92-year-old philanthropist Sybil Brand in the audience--but not at the same table.

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All of this is good news for performers at the Queen Mary--a 32-year-old Studio City institution that Juleff says is the second-oldest show bar featuring female impersonators in the United States, after Finocchios in San Francisco.

Four nights a week, the club showcases performers who represent a cross-section of alternative gay lifestyles--from men who dress in drag only for their performances, to those who live as women or have undergone sex-change operations.

“It’s still a regular sexual blender, we’re just more out these days,” says a queen called Monica. “The grand old days of the ‘70s drag are back with a vengeance. That means big hair, long lashes. And the clothes, darling, the clothes! It’s outrageous!”

That means red satin dresses that cling sinfully to curvaceous frames. It means feathery show-girl costumes and slinky evening wear.

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One after the other, curious Queen Mary audiences leave as satisfied customers.

“We love these women--if that’s what they are,” says Tony Fortunato of Santa Clarita who, along with friend Bob Monaco, chose the Queen Mary to celebrate their birthdays with family and friends. “You don’t know who’s who in here, or what’s what.”

Adds Monaco: “If you’ve left your hang-ups at home, this place is a riot. We have friends who wouldn’t come, who said that guys dressed as women wasn’t their idea of entertainment. Well, forget ‘em. They’re homophobes. They’re probably afraid they might like it.”

Freddie Bercovitz, publisher of Dragazine, a glossy West Hollywood magazine that covers the drag queen subculture, said the popularity pendulum is on the upswing because queens have something unique to provide audiences.

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“They provide glamour,” said Bercovitz, who writes under the pseudonym Lois Commondenominator. “Today, everybody is celebrity obsessed and drag queens are emulating celebrities. They can look like a Marilyn or a Madonna you can actually touch.

“Female impersonators have a need for attention, and we have a need to give adulation. It’s a co-dependency.”

Recently, 10 women on a bachelorette outing joined 75 other customers who sprung for the $7 cover charge at the Queen Mary--insisting that female impersonators are better entertainment than any buffed-out Chippendales dancers.

As a giant mirrored disco ball shot light beams across the room, fully dressed performers floated through the crowd. Later, some patrons had their pictures taken with their favorite queen.

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On stage, Butch’s one-liners come fast and furious.

“Keep drinking,” he purrs. “I can tell by looking at you that you are all as sober as perverted little judges. And the more you drink, dearies, the better we look.”

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There are audience reminders on safe sex. “No glove, no love, my babies,” he says.

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And with one effeminate-looking man, Butch goes straight for the jugular. “Are there any gay folks down there where you live in Palos Verdes,” he asks coyly.

“Not that I know of,” the man replies.

“Sure thing, sweetheart,” Butch quips, “not since you left.”

In another act, a platinum-blonde queen, sinewy legs shrouded under black stockings, stalked a customer, his rouge-red lips dangerously close to the man’s ear.

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“Hello,” he says in a whiskey voice, octaves lower than Lauren Bacall herself.

The audience howls.

“It’s like a magic show,” says audience member Rick Kern. “You see dresses and you look for lumps and bumps you can’t find. It keeps you wondering. Me, I’m spellbound!”

At another table, a group insists there is a distinction between the way the performers appeal to gay and straight audiences.

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“Virtually all of these entertainers are gay,” said a woman who identifies herself as a lesbian. “Straight audiences come to see a freak show. Gay people come to laugh at themselves.”

“Gumball Eddie” Boyle comes to impress his friends.

“I’ve been here 30 or 40 times,” he says, entertaining a table of four middle-aged women. “I get a kick out of bringing newcomers here as a kind of shock treatment. They tell me, ‘Oh, I’ve done L.A.’ And I say, ‘Well, brutha, you ain’t done this L.A!’ ”

Boyle, who operates 1,100 gum ball machines between Los Angeles and San Diego, says the clientele at the Queen Mary has changed over the past decade. “Now, there are doctors and lawyers. It used to be me, surrounded by bikers and weirdos.”

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Always the joker, he motions to his guests. “The joke’s on you, pal. Because these aren’t really women I’m with. They’re guys!” as the women--they are women--pummel him in mock annoyance.

Like its performers, nights at the Queen Mary have always been colorful.

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In the 1950s, owner Juleff’s mother, Mickey Lee, began hiring female impersonators to spice up business at her Valley restaurant, The Mick, before buying the present club.

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Early on, local law required performers to wear male attire under female costumes, and customers could often see shirts and ties peeking out under V-neck gowns.

In the 1960s, things got wild. Like the night some gay-bashers in a Volkswagen took one of his queens on a real drag--grabbing him by the arm and hauling him across the parking lot.

“We’ve had jealous wives storm out of here,” Juleff says. “Jealous husbands too.”

In the ‘70s, Pepperdine University fraternities hazed their pledges there, making them dress in drag along with performers. Streakers often bolted through the bar during the show.

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Then came The Fight.

One night following a drag contest, a jealous rival poured a drink down the winner’s back. “Within six minutes, everybody in the place was fighting,” Juleff said. “I’m fighting. My brother is fighting. We’re throwing people out. Chairs are flying. My mother is standing onstage hitting people over the head with the drag contest trophy.”

The police made no arrests.

“They said it looked like a fair fight,” Juleff said.

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Nowadays, it’s drag queen-emcee Butch raising eyebrows at the Queen Mary.

Working the crowd, the dollar bill tips flying, he flirts with a man wearing a cowboy hat, evoking images of riding horseback in drag across the Montana wild lands.

He zeros in on an unsmiling patron, evoking the line that has become a Queen Mary staple:

“Lighten up, dearie,” he says. “The moment you came through the front door, your reputation was shot to hell. So, now that you’re here, you might as well live it up!”

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Where and When

What: Queen Mary Show Lounge.

Location: 12449 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Hours: 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 9 and 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

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Price: $7 cover, two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 506-5619.


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