Thanks to vehicles like RuPaul's Drag Race, drag has gotten pretty mainstream. But it wasn't always so. And audiences can witness living proof of Pittsburgh's rich, if largely hidden, drag heritage, especially its African-American incarnation, on Oct. 26. That's when "One More Time, An Old-School (Drag) Ball" reunites — perhaps for the last time — retired performers whose careers date back up to a half-century.
The ball will be staged at Homestead's Bulgarian-Macedonian Cultural Center. It includes, naturally, a pageant with cash prizes, featuring a 1960s runway competition and 1970s-2000s lip-sync category. Event organizer Harrison Apple says he expects 20 or more contestants from all eras of Pittsburgh drag. "There'll be people in their 80s and there'll be people in their teens, hopefully," says Apple.
One "drag grandmother" being honored is Connie Dorsett. Miss Connie, a North Side native, did her first drag performance in 1968, at that neighborhood's Greenwich Village Inn, on Lacock Street. These days, many drag performers focus on lip-syncing. But back then, "Most of the drag queens would strip, dance with snakes or fire," she says. "If you were able to get a show in a bar, you were doing good."
Dorsett emceed shows and did comic monologues. She also founded, with Angel DeSilva, the troupe Pink Fantasy, which played both gay and straight nightclubs throughout the 1970s, from Pittsburgh to Uniontown. Other troupes included the Lavender Lads, mainstays at long-running and iconic Shadyside club The House of Tilden. The local drag scene was somewhat integrated racially; on Oct. 26, ball guests will include both white and black queens, though most of the performers will be black, says Apple.
Though Dorsett, 67, hasn't performed in decades, her legacy thrives. In the early 1970s, she became drag mother to one of that era's stars, Denise Darshell. "He looked glamorous and did well," Dorsett now says proudly.
In the 1980s, Denise in turn was drag mother to contemporary drag eminence Kierra Darshell. "She pretty much created my character," Kierra says of Denise — everything from makeup to "how to carry myself on stage, how to entertain." Kierra Darshell went on to found the annual, long-running Miss Tri-State All-Star Pageant and to stage shows year-round at venues like Cruze Bar and There Ultra Lounge. On Oct. 26, Kierra will emcee One More Time in tribute to Denise, who died in 1995. But Kierra also honors the grandmothers she's never met. "My whole thing is, these folks paved the way for me to do the things I do," she says.
In the old days, it wasn't always easy. "It was terrible here in Pittsburgh for a long time," says Dorsett. "We were arrested for just walking down the street in our regalia."
But with the advent in the '70s of more gay- and lesbian-owned clubs, drag here grew stronger, says Apple. The Carnegie Mellon University graduate is researching the history of local gay and lesbian nightlife through CMU's Center for the Arts in Society.
Apple organized the ball with Laura Grantmyer, a University of Pittsburgh doctoral candidate whose research into redevelopment in the Hill District put her in touch with some of the same sources — drag icons of Pittsburgh past.
"For us to come back, we've been talking about it for years," says Dorsett of herself and other queens. "We said, ‘We need to do it one more time.'"
Apple says drag performers of all ages are welcome to perform: "Show up with your music and your dress." Guest performers include JoJo, 74, formerly a star dancer with the Pearl Box Revue. "He's gonna carry on so," promises Dorsett. "He's gonna have the audience screaming."
But will Miss Connie perform? "No," she says. "All I'm gonna do is be glamorous."