One winter night in 1981, as the staff at the Pyramid Club in the East Village was preparing for its reopening as a performance club, the artist John Kelly walked in and met the new manager, Bobby Bradley. The 22-year-old was part of a wave of artists who had moved to the neighborhood for its cheap rent and countercultural happenings. With his deep-set eyes, aquiline nose, and petite frame, Kelly had an androgynous beauty that helped him transform into different characters as a performance artist. As he remembers it, the conversation with the manager went like this: “Bobby said, ‘I’m gonna be opening this club,’ and I said, ‘I’m working on this martyrdom of Saint Sebastian scene,’ and he said, ‘Perfect.’”
A few weeks later, Kelly was one of two acts at the Pyramid’s grand reopening, alongside artist Phoebe Legere. He wore a black bustier and a teased red wig, had darkened his eye sockets with makeup to make himself look emaciated, and used sound effects to signal the “arrows” that martyred his sexy saint. When his death finally came, Kelly flipped himself over a railing and into the crowd, who responded with almost religious ecstasy. As Kelly told me, “I was in a big fuck-you mode with everything. Authority, my father, I was just like, ‘Fuck all of you.’ And drag was the most fucked up thing I could think of doing.”
Over the last fourteen years, RuPaul’s Drag Race has transformed a once niche art into a global business. Of course, historians of drag will tell you it’s been around since Shakespeare, that the first “queen of drags” may have been a formerly enslaved person, and that drag performers were vaudeville stars in the late 1800s. There’s no arguing against drag’s enduring place in American popular culture or its long pedigree in art. But if we can claim a singular origin point for the business drag has become — an art-form-cum-enterprise with stars and wannabes and reality competitions and a network of performers, promoters, venues, and merchandisers — it would be that night in December 1981 at the Pyramid Club, a ground-floor dive bar in a narrow, 19th-century tenement.
The venue, at 101 Avenue A, had previously been a Young Lords–affiliated cultural center called The New Rican Village, which opened in 1976. In 1979, it reopened as the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge, a dive for old Polish and Ukrainian day drinkers. When that didn’t take off, the owners sensed the growing presence of a younger, whiter, and (slightly) more monied crowd in the neighborhood, many of whom had recently come to the Lower East Side for its art scene. So they rebranded the Pyramid as a performance club, with cheap drinks, a tiny stage, and a basement dressing room that rained grit on the performers when the dance floor above got going. The East Village was just starting to get a reputation as the city’s edgy, cheap, and more diverse “gayborhood” — a dark and exciting mirror of the West Village — and the Pyramid quickly became its center.
Kelly’s performance at Pyramid was about as far as he could get from his suburban youth in New Jersey and his professional training with the American Ballet Theatre. And it was everything the East Village art scene wanted to be: outrageous, experimental, queer; combining a cheap DIY-punk aesthetic with classical allusions to opera, ancient history, and the avant-garde. It was also a major step away from most drag performance at the time, which was largely about mimicking celebrities like Bette Davis or Judy Garland, or using drag as a bit of Shakespearean buffoonery in Off–Off-Broadway shows — the way Charles Ludlam’s Theatre of the Ridiculous frequently put actors in drag to heighten the theatricality of a scene or to add an element of absurdity. The idea that a drag artist could develop a persona separate from themselves, and create performances based on this character that stood on their own, was new. And “new” was the most precious coin in this realm.
Agosto Machado was working the door at Club SNAFU, a rock-oriented performance club in Chelsea that showed drag occasionally when he heard about a new bar on Avenue A “that was going to have dra-a-a-a-gs,” as he pronounced it. Machado had been “a street queen” since the early 1960s. As a teenage orphan, he got dressed on the steps of a church on Christopher Street before going out, creating looks from a shopping cart full of wigs, makeup, and fabric rescued from the trash of the city’s dying manufacturing sector. Throughout the ’60s, Machado became a staple in the ensembles of theater-makers like Jimmy Camicia and Jack Smith, and he performed in drag with Charles Ludlam. But he had never seen a place where the queens were the featured attraction.
“Avenue A?” Machado remembers thinking when he first heard about the Pyramid. “That was edgy,” he thought, even for him. But he’d been harassed and assaulted in the city’s “nice” neighborhoods for being too effeminate, in drag and out of it; why not check out an area that most of the city seemed to have written off? By the third night, he was dancing on the bar and taking small roles in the productions of the queens who became the first generation of Pyramid royalty, like Tabboo! and Hapi Phace.
The news that the Pyramid Club was a hotspot for drag and performance art soon spread throughout the neighborhood. It helped that one of the bar managers, Brian Butterick, was developing his own drag persona, Hattie Hathaway, which is how he came to know the most exciting up-and-coming acts, as well as what made a bar appealing to a performer, like having a dedicated dressing room. The Pyramid quickly became Mecca for old queens, new queens, faux queens, kings, interdimensional alien drag entities, and, eventually, RuPaul Charles. Almost anyone could get on stage. You just had to commit to the bit. Soon, other venues began to proliferate nearby: Darinka, Club Chandelier; King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on Avenue A. There might be six performers on a bill on any given night, and if you didn’t like them, the next club was just a few blocks away.
In this emerging East Village drag scene, “The emphasis was on personality, individuality, and what stood out,” drag queen Linda Simpson told me. A hundred queens could present their take on Judy Garland, and a drag character in a play was someone you would only go see once. But by creating unique personas, East Village queens made their work both brandable and repeatable. “For instance, Lady Bunny was the fiery Southern queen,” Simpson said. “Sister Dimension was the over-the-top alien who had all the great music from Paradise Garage,” and so on. For her own persona, Simpson adopted a chipper revolutionary style, publishing a semi-monthly queer liberation magazine called My Comrade, which featured drag queens as “heroic figures” who exemplified their East Village neighborhood.
As the scene developed, certain venues became associated with specific drag artists. John Epperson eventually became so famous as his drag persona Lypsinka that, by 1991, he appeared in the window of Barney’s and modeled in drag for Gap. But he got his start at Club 57, at 57 St. Marks Place, in the basement of a Polish church. Club 57 wasn’t a queer club. “It celebrated kitsch” in all forms, Epperson told me — which is how he first ended up there watching a screening of the 1970 Russ Meyer sexploitation musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. “The crowd started screaming the moment the movie started,” Epperson recalled. “And that’s when I realized ‘Oh, I have found my place in New York!’” Like most East Village venues, Club 57 was very welcoming to new performers, so when Epperson heard they were doing a Lawrence Welk night, he dragged up for the first time to do a rendition of Jo Ann Castle, the ragtime piano player from Welk’s TV show. In just a few months, he left mimicry behind and created Lypsinka, an act that combined classic Hollywood looks with lip-syncs to fast-paced, elaborately edited monologues from camp-classic films like Mommie Dearest.
At the WOW Café, a women’s theatre on East Fourth Street, one of the most famous drag acts was Carmelita Tropicana’s alter-ego, Pingalito Betancourt, a bus conductor who told the history of the Cuban Revolution. WOW was a little bit different from the other clubs; here, drag kings took the stage. Although kings were popular in the United States in the late 19th century, in the 20th, they were much less common than queens, in part because of the greater financial precarity of queer women and the venues that served them. WOW’s popularity as a drag venue was partially thanks to co-founder Diane Torr, a Scottish dancer, martial artist, musician, and performer, who was one of the reigning kings of the 1980s and ’90s who held drag-king workshops all around the city, often with trans activist, drag king, and make-up artist Johnny Science.
Perhaps the brightest persona in this drag universe was Ethyl Eichelberger. Before he performed opposite Sting on Broadway and, many years later, died by suicide in the face of AIDS-related dementia, he was known in every club in the East Village as a one-of-a-kind star who elevated trashy looks and dragged Shakespeare back to its bawdy roots. His regular performance home was 8BC, a rickety club that Cornelius Conboy built by hand in the rotted guts of a former Victorian farmhouse on 8th Street between Avenues B and C. Eichelberger was already so famous in the performance-art scene that when the club opened, Conboy was nervous to ask him to come by — especially because it had rained the night before Eichelberger visited. 8BC had a dirt floor and was built on top of two of the streams that crisscrossed the island of Manhattan before it became the city of Manhattan; when it rained, the waters rose and reclaimed the dance floor.
“This is so embarrassing,” thought Conboy, when he saw Eichelberger walking toward him down 8th Street. Eichelberger walked right through the mud at 8BC without even blinking, his eyes focused only on the club’s most unique possession: an expensive Austrian valance stage curtain made of raw ivory silk taffeta, which dripped in waves across the proscenium. It had been a gift from Conboy’s sister, and it gave 8BC an elegance that the other clubs couldn’t match. “Where do I sign up?” Eichelberger said on the spot. He performed at least once a month at 8BC until it closed in 1985. His shows combined high theater and high camp, like his infamous one-man, three-character King Lear, with Lear as a Mark-Twain–esque Southern gentleman, Cordelia as a nightgown on a hanger, and the Fool as a head stuck to Eichelberger’s shoulder.
Like most avant-garde scenes, the early East Village drag boom was short-lived. The neighborhood was devastated by gentrification and AIDS, starting (by most accounts) in 1985. Even the queens who survived — the ones who talked to me for this article — had all moved out and moved on. By the late 1980s, the Pyramid was just about the only spot left in the East Village promoting drag regularly: Club 57, 8BC, Darinka, and Club Chandelier had closed; King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut was changing ownership and becoming a hard-rock bar; ACT UP meetings were now the new place to cruise. But nature abhors a vacuum, and by the mid-1980s, a new queen swept in to reinvigorate East Village drag, a slutty Southern genderfucking punk who brought the Pyramid back to prominence: RuPaul Charles.
Ru, Lady Bunny, Lahoma Van Zandt, and Larry Tee showed up together, a contingent of Atlanta performers “who were a burst of fresh air on the scene,” according to historian Linda Simpson. Less concerned with being high art or experimental, they brought a renewed sense of fun and whimsy that had dissipated as drag memorials began to outnumber drag performances (think of the energy of the video for 1989’s Love Shack, which was by another Atlanta group, the B-52s, and featured RuPaul). Their little collective gave them built-in collaborators, cheerleaders, and promoters; a mini-scene within the scene.
What made Ru stand out, even back then? “She was exploring different personas,” said Simpson — sometimes rock-and-roll sex kitten, sometimes the glamazon she’s now famous for adopting. In a scene that celebrated unique characters, here was a queen who seemed to be able to do dozens of them, becoming whatever the audience sought. In the years since, her protean ability to adapt and entertain has brought Ru an unprecedented four decades of drag celebrity. In return, Mama Ru has taken East Village drag — this kooky, lip-syncing, camp-inspired, character-driven art — and made it an American megabusiness.
Some of RuPaul’s former East Village compatriots see Drag Race as a watered-down, corporate version of a once-radical art. One queen told me that a single outfit on Drag Race costs more than she has spent on drag, cumulatively, in her life. But others see Drag Race as the culmination of the form, validation for the characters they created so many decades ago when most of America had nothing but disdain for drag. But they all agree that RuPaul both emerged out of and shaped the East Village drag scene and that Drag Race is one of its major descendants.
Drag Race isn’t solely responsible for giving East Village drag a bigger platform — for many people, their first introduction to the East Village at all was the Broadway hit Rent, which prominently featured a drumming drag queen named Angel. For a show about not paying rent, Rent helped bring a wave of new, more monied residents to the Village, and ushered in its hypergentrification. Most of the clubs and queens who created the Pyramid scene couldn’t afford the East Village now, with average rents hovering over $4,000/month — a far cry from the $100 rents of the 1980s. But the scene isn’t dead exactly, just dispersed. Trashy-freaky drag has, for the most part, moved across the East River to Brooklyn stages. You can still see John Kelly, Carmelita Tropicana, Linda Simpson, and Lypsinka — you just might have to travel to do it. Every once in a while, Agosto Machado can be coaxed back on stage. The Pyramid might even be making a comeback, although this time, it’ll be as a rock venue. Nothing stays still for long in New York — it either dies or goes global. East Village drag somehow managed to do both.