Whores, clowns, whore-clowns, and humiliation. Welcome to Showgirls

6.24.2007

By Mike Albo

Here's a story that nicely sums up the showbiz spirit of Provincetown. Ryan Landry, the host and creator of the hugely popular drag night Showgirls, recalls how he got his start here, one evening, maybe 15 years ago:

'I was dressed in garbage bags with a trash-can lid for a hat and pizza slices taped to my tits in an effort to win some costume contest. But I got so wasted I fell off the stage and landed on the buffet table. Someone dragged me to a corner where I fell asleep under a pinball machine. The next day'yes, they left me there'I was told by the morning bartender that I had won the first prize of $100. I thought to myself, Christ, if I can make $100 by getting high and falling asleep, I ought to do this for a living.'

Such was the landing pad'or buffet table'that Provincetown represented for up-and-coming artists in the '80s and '90s. For Landry, who arrived there in his early 20s, it was lifesaving. 'I'd already lived in New York since I was 17, hustling the streets, shooting heroin, sleeping in the abandoned buildings on Christopher Street and the West Side Highway,' he recalls. 'We all thought it was very rock and roll. Now I think that I must have been out of my mind.'

But since getting up from under that pinball machine, Landry (now thankfully more sober) has become a creative force in Provincetown, both with his theater company, Gold Dust Orphans, and with Showgirls, a major tent pole in the loud chaotic circus of performance that takes over the town every summer.

The town has matured somewhat too. These days there are dozens of acts: drag personae, old-school female illusionists, lesbian stand-ups, comedy outfits, porn star solo shows, naked boy revues, men as women, women as men, women as men as women, and a Cher on a motor scooter. P-town has become the gay borscht belt.

Every evening after doing the beach, eating seared scallops, and then picking out their clothes to go out dancing, the gay (and, increasingly, straight) Provincetown vacationers wander up and down Commercial Street, the main thoroughfare, past the battalions of performers attempting to lure them into their shows. If you don't cut it in drag and don't have a reputation the size of comics like Kate Clinton or Margaret Cho, you'd better be willing to dress up like a whore or a clown, or better yet, a whore-clown, and hand out fliers like a human Kinko's.

'I have never worked the streets so hard in my life,' says Adrienne Truscott, half of the comedic-acrobatic duo the Wau Wau Sisters. Last summer was their first in Provincetown, after touring all over the country and producing a hit show at the Edinburgh Festival. 'I was walking around on my hands with fliers in my toes.'

With so many acts vying for attention, performers have to become tireless show dogs to get an audience'prancing, begging, and, yes, barking. And if you aren't drunk, you have to act like you are to get through it.

Nora Burns performs alongside Terrence Michael and John Cantwell as the comedy trio the Nellie Olesons. She remembers their first show back in 1993: 'We didn't know about the barking thing at all. We were just sitting backstage waiting for the show to start. The tech guy came in and said, 'Um, there's no one here. You've got to go bark.' If we didn't get as crazy as possible, we weren't going to eat.' So the boys slipped on red bikinis, and they marched through the town doing cheerleader chants and screaming lines like 'Disturbing and offensive'or your money back!'

After a season of barking and flyering, performers are ready for autumn. 'Toward the end of summer, we get bitter giving fliers to all the drunks who say stupid things to us believing themselves to be clever,' says Terrence Michael, 'so we'd hand out fliers and say, 'Crystal! Free crystal!' 'GHB?' 'Syphillis?''

'There is nothing like a first summer in Provincetown to completely rob you of your dignity, except maybe being caught in a Dateline pedophile sting,' says Jeffery Roberson, better known as Varla Jean Merman. Now one of the town's most popular acts, he recalls lying facedown on the grass in humiliation and despair after staging a little girl's tea party outside the tea dance at the Boatslip. 'Someone from the guesthouse nearby called the police and told them that I was drugged up and passed out on their lawn. The police came and removed me just as 300 drunken tea dance patrons were walking down the street. Humiliating! But I think I sold out the next night.'

The gays have gravitated to Provincetown for decades. In the '60s, when the town was still a ramshackle series of fishing docks and houses, no one went to the beach'they lounged around the poolsides in white linen slacks and unworked-out bodies sucking down Rob Roys. These alcoholic vacationers needed to be entertained before they passed out or had numerous blotto sexual encounters. Thus the Provincetown audience was born. Lily Tomlin, Wayland Flowers and Madame, Dom DeLuise, and Divine were among the many performers to use Provincetown as a springboard for their careers. From the start it was a very particular audience. 'In P-town people want quick and to the point,' says Roberson, now in his ninth summer performing there as Varla. 'Give them too much to take in, pepper it with filth in a clever way, and they never will get bored. They are on vacation and mostly want escapism'and booze. Lots of booze!'

Vocalist Jimmy James, who performed his act of dead-on voice impressions of divas in Provincetown for 17 years, got his start at the (now closed) Madeira Room in 1986 and quickly became one of the top-selling acts in the town's history. He would perform renditions of Cher, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, even Norah Jones. 'My show of voices was perfectly designed for the very short attention span of the vacationer. Every voice was three minutes or less. I kept it moving.' But no matter how much you work the streets and how well you tailor your show to the margarita-soaked masses, there is still one major flaming hoop to jump through: Showgirls.

A mostly drag performance night, the curtain rises on Showgirls every Monday evening in the spacious Crown and Anchor, pulling in as many as 400 people during the high season. 'Straight bikers, muscle queens, bears, dykes, yuppies, show-queen bottoms, grandmas, celebrities, and serial killers all seem to make their way to Showgirls,' says Ryan Landry, who describes his drag persona as 'a clumsy horse in your fat sister's clothes.'

Mainly structured as a contest where amateur talent competes each week for $500, it's like American Idol, only the entire crowd is as bitchy as Simon Cowell and as sauced as Paula Abdul.

'Showgirls can completely make or break you,' says Roberson. 'Amazing shows have come to town, bombed at Showgirls, and have then closed in a week.'

Just about everyone winds up at Showgirls when they're in town: John Waters, Rosie O'Donnell, Sandra Bernhard, Deborah Harry, Pedro Almod'var, Debra Messing, and Eartha Kitt have all made a visit. But more important are the memorable drag regulars over the years, like Windsor Newton, Trinity, Teeny Tiny Tina Turner, plus the sometimes revelatory, sometimes rotten amateur contestants: the 14-year-old saxophone players who, on hearing they have to perform in drag, dress in graduation caps and gowns; the uptight Boston lawyer who dons a blond wig and lip-synchs to 'I Touch Myself'; the cocktail waitress who passed out drunk backstage before she even went on.

'Ryan has never told someone they can't perform,' says actor and Showgirls stage manager Marc Guerrette. 'If you got the guts to get up here and do it, he's not going to tell you that you can't.'

And the performances naturally generate legends and fables: the time that P.J. McWhiskers hung herself from the ceiling of the venue (she had secretly rigged it around her waist.) Or when Guerrette's alter ego Sharon Needles, in Joan of Arc regalia, set herself (and the stage) on fire while performing Dolly Parton's 'Baby I'm Burning.'
'Ryan always says he was impressed because I never stopped lip-synching,' says Guerrette, 'But I still didn't win.'

It's Landry who keeps it all together. Somehow, while wearing a Dynasty-style gown backward, tucking his privates between his legs for his famous 'beaver number,' or singing 'I totally shit when I fart' to the tune of 'Total Eclipse of the Heart,' he presides over the audience with a commanding stage presence that keeps the sometimes unruly and inebriated crowd in line. At its core, Showgirls has a sense of community and, perversely, a respect for the arts. For Landry and for many artists who make this town what it is, a true and honest performance comes from humility, which in turn comes from the risk of humiliation.

'Once an act walks through that door, prince or pauper, toothless drag queen or celebutard, they are all Showgirls,' Landry says. 'We are all white trash attending the same pig roast. And that's what makes the party.'

Fans of Showgirls are vigilant about keeping the sloppy 'let's put on a show' drag aesthetic of the town alive, though it seems to be endangered as real estate has been bought up and wealthy people have moved in, threatening to turn Provincetown into a sleepy bedroom community. Many worry that the higher prices are keeping young people away'especially those wayward future gay boys and girls who, like Landry some years ago, are just beginning to express themselves.

It's difficult not to wax nostalgic for the town's cheaper, easier past. If you talk to anyone who has been there for a decade or more, you will hear about how unruly it was, how wild, how free. 'The first summer I came I stayed in the dingy basement of the famous hippie house for 50 bucks a week. Now it's a condo,' says Nora Burns.

'You could walk down the street and smell the lilacs in someone's yard and not be questioned by the police for it,' Landry says. 'People were free to express themselves. [It was] a time when 'crazy' was a quality and not a fault.'

Meanwhile, ironically, the showbiz circuit has exploded. 'One night my friend counted 43 shows,' says Phyllis Schlosberg, a longtime P-town producer and former owner of the Madeira Room who now owns the Post Office Caf' and Cabaret. 'The customer is benefiting in a way. It forces me to do better and to find different acts that are higher-quality.'

But it also means more people fliering everywhere. 'The waters are muddy,' says Jimmy James. 'Basically anybody who has a green wig and glitter lipstick and Nerf balls for tits can do a show. Then again, they're doing the same thing we did back when we started out. That's what this place is for. It's like an artists' colony. But now there just seems to be more.'

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