Bette Midler and Memories of “P,” the Best Drag Queen Ever

As I work on my book about the late 70’s and early 80’s right before and after AIDS hits, I am going through so many inspirational music genres. Of course, Disco has the main stage, but so do Broadway Musicals.

Right now, it is Bette Midler. I have listened to her Bette Midler: Live at Last over and over the past few days as I write about the drag queens I hung out with between 1978 and 1980. Hung out is not really what I did. I fawned over them.

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Paul Wegman as Miss P

I followed my favorite queen P like a puppy dog. I was so enamored of P I could not be in her orbit for a long enough time. I was 17 when I met P. She was the emcee at the Parliament House, a gay complex here in Orlando. I lived for the drag shows… Thursday through Sunday nights. I loved sitting up front, in the vulnerable section of the audience. The lights were always glaring over the first few rows and P could see who was there easily.

Her ability to banter with anyone was uncanny. She took great chunks out of people’s armor, illuminating their naughty sides, baring their shameful sides and highlighting their most wondrous parts as well. Her brash social commentary operated without any polite bullshit enveloping it.

It wasn’t until I was out of the drag queen community and came out as a lesbian, reading everything I could about the gay community that discovered Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. In there, Judy Grahn, a poet and historian, shares a bit about the history of drag queen speech:

“…incessant witty verbiage, gossipy, outlandish, repetitive, poetic, and philosophical in the most elemental sense. Sensual, barbed, informative, revolting, political – Fairy speech is a living art.”

Another Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn, page 86

Also:

“…splashy entrances and exits, louder than anyone and funnier, more daring, taking up a lot of space and always with a smart remark, a critique, a commentary cutting through hypocrisy, conformity, or rigid manners, revealing the bones of the matter.”

Another Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn, page 86

Drag Queens will have a prominent space in my book. They taught me a lot about communication and honesty. I struggle with that a lot, so am tapping into P and the others to be brave and keep writing.

Bette Midler

P loved Bette Midler, “singing” to her Live at Last album so many times even I memorized the words. As I listen to Ms. Midler sing, I can see P lip syncing to “Shiver Me Timbers,” guiding the audience through, “C’monIWannaLeiYou” and sharing hilarious Sophie Tucker naughtiness.

I wanted to add this small part about Ms. Midler because I want her to know how integral her voice was to my growing up.

When P became a friend, his name was Paul. Paul and I worked at Subway Sandwich Shop in Winter Park, near Rollins College. I was even more enamored of Paul than I was of P (which, looking back, would have been a pretty hard thing to do!). He teased me as if I were his kid sister, playing pranks on me like, on my first day, sent me back into the old parking lot to pick lettuce behind a brambly bush. I can see him still, cigarette dangling from his lips as he sliced the salami, laughing at my blissful gullibility; anything to make Paul happy. (I really did think there would be lettuce to pick back there.)

We had a small transistor radio that played above the slicer and whenever Bette Midler’s “The Rose” came on, Paul stopped whatever we were doing (except making sandwiches, of course) and swept me into his arms to dance with him. I can still feel his warmth against my body. That song encompasses everything I feel for Paul.

This book I am writing. Paul is my Muse. I talk to him as I write. “Do you like that? Did I describe it right?” It might be fiction, but it is autobiographical fiction. Paul wants me to get the words down as he saw them, too.

I’m writing, dear one. I am writing.

Paul Wegman died of AIDS August 24, 2004. He is missed by so many.

Before AIDS: Paul Wegman as Miss P

Follow the Manic Bouncing Ball:

Needing to sleep again. Feeling the jolts of electricity that were not so conducive to sleep. I put on Amazon Prime’s 80’s music to sleep by. About the 3rd song in was Bette Midler’s The Rose.”

Memories of my days at the Parliament House here in Orlando with all my gay boy friends (& sex-capaders) watching drag shows flooded my brain.

It was 1979. I was 18 years old. And I was a Fag Hag.
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Parliament House, circa 1979 – Hotel, Restaurant, Show Bar, Disco, Leather Bar, Vintage Store, Lake and Pool (and hotbed of random sex!)

Quaaludes. Poppers. Sex with strangers in cars. Amaretto with cream and OJ. Friends taking acid & having bad trips. Walking by rooms with open curtains & open doors, inviting whomever in to be with whomever as whomever watched from not-afar. The Baths. Glory Holes. Gay Porn. Learning to suck dick and get fucked in the ass (with the ever-present can of Crisco) by my 8-gay friends I lived with in various locations, including the “PH.”  (When we were with our parents, we called it the “Pancake House.” We were so slick. snort).

Laying on the bed, I sang with Bette, thrice through, crying, missing my friends who have died from AIDS. After “The Rose,” I remembered I had Bette Midler’s Divine Madness on my Kindle, putting it on.

Loud.

By the time “Shiver Me Timbers” came on, I was sobbing remembering my wondrous friend, Paul Wegman

paul-wegman
Paul Wegman, Orlando, Actor, Beloved Friend

Miss Pwho died in 2004 from AIDS. Paul used to sing “Shiver Me Timbers” just for me. I tipped him whatever I could so he would.

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Miss P,  Orlando, Parliament House            circa early 1980s

While I first met P (he initially was Miss Pauline, then Miss P, then he dropped the Miss and was “P” for the years I knew him) as a Drag Queen, we became wonderful friends and worked together at the Subway Sandwich shop in Winter Park, by the infamous Sinkhole. During the time I knew him only as P, I, of course, used female pronouns, but when I used “she” at work once, he spun around and told me “HE!”. So that is why I use “he” even as he is P.

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Parliament House Drag Show, circa 1979… P (in white), Heavy Duty (in red), Gerald (next to Heavy), Rusty Fawcett (next to Gerald). You can see Lori DelMar’s head (over Gerald) and Von Gretchen (second in on back row, right side)

Paul and I, while there were 17 years between us, were really compatible. We shared a love for books (we shared books a lot), music, Broadway shows, the theater… and black men.

I loved Paul. I mean. LOVED. I ached to have him take me in his arms. He never did. He did sing “The Rose” to me whenever it came on while we were working. I remember it like it was yesterday.

So, if I couldn’t have Paul, I could have the next best thing. His straight, blue-black boyfriend, Tuna. Long passed is why he was nicknamed Tuna, but that’s how we all knew him. Tuna had a bullet still lodged in his thigh. He taught me the word “Nut” for orgasm. He loved my ample white ass. I used to have sex with Tuna while Paul was on stage. Tuna told Paul years later and when I went to visit him (Paul) with my new son in my arms, he confronted me. I was (rightly) mortified and apologized profusely, claiming stupidity as a child of 17, 18, 19, 20. He barely forgave me, but I am glad our last contact was wonderful and positive.

The Flood Abates

So many waves of memories lick the shore of my mind, but I want to get this out before it grows too long.

So much more to say. I need to share it so those after me can know there really was a completely hedonistic time before AIDS. I lived it. (I do also carry scars, but we’ll share those another time.)

To Read More About Life Before HIV/AIDS:

Do You Remember Gay Life Before AIDS? – yes

Death Rush: Poppers & AIDS – there was an enormous belief for awhile that Poppers were The Cause of AIDS. That was the Grasping at Straws time.

My First Gay Bar Experience

Most of you know I identify as lesbian. Really, the words are “femme Dyke“… a more political, descriptive explanation of how I walk in the LGBTQ+ community.

Buzzfeed recently asked folks to share their first gay bar experiences as a way to express the good and bad of the atmosphere in what used to be seen as a safe space. I wrote mine out and wanted to share it here as well, especially since my babies have asked me to write my life here on the blog.

There is so, so much more to the story, but here is the outline of my life at the Parliament House in Orlando.

Parliament House Motor Inn, 410 North Orange Blossom Trial Orlando
Parliament House, circa 1979

What Gay Bars Mean to Me

I was 17-years old in 1979 when my gay boyfriend and I ventured to the Parliament House in Orlando, Florida. It was like walking into Wonderland; an alternate Universe I never knew existed. For once, being a fat girl didn’t make any difference… I was embraced and accepted for all that I was. In fact, I found myself in the midst of brilliant, eccentric, artistic and whirling-twirling misfits that pulled me into the middle of their all-male fold.

Besides dancing to Donna Summer and drinking watered-down gin & tonics, the PH had a Show Bar where Drag Queens performed twice nightly. The Divine Miss P emceed, her biting snark gave me a view into humor I’d never experienced before. There is nothing quite like being the object of a Drag Queen’s dart.

Divine Miss P

For some reason still unknown to me, the Drag Queens took me under their wing. I was not even in the bar legally, must have made a fool of myself with my ignorance of gay culture a hundred times, yet they sat me down in front of the make-up mirror and taught me how to “paint my face.” For years afterwards, I was asked if I was a Drag Queen (although the huge rhinestone brooches and bracelets, the feather boas and glitter in my pink hair might have had something to do with it, too). It took until I had kids that I learned to tone down my make-up enough that strangers didn’t think I was about to lip-synch a song for them.

Being in the bar allowed me to explore my then-fluid sexuality, no one telling me I was disgusting or sinful. I wandered in and out of the closet for another few years before identifying as lesbian after the kids were born. Those early days were a whirlwind of round-robin kissing, casual sex, copious drugs all while struggling to finish high school. A time that was ignorant of the things that would kill us in the not-so-distant future. A time when we would never, ever have remotely thought someone would bring a machine gun into the bar and kill us by the dozens.

37 years ago, here in Orlando, that would have been me in that bar. Instead, it was children of my peers. My heart sobs for the loss of innocence.