Drag volleyball in Rehoboth Beach is a tradition on Labor Day weekend. Always held that Sunday at 1 p.m. (Sept. 1 this year), it pits two teams of gay guys in drag against each other in an event organizers have insisted on keeping “just for fun.”
And like the High Heel Race in D.C., the event — which draws thousands of spectators each year — had modest origins.
Forrest Park, 75, is one of the originals. He says it started with simple and casual pick-up volleyball games on Poodle Beach at the end of the boardwalk. An older gay man Park only knew as “Mother” owned the net and gave it to Park, the same net they used until it wore out two years ago.
All the players — nine on each team — have drag names, which they use with each other throughout the summer, not just during the drag game. Each team picks a theme for the year. Park’s team has been everything from Navy Waves to Hawaiian princesses to Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders to Dorothys from “Wizard of Oz” (they arranged to have a plane fly overhead during the game with a banner that read “Surrender Dorothy”).
Park’s team doesn’t officially have a name, but when they make other random appearances, they’ve called themselves the Delmarva Divas, named after the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Rehoboth Beach.
“It’s just sort of a celebration of the end of the summer I guess you could say,” says Park, who retired at 57 from the Smithsonian accounting office and spent the last nearly 20 years visiting 73 different countries.
It started 26 years ago but since they sat one year out — Park remembers gays “had a bad name” in town briefly, which inspired them to lay low — so this is the 25th anniversary. The first game was against a group of lesbians they met on the beach. The opposing team is now led by Ron Crognale. His group is also in drag each year.
And as much fun as it is, Park says it started to get out of hand with each year getting more and more elaborate.
“It got to the point that I was spending the whole summer sewing costumes,” Park says. “It started out we just played a game and maybe some other little thing, but then it started getting more and more complicated. There’d be a song, a routine, a dance number, a sound system. I found I was wishing my summers away just waiting for it to be over with so I finally said, ‘I’m done.’ So for the next 15 years, I just filmed it.”
Brent Minor — Barbara Anne on the team — knew Park and his partner, Will, from Washington. He says they’ve “known each other so long, we can practically complete each other’s sentences,” a reality he says is endearing but also “kind of scary.”
“It’s really surprising the way it’s grown over the years,” Minor says. “The first year it was just completely a surprise. It wasn’t like we were trying to spring this on people. We just said, ‘Let’s have some fun,’ but now it’s progressed into this extravaganza with routines and cheers and stuff like that. It’s a bit crazy.”
Mark Kimble — Myrna on the court and also an original member — says the crowds that come to watch have added a lot to the event.
“So many people come out to watch that we wanted to keep it going,” he says. “A lot of it is to entertain the crowd so we come up with stuff we think the crowd will think is funny, a lot with skits and stuff like that. But yes, it is actually a volleyball game that can get pretty competitive.”
Nobody keeps track of who wins each year. Park guesses his team has won more years than the other but he’s not sure. And yes, there have been some wardrobe malfunctions and wigs flying off occasionally.
“We just put them back on and keep playing,” Kimble says.
The players have purposefully avoided using the event for charity, despite occasional requests to do so over the years.
“There’s no money involved at all,” Park says. “We just want to keep it fun.”