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Drag legend Ella Fitzgerald returns to the stage for Capital Pride festival

Donnell Robinson on 40 years as a performer and the current political backlash against drag

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Ella Fitzgerald performs at the Capital Pride Festival in 2019. (Washington Blade file photo by Drew Brown)

Donnell Robinson, who has dazzled audiences in the nation’s capital as the drag personality of Ella Fitzgerald for at least 40 years, has the date of Saturday, March 21, 2020, embedded in his mind.

That was the last time he performed in drag. It was at the popular Southeast D.C. nightclub Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, where Robinson performed as Ella Fitzgerald for nearly 40 years, before it, along with all city nightclubs, bars, and other “nonessential” businesses were ordered temporarily closed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in response to the COVID pandemic.   

“That was the last show I did,” Robinson told the Blade in an interview at his apartment in Arlington, Va.

A short time later, around May of 2020, Robinson and all the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets employees and performers learned that the owner of the club’s building at 1824 Half Street, S.W., announced plans to demolish it to build an upscale condo building several years sooner than expected. That meant the club would not reopen when the COVID restrictions were lifted.

“So, what I recall is in May, it was the first week in May, Steven [Delurba, the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets general manager and part owner] called me and said, ‘Honey, do you have anything in the dressing room? Come and get it. The landlord called and said we must be out by the 15th.’”

Robinson said he has fond memories of meeting up with other drag performers, one of the longtime bartenders and other employees who came to retrieve their belongings in the dressing room and other storage spaces in the converted warehouse building that had served as home to Ziegfeld’s-Secrets since 2009.

And it meant at least the temporary end to a 40-year run in which Robinson (aka Ella Fitzgerald) served as emcee and lead drag performer at the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets nightclub, which began in the club’s previous location a few blocks away.

Robinson began performing as Ella Fitzgerald at The Other Side nightclub in 1980, which later changed its name to Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, at its previous location on the unit block of O Street, S.E., before it was displaced in 2006 by construction of the Washington Nationals baseball stadium.

Ella Fitzgerald performs in 1993. (Blade file photo by Doug Hinckle)

The club did not reopen until 2009, when its owners Allen Carroll and Chris Jensen, were able to obtain a lease for the 1824 Half Street building, which Carroll and Jensen renovated before reopening the club there.

All of that has become the backdrop to Robinson’s excitement over returning to the stage as Ella Fitzgerald at D.C.’s Capital Pride festival on June 11, which will take place on Pennsylvania Avenue with the U.S. Capitol as a dramatic backdrop two blocks behind the stage.

While he’s hopeful that all will go well with his upcoming performance at the Pride festival, Robinson says he is aware of the recent far-right political backlash against drag shows in states across the country.

In addition to proposed laws placing restrictions on drag shows, protests targeting drag shows, including some attempting to disrupt the shows, have also occurred in cities and states, including earlier this year in nearby Silver Spring, Md., and at a drag brunch hosted by a restaurant near the U.S. Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill in D.C.

“I have read about some of that,” Robinson told the Blade. “I haven’t been in the drag scene in three years. But I see and know what’s going on,” he said. “And my fellow drag performers who are older in my generation, I know they may be at risk. And I know I am to a degree,” he continued.

“And it’s a shame that we have to fear that we can’t present our art, our art form of drag and hope that nothing is going to happen to me today,” he said. “Why should we have to even have that thought going through our mind while we’re going through our makeup and getting ready?”

Speaking with the Blade at his apartment, Robinson added, “I’m planning to walk out of here in full drag to go to Pride. And there’s going to be part of me in the back of my mind that I’ve got to watch my back because there may be some idiot out there that doesn’t want to see an old man dress up in sequins and beads.”

“I just don’t understand why people think that drag is going to go away,” Robinson said. “It’s not. It’s more popular now than it ever was because of RuPaul and the drag brunches and the shows that are continuing to go on.”

Donnell Robinson works as a popular hair stylist in addition to performing as Ella Fitzgerald. (Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro Jr.)

Robinson, 68, says he was born in Warrenton, Va., and grew up on a farm just outside Warrenton and raised by his grandparents. His first attempt at drag took place while in the 8th grade when he entered a school talent show portraying TV personality Flip Wilson’s drag character Geraldine Jones.

“All of my girlfriends, they helped get it together,” Robinson recalls. “I borrowed the wig from the school librarian,” he said, adding he bought a red dress and borrowed a pocketbook from someone. “And I won the contest.”

He didn’t do drag again until his senior year in high school, Robinson said, when he “pulled out Geraldine again” in a dramatic arts class. “I got an ‘A’ in dramatic arts,” he told the Blade, before graduating from Fauquier High School in June of 1974.

“Then I waited a year or so, and then I came out to do drag in 1975 in the fall,” he said. That began when a friend introduced him to the then gay nightclub Pier 9, located in the building that later became Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, where drag shows were held.

Robinson said he was impressed by the beauty of the drag performers while attending Pier 9 drag shows. “I’m like, oh, so I can do that too,” he said. And that’s exactly what he did. In October of that year, he entered a Halloween costume contest at the Pier, once again as the Geraldine Jones drag character, and won the contest in the comedy category.

From there, Robinson says, through people he met at the Pier he learned of the then D.C. gay bar Plus One on Capitol Hill, which also hosted drag shows. After auditioning and being approved as a drag performer at Plus One, the owner of the club, Bill Oats, assigned him the drag name Fanny Brice.

It was at the Plus One about a year later when Robinson met Mother Mame Dennis, the drag performer and lead organizer of the Academy of Washington, a local drag social club that organized drag events, including the Gay Miss Universe drag competition. The next day, an Academy of Washington member who performed at Plus One brought Robinson to an academy event.

It was there that Mame Dennis approached him and raised the issue of Robinson’s drag name. “She said, ‘Oh my dear, if you want to be in this group you need to change your name immediately,’” Robinson quoted Dennis as saying. “And I was like, yes ma’am. She said you need to be either Nell Carter or Ella Fitzgerald,” Robinson recounted.

“I was being a smart ass. I said, ‘I’ll take Ella Fitzgerald for $2.’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re funny.’ And she named me Ella Fitzgerald,” Robinson remembers. “And I was her first African-American daughter in the group.”

Through the Academy of Washington and others he met through the drag scene at Plus One and other D.C. gay bars, Robinson quickly learned what he calls the art form of drag and developed a following among those patronizing drag shows in D.C. It was through the academy that Robinson also met the owners of the then Other Side nightclub, Chris Jensen and Allen Carroll, who invited Robinson to begin performing at their club.

Ella Fitzgerald performs at the opening of Ziegfeld’s/Secrets on Feb. 13, 2009. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

“There were five of us and we did the show on a Sunday night for 500 women,” Robinson says. “Because, remember, between Washington Square, the earlier name, and the Other Side, it was all women. There were no men allowed until around 1986,” he told the Blade. “So, every Sunday night we were doing drag shows for 500 women, from ’80 until ’85 or ’86.”

Around the time he began performing as Ella Fitzgerald, Robinson also began his other career as a hairstylist, which he says he continues at this time and will celebrate his 40th anniversary as a hairstylist in November of this year.

For much of that time, Robinson has been one of the sought-after stylists at the VSL Hair Salon at 1607 Connecticut Ave., N.W., in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. The salon recently came under new ownership and now operates under the name of Color Lab Salon at the same address.

As Robinson’s reputation as a drag performer became widely known, many of his salon clients referred to him as Ella and were regular patrons of the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets drag show.

By the time Jensen and Carroll renamed the Other Side as Ziegfeld’s-Secrets and through the time it relocated in the building on Half Street, S.W. and until its closing in 2020, Robinson took on the role as the emcee of the club’s Ladies of Illusion drag shows as well as that of one of the city’s most sought after drag performers, according to people who attended his shows.

In an Aug. 2, 2001, lengthy feature article, the Washington Post referred to Robinson and his Ella Fitzgerald character as the “doyenne of Washington drag queens.” The Post article recounted what those who have attended Robinson’s shows already knew – that he also took on the role of a stand-up comedian engaging audience members in on-the-spot banter, often inviting audience members to come on stage to chat with Ella.

“Is that your husband?” the Post article quoted Robinson asking a female audience member at one of the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets drag shows. When the woman replied that the person was her boyfriend, Ella said with an incredulous facial expression, “That little queen?” according to the Post article. The audience roared in laughter.

Robinson says among the highlights of his career as a drag performer have been the recognition he has received from his peers in the drag community, including from the Academy of Washington and its leader Mame Dennis.

 “Once I changed my name to Ella Fitzgerald, Mame said, ‘My dear, one day you will be Miss Universe.’ And 10 years later, Mame crowned me Miss Gay Universe. I was the first African-American Miss Universe in 1986,” Robinson recounted.

He said the prospect of resuming his drag performances to the degree he did before Ziegfeld’s-Secrets closed was uncertain, in part, because he is dealing with a bout of sciatica that makes it difficult for him to walk and move about quickly.

“You might see me come out with a cane at the Pride show,” he said with a laugh.  

Ella Fitzgerald performs at the 2012 Capital Pride Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation

At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion

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Rapper Lil Nas X faced backlash for his music video ‘Montero,’ but it debuted atop the Billboard 100.

I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.

The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.

I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me. 

Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre. 

Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, Andr​​é 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing. 

My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call. 

As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense? 

A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender. 

“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.” 

The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.

“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”

Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.

“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.” 

This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio. 

And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of  patriarchy and homophobia. 

“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”

“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added. 

This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations. 

Queen Latifah dodged questions about her sexuality for years before acknowledging her partner and their son in 2021. (Photo by DFree via Bigstock)

Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children. 

“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”

Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100. 

In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.” 

In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop. 

“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”

So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.

Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms. 

“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”

“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added. 

(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)

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Cuisine and culture come together at The Square

D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors

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(Photo by Scott Suchman)

Downtown got a bit tastier when “the next generation of food halls” opened its doors on Tuesday near the Farragut West Metro stop. Dubbed The Square, its half-dozen debut stalls are a Spanish-flecked mix of D.C. favorites, new concepts, and vendor-collaborative spirit.

After two years of planning – and teasing some big-name chefs – the market is, according to the owners, “where cuisine, culture, and community are woven together.”

Behind this ambitious project with lofty aims are Richie Brandenburg, who had a hand in creating Union Market and Rubén García, a creative director of the José Andrés Group who also was part of the team of Mercado Little Spain, the fairly new Spanish-themed Andres food hall in Hudson Yards.

Food halls have come a long way since the new Union Market awakened the concept a decade ago. Instead of simply rows of vendors in parallel lines, The Square has a new business model and perspective. This food hall shares revenue between the owners and its chef partners. Vendors are encouraged to collaborate, using one software system, and purchasing raw materials and liquor at scale together.

“Our goal was two-fold: to create a best-in-class hospitality offering with delicious foods for our guests; and behind the scenes, create the strong, complex infrastructure needed to nurture both young chefs and seasoned professionals, startups, and innovation within our industry,” says Brandenburg.

The Square has embraced a more chef-forward methodology, given that the founders/owners themselves are chefs. They’re bringing together a diverse mix of new talent and longtime favorites to connect, offer guidance to each other, and make the market into a destination. 

(Photos by Scott Suchman)

The first phase of The Square premiered this week. This phase encapsulates a selection of original concepts from well-known local chefs and business owners, and includes:

• Cashion’s Rendezvous – Oysters, crab cakes, and cocktails, from the owners of D.C. institutions and now-closed Cashion’s Eat Place and Johnny’s Half-Shell (Ann Cashion and John Fulchino).

• Jamón Jamón – Flamenco-forward food with hand-cut jamón Iberico, queso, and croquetas, sourced by García himself.

• Brasa – Grilled sausages and veggies are the stars here. Chef García oversees this Spanish street-food stall as well.

 Taqueria Xochi – Birria, guisado, and other street tacos, plus margs. Named after the ruins of Xochitecatl in Central Mexico, and from a Jose Andres alum.

• Yaocho – Fried chicken, juices, sweets, and libations.

• Junge’s – Churros and soft serve ice cream. Brandenburg and García both have a hand in this stall.

• Atrium Bar – The central watering hole for drinks. Atrium Bar serves cocktails, wine, and beer curated by The Square’s Beverage Director Owen Thompson.

“Having been part of Jose Andres’s restaurant group and getting to know Ruben and Richie, it’s amazing to see how their values align with ours at Taqueria Xochi. Seeing all these incredible chefs heading into Square feels like a full-circle moment,” said Geraldine Mendoza of Taqueria Xochi.

Slated for fall 2023, the next round of openings includes Flora Pizzeria, Cebicheria Chalaca, KIYOMI Sushi by Uchi, Shoals Market (a retail hub), and more. Additionally, chef Rubén García’s Spanish restaurant, Casa Teresa, will soon open next door to The Square.

The Square is just one of a handful of new food halls blossoming in and around D.C. Up in Brentwood, Md., miXt Food Hall is an art-adjacent space with tacos, a year-round fresh market, coffee, and beer. Across from Union Market is La Cosecha, a Latin marketplace with everything from street food to a Michelin starred restaurant and a festive vibe. Closer to The Square is Western Market by GW University, which opened in late 2021 with a buzzy, relaxed style.

For now, the Square is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Square plans to open on weekends and extend hours to offer dinner service in the coming months. A few alfresco seats will accompany the hall.

(Photo by Scott Suchman)
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Charles Busch reflects on the paths he didn’t take in new book

‘Leading Lady’ a riveting memoir from legendary entertainer

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'Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy' comes out on Sept. 12.

“Charles, I’m telling you, I go to plays in rat-infested basements where I’m the only one who shows up,” the late queer icon Joan Rivers once told the queer, legendary playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer and drag icon, Charles Busch. “I can see the actors peeking through the curtain and groaning, ‘Oh God, that old bitch in the fur coat is here. Does that mean we’ve gotta go on?’”

Busch reminded Rivers that she’d seen him perform in a rat-infested basement.

This is just one of the many stories that Busch, born in 1954, tells in his riveting memoir, “Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy,” which comes out on Sept. 12.

“Leading Lady” is a page-turner. Some of its tales of Busch’s life and career, such as his account of a Christmas party with Rivers as a guest, are dishy. Others, like his memories of trying to care for his beloved Aunt Lil, when he knew she was dying, would make even the Wicked Witch in Oz tear up.

The memoir, is, as Busch says on his website (charlesbusch.com), the story of “a talented artist’s Oz-like journey.” 

“Leading Lady” isn’t linear. This isn’t a detriment. Busch deftly intertwines memories of his life and career from his mom dying when he was seven to being raised by his loving Aunt Lil to being the author and star of the cult classic “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” to watching Kim Novak handle fans to being the Tony-nominated writer of “Tales of the Allergist’s Wife” to being creative during the pandemic.

“Storytelling is a huge part of my life,” Busch told the Blade in a lengthy phone interview, “I get into various adventures and, I think, this could be a good story to tell.”

Interviewing Busch is like chatting with a fab storyteller over coffee or a glass of wine. Except that you’re talking to a legend who’s entertained and inspired queers (and discerning hetero audiences) for decades. (I’m wearing my “Vampire” T-shirt as I write this.)  

As a playwright, Busch writes “linear” plays, with a beginning, middle and an end, he said. As a cabaret singer, “the way I sing songs is telling a story,” Busch said.

Since childhood, he’s been creating vivid scenes in his imagination. From early on, Busch has felt as if he’s both a spectator and star in the movie of his life.

It seemed inevitable that he’d write a memoir. It’s the ultimate form of storytelling. “You reach a certain point in your life,” Busch said, “where you’re more reflective and see your life as a whole.”

“You reflect on the paths you didn’t take,” he added.

Busch spent his childhood in Hartsdale, N.Y. He had two older sisters, Betsy and Margaret. His mother’s death was devastating for Busch. His Aunt Lil and Joan Rivers have been among the women who have been “mothers” to Busch since his mom died.

Once, Busch said he and Rivers dined with friends. “Joan Rivers said ‘I wish I had a gay son I could phone at midnight and discuss whatever movie was on TCM,’” he recalled.

Busch would have loved to have been Rivers’s “gay son.”

Life in Hartsdale was hard for Busch after his mother passed away. His father was often absent and showed little interest in his children.

Things were miserable for Busch when his grandmother, for a time, cared for the family. He knew, as a boy, that he was gay and hated going to school where a movie-and-theater-loving kid who liked to draw wasn’t one of the cool kids.

Yet Busch forgave his “father’s failings,” he writes in “Leading Lady, “because he gave me the theater.”

Busch became entranced with the theater when his father, an aspiring opera singer who performed in summer stock, took him to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to hear Joan Sutherland sing the role of Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”

Busch was saved from a life of boredom and bullying when Aunt Lil, his mother’s sister, took him to live with her in Manhattan. There, like Auntie Mame, she raised him. She prodded him into applying to the High School of Music and Art in New York City. He was accepted there.

After high school, Busch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from Northwestern University in 1976.

“My Aunt Lil is the leading lady [of the title of his memoir],” Busch said, “she was the most influential person in my life.”

One of the reasons why Busch wrote “Leading Lady” was to paint a full portrait of her. “It was important that it not be this kind of gauzy, sentimental memory piece,” he said, “making her out to be a saint.”

Aunt Lil adopted Bush when he was 14. Her goal was that he would go to college, become independent, be a survivor – make a place for himself in the world.

“I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t stepped in,” Busch said.

“She was very intellectual,” he added, “I’ve never met anyone [else] with such a pure devotion to thinking. It was a little intimidating.”

Aunt Lil’s standards for caring – for giving of oneself – were so high that it was almost impossible to meet them. “She believed that you should anticipate what people would need,” Busch said, “before they told you.”

Looking back, Busch is most proud of himself when, “I’ve gone past my natural self-absorption,” he said, “when I’ve thought of someone else.”

Busch is being too hard on himself. In “Leading Lady,” and when interviewed, he’s caring and curious as well as witty, savvy, and as you’d expect, a bit campy.

His sister Margaret died recently. “She declined gradually over nine months,” Busch, said, choking up, “I gave her my bedroom and I slept on my sofa.”

Like many of her generation, Aunt Lil didn’t understand queerness or drag. But she loved Busch. She didn’t go to see his productions, he said. “She could have gone like other parents,” he said, “and been tight-lipped. And said something nice that she didn’t believe.”

But “she didn’t want to lie or be hurtful,” Busch added, “so, for her, it was: can’t I just love and support you, and not go?”

Aunt Lil didn’t get Busch’s sexuality. But she knew about secrecy. Busch learned of a terrifying secret that his aunt had long kept hidden. In the 1930s, during the Depression, Aunt Lil worked as a nurse. One day, when she worked overtime, one of the patients suffered a burn. She had to leave nursing. “Her sister in a nasty mood revealed this,” Busch said, “Aunt Lil never discussed it.”

In the 1970s, Busch had trouble getting into theater because there were only roles for actors playing straight male characters. “The only way I could get on stage was to write my own roles,” he said, “I have a rather androgynous nature.”

Busch found that the feminine within him was a place of authority and strength. “I’m fine when I play male characters,” he said, “but I’m better when I play female characters.”

Why this is so liberating for him is a bit of a mystery to Busch. “But I accept and love it,” he said.

Times have changed since Busch made his first big splash with “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” “In 1985, being a drag queen was considered a negative,” Busch said, “my generation of drag performers bristled at being referred to as drag queens.”

Busch no longer bristles. “I feel like the characters,” he said, “I enjoy costumes and getting the right wig.”

“But, I go from male to female not through trickery or anything visual, I transfer through my soul.”

In “Leading Lady,” Busch recalls AIDS and other dark moments from the past. Many of his friends and colleagues died from AIDS. “AIDS was the World War II of our generation,” he said.

But Busch, in his memoir and in his life, isn’t only looking back. He’s very much in the present. Busch is embarrassed to say he was lucky. During the pandemic, devastating to many, he made art. He did play readings on Zoom and finished writing “Leading Lady” which he’d worked on for 14 years.

During the pandemic, Busch with Carl Andress co-wrote and co-directed the movie “The Sixth Reel.” The film’s cast includes Busch, Julie Halston (Busch’s longtime muse), Margaret Cho and Tim Daly.

Busch describes the film, an homage to the Hollywood madcap movies of the 1930s, as “a comic, caper movie.” 

“I play a disreputable dealer in movie memorabilia,” Busch said, “a legendary lost film is found, and I see it as my ticket out of debt.”

The “Sixth Reel” is playing from Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 at the LOOK Dine-In Cinema West 57th Street in New York City.

“I hope the run in New York will encourage people to distribute this little movie,” Busch said.

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