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In Tampa, drag shows date back 125 years

In the 1890s, kids received discounts to shows that were mainstream, family, upscale entertainment.
 
John Lind, once among the world’s most renowned female impersonators, performed in Tampa in 1917.
John Lind, once among the world’s most renowned female impersonators, performed in Tampa in 1917. [ Times (1917) ]
Published June 5, 2023

TAMPA — Joey Brooks is often called “The First Lady of Ybor,” starring in and promoting drag shows in the Latin District since the 1970s.

“Sometimes people think I am called that because I was the first drag queen,” Brooks said. “I have to tell them that I haven’t been around that long. Drag shows have been around a long time.”

How long?

“Fred and Barney wore drag in episodes of ‘The Flintstones,’” Brooks said with a laugh. “So, since prehistoric times.”

Well, it hasn’t been around for that long in Tampa Bay, but it’s been part of the local culture for at least 125 years.

Today, there is a statewide effort to push drag shows into the fringes. But there were times in Tampa when drag shows were widely agreed to be mainstream, family, upscale entertainment.

The Tampa Bay Times searched through archives for highlights of the Tampa Bay drag show industry through the years. This is what we found:

“The Black Hussar” was once a popular comedic opera about a German officer seeking to inspire his countrymen to revolt against Napoleonic forces.

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In 1898, when the nationally touring Wilbur Opera Company performed “The Black Hussar” at the Tampa Bay Casino, the Tampa Tribune highlighted the female impersonator as “a whole show himself” who “electrified the audience by his fine performance.” That is the earliest mention of Tampa Bay drag discovered by the Times.

Felicity Lane has been performing drag shows in Tampa Bay since 1988.
Felicity Lane has been performing drag shows in Tampa Bay since 1988. [ Courtesy of Felicity Lane ]

There is no difference between a female impersonator and a drag queen, said Felicity Lane, National Showgirl Supreme 2022, who has been performing around Tampa Bay since 1988. “They didn’t have quick access to makeup, materials to make costumes and the ideas that we have today. Other than those few differences the similarities are many. Self-expression is self-expression.”

In 1899, the Tampa Tribune reported that “famous female impersonator” Fred L. Dexter “will produce a remarkable disrobing scene, the equal of which has never been seen outside of Paris, New York and Chicago.” It is the first mention that the Times could find of a local show revolving primarily around drag.

According to Kelly Hickman’s “Historic Theatres in Tampa” blog, downtown Tampa’s Sans Souci Theatre “is considered to be Tampa’s first truly successful motion picture house.” But it also hosted drag shows and, through the Tampa Tribune in 1908, advertised an appearance by the traveling troupe Weaver & Lambert Character Change and Female Impersonators as “a rare treat for Tampa.”

A year later, Tampa’s Orpheum, an open-air downtown vaudeville theater, hosted female impersonator Clyde Larner. Admission was 20 cents for adults. Children received a 50% discount.

An advertisement for a 1909 Tampa show that featured a female impersonator.
An advertisement for a 1909 Tampa show that featured a female impersonator. [ Times (1909) ]

John Lind was once among the world’s most renowned female impersonators. The Swedish-born singer and dancer dressed in drag and portrayed historic women while touring Europe, South America, Africa and the United States.

“Lind, although a man, has one of the most perfect forms in the world and deceives the most critical,” the Tampa Tribune wrote of his Tampa appearance in 1917, adding that the show “is appealing, especially to the refined audiences at the Tampa Theatre all this week.”

From the 1930s through 1960s, female impersonation shows continued to be booked in downtown Tampa. DeSoto Hotel’s Club Chateau, the Brass Rail, Club H-Hat and the Municipal Auditorium were popular venues.

Across the bridge in what was then still called St. Petersburg Beach, Davy Jones Locker was best known for hosting comedy and musical shows, but also booked some of the nation’s best known female impersonators. T.C. Jones, who had appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” played there in 1962.

An advertisement for a female impersonation show at Davy Jones Locker in 1962 in St. Petersburg.
An advertisement for a female impersonation show at Davy Jones Locker in 1962 in St. Petersburg. [ Times (1962) ]

Six years later, Leslie Marlowe also appeared at Davy Jones Locker. Marlowe was best known for starring in “She-Man,” a controversial movie about a soldier who is blackmailed into taking estrogen and dressing as a woman.

The 1970s and 1980s was the peak era for such area entertainment. This is when local newspapers began regularly referring to the performances as “drag shows.”

Ybor City’s El Goya was the premiere venue during that time.

“It was our Studio 54,” said Brooks, who wrote the book “Joey Brooks, The Show Must Go On” about her time at El Goya.

Celebrities she recalled visiting the bar include Cesar Romero, who played The Joker in the 1960s “Batman” television series, Robert Reed of “The Brady Bunch” and singer Deborah Harry of Blondie.

Tampa Mayor Dick Greco was known to pop in to watch the drag shows, too.

“That’s what I loved about it. It wasn’t just gay people there,” Lane said. “Patti LuPone was one of my favorites. She came in one night and got on stage and sung a song about drag queens. A lot of celebrities came in and would ask if they could come up and meet the queens in the dressing room.”

Bobby Carter, better known as drag performer Roxanne Russell, was one of the area’s breakout stars of that era. After winning Miss Gay Florida in 1974, Carter performed a sold-out one-man show at Curtis Hixon Hall, where he impersonated Marilyn Monroe and Liza Minnelli.

“He showed the straight world what a talented young man from Florida can do when it comes to sheer entertainment,” Little David travel magazine wrote of the performance, according to the Tampa Tribune.

Carter went on to become an internationally known drag show performer and was featured in Pat Benatar’s “Sex as a Weapon” music video and the “Repo Man” movie starring Emilio Estevez.

A 1974 Tampa Tribune article on Bobby Carter, also known as female impersonator Roxanne Russell.
A 1974 Tampa Tribune article on Bobby Carter, also known as female impersonator Roxanne Russell. [ Times (1974) ]

After breaking into the drag show industry in Alabama, Lane said, Tampa felt like the most inclusive city in the country back then.

“I couldn’t get over it,” Lane said. “It was just a little metropolitan area that you could work and make good money doing drag in so many places. Besides Goya, there was the Cheshire Cat Lounge near St. Pete. In Lakeland there was the Green Parrot. There was a place in Dunedin, in Sarasota. There were small places everywhere and Tracks was the biggest.”

El Goya became Tracks, and then PleasureDome and then Club Czar, but kept drag shows regardless of the name or owner.

By the time the venue was Club Czar in the early 2000s, its section of Ybor was branded GayBor due to the influx of LGBTQ+ establishments. Those included Hamburger Mary’s Bar & Grille, which featured Drag Queen Bingo.

Joey Brooks is also known as “The First Lady of Ybor."
Joey Brooks is also known as “The First Lady of Ybor." [ Courtesy of Joey Brooks ]

While places like Bradley’s and Southern Nights in Ybor still host drag shows, the scene is not as large or mainstream as it once was, Brooks said. But Brooks is also not concerned that current statewide efforts to marginalize drag shows will wipe them from the area.

“I don’t think they’ll ever become nonexistent,” Brooks said. “There’s too much history of drag here and everywhere. It’s part of our culture.”