L.A.'s Drag Scene Was Born in a Nondescript Bar in Studio City
In 1997, a young drag entertainer named Maximilliana arrived in Los Angeles from Alabama. Maximilliana (who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun) began to call every bar in town, searching for work. Over and over, they were referred to only one place: the Queen Mary Show Lounge on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.
Maximilliana had never heard of the Queen Mary but was intrigued. A few days later, they sat in the audience in the front room of the Queen and was astonished by the performances they saw: "Seeing the show for the first time I was amazed, to say the least. I had no idea."
The performer continues, "This show was a marathon. Four and a half continuous hours of drag, male strippers, lip-syncing, feathers and rhinestones. I had felt confident coming here that I was up to par, but this show was beyond. Here before me was the most professional group of entertainers working together performing the most spectacular drag show I’d ever seen. My God."
The next day, an awed Maximilliana auditioned for Robert Juleff, the Queen’s longtime owner. “There I was the next afternoon in an empty bar with just Robert and a sound tech, giving him my best act,” Maximilliana remembers. “I did my signature move, a voice drop, and he hired me on the spot. He said, ‘There’s two things. You cannot do Madonna and you cannot be the star.’”
By 1997, the Queen Mary had been the long-standing “Grand Ole Opry of drag” in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. It was the brainchild of Mickie Lee, a statuesque blond firecracker who had once been an actress. In the 1950s, she opened a restaurant in the Valley called the Mick. When a drag trio named the Cashews came around looking for work, Mickie Lee was inspired. Never afraid to buck tradition, she began featuring drag performers in her restaurant.
The shows were a hit. In 1964, Mickie and her son, the aforementioned Robert Juleff, decided to open a cocktail lounge dedicated exclusively to female impersonators. And thus, the Queen Mary was born.
Juleff, who would become the steward of the Queen for the next four decades, was “a lean, dark, Mediterranean-looking man, well-mannered and gracious, like an older, thinner Ricky Ricardo to my eyes,” Queen Mary regular Alice Novic recalls. A married father of four, he considered himself “a quiet, conservative person.” But he enjoyed his job, and accepted the LBGTQ and drag community with open arms, at a time when even their art was outlawed.
Juleff would later recall the lengths the Queen went to in the early days to comply with L.A.’s archaic anti-drag laws:
It was totally different. Drag was illegal. … In the beginning, our showgirls had to wear male attire underneath their female clothing, so when you walked in the door, you could tell right away that this was a boy in drag. Our kids wore black slacks, white shirts, ties and boys’ shoes. Then they put girls’ clothes on over that. So it was quite different. But all in all, the shows were just as good then as they are now. ... It became very popular very quickly.
In the ’60s and ’70s, the Queen abounded with intrigue. The back bar, known at times as the King’s Den, became a safe space for LBGTQ people to meet friends — and romantic partners. "We've had jealous wives storm out of here," Juleff said. "Jealous husbands, too."
Even the more staid showroom — its walls adorned with paintings of drag queens painted by performer Bobby Carol — brewed its own share of drama. One night a losing contestant in a drag contest poured a drink down the crowned winner’s back. “Within six minutes, everybody in the place was fighting," Juleff remembered. "I'm fighting. My brother is fighting. We're throwing people out. Chairs are flying. My mother is standing onstage hitting people over the head with the drag contest trophy."
Besides the occasional trouble from vice cops and homophobic passers-by, the Queen was accepted and even embraced by the suburban Studio City leadership. Performances in the showroom drew people from all walks of life, including a large number of straight patrons. In 1982, a rather unenlightened, apprehensive reporter, initially thrown off “by obvious questions of silicone, hormones and chromosomes,” was won over by the main show:
The nearly three dozen numbers allow for plenty of spice with the variety. There is a fair amount of wonderfully naughty and pleasantly offensive humor. Sultry and athletic dance numbers are mixed with splendid choreography. Although it is definitely an over-21 club, the show is suggestive, not tacky; it is exotic and erotic, not sleazy or smutty. However, the show flirts with the fine lines in between. Jacqueline does a few sultry numbers; “Le Jazz Hot” is worth writing home to father about. Darlene Dimples does a striptease that is hilarious.
The showroom MC for more than 25 years was the legendary Butch Ellis. Often compared to Phyllis Diller, the self-styled “oldest drag queen in captivity” was known for witticisms, sometimes cruel, often perceptive. "The moment you came through the front door, your reputation was shot to hell,” Butch would say as a greeting. “So, now that you're here, you might as well live it up!" Butch would often tease members of the audience, challenging their sexuality and testing their comfort levels. One representative interaction unfolded thusly:
"Are there any gay folks down there where you live in Palos Verdes?" Butch asked a man in the audience.
"Not that I know of.”
"Sure thing, sweetheart," Butch quipped, "not since you left."
During shows, Butch often insisted on highlighting the difference between the showroom and the back bar. "If you're cruising, you're in the wrong room,” Butch would say pointedly. “This is a major showroom.” Butch had good reason to perhaps feel a tad defensive. During the 1980s, the Queen Mary’s back bar and the alley behind it developed a rather sordid reputation. During 1987 and ’88, there were 70 arrests for soliciting prostitution. However, management quickly made changes, including a no-stopping zone outside, to crack down on illegal activities. That same year, city leaders displayed their ongoing affection for the Queen when 85 members of the Chamber of Commerce attended a benefit performance in the showroom.
Juleff made it a point to have performers mingle with patrons after the show, to help break down visitors’ prejudices. "I feel people have preconceived ideas about female impersonators," he said. "Once they speak with them and understand them, they can have a good time."
By the 1990s, the back bar had evolved primarily into a safe space catering to the cross-dressing and transgender communities. “The back belonged to us crossdressers, transsexuals and our admirers,” Alice Novic recalls. “It had a softly lit, wood-paneled barroom with Olivia prints on the wall; a small, almost completely mirrored dance floor; and a fenced-in patio, which we used year-round.”
The back bar’s fame as a welcoming and comforting place for trans people spread worldwide. “The Queen Mary was the jewel in the crown of the Southern California transgender scene,” Novic writes in her memoir Alice in Genderland. “People I knew from Chicago and, in fact, t-people from all over the world would book trips to L.A. just so they could see the club.”
Here, Novic, who spent most of her time living as a married male doctor, felt free to explore her gender identity. “The Queen Mary was where I finally began to let my guard down and evolved from being uptight to its polar opposite,” she recalls. “I became as soulful and forthcoming there as I might have been at a support group. At the time, people seemed to appreciate it, but in retrospect, it might have been a little much for a nightclub.”
Maximilliana agrees. It was “a home like no other. Not a gay bar, not a straight bar: a trans bar.”
Maximilliana would spend six years performing in the showroom, which became trendy in the late ’90s and early 2000s, pulling in celebrity regulars including Tori Spelling, Tim Allen and Anna Nicole Smith. Maximilliana recalls: "I was a hit. My quirky little show fit right in with the Queen Mary crowd. They loved it. Robert even ran ads in the L.A. Weekly using my picture as the face of the Queen Mary. I began to be a part of the iconic numbers the Queen was famous for. I never did Madonna but I did get to flip and catch a 'Vogue' fan for many years. I was never the star, as no one could be. The Queen herself was the star. I was and always will be one of a long line of the 'Queen’s Men.'"
Anna Nicole Smith visited on more than one occasion.
Robert Juleff had a stroke in 2000, and the club’s day-to-day operations were taken over by his son, Robert Jr., “a more energetic version of his dad, perhaps a little like Ricky Jr., if we go with the [I Love Lucy] metaphor,” Novic says. The Queen kept sailing along, seemingly smoothly, until February 2003. According to Maximilliana: "It was the Sunday after the Rhode Island nightclub fire. It seemed no one wanted to be in a club that night. The cast was dressed and ready, but there was not a soul in the showroom. In all the 40-plus years of the show’s run, only once had the show not gone on and that was during the Rodney King riots. But this was different."
They continue, "None of us knew this was it. Otherwise, I think we would have done that last show just for us. Instead, we left without running the show, thinking we’ll all be back next week as Friday and Saturday were sold out. It was not to be. The next day we were told the club was closed. Our beloved Queen Mary was dead. I have never fully recovered."
The Queen’s sudden closing, never fully explained by management, took away many people’s main social center and link to their community. “I felt devastated, and somewhat betrayed,” Novic remembers. “Because the Queen Mary closed down just like it was any other bar rather than the sole provider of a unique resource to a loyal community.” However, Novic is forever grateful for her time at the Queen Mary, and how it helped her grow as a person:
The fact was that we crossdressers, non-passing trans women, and the men who admire us have always had precious few places we could go and be accepted. At the Queen Mary, we weren’t just accepted; we were celebrated! It was magic. It was a portal into a world where some of our most forbidden and seemingly impossible fantasies really could come true! There was no telling what might happen on any given night. The back bar was where so many of us trans people learned we were not alone and where so many of our lives were changed irrevocably and for the better.
As for the legendary performances in the showroom, they are fondly remembered by all who saw them and those who performed in them. “I have worked everywhere — some of the largest clubs and shows the country has seen,” Butch Ellis wrote in a blog post in 2003. “Yet, there has never been a place like the Queen Mary — there may never be another.”
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