Updated: Jun 7, 2022
These days it's not too hard to find a drag show in the District. There is Perry's in Adams Morgan, one of the most well known drag brunches around, and where I spent the morning of my 40th birthday while very hung over. Nellie's is a perennial U Street Favorite, with drag brunch and bingo. And dare I forget Freddy's Beach Bar across the river in Crystal City, VA. That place was the site of many a girls' Sunday morning out, with the most gloriously kitschy decorations you could imagine.
The history of drag in the DC goes way back to the 1870s, but the earliest explosion of the movement was during those booze-soaked years of Prohibition from 1929 -1933. During this era all vices went underground. Once you entered into one of the city's numerous speakeasies, the atmosphere was much more permissive, more wild, more open to different things. The Pansy Craze, which refers to the rise in underground drag shows during this period, was all the rage in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and yes, even in DC. The Pansy Craze's biggest stars, such as Jean Malin and Rae Bourbon, were traveling all over the country bringing their sharp wit and over the top personas to backroom bars everywhere.
While researching my Harlem Renaissance in DC tour I came across references to the Pansy Craze in the U Street neighborhood, specifically at Republic Gardens (1355 U Street NW). Republic Gardens was one of the top clubs on "Black Broadway," and hosted such stars as Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. However, there was a backroom on the second floor where you could find one of DC's rowdiest drag shows too. The Rainbow History Project, which studies and catalogues intersectional racial and sexual history in Metropolitan DC, has a quote by Ladd Forrester, a young gay man living in the city in 1933: “The Republic Gardens was a large restaurant-bar with a completely gay backroom, which you reached by walking up some steps... If a policeman walked in the door, the vocalist would let us know by Singing ‘Alice Blue Gown’ from the Broadway musical Irene.” This spot was apparently frequented by members of the Saturday Nighters Club, the clique of black intellectuals who met at Georgia Douglas Johnston's house on 15th and S Street. Bohemian Caverns also hosted drags shows, and Dunbar Theater hosted the famed Jewel Box Revue. A unique feature of drag shows near U Street is that they featured white AND black performers, not something you saw everywhere.
The Pansy Craze came to an abrupt end in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed and the Hays Code was enacted in Hollywood. In addition, Jean Malin met a tragically early end in a post-show car accident in Los Angeles. While there may have still been an underground scene, the drag community would not be out in the open until after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Drag is now firmly into the mainstream thanks to such hit shows as "Ru Paul's Drag Race" and movies like "To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar" (which if you haven't seen it, find it and watch it immediately). I point out the now decrepit-looking sign of the Republic Gardens on my Harlem Renaissance tour, and tell the story of the Pansy Craze. So now you all have received a little preview! Come check it out sometime for the whole story when I start giving tours again the weekend after the Inauguration. If you come dressed in drag, I'll buy you a drink. ;)