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Face masks, gloves and Cash App: Local drag performers adapt during pandemic
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Face masks, gloves and Cash App: Local drag performers adapt during pandemic

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The back room pulsed with anticipation at Dick's RU Crazee on the night of June 20.

While wind and rain alternated outside, friends and acquaintances took comfort in the warmth of each other's company and various concoctions from the bar, located at 1221 150th St. in Hammond.

Shortly after 9 p.m., the patrons took their seats at socially-distanced tables, face masks donned across their mouths and noses. The disco lights above began rotating and filled the room with splashes of color.

Whitney Houston's "Queen of the Night" played on the speakers. Lilly White Towers came through the door, illuminated by the neon glow from outside, highlighting posters of the other drag queens joining her that night.

She shimmied across the space, performed her number and took her perch on-stage to emcee. The "Welcome Back" drag show was officially underway.

"I went from being an athletic queen to a couch potato," she said. Laughter ensued. "I have never sweated so much in my life," commenting on how tight her corset felt and how much her makeup would run throughout the night.

The first of two lineups continued on as performers, including Bella Shannell, Tina Dupree, Synthetic and Vivian Velvet-Doom lip-synced and danced to their songs. The audience howled with cheers and yelps as they guzzled down their drinks.

The night was another episode in communities' continuing paths of inching toward different shades of normalcy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Back on Track Indiana plan's Stage 4 was the first opportunity for bars and night clubs in the state to reopen to patrons, but at 50% capacity. Although originally not expected to begin until June 14, Gov. Eric Holcomb authorized all the state's counties to advance to this next phase of reopening on June 10.

As people have started filing back into their favorite watering holes, the bars and clubs' reopening is one of the first opportunities for local drag queens and kings to return to in-person performing, as they often rely on such venues to book them and provide spaces for their shows.

"It was great," Dick's RU Crazee owner Dick Wurtzeacher Jr. said. "When they gave us the go-ahead, everybody was happy."

From staff to local performers, Wurtzeacher said his phone was ringing often, even during quarantine, about when they could get back to work or shows. A total of five shows, two each on June 13 and 20, and Saturday's Pride Show have occurred since.

"They (performers) have to eat too," he said. "That's their livelihood."

Lilly White Towers, who lives in Chicago, is also an employee at Hydrate Nightclub in Chicago's Boystown section. Quarantine put her not only out of physical work, but also in-person drag opportunities.

During the weeks of staying at home she participated in digital shows via online platforms, including Twitch, Zoom and Instagram. Hydrate Nightclub also hosted "Quarankiki" digital dance parties, which included at least one fundraiser night for employees that hadn't yet received unemployment insurance from Illinois, she said.

Performing again in-person has proven a welcome change.

"It feels amazing to be back on stage instead of sitting in front of a camera and pulling the energy from yourself," she said.

At Dick's, it's not without its challenges. Wurtzeacher and other management, operating under the 50% capacity requirement, only have up to 25 patrons in the back room. Their body temperatures are scanned when they enter. They're seated, spaced out at tables of 2-4 per place. Patrons must wear face masks. If they don't have a face mask upon entry, complimentary ones, along with gloves and small bottles of hand sanitizer, are given to customers after they pay their cover charges.

A couple of dressing rooms flank the stage area. Up to two performers may be in a room at a time. When one is next in the lineup, the curtain opens up automatically. The performers must also remain on the stage, and cannot leave to interact with the audience, often a key time to amp up a crowd or earn tips.

Instead, patrons can drop cash into a pair of buckets on the stage, or use Cash App to send money digitally to performers. Any cash is collected after each number, placed in a plastic bag and disinfected.

"I have talked in length with my cast reminding them that it is easy to fall back in your ways of doing things, but we have to remind ourselves that it all may look the same but it is not," show manager Laura Steele said. "You came to see a fabulous show, my cast came to perform for them. You came in without the virus, and Dicky and I will do everything in our power to send you back home to your loved ones that way."

"It feels different because I'm used to going into the crowd and dancing with and on people," Aaron Strug, of Highland, who performs as Synthetic, said. "It's just something to get used to. When everyone's staring at you, I feel I have to dance harder."

Lilly White Towers, who is the drag mother of Synthetic, also felt similarly.

"I'm not a huge dancing queen," she said. "It does change up the dynamic. It's something you have to overcome. There's points I wish I was walking around and interacting. That's how a lot of them (performers) keep them (patrons) engaged."

With such a contrast between Indiana and Illinois' reopening paces, it's likely for drag performers and patrons residing in neighboring Chicago and its suburbs to journey across the state line in search of shows, Wurtzeacher said.

The Restore Illinois plan's Phase 4 also changes bars and restaurants' capacity limits. Venues there can be up to 25% capacity indoors and must cap at 50 people. These guidelines are flexible should coronavirus cases continue decreasing, but ultimately Illinois will not move to Phase 5 of the plan until a vaccine is achieved or an alternative widespread healthcare option that can effectively fight coronavirus is available.

The Back on Track Indiana plan already moves to its Stage 5 next Saturday. The day, which was purposely timed with Fourth of July, marks the first time in several months where different businesses can operate at full capacity, and social gatherings of 250 or more people are permitted, barring any surge in coronavirus cases.

Elsewhere in the Region, On the Roxx bar, 2522 Portage Mall, is another venue that will eventually host occasional drag performances. Its first planned show is on Aug. 1, according to the bar's Facebook page, which is almost a month past the larger restriction eases featured in Stage 5.

For approximately seven weeks in the spring, Fiddlehead Restaurant, 422 Franklin St. in Michigan City, featured 'Dragside Pickup' on Saturdays, in which queens would bring takeout orders to people parked outside the establishment.

The restaurant restarted dine-in service on June 10, and plans to host drag shows again starting July 25, owner Aaron O'Reilly said.

There are smiles, laughter and cheers all around with actual human interaction again, but there is still an abundance of caution as business progresses forward. Time will be an ultimate decider for work and performance conditions.

"As much as I am excited to get the shows going again, there is that nervousness inside me," Steele said. "It is the 'what if' game in my head. We are learning a new way to live and running free willy is not an option anymore. We now have to learn how to be more self-aware of people and our surroundings."

Wurtzeacher says he'll keep the capacity limits in the back room for an indefinite amount of time, even with Stage 5 around the corner. He also would like to keep a capacity limit up front, unless conditions significantly improve.

"I'm pretty nervous about it," he said. "As long as we can cover the bills, that's OK. We're not making much money, but at least everyone's making a little money and we're being safe. I think that's more important."

Gallery: 'Welcome Back' show at Dick's RU Crazee

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Visuals and Online Interactives Director

Kale is a photojournalist and digital producer with the Times. He is a Region native, hailing from Schererville. He shoots photos, writes feature stories and produces Byline, a Times podcast. Email: kale.wilk@nwi.com Phone: 219-933-3393

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