Article Title:One night at the old Staircase
Author or Credit:Jay Bennie
Published on:2nd February 2016 - 12:14 pm
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Story ID:17864
Text:Fort Street in 1980s downtown Auckland was not the tidied-up, respectable place it is now. It was the centre of rowdy straight entertainment with tatty shops, bars and nightclubs, a few adult shops, sailors on shore leave and a generally unkempt and seedy atmosphere. It's next location, in lower Albert Street, was a little more classy - but not a lot. But amongst the dross was, like a lighthouse or a shining star, one of the beacons of the NZ glbti community, the Staircase nightclub. For most of the '80s and even into the '90s Staircase was one of only three reliably gay social venues in the Queen City and pretty much everyone at some time met up at Staircase. There were two gay night clubs within a few blocks of each other... Alfies' shows tended towards the trans/Les Girls/showgirl style while Staircase was more drag-oriented. Bertha, in platinum blonde wig, and friends shortly after Staircase re-located to Albert Street Reigning supreme on the Staircase stage in its several incarnations were Bertha the Beast, Buckwheat and Tess Tickle. In the days before media personalities could be openly gay, these dames were megastars in the country's gay firmament. Their shows, generally two and sometimes three a night, sometimes with fabulous guest stars like the Yandall Sisters or with theme shows like newcomer drag, were a blend of glamour, style, raucous energy and Polynesian vivacity. Their shows generally followed a pattern of solo spots first at around midnight followed by a group show at around 1.30am which the performers had literally put together and rehearsed earlier that day, remembers Harold Samu, aka Bertha, as he takes us through a Saturday night at the old Fort Street Staircase, with a few memories of Albert Street mixed in for good measure. (“The Bertha the Beast name was probably in reaction to the pretty names a lot of the drag queens were coming up with at the time," Samu recalls. "I wanted something that was gutsy, a reflection of my size as I was bigger than other drag queens, a name that was strong and a little bit unruly.”) “Whoever we could get together, whoever was available that day, that would be the show that was on that night,” he says. “Rehearsals were in Staircase itself on the Saturday afternoon. One of the owners, Stuart or Dennis, would have let us in and we would rehearse on the stage space. We'd bring along some food, some of us would have been out on the town the night before so maybe weren't in the best state but we'd arrive about noon or early afternoon.” Nightclubs are notoriously way less glamorous during the day with the flouros on. “Yes, most nightclubs were disgusting actually. There was drinking, and in those days smoking, the cleaner might not have been through, or it had been cleaned but it wasn't divine... there was a carpeted area around the dance floor and if you had ever seen that carpet during the day you would never have walked on it at night.” “Whoever had an idea would bring it to the table and Edward [Cowley, aka Buckwheat] was always very organised so costumes would have been sorted out beforehand. In some cases it would be a matter of cobbling together old costumes from old shows, altered to have a coordinated kind of look, but they weren't always as organised as the ones Edward organised. Sometimes he would arrange for new costumes but there was never any budget for I. Sometimes we would do private gigs and would have had outfits made for that.” Cowley, Samu says, became the driving force, “and you can see it now how he was the one who created a business out of it.” Choreography was really a combined effort, Samu remembers. “The boy dancers that danced with us used to watch a lot of music videos so they'd pick up a lot of the dance moves from there and those would be replicated in to our shows... even if they didn't really fit our number.” “Sometimes a number would be broken up and we might each take a section as the lead with the others as back-up and sometimes one of us would be lead for the whole number. When it came to dancing I wasn't the strongest group performer,” he laughs. From Bette Davis vs Joan Crawford down two or more divas in one space can be a recipe for disaster. Yet Tess, Buckwheat and Bertha seemed to always remain close and work together well. To this day they are friends, compatriots and perform together occasionally, seamlessly and well. “In rehearsal there was a lot of repartee, chit chat and joking around and sending each other up, that was where we bonded. First and foremost we were friends, right from early on, and we had each others' backs and while the repartee was thick and fast and free-flowing it was done in a friendly and jovial manner... we weren't really digging for a hurt. If somebody's ego got a little bit too big there would be a slap down intervention from the other two, or if one got a little bit too drunk the other two would give a disapproving look. In the group dynamic everybody kept real and together. One of us really wasn't more important than the other, there was camaraderie, and respect as well.” As at most nightclubs of the day there was a tiny stage then quite a large dance floor, and although patrons would pull back to make the floor space available to the performers it was inevitable, especially on a very crowded night, that sitting or kneeling folk would encroach into and limit the performance space. How did they cope with that limitation? “That affected the choreography itself, there were lots of settings, lots of arm movements but there might not have been lots of footwork.” After rehearsing most of the afternoon “we would break for the evening and go home to wherever we lived, I was in Kingsland with my Aunt, and have dinner. In the early days it took us a lot longer to get ready to go on so we might arrive back at Staircase at about 10pm. At that stage the bar might be open but not the dancing. So we'd arrive before most of the punters, to a small room called the Drag Room which was an old office in a corridor behind the bar area. There'd be costumes that we'd used for the previous ten years hanging up, some mucky old drag queens' pantyhose draped in a corner, though when Edward/Buckwheat got more involved and when the venue moved to Albert Street things got more organised. “We used to do our own make-up, chatting away and getting ready for the first 'spot' shows." Was the makeup the same every night or did it change and even evolve with time? “In the early days it was a bit hit and miss. In those days there weren't many big Polynesian drag queens and the colour palette wasn't great... for example the skin tones available in Auckland weren't really designed for Polynesian skin or any dark toned skin. So often you'd have makeup that was a shade too light for you. We used a combination of street and theatrical makeup, primarily Shiseido for the brown girls in those early days. But as the years went on more and more makeup was available. When MAC came into the game there was a better match.” “We would shave just before we had our make-up done. You might have had a shower at home but you didn't shave until you got to the club. Then you'd let the face rest for a while and start by blocking out your eyebrows... you take some professional eyebrow wax and cover the natural eyebrow so it becomes a surface, powder over that then re-draw eyebrows over the top of it. "You'd always make sure you had great eyelashes because they cover a multitude of sins... such as the results of a shaky hand, like wobbly eyeliner, from too much boozing. But a great set of 'bats' as we'd call them covered a multitude of sins. And you must always work the foundation down your neck and in to your chest so the skin-tone is the same all the way down.” Down below, how did you make sure that, in those skimpy and form-fitting costumes, you don't look too masculine in the crutch area and end up speaking in a squeaky voice? “You have to tuck. You take the goods and push them back into that space just under the groin and hold them in place by gaffer tape which by the time you've worked up a sweat dancing and carrying on all night comes off quite easily. And there is special underwear which are flatter at the front but has a bit more give underneath the groin.” Uncomfortable? “Yeah, absolutely. As you were getting undressed at the end of the night you'd think: 'Where has everything gone?' You couldn't see anything down there. And it would become painful, and even numb.” How did they get their rather big physiques into those form-fitting costumes, were they like corsets in disguise? “No... You had to have the right undergarments. For instance it would depend on how thick the pantyhose was, the denier, that would help. Or there might be something called a waist-cincher, a band wrapped tightly around the waist to pull you in to give more of a feminine shape. Then you might wear a corset on top of that to pull you in even more.” The best place to get those feminine items in big boys sizes was Rendell's on K Road “because they would have larger womens' sizes. There were things like grandma panties which would have good support for the waist, stomach and butt area. Over time as we began travelling across to Sydney you could buy a lot more items.” Bearing in mind we're talking of a different time, a very different social climate, how did the prim pakeha ladies of Rendell's ladies' undergarment department react to big strapping Island chaps coming in asking to be shown what they had available in ladies' nude-look panties or whatever. “With time we became very good at knowing where to look to find what we wanted. Youd just pick up what you wanted and take them to the counter. The first time was always the hardest because you knew they were judging you when you were buying it... but after a while you disregarded who was serving you.” Back to Staircase and it's nearing showtime. “A copy of the music would have been given to the DJ box and there'd be a boom box in the drag room playing the music so we could have a run through of the routines before we went on stage. We'd have written out the words in long-hand to use while we were rehearsing, we'd have taken it home with your show tape. Some shows you'd get it perfect, not so others.” “I was generally word-perfect in those big black women numbers. For some reason I'd cotton on to a number by anyone big and black that had an element of wailing in it and that would be my gig. Less so for the group numbers and songs with little voices where the motivation wasn't so real... those were hardest for me. “The numbers I liked best were by two women in particular...Jennifer Holliday and Patta la Belle. Because for some reason I understood their breathing as well as the way they sang the song. And with any big black woman I understood the size of the voice... and those were always the things that would make songs more memorable... like Patti la Belle's Somewhere Over The Rainbow which has soaring pieces in it. When I'm doing that number I actually feel it" How would the performance play out if someone was having a down day or wasn't coping with the choreography, how did the performers all cope with that? Samu laughs long and loud. “They would just dance around you. The show always went on, we always did the show no matter what was happening, whether some had had the breakdown of a relationship or whatever. If somebody wasn't strong in one area then the other two picked up the can and did more. Or because my choreography wasn't as strong as the other two I would end up doing the crazy stuff down on the floor, that kind of thing to counteract it." So Bertha's reputation for throwing herself to the floor in the middle of a routine, her head thrown back, wig quivering, eyes wide, arms failing and legs kicking and flashing, a sort of manic plus-sized Camille on meth, that was all to disguise a drop the ball moment? “There was definitely an element of that,” Samu laughs. “But everyone at some stage lost their words or ended up doing the obligatory spin [away from the audience] until they got their words together.” Despite the relative professionalism of the routines there was often a cringing moment when the dance music stopped, the lights went down, three drag divas took position on stage ready to go and there was silence... and more silence. The brave ones amongst those present would cast an eye to the sound box and the silence would continue until eventually the music started, generally from the first note but occasionally half way through the first chorus. Awkward. “We would always be ready to go on, there'd never be a situation where we were not ready. We'd be in our position ready to start, we knew our cues... If anyone had an ego it might have been the guest DJs. From the end of the dance music to the beginning of the show it was not the drag queens' call, it was always the DJ's call.” It was always a minor miracle how the performers coped with situations where they started their numbers and you realise that in a packed nightclub people had encroached into the smallish performance space and if they weren't careful some was going to get a heel in the shin or eye. “I think that was part of the magic of it... In Fort Street it was like an amphitheatre, people were focused on you and it was almost like they were willing you on to perform or to do well so there was always that vibe, there'd always be smiles on their faces. If you didn't have so much room to perform in you'd just tone down your performance to fit whatever the space was on the night. And sometimes, depending on how busy it was, there wasn't much of a performance space at all so you just had to work with what you had. But it was always good to work that close up because it forced you to be a bit more word-perfect or perfect on the choreography because people were literally right there in front of you or beside you while you were performing.” Not everyone who went to Staircase was looking forward to the drag shows. “Depending on the night you might have people who, when the show started, headed straight to the bar because that's when it would become free. I don't think we were ever really heckled... or if we were it was in a way that would give us a bit of a spar... we'd do a bit of microphone work either when we were introducing or at the end of the show when we were announcing things or if the show was something like a a miss drag queen of the year pageant, the heckling was part of it... if somebody threw you a line you'd throw it right back. I don't think there was ever a situation where the heckling was uncomfortable or rude." After the shows when the DJ was back on and the dancing had re-started, what happened then? “We would grab a drink and go backstage and powder down. You'd powder all over your face, everywhere you were sweaty, so you wouldn't have a shine or sheen on you because that's a bad look for a drag queen. We'd have a few giggles or a laugh at somebody who got the choreography wrong or missed a cue or fluffed their lines and then we'd head out onto the dance floor. A lot of the debrief was being out with the crowd, dancing around. We might each have our own group of admirers who would hang out with us, friends too, and we'd have a few drinks then go back to the Drag Room and start to disrobe and dismantle all the drag and get back into our boy clothes." Did they take their drag personas out into the street? “In Fort Street we never went out on the street. But in the later Albert Street and K' Rd premises after we'd performed we'd head to the straight clubs or somewhere a DJ we knew was playing at, or to a house party, then we'd go back to the club... The reception they got on the street was mixed. “It wasn't always great. Later sometimes, outside of the Albert Street premises, we used to get a bit of aggro, I think because of the pubs in the area. Sometimes we'd be the door bitches and work the front door and people were generally fine... but there would always be security guys around who would help you out. In the straight venues people might laugh at you a bit but others there were great fun.” Eventually the sun must rise. Most drag queens and all werewolves should rarely be seen by daylight... “We were young, we were carefree and in our handbags we'd have a pair of sunglasses. We'd head up to Ponsonby Road for a bit of breakfast. Depending on who you were, and I was usually one of the last drag queens standing, the night could end at about seven, eight or nine in the morning and then you'd go home. If you hadn't already taken your makeup off you'd take it off at home, fall into bed and wouldn't get up until late afternoon. Jay Bennie - 2nd February 2016    
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