This article has been written on drag time, and I’m, um, posting it shortly before Peaches Christ presents the Post-it cult hit Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion at the Castro Theatre. When I called the man behind Peaches, Joshua Grannell, midway through this week to discuss all things Romy and Michele , he was still buzzing from last weekend’s events, such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence fashion show Project Nunway. “It was just mind-blowing,” enthused Grannell. “[Singer-songwriter] Carlotta Sue Kay was totally chill-inducing.”
Displacement, whether by tech or real estate decree, is the order of the day in SF circa-2014. There are stretches of time when literally every day brings news of another lost venue or cultural icon. But Grannell also sees the signs—sometimes celebratory—of resistance. “The Lab met their fundraising goals over the weekend,” he notes. “SF is not done. We’ve lived in this creative paradise for so long, and when that is threatened, people freak out.”
All of this flux figures in the latest Peaches Christ event, Peaches and Heklina’s High School Reunion. “The timing is right,” says Grannell. “The last [Peaches Christ] show of the year over the last few years has been a friends-and-family event involving old friends and drag performers. Romy and Michele is one of those movies I’ve always wanted to do. We were going to do it last year, but when I saw that Jesse [Hawthorne Ficks, who presents Midnites for Maniacs at the Castro] had programmed it for one of his triple features, I decided to table it for a while.”
For Grannell, Peaches’ screening and re-staging of the 1997 comedy hit offers an opportunity to check in and take stock of life in SF and beyond. “The idea behind the scenes is that we’re actually having a reunion. Myself, [Peaches’ longtime sidekick] Martiny, Darcy [Drollinger]—these are all people who were around performing at [Heklina’s club] Trannyshack in 1996 and [Peaches’ film series] Midnight Mass in 1998. Princess Kennedy is flying in from Utah. Some people involved have not put on a wig in many years. There is a meta aspect to it. It just happens to also be a drag homage or parody—a love letter to Romy and Michele .”
Like any cult favorite, Romy and Michele rewards repeat viewings, time after time. “I love how unique and creative the screenplay is, and what the actresses—especially Janeane [Garofolo], Mira [Sorvino] and Lisa [Kudrow]—bring to the characters,” says Grannell. “The script is so bizarre because of the second-act fantasy sequence, which goes on a lot longer than just a few minutes. I wonder if a studio movie like this”—Romy and Michele was produced by Touchstone Pictures, a division of Disney—”would be worked over [by higher-ups] if it were released today. With all of its time-tripping, it’s really sort of experimental.”
In putting together Peaches’ shows, Grannell personally transcribes dialogue from the source material, becoming “intimately familiar” with the screenwriting. “I got an email from Robin Schiff, Romy and Michele ‘s screenwriter, completely unsolicited as I was creating the stage show,” he says. “She said, ‘I’m so excited, so glad you’re doing this—having drag queens doing Romy and Michele is the ultimate validation.’ She’s already bought her ticket and she’s bringing a ton of her friends.” Schiff isn’t alone. The creator of the film’s opening title sequence, Susan Bradley, also got in touch with Grannell: “She said, ‘Those are my hands [in the sequence], my clothes, my fabric.’ They [Touchstone] just took the test version she’d made and put it in the movie.”
As for Grannell’s own moviemaking efforts, he’s currently at work on a pair of scripts, either of which could be the follow-up to 2010’s All About Evil . “Honestly, I’ve been so busy with these stage shows,” he says. “It’s sort of the first time where I’m actually making a living as Peaches, but it’s been harder to do the fundraising and pitching I should be doing for the movies. Having done it once, you realize how broke you go. I’m excited to make another movie, but I’m going to take my time.” Since All About Evil , the film’s star Natasha Lyonne has had mainstream success on the HBO series Orange is the New Black ; Grannell says she thanked him during a recent dinner date.
Shooting All About Evil at the Victoria Theatre in the Mission was another exercise in SF movie love for Grannell, who managed the Bridge Theatre during the heyday of Peaches’ Midnight Mass series. “Queer filmmakers have been using the Victoria as a set for years and years,” he notes. “When we got in there, I immediately felt at home and realized it was exactly where the movie should be set. The art director, the cinematographer, and I became very close to Anita [Correa], who was running it, and who recently passed away; her son Rob runs it today. It’s really underrated in a lot of ways.”
Across from The Lab in a pivotal and increasingly contested zone of the Mission, the Victoria has become more active in the five years since Grannell shot All About Evil at the theater. “Their mission is for it to be a showcase for movies and live theater,” Grannell notes. “It’s been great to see all the drag go through there, and Ray of Light, the theater production company. During the Golden Girls holiday shows [Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes ], and certainly during Sex in the City LIVE!, you see women from the Marina parking their cars out there.”
As for greater San Francisco, Grannell is doing his part to keep it great, and taking inspiration from others who are doing the same. “The thing that is toughest is there isn’t space for all kinds of young people to come here the way we did,” he admits. “I was 22 with no job and no money. I don’t think you can do that now. Yet some young people are still doing it, despite the obstacles. That’s encouraging to me. And there are good changes happening, like Heklina and Darcy reopening Oasis as a new space in SoMa. It’s not over yet!”
Living the Experience: James Hosking’s Beautiful by Night
What the Castro Theatre is to the Castro—and the Victoria, Lab, and Roxie are to the Mission’s 16th Street corridor—Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is to the Tenderloin, modestly: a last stronghold of creative vibrancy in San Francisco during a time of class tyranny. Beautiful by Night , a quietly gorgeous 29-minute movie by James Hosking, reveals some of what makes Aunt Charlie’s special through a portrait of three drag performers there—Olivia Hart, Collette LeGrande, and Donna Personna.
Aunt Charlie’s is home to Bus Station John’s long-running, wonderfully decorated Thursday disco night Tubesteak Connection. For half a decade, Tuesdays have brought High Fantasy. There, performers such as host Myles Cooper, former host Alexis Penney, the now LA-based musician-dancer Julius Smack, and the dynamic Bebe Huxley have a floor-level stage for music and performance that connects directly, eye-to-eye, with the audience. All of the names just listed have been inspiring to me, fueling my writing and art-making and (to borrow a phrase from Smack) everyday ballet.
Saturated in the deep-night colors and darkness particular to the Tenderloin, Beautiful by Night accompanies some of Aunt Charlie’s veteran queens of Saturday night from rituals of preparation, to the bright lights of performance, on through to post-show trips back home. “I’m living the experience,” Donna Personna says at one point, a statement that manages to pack years and worlds of realness and artifice into four words. Hosking manages to get intimate with that experience and the solitude that is in some ways intrinsic to it.
Visually rhyming ashtrays and makeup cases, even capturing the sound of wig static, Hosking and cinematographer Vanessa Carr are closely attuned to the clatter of bangles and the clutter—the stuff—of life in this oasis of the Tenderloin. In the past, Hosking has collaborated with writer and onetime TL-denizen William Vollman, and his affinity for the neighborhood is evident during Olivia’s, Collette’s, and Donna’s individual journeys to and from the club, which range from a stop at Carl’s Jr. for bacon cheeseburgers to moody, introspective rearview mirror moments.
In Jennie Livingston’s feature-length early-’90s NY drag portrait Paris is Burning , Dorian Corey plays the role of unwavering philosopher, casually tossing bon mots such as “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hurray for you” the audience’s way. Likewise, the staunch, quick-witted and sober Olivia; fragile-strong Collette; and “messy” Donna have no shortage of everyday profundity to share. “Who hasn’t put makeup on?” Olivia asks early on. Defying her harsh inner critic to embody her credo of “Don’t limit yourself—do it,” Donna uncorks at least one aphorism for survival in this day and age: “Everything is desperately important to me, but nothing matters.” To summarize Beautiful by Night through just one of its understatedly beautiful shots, it’s a peek through the curtain, from a special place backstage.
For more info about James Hosking’s photography and Beautiful by Night , go to jameshosking.com.
Johnny Ray Huston has written about film, music, and visual art for 25 years at various newspapers, magazines, and websites, including a 14-year stint as Arts Editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian when it was an independent publication. He has co-created movies and put together film programs shown at Artists’ Television Access, Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, and the San Francisco International Film Festival, and written and made collage work for exhibitions at [2nd Floor Projects] in San Francisco.
We encourage you to support your local independent book or video seller. If that’s not possible, purchase Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (Amazon.com or Indiebound) or All About Evil (Amazon.com) using our affiliate links.