From Queer to Paternity
While hanging out at Scottsdale Civic Center back in the early '80s, teenager Alison Farmer and her friends often dropped in to Jutenhoops gift shop, where they'd kill time perusing greeting cards in the Adults Only racks.
"They were pretty risqué cards for the time," says Farmer, who remembers snickering over one particularly raunchy line featuring the antics of a trio of over-the-top drag queens.
"Congratulations on your success!" read one memorable greeting picturing a power-suited cross-dresser. "The only time I'm able to pull strings is when I'm on my period."
But as she chuckled over the rude curios, the Chaparral High student would have howled with laughter had anyone advanced the notion that the male glamazon staring out from the card -- the future star of the drag cult film Vegas in Space -- would one day be the father of her children.
Ridiculous as it was, that suggestion was made all the more ludicrous by the fact that at 17, marriage and motherhood were the last thing on the mind of budding lesbian Alison Farmer.
Now ensconced with their three preschool-age children in a sprawling toy-strewn ranch house in the shadow of Squaw Peak, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton Bradley Chandler II gleefully concede that yes, their unorthodox pairing would probably cause Dr. Laura to drop dead of apoplexy.
Indeed, even the jaws of some longtime friends dropped when they first heard of the quirky romance between a member of San Francisco's most celebrated drag troupe of the era and the Sapphic transplant from Phoenix. ("I think he was just frustrated with men," opines onetime roommate Phillip R. Ford, who directed the pair in Dolls!, a stage version of Valley of the Dolls. "I mean, who hasn't been?")
Astounding skeptics, the unlikely union has lasted six years and so far has produced a two-year-old daughter, Lily, as well as twin sisters Dorothy and Evelyn, born last March.
Chandler, who has worked in the collections department of an Ahwatukee computer firm since moving to the Valley last summer, shrugs when quizzed about the unusual union. "What can I say?" asks the John Waters look-alike, explaining that he was introduced to his wife by mutual friends nearly 10 years ago at Klubstitute, a hip San Francisco nitery. "We met and just totally hit it off."
Thus began the sort of storybook romance that unfolds like a latter-day chapter of Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin's freewheeling chronicle of San Francisco life in the '70s.
"It sounds corny, but the first time I saw him, I knew X was for me," echoes Alison, whose relationships up until that time had primarily been with women. "He was dressed as a guy at the time, wearing some hideous red-and-white seersucker jacket like a car salesman. But as we started talking and I got to know him, I thought, 'This guy is a god.'"
At that time, God answered to the name "Miss X," or, more simply, "X," a nickname he uses to this day. He lifted the name from Dear Abby columns because, he says, he was intrigued by the atrocious behavior of "a friend I'll call 'Miss X'" whom readers were constantly griping about. Embellishing the bio of his hellacious drag persona, he also claimed to be the heiress to the "Brand X" fortune.
And although the 49-year-old X hasn't donned a frock and war paint since singing at a friend's wedding four years ago, Chez Chandler is awash in souvenirs of his heady salad days as a member of Sluts A Go Go, a group of three queens who ruled the Golden Gate drag roost during the Reagan years. An unlikely counterpoint to the Legos, coloring books and what is apparently the entire Fisher-Price product line scattered across the floor, X's extensive collection of framed portraits and posters from productions featuring him and his colleagues make the house look like a 1950s day-care center operated by Auntie Mame.
As it turns out, the madcap misadventures of that fictional relative positively pale beside the real-life exploits of Miss X.
The eldest son of a Cincinnati restaurateur, Chandler was, even as a child, a ham who never missed an opportunity to perform for anyone who'd watch him. "Don't get me wrong, though," he stresses. "Offstage, I was shy; I was never the JonBenet type."
Party dresses, makeup and tiaras were far in the future. Instead, the young Chandler honed his theatrical chops singing in the high school chorus and dashing off plays (he wrote his first one in second grade) in which he inevitably had the best role -- or roles. "If you're going to write something," he reasons, "you might as well give yourself the juiciest part."
One role of which he wanted no part was that of a college student. As it turned out, the scholastic world wanted no part of him, either, and after a disastrous freshman year at the University of Cincinnati, in 1972 he packed his bags and headed for the West Coast.
Few clichés of '70s counterculture wanderlust went unexplored. Looking back with not a little chagrin, an embarrassed X recalls a misspent youth that involved, among other things, a run-in with the law when the sheriff of an Arizona backwater discovered a small quantity of speed in a traveling companion's backpack, a stint as a projectionist in a Hollywood Boulevard gay porn palace and a period in which he pretended to be mentally deranged to qualify for disability payments in San Francisco.
During one especially low point upon first arriving in San Francisco, X even teamed up with a young woman for a con artist routine. "We called ourselves Dexter and Anita Vargas -- Don't you love those names? -- and we posed as brother and sister -- eating off people, drinking off people . . . . Basically, we were grifters." And somewhere along the line, he found time to participate in that time-honored San Francisco tradition of the period, the green-card marriage: As a favor to a friend, he married, then divorced, a drag camp follower from Australia so she could become a U.S. citizen.
In 1997, his ex-wife, by then the owner of a trendy biker hair salon called the Pink Tarantula, was gunned down in her shop in full view of customers and staff members. Later this year, two men -- including victim Carmel Sanger's second husband -- are scheduled to be tried for their roles in her death, a murder-for-hire plot in which they allegedly hoped to collect on Sanger's life insurance policy.
In 1979, X formed a professional marriage of far longer duration when he co-founded Sluts A Go Go. That alliance was the result of a meeting with kindred spirit Doris Fish, a lantern-jawed queen from Down Under whose drag incarnation was reminiscent of Catherine O'Hara's glamour-addled "Lola Heatherton" character on SCTV. Completing the troika was the ingénue-like Tippi, a Tippi (The Birds) Hedren fanatic characterized by one pal as "the oldest living child star in captivity."
Although Sluts A Go Go was not the first theatrical group to lampoon drag (X and company were preceded by The Cockettes and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, both much larger troupes with a roster of rotating members), the Sluts captured the public's fancy in a way the others hadn't, perhaps because it's easier to identify with three Charlie's Angels than an entire stageful of Rockettes.
"I always played the Joan Crawford type, the hardened bitch," says X, who bolstered his fashion savvy with a day job at Lillie Ann, a prestigious manufacturer of women's apparel. "I was the bitch, Tippi was the sympathetic one and Doris was, well, Doris, so it made for a nice mix." Then, as a philosophical aside, "Plus, I could get all my nastiness out onstage and that made me a better person offstage. Or so I'd like to think."
Not that the ensemble was ever far from the limelight. In addition to their own productions, benefits and a four-week tour of Australia, the mascaraed ménage performed at a debutante's coming-out party, modeled in a runway show, appeared in seat-belt safety spots for a local TV station and generally kept their curling irons very much in the fire.
"Back in the '80s, the Sluts were everywhere," recalls longtime San Francisco resident Robert Lazzara, now manager of the city's largest chain of legitimate theaters. "They were always putting on shows, being quoted in the paper or appearing with bands like The Tubes or The ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra. They were definitely part of the fabric of the city."
Not surprisingly, the Sluts' fabrics of choice ran to lamé, mink and fake animal prints, preferably laced with sequins.
As for their material of choice? Well, forget those slavishly reverential tributes to Judy Garland, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand that have long been the mainstay of traditional drag entertainment.
Instead, the Sluts' approach to this arcane art form might best be summed up by their parody of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," Rizzo's big showstopper from Grease: "I could do a show where no one laughed/Say 'I'm working on my craft'/Draw an audience of two/That's a thing I'd never do."
Says X, "We never took ourselves seriously. If we had, that would have been the end of it right there. When we first started, people would come up and say, 'Nobody's ever going to believe you're really women.' To which we'd reply, 'Thanks -- we must be doing a good job then.'
"We weren't into that old-school drag mindset of trying to convince people we weren't men," he continues. "How boring is that? Instead, we wanted to look like insanely glamorous drag queens."
Glancing at a menacing group portrait of the old gang that dominates one wall in his living room, X smiles beatifically. "I think we succeeded."
By all accounts, the cross-dressing cronies not only dressed like queens but lived like ones, as well. Their palace? A Market Street madhouse known as "Slut Central."
"It was a drag queen's dream house," recalls Marc Huestis, a San Francisco filmmaker who worked with X, Doris Fish and Tippi on a number of productions, including Naked Brunch, an onstage soap opera set in Beat Generation-era North Beach.
"Doris would never stop redecorating, so every time you went over there, the place looked completely different." During a faux-finishing frenzy, Fish once marbleized every surface in the apartment; in the midst of the Vegas in Space shoot, she upholstered the walls with Day-Glo-colored fur. But whatever the motif du jour, one constant was a showcase in which Fish displayed her world-class collection of false eyelashes through the ages.
"It made the Liberace Museum look tame," laughs Huestis.
Too bad some TV producer didn't have the foresight to install a round-the-clock camera crew in this three-wig circus. Some network would have had the makings of a potential ratings buster that could have been called The Unreal World. Imagine Stage Door with a five o'clock shadow or How to Marry a Millionaire with size-13 stilettos -- and start tallying up those Nielsens.
When not greeting a nonstop stream of visiting queens, musicians and artists, experimenting with new looks or rehearsing for their latest stage extravaganza ("Nightclub of the Living Dead," "Nudies Go Berserk" and "All-Star Celebrity Gang Bang" are a few of the more intriguing credits on X's résumé), the Sluts spent hours curled up in front of the then-novel VCR, absorbing pop references from old movies that they'd later regurgitate for audiences in ironic contexts.
Hollywood adaptations of Tennessee Williams' hothouse dramaturgy were a particular favorite, prompting the trio to perform the rarely produced Hello From Bertha, the author's comedic one-acter about a St. Louis madam (X) who's trying to a toss a dying hooker (Tippi) out of the brothel because she needs the bed.
Another Slut Central fave was The Bad Seed; in 1987, the Sluts mounted a drag production of the hokey nurture-vs.-nature thriller with X playing the mother of a homicidal eight-year-old girl (Tippi) and Doris Fish as the busybody landlady. Although the cast played it absolutely straight, the once-shocking drama was hailed in the local press as a laugh riot.
"Whenever we did an established play, we'd always play it absolutely straight," explains X. "If the audience thought it was funny, great. But the minute we let them think that we thought it was funny, or if we started camping it up, we'd have lost them."
That said, there was little subtlety in the two projects that put X and his pals on the national pop-culture map: the in-your-face greeting cards that had originally brought X to his future wife's attention, and Vegas in Space, the gender-bending galactic epic that finally immortalized the Sluts on film.
"Posing for those cards was the best money we ever made," says X, who estimates that the trio appeared on as many as 80 cards that were distributed nationally. "They'd pay us up to $150 a shot, and sometimes we'd shoot eight different looks in one session, so it added up fast." But when the competition heated up (for sheer shock value, a grimacing drag queen couldn't hold a birthday candle to the elderly, obese nudes and near-porn some rival card companies were producing), the Sluts reluctantly bowed out of the lucrative sideline. "It was starting to get out of hand," says X. "Once, they wanted to cover me with vomit and the tagline would read" -- here he arches an eyebrow for effect -- "'Your name came up at lunch.'"
Still, the group's biggest bid for mass exposure was Vegas in Space, an ambitious low-budget campfest about a bunch of intergalactic showgirls up to their antennae in havoc at a cosmic slumber party. Shot over an 18-month period stretching over 1983 and 1984, the production was the crowning achievement of Doris Fish. In addition to playing both the male and female leads, Fish was personally responsible for creating all the wigs, costumes, makeup and sets in the film, including a miniature mock-up of the Vegas strip made entirely of junk jewelry and old cosmetic containers.
"That was truly Doris' finest hour," says X, who co-wrote the script, which, true to form, found him playing dual roles as rival siblings battling over the galaxy. "Everything you saw up there was Doris."
But Doris Fish would never live to see the premiere of her magnum opus, which was finally picked up for release by Troma Films nearly 10 years after its completion. Diagnosed with AIDS (a fact she had somehow hidden from her friends until the later stages of the disease), Fish died in June 1991. Just two months later, Tippi succumbed from complications of the same disease.
"Doris, Tippi and X -- they were all so close that after Doris died, I think that Tippi just lost her will to live," says singer Pearl Harbour, a genetic female who co-opted the Sluts' garish style for her own stage act. A longtime friend of the Sluts who once co-hosted the Castro Street Fair with X (the pair made complete costume changes before introducing each of 32 acts), Harbour joined X and other friends in nursing the ailing entertainers in their failing health.
"It was so sad, particularly for X, since he was the only one left," says Harbour, who has since relocated to Los Angeles. "It really was the end of an era. We'd all been at the right place, at the right time, doing the right drugs, and everyone was having a fabulous time. And, then, suddenly, it was all over."
But news that the party was breaking up had yet to reach Phoenix, where X's future wife was studying criminal law at Arizona State University.
"I had to get out of this town," says Al Chandler. "I was suffocating; I wanted to live in a real city."
Adding to her discontent was her abrupt realization that she didn't really want to become a lawyer. That epiphany occurred after she'd been charged with resisting arrest and felony assault against a policeman (the case was later dropped) while attending a protest of a proposed toxic dump in Mobile, Arizona.
"I love reading about true crime, but after spending a night in jail, I knew that being a lawyer wasn't what I wanted to do with my life." Instead, she accepted a transfer from a genetic-testing lab she'd been working at in the Valley, moving to San Francisco where she managed a similar clinic.
As fate would have it, her decision to head to the Bay Area could not have come at a more fortuitous time. "There was sort of this exodus of all these bar people I knew from Phoenix," reports Al, who hit town just about the same time as her friend Leigh Crow, later to achieve a degree of fame performing as Elvis Herselvis, a butch Presley impersonator. "Everyone would get together for 'Phoenix parties,' and one time, we even baked a cake in the shape of Arizona."
While Alison's life at the time was that proverbial piece of pastry, her future husband was having a considerably tougher go of things.
"Within three months, I'd lost two people I worked with and lived with for the better part of my life," says X. "We loved each other. We were definitely a family. I felt very alone."
Although his professional life didn't suffer (X's post-Slut career would include plum stage roles in Dolls!, Sweet Bird of Youth and Jungle Red, a musical version of The Women), on a personal level, things couldn't have been worse.
"All my life, my whole thing has been looking for love," explains X. " I was always looking for Mr./Miss Right. My thinking was, 'Why cut off half the population if you don't have to?'
"Might as well give yourself the best odds, right?"
From the standpoint of domestic bliss, the ex-Miss X and the missus appear to have beaten the house, broken the bank and won the lottery.
Sitting in their home during a rare reprieve from round-the-clock rug rat duty, the duo reflect on a relationship that has been, as Al puts it, "unusual, to say the least."
"Could I ever have predicted I'd be 'Dad'?" asks X. "No. But looking back, I remember thinking all my life, 'Hmmm, that might be interesting -- but not right now.'"
From Al's standpoint, the timing couldn't have been stranger: After finally informing her parents she was a lesbian, she was put in the weird position of announcing that she'd just met the man of her dreams -- and a professional drag queen at that.
Her folks' reaction?
"Relief!" laughs Al. "'Hey, so what if the guy wears a dress? Okay with us.'"
Friends expecting a wedding resembling an unholy union between Sluts A Go Go and Dykes on Bikes were sadly disappointed. After a surprisingly conventional ceremony in San Francisco six years ago, the couple honeymooned in the Caveman suite at San Luis Obispo's funky Madonna Inn.
Prior to their 1994 nuptials, the couple enjoyed a jet-set courtship, most of it on Troma's dime. As the sole surviving headliner of Vegas in Space, X, bride-to-be in tow, hit the film festival circuit, publicizing the movie in Cannes, Sundance and Los Angeles.
The Sluts' screwy contribution to sexual role-switching even earned the pair a trip to the First International Transgender Film Festival in Vienna -- a trek that inadvertently triggered almost as many laughs as anything that transpired during the screening.
"The people who were putting this thing on couldn't get it through their heads that I was actually going to marry a woman," recalls X. "Every time I'd have any communication with them about the trip, I'd mention 'my fiancée, Al'; as a result, they were convinced I was making the trip with a man. It was very confusing -- even after we got there." (While appearing with her husband in Dolls!, similar confusion earned X's wife her favorite review of her brief performing career: Thrown by billing that read "Al Farmer Jr.," the reviewer from a local daily dubbed her performance a "stunning facsimile of a woman.")
Despite X's theatrical gender gyrations, his oldest daughter clearly harbors no such misconceptions. As her doting paterfamilias carries the apple of his eye down a hallway, the child points at photos of Miss X's career highlights and hollers, "Daddy!"
Al rolls her eyes. "When my mother comes over, she's always trying to tell Lily that it's really Daddy's sister. She isn't buying it, though."
It's been a long road from late-night performances in basement cabarets to early bedtimes in suburbia, but neither X nor Al particularly misses their pre-parental past-life fast-tracking.
"Everything is of its time," says X, who claims he didn't mind trading in his three-inch heels for a new pair of sandals he just got for Father's Day.
Likewise, the wild revelries of the past have given way to more prosaic pursuits. On the rare occasions when they can sneak away from the kids, the couple might catch a movie, go to a tiki party or visit the costume exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum, where X recently enthralled bystanders with a dissertation on the dangers of accessorizing a bugle-beaded Bob Mackie with thread-threatening dangling jewelry.
Does this mean the world has seen the last of Miss X?
"Would I like to do drag again?" he asks. "Sure -- but where would I do it? The only place where it would make any sense would be San Francisco; it'd have to be some kind of 'Triumphant Return of Miss X!' appearance. Unfortunately, drag has become so mainstreamed that it isn't nearly as edgy as it once was. Kurt Russell, Patrick Swayze -- is there any actor in Hollywood who hasn't done it?"
So for the time being, X feeds his performance jones right under his own roof, playing to a captive audience of preschoolers. "I sing, I make faces, I say lines from movies. The girls love it; they're a fabulous audience."
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