Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gay bars change acts to appeal to straight customers

Trevor "Ashley" Council performs at the Divas Drag Show variety show at Mad Myrna's in Anchorage, Alaska on Friday, February 20, 2009. (Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/MCT)

by Julia O'Malley

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - In Mad Myrna's drag dressing room, where a J.Lo song wound out among the wigs and gowns on a recent Friday evening, Isanoel Pinson leaned into the mirror, pursed his lips a little and smeared foundation on his forehead.

Pinson, who is in his 40s, started performing drag just after he immigrated to Anchorage from the Philippines in the early '80s. His first haunt was an old bar called the Jade Room. These days the crowds that come to his shows couldn't be more different than they were back then.

"Oh. My. God," he said, applying a ribbon of glue to a false eyelash. "Before is all like gay, gay, gay. Now would you believe? Our audience is all straight people. Couples!"

Myrna's has been home to a drag show for a decade, and straight people have long been part of the audience. But on some Friday nights lately, gay patrons have thinned dramatically, replaced by military couples, bachelorette parties and curious young professionals. It's part of a national trend.

From San Francisco to Pittsburgh, Boston to Nashville, gay bars are closing their doors and shuttering drag shows, citing lack of patrons.

There are plenty of theories why clientele is changing at Myrna's. People are making connections on the Internet. Growing social acceptance means there are few establishments were gays don't feel comfortable. Simply put, the need for gay bars is fading.

"I have this feeling now that it's like 'mission accomplished,' " said Mike Richardson, board president of the Imperial Court of All Alaska, one of the state's oldest gay organizations.

"We really don't need safety in numbers."

Myrna's had to get creative to attract new customers to fill in where the old ones used to be, said manager Jeff "Myrna" Wood. Over the past few years, that has meant retooling the drag show to appeal to a wider audience. And now the venerable gay bar depends at least in part on the dollars of straight customers to keep its doors open.

As Wood likes to say, gay or straight, "everybody's money is green."

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