King for a Day
Because we fancy ourselves amateur anthropologists studying Kansas City’s nightlife, we were pleased and flattered when a reader recently wrote in and described Night Ranger as “ethnographic studies in blurred vision.” After all, every bar has its own customs and subculture, so it’s a fun challenge trying to decipher the mores of a club within the confines of a visit. So, when we heard about drag kings performing every Wednesday night at the local lesbian institution known as Tootsie’s, we were naturally intrigued. If anything could be categorized as an ethnographic study, this was it. Plus, it was hard to turn down the allure of dollar drinks, no cover and a drag show every Wednesday night.
We met Research Assistant Rita around 10:30. Because we hazily remembered from a visit years ago that Tootsie’s was a large, cavernous place with multiple rooms, we were somewhat worried about finding Rita. But it wasn’t so crowded on a Wednesday night, so we easily found her in the main bar room, which was decked out in rainbow-colored neon beer signs and a lone football beer streamer. The room with the dance floor and tables was off to the right, the dart room (aka the makeout room, according to Rita) was in the back and smaller rooms with pool tables were to the left.
Rita had been sitting at the bar, wondering why she wasn’t being served. Then she noticed there was a drink line. So we lined up and, after pondering which dollar drinks to get — wells or Miller, Bud or Coors cans — we went with a Bud and a vodka gimlet. “They’re good here,” Rita said of her cocktail. “They’re not too sweet.”
Now that we were drinked-up, we went to find seats for the show. We sat down at a table in the back that looked unoccupied — empty seats, no cups or possessions on the table. Apparently, we were mistaken. We were immediately accosted by a muscular woman with short, orangey, overly bleached hair. “That’s my seat,” she informed us. “The chair was pulled out.” We hadn’t realized that pulling a chair away from a table was the international symbol of table occupation; we always thought it was pulling the chair out, then tilting it against the table. But, like we said, we were there to document different social mores, so we made a mental note of it, and Bleached Hair (or Male Pattern Baldness, as Rita dubbed her) pointed us to a table at the front, where the chairs looked to be relatively close to the table.
That was when RA Casey (possibly the only straight guy we know who hadn’t been to Tootsie’s) joined us, so we settled down and watched the show. It consisted of drag kings and queens lip-synching to a variety of songs, such as “Take on Me” by A-Ha and ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” (though we were slightly disappointed when the drag king did a halfhearted version of the bye-bye-bye hand motion). A drag queen in a silver sequined shirt sang “You Can’t Hurry Love” directly to Casey at one point. “Wow,” was all Casey could say. “Wow.”
Also wow-worthy were the drag kings themselves. Small in stature, they obviously had the fine bone structure of women. But with their glued-on facial hair, shaved or shorn haircuts and approximation of male gestures, the effect was fascinating and rather startling. Rita was somewhat disconcerted. “That was terrifying,” she said of one performer. “It was like child porn.” The people at the table next to us were more amused, though, especially by the performer who went by the stage name of “Isaiah Rodriguez.” Lip-synching to “Pony,” Isaiah stripped off loose, gray athletic shorts to reveal bulging tighty whities, then proceeded with a hip-writhing, arms-up-behind-the-head dance routine. The guy at the next table and his two female friends burst into hysterical laughter (especially when Isaiah waggled those hips in their direction) and stuck a dollar in Isaiah’s briefs.
We later spoke to James, the laugher. “I was like, Oh, my fuckin’ God!” he exclaimed. “That was awesome!” We asked if he could tell what was down Isaiah’s pants. “I couldn’t tell, but it looked real,” James said. Though it was his first time there, he was obviously enjoying himself — and the dollar drinks, too. He said that was the main reason he was there. “It’s perfect on the Wednesday before payday.”
We also caught up with Isaiah, who has been involved with the Drag Kings of Kansas City ever since being persuaded to perform by some girlfriends. Isaiah seemed pleased when we said the facial hair, which was in a thin beard pattern, looked authentic. The bulge, Isaiah added, was from a couple of socks.
According to the manager, crowds have been “average” since fire damaged the building in early January. (Scaffolding still stands out front.) Rita had her own assessment of the Tootsie’s crowd. “The theme of Tootsie’s is CEOK, Mom. Nice to meet you, Mom,'” she said after being hit on numerous times by older women, one of whom licked her hand after shaking it. We made a mental note of the unsuccessful pickup technique. Data thus gathered, we went home.