The cavernous dance pavilion at Henry Maier Festival Park feels much smaller from backstage.
There’s around 300 square feet of walking space, and a set of wooden stairs that lead to an eerie, exposed hallway hidden directly behind the stage lined with dressing rooms and illuminated by orange light. BJ Daniels, a venerable drag queen born and raised on a farm in rural Wisconsin, came out of one of the doors to greet me while sipping on a watermelon Red Bull.
“I’m off the charts excited,” they said. “This is my first major show since August, I’ve got this beautiful dress made by Lyn Kream, and we are going to put on an amazing show of old, familiar songs tonight.”
Before the show, the energy among the queens was buzzing and lively. Organizers with walkie talkies speed-walked around looking busy or frantic, while performers did finishing touches on makeup and practiced runway walks in the highest heels. Though rushed, Daniels had a cool composure that continued onstage. Through hiccups and hecklers, they moved the throwback review along with the confidence of someone who has been commanding a crowd for a lifetime.
Daniels has been doing drag since 1977. They started after moving to Madison from their hometown of Rockdale at just 17 in hopes of soaking up some of the changes coming from the women’s rights movements, gay rights movements and the sexual liberation of the ‘70s.
They were entirely self-motivated. Once, in a pinch, they made a gown for a show out of a set of curtains from a thrift store.
“All along, I just knew that I was never going to live a conventional life with a conventional job,” Daniels said. “I went out every night in Madison with makeup on, trying to get famous. I had my photo taken all the time, and I drew a lot of attention to myself on purpose to achieve that goal.”
That hard work and dancing paid off in 1981 when Daniels was discovered by a show director for Milwaukee’s infamous Club 219. Apparently, she saw one picture of them in a magazine and brought them to the city for a show.
Club 219 was a multi-tiered gay dance bar on 2nd street that played disco from a DJ booth above a larger-than-life stage, and dance floors on every level. The club boasted twice-weekly drag shows every week of the year, and Queens were paid a salary, which Daniels says was almost enough to pay their bills.
“It was all very old-Hollywood,” Daniels explained. “I was living in a rooming house with a trans woman who also ran our show at the club, and her uncle – who dealt weed to other queens in the building – lived above us. There was also an older World War II veteran that was an alcoholic living next door. It was like a Damon Runyon story, but I felt like I had made it big.”
Daniels performed at Club 219 for 13 years after joining the A-list cast. During that era, they also performed the closing show of Pridefest when it was more like a block party in Juneau Park, and they started doing hair at a salon. Today, they still perform at Hamburger Mary’s and at Pridefest, but their knowledge and experience of the drag community in Milwaukee is being channeled into their newest passion project – a book called A History of Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamour.
“I am somebody who has always felt connected to older things, things with history,” Daniels said. “So all throughout my career, I have saved entire trunks worth of pictures and other things, which my co-author Michail Takach used to weave together a story.”
Although Daniels contributed countless photos and objects to the book, what they really felt they offered was their connection to actual people and memories of those who have passed. In many ways, Daniels provided access to people and stories that Takach may never have been able to reach.
The book chronicles gender expression and drag from the first performance in Milwaukee in 1884, to the Trixie Mattells and Jaida Essence Halls of today, and every queen in between.
“Revisiting the past is like trying to remember how you decorated a room 30 years ago – like peeling back wallpaper and finding things you had forgotten about,” Daniels said of the process of collaborating on the book.
As drag creeps into the mainstream, through “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the age of social media, Daniels says the craft has evolved a lot: “You used to have to work really hard to be found, and now you can come up on someone’s feed with just a few hashtags. It’s very different, but I love the openness and the possibilities that come with that.”
A History of Milwaukee Drag came out June 27 this year.