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chicago whispers Talking to Artesia Welles ...
by Sukie de la Croix

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The first gay bar I went to ...

"The Annex on Clark, just north of Diversey. Underage kids used to come in the back and if they had any trouble upfront, then they threw us out the back. Then there was another bar called the Trip and that was a very cool place, they would let underage kids go in there too. I was about 16-17."

Into drag ...

"When I was 17 I was in a play called Whores of Babylon and it was in the Body Politic Theater on Lincoln. Originally I was in the role of Cain, Adam and Eve's son, and the director asked me if I wanted another part, it was one of the female parts, and I said, 'Oh sure, I'll try it.' After the play closed I didn't have any immediate plans so I went to Sparrows and did a guest spot. Then Roby ( Landers ) asked me if I wanted a job and that's how it started.

"Roby took an immediate liking to me. I think I was about 18 at the time and a bit of a smartass, and she really dug that stuff. Ebony ( Carr ) was there, Audrey Bryant, Wanda Lust, Tonya Terrel and Jill Christie.

"I was at Sparrows for about five months and then it closed. Chuck ( Renslow ) was really cool about it, he told us in advance, and we pretty much all traveled en masse to the Togetherness Lounge which was a half block from Dugan's Bistro. A lesbian couple owned that bar."

Togetherness ....

"The dressing room was on the third floor and there was a freight elevator that we had to take, and that scared the shit out of me. We didn't want to drink too much there, we didn't want to end up flying down the elevator shaft. It was actually a pretty tacky place, the back of the stage was all done in mirror tiles, but it was a place to work."

David's Place ...

"This guy Marvin was going around the bars asking people if they were interested in working in a brand new fabulous place, and we'd all heard that before, but he was bringing some of the performers to see this place during its construction and everyone was saying, 'This place is gorgeous.' I was the last person that he asked to work there, because I'd seen a layout in Vogue magazine of Faye Dunaway and her arm was behind her head and she didn't shave under her arms. I thought that was very glamorous. So I didn't shave under my arms, and Marv thought, 'Well that's really fucked up.' He said I could work if I shaved under my arms. David's Place was really beautiful and was open for about nine months or a year. He made a shitload of money and it closed just like that, didn't let anyone know or anything.

"I was doing drag for about four years all together."

House of Landers ...

"After David's Place we moved to the House of Landers. When the train went past it felt like the place was coming down. I was thought it was kind of charming myself, but some of the performers were saying, 'That fucking train ... '' A couple of times the bar closed and we would fill in here and there. I couldn't work the strip bars because I didn't have tits. There was a bar down by the bus station, when the bus station was in the Loop, and a couple of us worked there, and that was a real trip. I don't remember the name of the bar, but it was just travelers on buses who would come in there between buses, and they didn't know what the hell was going on. Oh man, that was a hoot."

Man's Country ...

"I was working for Chuck in Man's Country in the juice bar. I was getting older, I was 21, and I was filling out. I was very self-conscious working at the House of Landers, and the rest of the time I was very comfortable with myself. I wanted to go to school. There was some things I wanted to do, and Roby was really, really nice about it. She said, 'Oh you said you'd work for me.' So I said, 'OK then I will.' Then she came up to me and said, 'If you really want to leave, if you want to do those other things, then I think you should. I want you to do it.' So I did."

Memory check: In July 1972, Artesia Welles was interviewed by the Paper. Asked how a person gets to be a female impersonator, Welles answers: "You come in, say you want a job, audition and do guest spots. In my case, one of the performers left to have a nose job and I filled in for her, then I replaced another one who wanted to have her ears done."

I recently received this e-mail from Welles: "I read your column this week, and I can tell you that Gayle Sherman was NOT Brandy Alexander. Gayle was also known as 'The Great 48' because her tits were enormous. Gayle was absolutely gorgeous, UNBELIEVABLY gorgeous, and had the strangest voice in the world. I was in the Miss David contest in New York, maybe 1973, with Brandy Alexander, and Brandy had a great singing voice, and hair down to her waist. Brandy was also Asian, Gayle most certainly not. They both could have "passed," and this can be evidenced by Gayle's career concentration in straight strip bars, and drag bars frequented by "straight" men, like the Blue Dahlia, and the Night Life. Brandy was more gay friendly."

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