LEGENDS OF NEW YORK CITY!
One of my favorite quotes from The 27th Annual Night of A Thousand Gowns on Saturday, April 6, 2013 came from one of the event's Special Guests Tony Sheldon, star of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical": "For us, every night was a night of a thousand gowns-- with all the costume changes!"
Founded in San Francisco in 1965, The International Imperial Court System (IICS) is one of the oldest and largest gay organizations in the world. Today, there are 70 Court chapters in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Imperial Court of New York (ICNY) is one of the largest and most active. It's a testament to the strength of ICNY that this volunteer-run organization continues to prosper, thrive, and influence GLBT culture through the decades, enjoying wide-reaching respect and recognition... with no signs of slowing down. A lot of the success of ICNY has its ability to adapt through the years to the needs and desires of the GLBT community which it serves, yet still maintaining its high standards of tradition, ritual, and... well, sheer class! And, their success is also largely thanks to the talent and enthusiasm of every year's incoming Emperor and Empress, each with their own unique style and sense of community spirit. The Imperial Court of New York has fundraising and celebratory events going on all year long, but the highly anticipated annual Night of A Thousand Gowns-- now in its 27th Year-- always receives international attention. This year, this night of 1,000 gowns and infinite memories was held at New York City's Hilton. From the minute the door of the Mercury Ballroom was opened (and even before) all this writer could think about was the emblematic runway which led the way to the ballroom's huge stage-- and all the legendary personalities (and fabulous shoes!) who would walk that envied path. All I could think of was, "If that runway could talk!"
The Night of A Thousand Gowns attracts members of The Imperial Court system from all over the United States, as well as Canada. It's an over-the-top, sensory-overloading synergy of entertainment, fashion, and most of all, self-expression and creativity. At the heart of the event, however, is philanthropy. To date, ICNY has raised millions of dollars for charity. This year, the beneficiaries were GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis) and GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). The Night has been famous for its envied A-list entertainment each year... but this is also a soiree when the real stars include all the attendees alongside the many celebrity guests-- a night when an iconic star of stage and screen vies for eye-popping attention next to the members of The Court themselves, with all those amazing gowns, suits, and jewelery. At one point int he night, one of the lovely "Real Housewives of New York" declared, "You get some GREAT fashion advice from The Imperial Court!" It's a night which brings together movers and shakers from the worlds of theater, music, TV, and cinema alongside supportive politicians and GLBT activists.. and how fabulousness is the common thread uniting them all.
The event kicked off with the Red Carpet walk of Special Guests. It was then time for the festivities. To say that the Hilton that night was a feast for the eyes is an understatement, especially for photographers. You could point a camera ANYWHERE and get an amazing image.
Broadway star Karen Mason launched Act I. Mason's experiences on Broadway have included roles in "Sunset Boulevard", "Mamma Mia", and "Hairspray" ... and her fabulous costume and song "Off With Their Heads" as The Queen of Hearts was the most memorable thing about "Wonderland", a 2011 reinterpretation of the Alice in Wonderland story. We were lucky to hear Karen perform that song, as well as two classic showtunes: "Get Happy" and "All That Jazz". I asked Mason where her affinity for the LGBT community comes from. She told me, "I think that all of the most beautiful moments in my life have been somehow involved with the LGBT community, starting with a gentlemen I worked with. Before that, I was living out in the suburbs and have to admit, I was pretty ignorant and naive! Then I met Brian Lasser in Chicago. Brain was gay. We worked together for 16 years. I owe him my life. He was a music director and a songwriter, and we were soulmates on some level, as corny as that sounds! We were lucky to find each other! I became his muse, and I became my mentor, and it just just opened up my eyes to the great world of music and performing. I've been very lucky. All my good friends are gay. So, I am very happy and honored to be here!" Act II featured the vocal talents of Marty Thomas and Diva: the quartet of Mr. Thomas and three lovely ladies. Bringing the crowd a medley that started out with "When Love Takes Over" and continuing with an extended mashup of some of the greatest pop hits through the decades, from Elton John to Mariah to Gaga, it was a real crowd-pleaser. No matter how often you heard these tunes, you never heard them like THIS before. But hands down, the highlight of the event-- and this was an event with one highlight after another-- was Taylor Dayne.
Dayne ruled the music charts in the '80's and early '90's and has cemented her status as a true pop culture icon. Turning out a mini-concert of her greatest hits ("Tell It to My Heart, "Can't Get Enough of Your Love", "Prove Your Love", "Love Will Lead You Back", and more) while strutting down the runway, the crowd went nuts. Later on, attendees got the chance for a photo op with Ms. Dayne on stage in exchange for a charitable donation, and the diva had MANY takers! Later, I asked the lovely singer about her relationship with the GLBT community. Her answer was short, sweet, and to the point: "It started with 'Tell It to My Heart'... and it's just been a beautiful love story that continues to this day!" Fans of "RuPaul's Drag Race" also got a real treat with a performance by Chad Michaels (Winner of the show's "All Stars" Season), who channeled one of our most enduring gay icons: Cher. In one of Cher fans' most favorite "looks"-- the big black hair and fishnet body stocking-- Michaels performed "Strong Enough" and "If I Could Turn Back Time".
The Court also went to great lengths to honor the achievements and talents of their own members. Empress XIV Victoria Weston sang live and silenced the audience with her truly amazing voice.
Also on the itinerary was the Final Walk and Farewell Performances of Reigning Emperor XXI Ritz Kraka and Empress XXVI Witti Repartee. Ms. Repartee's showstopper of an act had her in a red sequined minidress with four shirtless hunks, dancing to "The Story of Lucy and Jesse", a lost musical gem from "Follies" ("This is my belief, in brief: Lucy is juicy, but terribly drab; Jessie is dressy, but cold as a slab. Lucy wants to be dressy, Jessie wants to be juicy; Lucy wants to be Jessie, and Jessie Lucy!") It was sexy, sassy, and fun. Later on in the night, I asked Witti the first thing she planned to do after the "passing of the torch". She answered, in her trademark quick (ahem...) wit, "Take these shoes off!"
The Night of Thousand Gowns was also a night to honor many outstanding individuals who support the GLBT community-- both our fellow GLBT's and our dedicated straight allies. DJ Elvis Duran (award-winning host of the nationally syndicated "Elvis Duran and the Morning Show") received the Imperial Diamond Award, and Community Hero Awards were given to Jacob Randolph (a young man from Parsipanny, NJ who came out to his entire school; another New Jerseyite, Barbra Casbar Siperstein-- the first transgendered woman to become elected to the Democratic National Committee; and yet another Garden State hero, The Honorable Senator Barbara Buono of New Jersey-- who gave an inspiring, passionate speech about GLBT equality and looked stunning while doing it (prompting Emperor X Gabriel Della Notte to declare, "I dare Governor Christie to get into that dress!").
Knighthoods were awarded to actor Wilson Cruz, activist/promoter Will Clark, Dr. Marjorie Hill of GMHC, and activist Gilbert Baker, who designed the universally recognized rainbow gay pride flag. Cathy Marino Thomas received the The President's Award. The 2013 Spirit Award was also given to John and Michael Balucco, the first couple in New jersey to adopt a child. They have been together 31 years!
Emperor X Gabriel Della Notte has been President of ICNY for seven years and now boasts the new Title of "Gabriel the Grand".
He told me: "It's gonna be a lot of fun fundraising this year. We have two great new monarchs coming in. We're really excited about our first lesbian Emperor since... 1994 or something like that. That was way back when. I wasn't even born yet! (Laughs) It' s gonna be a fabulous year." I mentioned the fact that a lot of people from New Jersey were honored this year as well. He responds, "Well, half our membership is from New Jersey, and I myself am from New Jersey. So, it's nice to honor the Jersey people once in a while. We're not all just that gaseous state or Exit 13, Elizabeth... and we're not all just MALLS either!" I point out that Jersey City is widely becoming called "the sixth borough" now anyway....
The last musical act before the coronation was Daniel Patrick Ellis, and then it was time for The Big Moment, which traditionally takes place at midnight. For her Coronation, incoming Emperor XXII Wen-D Bouvier Pinkhouse, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Emperor of Peace, Love, Unity and Respect, assembled a menagerie of her friends featured as hilariously over-the-top icons of music throughout the decades (Janis, Dolly, Tina, Stevie Wonder, and MANY more), with herself decked out as a fuscia-haired, sequined Elvis. The act concluded with Alicia Keys blaring, "This girl is on fire!" How appropriate! The new Empress XXVII Gracie Steeles, The Stiletto Heeled Jersey Girl Empress, had a more traditional but no less moving wedding-style procession, with her friends preceding her down the aisle, some dressed in matching bridesmaid-style gowns. Her walk concluded with the enduring fairy tale lyric, "When you wish upon a star...". Again, it was highly appropriate. Later, I asked the new Emperor what her plans were for the year, starting with Sunday morning. She answered, "Tomorrow, we have a brunch at Lips, where I give out awards to some people, and we celebrate the beginning of our reign... and also the outgoing Monarchs also give out some awards to people too. We're gonna have a good time. We're rolling! We have a lot of events to do all year long, and we have a lot of things planned. I'm very excited We're reaching out to LGBTQ youth, as well as the aged. We're gonna be very hands-on this year, getting out in the streets and working with kids and stuff. We are very devoted!"
During one of the "dancing breaks", when DJ Johnny Dynell started spinning and attendees hit that famous runway to shake things up, I got the chance to chat with Dynell's friend Chi Chi Valenti, a true icon of New York City nightlife for decades. We first met in the mid '90's, when the spirit of rule-breaking, DIY fabulousness reigned supreme in downtown Manhattan. We spoke about how so many of the youngsters today have traded the irreplaceable experience of going out and partying for cheap digital thrills. Looking from the balcony into the crowd, we both agreed that there's just no way you can truly appreciate NYC culture unless you just dived right into it, hair first. We also agreed that The Night of A Thousand Gowns, with all its glamour, grandeur, and sheer gaiety (in both senses of the word!) was both honoring the past while keeping its eyes on the future. So, my closing line, without sounding cliched, is "You gotta be there!" (Put another way: Start planning your outfit for The Night of A Thousand Gowns 2014!)
Visit Imperial Court of New York's website at www.ICNY.com.