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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Gay History: Chicago Whispers
by Sukie de la Croix
2003-07-02

This article shared 13353 times since Wed Jul 2, 2003
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Pictured The Bearded Lady near the start of his career. Photos by Chuck Shotwell

Memories of the Bearded Lady (Robert W. Theiss), who died June 18 in Tokyo, where he and his lover of 21 years, Jeff Bruce, lived. He had been under medication for an inherited blood condition, but a opportunistic infection rapidly caused serious illness. See full obituary in the June 25 issue. (Link below)

Robert was born May 20, 1947 in Buffalo, New York. He attended the Devoux Preparatory School in Niagara Falls, and Franklin College in Indiana. After two years in communications in the Air Force in Korea during the Vietnam War, Robert was honorably discharged and headed to Chicago.

First working at Illinois Bell and then at Evanston Hospital, within two years Robert developed his stage character, 'the Bearded Lady' and was working at the Bistro, one of the largest gay discos and a trendsetter in the changes of the period. Robert headlined the performances at the Bistro for years.

No gay pride parade would be complete without coverage of the Bearded Lady in both the gay and straight press. After many years at the Bistro, the Bearded Lady moved to Coconuts and was equally popular with a mixed audience. Throughout the years, Robert also performed in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit and Champaign as well as New York, Paris, Tokyo and Bangkok. In the late 1970s, Time Magazine prominently pictured the Bearded Lady in its article reporting punk in America. So great was the Lady's public exposure that his absence was considered newsworthy and coverage of an event concluded with an observation that, 'The Bearded Lady and the Mayor were not there.'

In 1982, Robert met Jeff Bruce of Michigan and they soon moved to Tokyo. Robert studied Japanese and taught English. After three years, a call came from Chicago reporting that a new Coconuts would open on the North Side on Broadway and Robert returned to the city. A year later, Robert enrolled at the University of Illinois-Chicago in history of art and architecture and completed his bachelor's in 1988. Shortly thereafter, Robert and Jeff returned to Tokyo. Robert became a well-known figure at art exhibitions in < p>Tokyo. In 1990, he had a one-man show of his paintings at Earth Art Gallery in Tokyo.

From 1993 to 1998, Robert again lived in Chicago attending the University of Illinois-Chicago and then Northeastern Illinois University in graduate-level linguistics studies. He also taught at Truman College. At that time, Robert began to collect art, primarily Chinese ceramics and Indian bronzes. Over the years, the Bruce-Theiss collection would grow to more than 500 pieces primarily through annual trips Robert and Jeff would make to the Shanghai area.

In 1998, Robert returned to Tokyo and resumed his teaching career. Robert contributed to art columns in the English language press of Japan. After shedding his trademark waist-length hair and becoming silver-haired, Robert experienced a new public image: Japanese children everywhere took to calling him Santa-san. Their perceptions were apt as all who knew him will swear that, like the mythic figure, he was a jolly soul who brought happiness to all he touched.

Any memorial contributions should be made to the Leukemia Society of America.

E-mail condolences can be sent to jbruce@tkc.att.ne.jp.

My first gay bar ...

'The Bistro, the original Bistro, on Kinsey and Dearborn, in 1973. It was the ultimate discotheque. On the weekends, the Bearded Lady was a major attraction. His real name was Robby, I don't remember his last name. He had a full beard, and he would show up looking very much like a bearded lady out of a carnival, with maybe a big Mamie Eisenhower hat, or a big feathered hat, and a dress or a sequined lamé jump suit. His real aspiration, though, was to be an opera singer. He could really sing, but he lip synched.' — David Honneger

More Bearded Lady ...

'I met him once. He was in from Japan, and it was Gay Parade, or Gay Pride, or something. He had supposedly found some niche and was doing some performances in Japan, and had been living there for an extended period. That was about '87 or '88.' — Larry Burke

+++

'The Bearded Lady used to perform at Duggan's dance bar, Duggan's Bistro. I remember she was a quote, unquote ... 'class act' ... I believe the Beach Boys were in town, or Jan and Dean, and she came out and sang 'Honolulu Lulu' ... it brought down the house ... maybe you had to see it.' — Anonymous Gay Man

+++

'The Bearded Lady was at the Bistro, which was a wonderful bar. Again, it was a part of that whole near-North Side bar scene. She was absolutely fantastic. I remember one time I was there, and she was wearing Lucite shoes with goldfish in the heels ... fantastic!' — Mark Palermo

+++

'I got a good blow job. One of the best I ever had. I was a chicken. Who wouldn't know the Bearded Lady? You been on the Chicago bar scene, then you know the Bearded Lady.' — Spider

+++

'We didn't really like each other. I just didn't like him, and he didn't like me. He was really big at the Bistro and my lover and I used to go there a lot, and he knew my lover. I remember one night we were there and he came up and started talking with my lover, and fondling him and stuff, and I was really pissed off. I pushed her away, and she said, 'Do you know who I am?' and I said, 'I don't care who you are, this is my lover and you don't touch him if I'm around.' And that's where that started.' — Nick Silva (AKA Nicolas Mann)

+++

'He was standing on a pedestal in the corner as you walked onto the dance floor. He was dressed in platform shoes, which in the '70s were hot, a white prom dress, lots of tulle, lots of satin. On his head was a full five-branch candelabra, and all the seams had Italian lights and they pulsated to the beat. It was really quite spectacular. That was the same day that one of Mayor Daley's brothers was there.' — R.D.

+++

'At Bistro all the time, especially when she did 'Honey Bee' in her bee costume. She came out in the bee costume doing 'You're My Honey Bee, Come On And Sting Me.' It was fabulous.' — Ray Thomas

+++

' … the Bistro. I remember they had shows there; the Bearded Lady was performing on the stage all the time. She was fabulous! She did a Christmas act, and she would come out in a dress like a Christmas tree and her lights would go on and off.'

+++

'The Bearded Lady and I were in grad school together; not in the same department but in the same school. I remember there was a picture in the Tribune of some big graduation at the University of Illinois and his picture was there. I called friends and said, 'Get the Trib, is that the Bearded Lady there.' They said, 'Oh my god, yes!' Then I saw he was taking a class where I went to grad school. He was totally outrageous on stage, very strange. I remember him coming on with six or seven dresses on, and he would take layer after layer after layer off, and he always had a fan and he fanned himself. He had big false eyelashes, big red lips and a full beard, and I don't think he wore a wig, he just had long hair. He looked like Abbie Hoffman doing drag.' — Rick Karlin

+++

' ... At the Bistro. I went there occasionally, and I went there one night because I heard Rudolf Nureyev was there. Bobby (The Bearded Lady) was trying to get Rudolf to dance, and he said, 'Honey, I'm tired, I already did my show tonight,' so Bobby said, 'I've already done six shows tonight, and I'm not a bit tired.' And Nureyev said, 'But I'm not on what you're on.'' — Wally

+++

'I was dancing with the Bearded Lady, Sue, a girl with long blond hair who was a ballet instructor, Gordon Bourne, Chuck, who was a Jamaican, and I remember Victor, who was the bartender, and JR spun the records.

'The Bearded Lady was our evil den mother, pretty wild. He was a different person out of drag, I'll tell you that. He was extremely low key, just like a motorcycle-looking kind of guy. His persona came when he was starting to get dressed, putting on his five pairs of stockings. He was really protective of me and he would scream at people who got within 10 feet of you, 'Stay away from my straight husband,' and he would stomp his feet. It was just a big act and he was hysterical.' — James, a dancer at Coconuts

+++

'B.L., who could forget B.L.? In fact, my roommate at the time, Gordon, worked with B.L. way up north at a club called Coconuts. At Coconuts they were all go-go people. B.L. was one of my favorite drag characters because he really did look like a bearded lady. He looked like that all the time, of course every now and then we'd see him walking down the street during the daytime and people would yell out 'B.L. B.L.!!' He just couldn't go anywhere without being recognized.

'On stage he was like the most flirtatious go-go boy stripper ever, but he was this round man with a beard and a dress. And he was afraid of no-one. He would go up to tease people and flirt with everybody. He'd wear costumes, huge costumes, or little costumes … even if he was wearing a little costume you couldn't miss him. He's not a small fella. He could change the atmosphere of a room just by walking in. I don't ever remember him lifting up his skirt, but I'm sure he did.

'Sometimes straight people would wander in and he had a nose for sniffing that out. It was great to see him embarrass them. Studio 54 had Rollerina, the drag queen who would roller skate, and we had B.L.' — Joan Jett-Blakk


This article shared 13353 times since Wed Jul 2, 2003
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