By Owen Keehnen
$17; Out Tales Publishing; 148 pages
Bob Theiss contained multitudesmost under a completely different name.
Known as the Bearded Lady ( or BL ) to gay Chicagoans of the 1970s and early '80s, he was part drag queen, part hedonist and all nightlife superstar. Wearing layers of thrifted stockings and oft-handmade headdresses, the BL slayed the small stage of iconic River North disco Dugan's Bistro. Author and historian Owen Keehnen chronicles the BL's rise to fame in his latest book, Dugan's Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady. Short but poignant, Dugan's Bistro is an impeccably researched wild ride into an era of rainbow days and cocaine-fueled nights.
Theiss wasn't always strutting around clubs in vintage threads. Born during a solar eclipse in 1947, the man who would become a legend graduated from a Niagara Falls boarding school and finished two years of college before joining the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Tired of hiding his true self, Theiss eventually found himself in Chicago and cultivated a personality to end all others. He hoarded clothes and jewelry in his tiny apartment on Briar Place, grew his hair long and when Dugan's Bistro opened downtown, found his artistic and spiritual home.
To gay people who felt free for the first time in their lives, the Bearded Lady was a savior, as was Dugan's. Thanks to visionary Eddie Dugan, the French restaurant turned nightclub was about more than the dancing and drugs that made the '70's so notorious. Dugan loved seasonal decorations, lines out the door and on the bar and the smell of sex in the air. The Bearded Lady helped cement the Bistro's reputation as Chicago's own Studio 54. But behind the headdresses and makeup was Bob, who eventually followed love to Tokyo, earned his college degree and taught English as a second language. No matter his environment, however, the BL lived to be seen.
Keehnen culled the book's research from the internet, digital and paper archives, newspaper coverage of the BL ( from alt-weeklies to the Chicago Tribune ) and even police reports ( because Dugan's Bistro was often raided for drugs and "public indecency," the latter of which could mean whatever the cops wanted it to mean ). His passion for the titular individual is fully on display in every word.
Many young queer Chicagoans may not know that just a few decades ago, the most happening gay spaces were downtown, and that the River North area was once considered dangerousand that a mythical figure with prominent facial hair and garish jewelry ruled the scene. Dugan's Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady is an enlightening peek into the pre-AIDS past, when everything was beautiful and nothing hurtyet.
[Note: Keehnen is an occasional contributor to Windy City Times.]