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Dugan's Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady
New book chronicles Chicago's early gay disco scene
by Owen Keehnen
2018-12-26

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Before Studio 54…

Dugan's Bistro was the hottest gay disco in Chicago. From 1973-1982 the sign above the door and on the club's matchbooks read: "Dugan's Bistro, the Home of the Bearded Lady." A Chicago nightlife phenomenon, the Bearded Lady was a unique celebrity who, for over a decade, was covered regularly in gay newspapers and magazines, gossip columns of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, and several national and international publications. Despite his fame, much of BL's life has remained a mystery, until now.

Dugan's Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady is a folklore-bio of the Disco Era — a time and place that were key in the evolution of Chicago's LGBT community. The Bearded Lady's story is a gateway to the decadent nightlife and exuberance of a "lost" generation — and what happened after the party ended.

With additional material by Jeffrey Mark Bruce and Richard Knight, Jr., author, activist, and grassroots historian Owen Keehnen brings the era and one of the most colorful characters of Chicago's gay "downtown glitter scene" to life.

Following is an excerpt from the book, now available on Amazon and at Unabridged Books.

Fame ( Remember My Name )

For nine years the Bistro reigned as the hottest club in Chicago — a genuine nightlife phenomenon — and above the door on the marquee, as well as on the club's business cards and matchbooks, it said "Dugan's Bistro, the Home of the Bearded Lady."

With the Bistro as his platform, BL became a star. Comedienne Phyllis Diller applauded him. Bruce Vilanch referred to him as "Chicago's Living Legend." Gay Life columnist Ron Herizon hailed his infectious lunacy as "Chicago's answer to Bette Milder." He posed for noted photographers like Chuck Shotwell and Marc Hauser. Glitz and glitter artist, Bob "Windy City Warhol" Fischer, who called his art bizzarte, immortalized him in an oil painting.

BL was a bona fide celebrity. People shouted to him from passing cars and called his name from department store balconies. On the street some people asked for a picture, for an autograph, or both. He was always thrilled to oblige. He was born for this because BL adored his public as much as they adored him. He was routinely featured in the gay and straight press alike for any number of reasons. He attended dozens of nightlife events, play openings, fundraisers, and restaurant debuts. He wrestled in cake batter for charity and ended the match by licking his opponent into submission. He was frequently a featured entertainer at the Mr. Windy City contests and a popular guest at film festivals. People joked that he'd show up at the opening of an envelope.

On New Year's Eve of 1974, he arrived by limo at the "black towel optional" opening of the Music Hall at the legendary Man's Country bathhouse where he performed for the mostly naked crowd. BL was paid handsomely to perform and "carry on" at private parties before hitting the Bistro stage at midnight.

In 1975, at the showing of The Pig and I: A Love Story for the Chicago International Film Festival, the film's porky star was squealing in the lobby. Eager to hog some of the spotlight, BL picked up the piglet and put it next to his face as the cameras flashed. The image of BL and the pig was all over the papers, and television, the following day.

Aaron Gold's 1975 Tower Ticker column in the Chicago Tribune dished about BL being listed among a roster of celebrities attending a sneak preview of Tommy at the State-Lake Theater. "Tina Turner, who plays the Acid Queen, definitely will be on hand... Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor, Stefanie Powers, Bobby; The Bearded Lady, the Who's John Entwistle, and possibly Ann- Margret ( if her plane arrives on time ) will get together later at Arnie's for a Hollywood type glitter party complete with Bally Wizard pinball machines."

In an era when much of the Gay Pride Parade was banners and beer trucks, BL was always a highlight. When he rode by on the Bistro float, the crowd went wild. He grew so excited by the adulation that he would shriek and cackle with delight. Of the ten minutes of footage that exists from Chicago's 1976 Pride Parade by filmmaker Tom Palazzolo, a healthy portion is devoted to BL making his way into position on a float while carrying a Fiorucci shopping bag and wearing a layered mini-sundress with white stockings, satin opera gloves, and a half-veil.

At a David Bowie concert, BL received media coverage after arriving in an enormous polka dot ante-bellum gown, with a zebra print shawl, and a huge southern belle hat festooned with ermine tails hanging from the brim. Over the hat was a surfeit of black bridal netting that he tied beneath his chin in an oversized bow. He carried an enormous silver fan and his beard sparkled with glitter.

The attention was like a drug. Each press photo and every column mention prompted BL to be more outrageous in his public appearances. He showed up in costumes evermore over-the-top and sporting an I have arrived attitude. He was always ready to cause a commotion; which he did at a film screening from which he was turned away because his enormous headpiece was both too high and too wide for people to see around.

On July 11, 1977, he was prominently pictured in a Time Magazine piece on the punk music phenomenon in America. The photo was taken while waiting in line at a concert. In the shot BL wore silver platform shoes with black and gold ankle ribbons, silvery hose with garters, a leopard print hot pants/top combo, gold workout belt, black coat, pink sunglasses and a biker hat with a pink floral purse slung over his shoulder. His leopard print top was open to his waist, revealing two slabs of meat on his chest that had been fashioned into a bra. When Time hit the stands BL was over the moon. He came onto the Bistro stage that night wearing a red, white, and blue sequin outfit with lit sparklers in his hair. As the music started he began shrieking and spinning in a euphoric whirl. Eventually he stopped and screamed, "Your Mother has made Time Magazine!"

On Oct 1 the same year, BL headlined a show in Toronto with the popular punk band "Oh Those Pants" at the Ontario College of Art, which was the center of punk rock in the city. On the accompanying t-shirts he received top billing: BL in huge black letters against a white background. Within the black initials were the words: "THE BEARDED LADY and OH! THOSE PANTS!" A pair of lips completed the artwork. The wide press coverage of the event thrilled him.

Even the December 1979 issue of Penthouse magazine mentioned him. Once he became "a name," BL had various agents and representatives who tried to book him on The Tonight Show and other programs. Although he garnered attention and was undeniably a phenomenon, his performance did not transcend the moment. His persona was too scattered, too unpolished, too unpredictable, and maybe a little too gay for the mass palate. Middle America was not ready to have this avant-garde sensation in their living rooms.

But it didn't matter. For those who knew BL — or knew of him — his live personae was so commanding that, when discussing the opening of Chicago's chicest new clothing boutique, a Chicago Sun-Times writer reported, with tongue in cheek precision, "The Bearded Lady...was not there." He had achieved so much notoriety that even Chicago Tribune arts columnist Claudia Cassidy mentioned his arrival at an event in her popular half-hour program on WFMT radio. Hearing his name uttered by "Acidy Cassidy" — of all people — BL felt he had, indeed, arrived — in more ways than one.


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