A staple at the famous West Berlin cabaret Chez Nous, Marlow La Fantastique has taken the art of drag and her legendary fan dance all over the world. Born and raised in Bronzeville on Chicago's Near South Side, Marlow used to perform at the historic Regal theater nearby, was a regular in the ballroom scene and was also featured as the contestant Miss Chicago in the 1968 cult-film, The Queen.
With a blunt confidence amplified by a formidable and elegant presence, Marlow is not one for titles. If asked, she calls herself a "travesti," eschewing both the antiquated terms of her trade for much of her career, ranging from "mimic" to "female impersonator," but also hesitant to use the labels of today, including transgender, to describe her life as a "whole lady."
Windy City Times sat down with the internationally acclaimed performer in advance of the cabaret-inspired Nov. 18 event in her honor, where she will be sharing her life stories and watching the stylings of Chicago dancer Darling Shear, who specializes in recreating historical dance numbers. The historic Chez Nous will come alive for this special show curated by Nicole Erin Morse and also featuring Chase Joynt.
Windy City Times: You performed a lot in [Chicago, before going to Berlin]. I think I read something about the Regal …
Marlow La Fantastique: The original Regal: the one on 47th and King Drive, which was [once] South Parkway. That was fantastic! We went there as kids because it was only a dollar and a quarter. We got to see all the stars; we saw Sammy Davis Jr., Etta James, Dinah Washington. All the stars in our community were there. If they weren't working at the Regal and the Tivoli in Chicago and at the Apollo in New York, then they weren't necessarily a top-of-the-line artist. Even though it didn't amount to anything here in the city of Chicago, because most of the people in the city wouldn't go near 47th Street. When Josephine Baker came to town, she did two shows. One for the South Side at the Regal and downtown for the North Side. That was really a treat and I have photos to prove it.
WCT: Tell us more about your time in New York and in the balls.
MLF: The oldest here used to be held at the Coliseum, which used to be at 14th and Wabash. The balls in New York were nice, [too]. The girls were faster, more naughty. They would copy everything I would do. The balls had their little groups, like House of LaBeija. Crystal was the president, when she would come to the ball they all would be waiting for her because she was well-known. The little houses would be at the ball, rolling their eyes, switching around and throwing attitude. It was something! In Manhattan Center, that was one of the grand ones. Lots of people, lots of big shots. You'd see [fashion] designers there to steal the ideas from the girls and then [the designers] would get all the fame.
WCT: What would you say is one of your favorite memories from the balls?
MLF: I created the mirror dress. That was one of my favorites and I had the fans, too. I hid hooks on the dress under a feather coat. Now this was at the Coliseum. I threw the coat down, then took the fans and posed with them. You can see them on my internet [site]. It was a big hit! And all of the big shots at the time of our community, they were the judges. But they had it rigged for this girl [who had] on a plain satin dress. Everybody knew she didn't deserve to get that prize! The girls I brought with from New York were furious and they actually took the trophies and threw them. That was a big scandal! They fled for their lives and we stormed out of that ballroom furious. I was through with the balls then. That was in '65.
And then came Flawless Sabrina, she produced a movie, The Queen. That became a pageant. That was also rigged, but we knew itit was a movie. She had it rigged for her best friend and another friend. So, me and Crystal [LaBeija] were lucky that we got picked. If you ever saw the movie, you can see Sabrina gave a smirk when I was picked as fourth runnerup because they were expecting someone else. But see, the judges truly had picked us.
WCT: What was it like performing at Chez Nous and being a person of color in Berlin at that time?
MLF: In Europe, you are interesting because of your color and I didn't know that. When I left the Jewel Box Revue, which was a famous female impersonator showthat's what they called them at the timethere was a lot of girls but not enough work. [There was a] club in Greenwich Village called the Crazy Horse Saloon and some artists from Europe came over and got me interested [in going to Europe]. And I was working on Stonewall with StormÃ© [DeLarverie]we were going to protest against the police. Before that happened, my contract came to go to Chez Nous in Berlin and that was in 1968 [before the riots took place in 1969]. They were building it up. StormÃ© is the most well-known male impersonator in the world. She would sing bass and baritone in the show … the title was, "25 Men and 1 Girl," and they'd try to pick who was the girl in the show and they'd never pick StormÃ© … and she was the only girl! They'd pick me or other ones they thought looked feminine. But StormÃ© was dressed as a guy, she had the moustache and the short hair. She looked fabulous! You've got to look her up! Anyway, at Chez Nous, I started being creative and getting more contracts and bookings. I had lists of agents to call, I was really busy! I was traveling everywhere, meeting all kinds of people, princes in Malaysia and Germany, drinking champagne.
WCT: And you found Europe to be welcoming?
MLF: A lot of politicians and stars would come into Chez Nous. It was very well-known. In fact, only people who had money would come in. The average person [couldn't] pay that high cover charge. That went through 1969. I had a year-and-a-half contract there, then I started touring all over Germany, Switzerland and down in Amsterdam and Belgium. There was plenty of work. In America, they had places [to work], but they just weren't accepting at the time. How many clubs are open now? Baton. There's nothing in San Francisco. Finocchio's Club, it's gone. The 82 Club in New York, it's gone. Europethey're dying out, kind of. The best one now is in Hamburg and it's called, Pulverfass [Cabaret]. I always make a point when I go to Berlin to visit, we take the train to go to Hamburg to see the show.
WCT: What do you think has changed in terms of the show? Do you see that they pulled through a lot of traditions?
MLF: There was not playback [lip-synching]. The 82 Club had a band in the back. The Jewel Box had a full orchestra. They all were live bands and you had to sing live. And there was always a live emcee, because you have to have of jokes. People don't always want to see the glamour act. Like Liza Minnelli: she did glamour, but there was comedy, too. My friend Ricky Renee worked in the movie [Cabaret] with her. She's the oldest female impersonator … still around. She lives in Nuremberg and she was in the film as Elke.
WCT: What about RuPaul's Drag Race? How do you compare that, because it seems to be a very successful industry he's created?
MLF: Oh, yeah. But he didn't really create it; he added to it. He just came along and happened to get in the door. He was not there during the rough times, so to speak. ... Because [back] then, with female impersonation, they had a law, you couldn't even get dressed to go out with nothing on that was female attire. Police would arrest you for every little thing. Oh, that was such a crime back in the '50s and the '60s! You couldn't walk these streets. On the North Side they were hanging on Clark and Division, around the Gold Coast. And they didn't want them in the neighborhood, they were jumping them there in the '50s.
In the '60s, they were very nasty to people from the South Side; they would use the N-word all day long until you left their neighborhood. And then on top of that, they would arrest you. They'd say you were hustling, loitering, prostituting. The answer to RuPaul, see, he didn't go through all that. We led the way. That's why Stonewall came about. Picking on those that were feminine. They would arrest and harass you every moment they see you. They must have had the roll call, "Go out and get them today." … Like we were such villains. We weren't bothering nobody. We just wanted to live our lives and that's the way we were doing it.
People can hear many more stories from Marlow at "An Evening at Chez Nous," Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. For free tickets and more information about the event, visit tiny.cc/cheznous. See more about Marlow here: https://marlowlafantastique.weebly.com/.
More about the show: "For 50 years, the West Berlin cabaret Chez Nous was a star-studded dance club, visited by celebrities and featured in Hollywood films. Chez Nous celebrated the artistry of female impersonators and trans women, including Coccinelle, the first French trans woman to legally change her name following gender-confirmation surgery; Ricky ReneÃ©, a drag performer who played Elke in Cabaret ( 1972 ); and Chicago's own Marlow La Fantastique, an internationally acclaimed performer now residing in Bronzeville in her retirement.
"An Evening at Chez Nous" brings that history alive with a cabaret-inspired event including clips of the cabaret's revue from the 1970s, scenes from films set at the night club starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, Chicago dancer Darling Shear recreating Marlow's fan dance, and Marlow La Fantastique herself, sharing her stories and memories of the famous dance club. The evening's emcee will be filmmaker and SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow Chase Joynt."