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Legendary Baton performer Mimi Marks saying farewell
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum once famously noted "never give up. No one knows what's going to happen next."

Not only is Baum responsible for one of the favorite childhood stories of legendary Chicago entertainer and showgirl Mimi Marks but, on Jan. 24—as she takes her final bow after a quarter-century on the stage at River North's The Baton Show Lounge—his words encapsulate both her life and its future.

Sitting down with Windy City Times in a small coffee shop in her adopted home of Lake View, it was difficult for an outwardly tranquil Marks to contain her emotions as she reflected on a history the likes of which Dorothy Gale would have been proud.

Born in Waterloo, Iowa, during the civil-rights tumult of the late 1960s, the youngest of a close family of two brothers and one sister, Marks lived in a black-and-white world of expected gender conformity. Her parents hoped she would follow in her brother's footsteps as accomplished ice-hockey players.

"The hockey game would be playing in one end of the arena and I would be at the other end figure skating, waving to my mother," she said with a laugh. "My parents said 'OK, this is not going to work' but they were cool with that. When I came out as gay, my family took it harder than when I told them I was a girl."

The discovery of her gender began the moment Marks left high school, whisked away at the center of a determined whirlwind.

"I tried to experience life as I thought I was—a gay male," she recalled. "I knew on the inside that [identity] wasn't actually what I was feeling but, at that time, being transgender was not even a reality to me."

Settling an hour away from home in Cedar Rapids, Marks began performing. "I would do a show on Friday night and then I would still be in my gear on Sunday. I'd never want to take it off."

At the age of 20, Marks entered a talent competition in Milwaukee at the gay bar Club 219. To Uptown's I'm Losing You, she began what would be a signature theme of dazzling the audience. "I was gymnast growing up so my routine involved backflips and cartwheels. There weren't a lot of girls doing those kind of things" she said. "I won the prize and they offered me a job that night."

During the two years she spent in Milwaukee, Mark's life began to open up to possibilities and a discovery of Baum's "road paved with yellow-bricks"—one she had never imagined.

"I met a couple of other girls there who were trans," she said. "I started taking hormones and I knew this was a reality. I was living in a world in black and white but I knew that it wasn't like that—it was colors of every kind."

When Baton owner Jim Flint saw Marks perform, he saw potential. She was taken to the bar's Miss Continental pageant for the first time. "I'd never seen anything like that before," Marks said, her eyes still growing large with the wonder of the memory. "A beauty pageant but with girls just like me. Just like I wanted be. In my head I thought it was too much, 'I could never do this'."

But Mark's adopted drag mother, Ginger Spice, would not hear it. She entered her protege into Miss Cosmopolitan—a preliminary to Miss Continental. "I won the pageant and Jim asked me if I would like a job at the Baton," Marks recalled. "It was every girl's dream—a full-time job."

"My family were excited for me," she added. "They came to my last show in Milwaukee. A couple of days later, I packed up the few things I had into my friend's car."

Marks arrived in Chicago. She was 23 years old and in a place with—as Baum would have described it—"dresses, made of silk and satin and velvet, and all of them fitted Dorothy exactly."

Marks said she credits Miss Cosmopolitan owner John Bradley as instrumental in helping her settle in and find a home.

"I got lucky," she said. "I never had a problem with harassment. Probably my biggest challenge was being on my own in a big city for the first time. But there were girls who started working with me at the same time, like Monica Munro and Cezanne. We became very close and great friends right off the bat. They used to call us Jimmy's Angels and we performed and grew up together."

Marks recalled the past 25 years as challenging as they have been glamorous. "I worked five days per week and three shows per night," she said. "It wasn't fun every day. There were times when I didn't feel like being 'on'. When I initially started, I wasn't making that much money at all. But I got to be a better entertainer and things improved. It's what I do. It's in my blood. I'll be in this business in some form for the rest of my life."

"I've always been the same person on stage as I am off," she added. "I love live performances and the feedback you get. After 25 years, I still get nervous."

Over the past summer, Marks spent some time in Los Angeles. There, a new world opened up—one that has led her down a path of altruism.

"I got to go to the Los Angeles Children's Hospital, where I met a lot of trans children," she said. "It was like a light bulb went off. I am ready for my life to move into the next phase. I want to travel and eventually move out west and work with trans communities."

"The Baton has been a huge part of my life," Marks added, wiping away a tear. "But I'm ready to do more. I'm throwing caution to the wind, knowing that it is the right time for me to start my life again."

No matter where she ends up, Marks could be forgiven for answering the question "Where did you come from?" with the closing words of the same book that forged her childhood dreams.

"From the Land of Oz," said Dorothy gravely.

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