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Gripping the back of the folding chair at her small make-up table, China Chang lifts up one muscular, caramel-colored leg and forcefully pries her foot into the declivitous instep of a purple sequined pump. A few seconds later, a male dancer in a cropped tuxedo jacket and snug white Lycra leggings emerges from an adjoining dressing area to join China, hoisting a feathered headdress off her table and carefully fitting it over her rust-colored topknot.
Just then the stage manager appears, clapping his hands together and urging, "Let's go. Come on, it's time."
At 12:30 a.m., China adjusts her plumage, flashes a practiced smile, and spreads her arms under her sparkling cape to reveal a matching sequined decollete leotard underneath. Then she walks to the wings of the stage, where Mariloly, Debbie, and Erika -- three other stars of Midnight Follies -- already wait.
In front of the stage's red curtain, the spotlight is trained on a chorus boy, who gestures with painful intensity while lip-synching "I Am What I Am" from the musical A Chorus Line. An audience of approximately 60 people sits expectantly in the first rows of Little Havana's Teatro de Bellas Artes: middle-age Cuban couples -- some with their children -- elderly white-haired ladies, a cluster of beefy young men whose open shirts reveal glinting medallions on gold ropes, and a rowdy group of Argentine tourists.
As the song ends, the curtain rises on the stage, which earlier in the evening had resembled a Cuban courtyard plastered with prerevolutionary political posters, the setting for El Solar de Papaito, the sort of exile farce that typically plays in Little Havana theaters. Now a configuration of platforms with steps and stage lights arranged in decorative patterns give the theater a glitzy cabaret look that falls somewhere between the decor of Havana's Club Tropicana circa 1950 and the set of TV's Star Search.
The performers, who are all -- genetically speaking -- men, begin to move rhythmically about the stage, stepping and kicking in the kind of stage-show promenade that has marked the opening of the Bellas Artes' after-midnight musical-comedy drag revue every Saturday night for almost ten years. Se*ores y se*oras, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to la universidad del transformismo.
The mainstream media's current fascination with transvestites reflects the inevitable exploitation of drag's surprising mass appeal. Now male characters in the movies don't need pretexts such as child custody (Mrs. Doubtfire) or unemployment (Tootsie) to dress up. Riding on the success of last year's sleeper hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes are currently promoting their roles as drag queens in the new movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar by manfully revealing the painful secrets of "tucking" to reporters. And even though designers' attempts to put men in skirts blipped and died in the Eighties, the fashion world still seeks inspiration from the age-old art of transvestitism. In fact a stylishly subtle young drag queen wearing makeup and women's street clothes appears in designer Donna Karan's new magazine -ad campaign.
Here in Miami, drag queens are celebrities in their own right on South Beach, where any self-respecting dance club has some manner of cross-dresser posted at the door. Not surprisingly, when Lucky Cheng's, a New York City restaurant with waitresses in drag, opened a branch on Ocean Drive this summer, the local public response was more apathy than shock.
But back in 1986, South Beach was still the terrain of senior citizens and crack dealers, and Bellas Artes owner Mirella Gonzalez had never even seen a man in a dress. Gonzalez and her husband, Manuel, owned a hardware store on Flagler Street, but they had been infected with the theater bug by Reny, one of their four sons, who was a successful child actor at the time. They had bought the Bellas Artes -- located on SW Eighth Street at 22nd Avenue -- in 1983, producing in the space the conventional Spanish-language plays and exile comedies traditionally popular among the local Cuban community.
During the Christmas season of 1985, an actor in one of those plays asked if he could borrow the theater to make a video of a solo performance he was working on. When Mirella Gonzalez peeked inside, she saw the young man wearing a gown and makeup, lip-synching to a female voice.
"It seemed like it had commercial possibilities," recalls the theater owner today. A small blond woman with a friendly but firm manner, the 57-year-old Gonzalez (five years younger than her husband) sits at a desk in an office sandwiched between the theater's dressing rooms and its cafeteria. "I thought we could do something like that for the Latin audience -- but with decency," she adds. "I didn't want to hurt the theater's reputation."
Gonzalez had heard of transvestites who performed late-night shows in area dance clubs. The most famous of these in the Latin milieu was Frankie Kein, who, along with another performer known professionally as Manuel Arte, started doing drag in Miami in the Seventies, and had even performed at one time at the Bellas Artes under its previous owner (Kein and Arte can still be seen at Les Violins on Biscayne Boulevard). But Kein mimicked Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, and other popular American singers. Gonzalez's idea was to create a full-length show with songs in Spanish, a musical-comedy revue spiced with risque ethnic humor that was still appropriate for family viewing. "There was nothing like this for Latin audiences," she explains.