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Nestled in at a dimly lit table inside the Fontainebleau's Club Tropigala, Danny and Tanya sit alongside Kulchur and nightlife veteran Rudolf Pieper, recently departed from his position at Billboardlive. The occasion is the 30th annual Miss Florida Pageant, a statewide drag competition that has packed the room. But Danny and Tanya are having a hard time enjoying the show. Wanda has been spotted, and though she isn't an official contestant, plenty of folks seem to be keeping a wary eye on her as she cruises the aisles.
"I'm not scared of her," Danny declares, a muster of false bravado instantly deflated when Rudolf playfully hollers, "Wanda!" Danny flinches, mulling a hasty dive under the table. He has good reason to be jumpy.
"Wanda pissed is like a spider monkey on crack," groused bar owner Morgan Craft to New Times writer Tristram Korten in 1998, and Craft had the painful bruise to prove it. Gary Thoulouise, currently of Opium Garden, recalled his own experience while working as general manager of Chaos. "She's a menace to society," Thoulouise opined, referring to a New Year's Eve gala at which Wanda stomped on another woman's toes. "You can imagine a six-foot-seven drag queen -- over 200 pounds -- in heels stepping on this woman's foot. The woman is screaming and Wanda is acting like nothing's wrong. I said to her, 'Wanda, you really have to be careful,' and she said, 'Darling, if she doesn't want to get stepped on, she should get out of the VIP room.'"
Virtually every notable nightspot on Washington Avenue eventually eighty-sixed Wanda, tiring of the fracas that seemed to ensue whenever she appeared. Yet Wanda herself seemed proud of her distinction. "I have been barred from every fucking club on the Beach," she crowed at the time.
Now, just as suddenly as she disappeared from South Beach in 1999, Wanda has returned, and in vintage form. The week prior to the Miss Florida pageant had seen Wanda manage to slip past security into crobar's Back Door Bamby party. Incongruously out of drag, none of the club's staff recognized her. The night ended with Tanya knocked to the ground, Wanda fleeing the scene, and Rudolf helping Danny nurse his freshly blackened eye.
Rudolf, however, appears anything but worried about the dire threats Wanda has issued to his friends. On the contrary, he looks downright inspired. Mischievously leaning in to Kulchur's ear, Rudolf asks, "Where's Elaine Lancaster?" -- Lancaster being another of the Beach's well-known queens, though decidedly less prone to fisticuffs. Then he motions toward Joey Arias, Back Door Bamby's featured drag queen for the evening, holding court on a makeshift stage nearby. "We have to spread the rumor that Elaine won't be seen in the same room as Joey."
Uh, Rudolf, are you sure it's such a good idea to set more ladies on the warpath?
"Hey, it's the off-season," he replies with a good-natured shrug. "We have to do something for entertainment."
Kidding aside, an injection of mascara-caked danger is precisely what Rudolf sees as painfully absent from South Beach. For a milieu that once staked its reputation as the arbiter of hip outrageousness, the Beach now seems, well, boring. Strip away most partygoers' designer duds and the sprinkling of foreign accents and you're left with a shindig about as transgressive as a frat-house bash. Sexual segregation is once again the norm; gone is any sense of cultural frisson.
"The cohesiveness of the gay crowd is diminishing," Rudolf argues. "It used to be very tight, go out a lot, and lend its prestige to premier events. This link is weakening." Indeed Back Door Bamby remains one of the only local affairs where gay and straight, fashionista and bona-fide freak hit the dance floor side by side. Just as telling, on a given Saturday night, you're now apt to find a sizable chunk of the Beach's gay revelers heading up I-95 to Fort Lauderdale clubs like the Coliseum.
"People from all walks of life who have some money come to South Beach," Rudolf explains, "and the curse of nightlife is that all these people think they can do a nightclub -- it just looks so simple. In reality that's not the case, Billboardlive included."
It was that very attitude, Rudolf says, which led to his late-June exit from Billboardlive as its nightlife director. "The ownership and CEO of Billboardlive have no prior club experience," yet he says he constantly battled their "bottom-line management mentality." He may have been hired to replicate his buzz-laden success with such Eighties Manhattan spots as Studio 54, Danceteria, and Area, but when it came time to implement those venues' winning formulas, he hit a wall of financial resistance.