The masterful fourteen-year reign of Draino, queen of the King Mango Strut, ended at 7:29 p.m., Thursday, December 19, and was handed off to Virginia Whitmore, better known as Ellen, an unemployed psychic. By all indications Ellen will be an enduring and worthy successor.
Where Draino (a.k.a. Duane Sawatzki) was a loud, toilet-mouthed, beer-spilling, cigarette-ash-poking, colorful loon, Ellen is a prescription-subdued, teetotaling, family-values, glitter-faced loon.
Other telling comparisons for Strut Royalphiles: Draino is 66; Ellen is 42. Draino can't afford a haircut. Ellen smokes cheapo cigarillos -- Garcia y Vega Whiffs. Draino suffers from emphysema. Ellen's eardrums rupture, usually in election years. Draino sits on a rusty three-wheel bicycle in front of a boutique on Main Highway, sipping Budweiser. Ellen pedals around on a two-wheeler offering up her intuition. Draino has become crusty and bitter about Coconut Grove, his home for twenty years. Ellen's love affair with the Grove still excites her after fifteen years.
Ah ... the world turns -- that is, struts.
"I'm very excited," Ellen says in response to her coronation. She's bulging under a bulky sweater the color of an unripe mango. An Austrian crystal glints on her ring finger like a big eyeball. Her dyed-red hair is pulled up in the middle of her head a la the Flintstones' Pebbles. And her fingernails, like her round face, sparkle with glitter. "I personify the Grove," she says. "I was a Disco Diva, then a Cocaine Cowgirl. I was quite wild. But I'm good now. I plan to clean up the image of Mango Queen. I'm going to stop smoking. I want to be the Mango Fairy." She plans to wear a flowing white gown and wings.
Draino gives the new queen his full vote of confidence. "She's psycho," he attests.
The public at large will enjoy its first view of Queen Ellen December 29 at the fifteenth annual Strut, when some 40 acts cavort through the Grove from Commodore Plaza to Peacock Park. Among the wayward skits satirizing current events: "City of Miami's Blind Auditors," "The Women Kendall Coffey Has Bitten," and "The Mock Arena," a play on the pervasive line dance la macarena. Ellen will bring up the rear of the procession, which gets under way at 2:00 p.m.
The contest for the new queen was publicized for a month in local newspapers. Ellen's competition consisted of five men, three of whom did not identify themselves. Strut pooh-bahs gathered in the game room of the Taurus restaurant to select the winner. A couple of self-described performance artists were runners-up: Kramer, "Queen of the Jews," a Seinfeld Cosmo Kramer look-alike; and K-Man, "Art Kendallman," who was arrested in his K-Man clown suit -- hawk mask, ski goggles, green jump suit, and helmet-mounted toy helicopter -- for unauthorized participation in the 1990 King Orange Jamboree parade.
The judges' decision to select Ellen came down to provenance. "We know her. She lives in the Grove. She's the Groviest," explained Wayne Brehm, a principal organizer of the parade. Ellen, however, believes her selection was providence. Her astrologer, Sioux Rose, predicted fame and fortune for her this month. "I figure I'd get the fame part out of the way and the fortune will follow," Ellen says.
From some of the ten organizers at the meeting came pleas to maintain the status quo, the comfy remembrance of years past. "Can we get Draino back?" implored Barbara Lange.
Alas, Draino will have none of the parade. He was not at the selection meeting to gracefully pass on the torch because he's been banned from the Taurus, as he has been from two other of his old Grove haunts. It seems Draino can be a bit ornery when sauced. "Yeah, like saying out loud: 'I hate those female types with those ugly, smelly things between their legs,'" recalls Brehm.
Earlier in the day, an indignant yet cordial Draino discussed his abdication. His downward spiral, he claims, began a couple of years ago when he was barred from the Taurus. A year later it was Big Daddy's. And recently the Tigertail Lounge. "I was a loyal friend, but no one was loyal to me. I've been hurt a lot," he sighs. "My life is really ruined. I have no social life. I sit down in my ten-by-ten and watch TV, which I don't like."
Parked on his bicycle, barnacled toenails extending from his Birkenstocks, Draino appears forlorn. Dried up and bony, he carries a slight beer pouch that protrudes from his red T-shirt. It reads, "Frankenmuth German-Style Beer." (He grew up nine miles from Frankenmuth, Michigan.) But he's equipped with a quick, salacious grin, and his turquoise eyes can still light up, especially when reminiscing.
He chuckles as he tells the story behind "Draino." The nickname stuck after his boss saw him rinsing his hair in a toilet. In 1977 Draino worked at a deli in the Grove and was allowed to sleep nights in the bathroom. He insists the toilet was cleaner than the sink, which he hadn't gotten around to cleaning. In the Eighties he was affectionately called Draino the Lunch Man, after the catering business he operated solely by bicycle. And as Strut time neared each year, his popularity grew. "Those were good beer-drinking days," he recalls cheerily. "The whole town made a big fuss over it. Lots of beer, lots of free drinks. I had a great love for the Grove -- had, past tense. Just a bunch of mega-assholes around here now."
Like Queen Draino in his younger days, Ellen is full of spunk, hope, and good will. "The Grove is a place where you can be yourself and still have people love you anyway," she chirps. "And I've finally learned to accept CocoWalk."
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While Draino's background -- a four-year stint in the navy and years as a chef in Michigan -- brought a down-to-earth grittiness to the parade, Ellen's vita suggests the start of a more ethereal spectacle. Born in Coral Gables, she says she earned a master's degree in English literature in 1979 from Simmons College in Boston (named after John Simmons of therapeutic mattress fame). One of her first psychic triumphs, she claims, was predicting John Lennon's death, and later his reincarnation in the form of a now fifteen-year-old boy in Coconut Grove by the name of Zeph. She claims to have been the spiritual adviser to the University of Miami football team when Jimmy Johnson coached there.
Last month, while crossing Mt. Blanc in the Alps by train, her left eardrum ruptured. The injury cut her three-week European vacation two weeks short, but she was still able to manage a religious experience at Turin. "The Christ shroud looks just like Bob Marley," she says. "The presence of Christ was really overwhelming."
The selection of Ellen as queen gives Glenn Terry, Strut founder and perennial King Mango, encouragement about the future viability of the parade. "Draino is a bright guy and an important Grove character, and I think Ellen will fill the same shoes," says Terry, a 49-year-old lawyer, art teacher, and avowed mango lover ("I just eat a lot of them, steal them from people's yards, et cetera"). He got the idea for the Strut from the Doo-Dah Parade in Pasadena, California, which spoofs the Rose Bowl Parade.
That Queen Ellen is severely allergic to mangoes and broke out in a rash upon learning of her rise to the throne will not pose a problem for her royalness. "Mostly I want to do it," she says. "We'll see what happens.