Remembering Milwaukee’s Most Dynamic Drag Divas

by | Jan 1, 2023 | 0 comments

  • Holly by Francis Ford
  • Holly by Diana M.
  • Ginger Spice
  • Ginger Spice
  • Ginger Spice

Holly Brown (aka Holly Brown Tongue) and Ginger Spice (aka Richard Wyatt) were legendary drag performers in 1980s Milwaukee. Originally roommates and Club 219 castmates, the girls went their separate ways in 1988 when Holly Brown landed her own show at La Cage.

Soon, La Cage and Club 219 were deadlocked in competition to produce the fiercest drag shows Milwaukee had ever seen. A Golden Age of Drag was in full effect. Competition raged so hard that employees and customers had to choose their loyalties to one venue over another. Performers were so highly regarded that they became Milwaukee royalty. Under such intense friction, production standards sky-rocketed as Vegas-level productions attracted crossover crowds several nights a week. 

Yet only three years later, the Golden Age was over. What happened?

Origins

Holly Brown was born in Dubbo, a small town in the Australian outback. She started her stage career at 15 and was famous for her costume design. She moved to Sydney to begin modeling, acting, and working as a female impersonator. With the full support of her family, Holly made a name for herself throughout Australia. Soon, Holly began appearing in Europe and around the United States: Provincetown, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Milwaukee.

Richard Wyatt grew up in northern Illinois, where he worked at his family’s business before moving to Milwaukee in 1978. While working as a waiter at The Factory (158 N. Broadway,) he was discovered by Tiger Rose. Soon, “Ginger Spice” was appearing in The Factory’s drag show. Tiger became his drag mother and taught him the ways of female illusion. Richard returned to Illinois and worked in the family business by day, while building out a massive Milwaukee drag following as Ginger Spice by night.

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“It wasn’t unusual to find Ginger in the garage, under the hood, half in drag, to fix an engine problem for his dad,” remembered a History Project contributor. “She would sometimes forget to take off her nail polish while pumping gas or cleaning windshields.” His family convinced him to move back home, but the performance bug had bitten, and Ginger soon landed a new job at Final Approach in Chicago.

Ginger became friends with Jim Flint of the Baton Show Lounge, who nominated Ginger to run the Miss Continental Wisconsin pageant. Over the years, Ginger would claim the titles of Miss Gay Wisconsin and Miss Chicago Continental. She performed with some of the biggest names in Chicago drag, including her idol Chili Pepper.

And then she returned to Milwaukee at exactly the right moment.

The Golden Age of Drag

In spring 1981, Club 219 opened with grand plans to elevate the art of drag to new heights in Milwaukee. Under a 20-foot ceiling, the new stage soared 10 feet over the bar floor and four feet above the dance floor. Performers had to earn their right to walk onstage. Club 219 paid a salary—the first venue in Milwaukee to do so—and this encouraged artists to upgrade their wardrobe and their act. Lip-synching was strictly not allowed.

The lure of the great stage at Club 219 brought many performers from Greater Chicagoland, including Mimi Marks, Alexandra Billings, and Candi Stratton, who went on to become enormously famous. Each represented Wisconsin as Queen following pageant victories in Milwaukee.

With a new cabaret in town, there was a tremendous need for fresh talent. Samantha Stevens, showrunner at Club 219, knew exactly where to find it. “Ginger Spice was living about a block away from me,” said Sam. “We were all neighbors, and we got to be good friends, and eventually started talking business. And that’s how the Who’s No Lady Revue got started.”

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“The Who’s No Lady Revue was a powerhouse cast,” said Sam. “We always had a cast of four-to-five girls, and we traveled all over doing shows.” Who’s No Lady was a superstar drag factory that launched some of the biggest names of the 1980s: Abby Rhodes, Coco Lopez, Josie Blake, Gloria P. Hole, Miss B.J. Daniels, and now, Ginger Spice. 

“There was nothing tacky or cheap about our shows,” said B.J. Daniels. “That was Sam’s claim to fame: She started a new trend for a new era, with a new cast of fresh faces, steeped in feminine glamor. She raised expectations and elevated the art of drag to new levels. People were so taken in by our performances, they would be surprised we weren’t women.”

Three years later, Samantha left Club 219 for La Cage, and Ginger became the showrunner. “She produced beautiful, enchanting, heart-stopping shows with B.J and the Club 219 Girls,” said Sam. “I would still go to the shows and visit her upstairs afterwards. But I was just done.”

Changing Times

La Cage Aux Folles (801 S. 2nd Street) opened in Milwaukee on March 6, 1984. 

“By the mid-1980s, the drag scene was fueled by the need to raise money for the AIDS crisis,” said owner George Prentice. “By the late 1980s, our crossover crowd was 30–40% straight on Saturday nights. They’d come for the show, stay to dance, and have the night of their lives. And then they’d come back and do it all over the next weekend.”

During an American tour, Holly Brown and Ginger Spice met in Chicago. They were briefly roommates in Libertyville, Illinois before Holly moved to Milwaukee in May 1986. Holly joined the Club 219 Girls, where Ginger was both the showrunner and an original cast member. In January 1988, she moved to La Cage with “Claim to Fame” talent shows on Wednesday and “Holly & Company” variety shows on Sundays, following an afternoon tea dance and evening buffet that made La Cage an all-day destination.

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Soon, the Holly Brown shows expanded to Saturday and filled seats three nights a week. The increasingly elaborate show featured male, female, and drag performers, delivering a full range of entertainment: dance, comedy, theatrical renditions, solo vocals, and more.

Holly embraced her fine arts roots in Milwaukee. She operated “Holly Art,” a commercial art business in Australia, and always brought an artistic lens to her stage work. In November 1987, she hosted an art exhibition at the Leo Feldman Galleries. Her artwork graced the covers of InStep and other local magazines. She designed the murals that decorated the short-lived Mother’s Kitchen. She appeared in filmmaker Cathy Cook’s project, Bust Up. She had a love of classic films that inspired many of her performances and productions.

After five years in Milwaukee, Holly decided it was time to go home. She bid an emotional farewell to Milwaukee in April 1990 with a gala performance at La Cage. In several moving performances, Brown thanked the people she had known: “the ones who made all this possible.” And then, she was gone.

Holly planned to reunite with a group of Milwaukeeans in Europe in spring 1992, and then return to Wisconsin together afterward. However, Holly became seriously ill in fall 1991 with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP.)  She was discharged from Gold Coast Hospital in Miami, Queensland in late September, only to reenter the hospital a few weeks later. She died there on November 16, 1991.

“She made people happy, even though her life was sometimes a little rough,” said InStep magazine. “Her accent, her smile, her love and her bawdiness will be remembered and cherished by many.”

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Sadly, Ginger Spice passed away only 10 days later on November 26, 1991. She was only 31. She was survived by her lover of six years, Chris Gorski. Soon, the Golden Age of Drag would come to a slow and quiet end. “Ginger had bounced back from so many infections over the past four years that friends thought of him as invincible,” wrote Ron Geiman, InStep publisher. “His unexpected death sent shock waves through Milwaukee and Chicago.”

Ginger was remembered as a kind, loving, and generous performer. Over the years, she had become quite skilled at sewing and dress design. Many Milwaukee performers of that era still own a Ginger Spice original outfit. In January 1992, Club 219 hosted “I Remember You,” a 15-star memorial show to benefit the Ginger Spice Trust, a special fund of the Milwaukee AIDS Project.

“Several people commented, ‘We’ll never see another show like this!’ The emotional level was at a crescendo before the show even started. People clapped and stomped their feet like they always did while Ginger was onstage, but it was just memories,” wrote InStep magazine. “The show was the largest bar fundraiser in Milwaukee AIDS Project history—and more shows are in the works. I hear her voice from above, saying thank you.”

“It’s always sad when our friends succumb to AIDS, but it hurts even more when they were vivacious entertainers, who brought smiles to our faces every time they performed,” said Ron Geiman. “We’d like to imagine Holly and Ginger are throwing a Reunion Special in heaven.”

Learn more about Holly Brown, Ginger Spice, and seven generations of Milwaukee drag at the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project website: wislgbthistory.com. 

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