Entertainment

How Dallas' Most Iconic Drag Venue Is Surviving the Pandemic

And how to do your part.

Dallas drag scene collage
Illustration: Maitane Romagosa

The gay utopia known as The Rose Room -- not only the premier drag showroom in the Lone Star State, but perhaps the most beloved anywhere on the planet -- is hidden away on the second floor of a nightclub in Dallas, Texas. There, you’ll experience a never-ending party from the moment the curtain rises and the spotlight focuses on Cassie Nova, the grand mistress of ceremonies. On the stage and in the seats surrounding it are people of all backgrounds being moved in spirit as a community -- not unlike a good old-fashioned tent revival, with much better fashion, music, and cocktails, and far less judgment of those who are different.

The Rose Room was an important setting in my early college days as I reveled in experiences that helped shape my worldview, marveling at how everyone was welcomed with open arms, from gay people of color to porcelain-skinned bachelorettes by the busload. Being seated next to a perfect stranger could be the start of a real-life R-rated friendship comedy or the beginning of something deeper. Within the four walls of The Rose Room, anything was possible.

On March 16, 2020, all that changed. As of 11:59pm that night, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ amended Declaration of Local Disaster for Public Health Emergency shuttered all bars, lounges, and taverns, which included The Rose Room, Station 4 (S4) and its sister venues, JR’s Bar & Grill, Sue Ellen’s, and The Mining Company (TMC), all part of Caven Enterprises.

“It was pretty overwhelming. Drag, show directing, and being one of the Rose Room managers is my life. Everything I do revolves around The Rose Room,” says Cassie Nova (aka James Love), a full-time performer and manager who’s worked in the venue since 1993 and overseen programming as the show director for the past six years (he also met his husband of 17 years there). “If you do drag, it is your dream to someday work on that Rose Room stage.”

Cassie Nova
Cassie Nova | Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice

Though many bars in the city were able to at least briefly reopen before being forced to shut down again, The Rose Room and Station 4, which it occupies, have been closed for nearly six months. Other than the occasional renovation, this is its longest closure ever.

“That is a lot of lives with no income coming in,” says Christine Bengston, On-Site Events Coordinator for Caven, of the dozens of performers, bartenders, and staff at the quintet of LGBTQ venues.

Since 1986, The Rose Room has been synonymous with the Dallas drag scene. Its beginnings inside what was then known as The Village Station were humble and punk -- odds and ends pieced together into something unique and fabulous, a potential metaphor for the performers themselves.

But it wasn't long before young LGBTQ partiers were lined up on its steep, narrow staircase, waiting for a spot at tiny cafe tables or to stand off to the sides to catch a glimpse of the stage. Of course, most of the drag queens didn’t stay there for long. They went directly to the bills being waved by enthusiastic fans, and as a result, visitors felt like part of the show. That tradition has remained the same, even if the venue has not.

With demand from crowds it could no longer safely accommodate, the original space was demolished to make way for a larger incarnation featuring a full-service bar, two dedicated restrooms, an audience capacity of up to 300, and a full stage (big enough for entire casts in plays and musical productions from Uptown Players). 2016 brought yet another makeover with fancy gadgets aplenty, including a massive LED screen at the back of the stage, special effects lighting, smoke machines, professional curtains, and on-demand fans installed specifically to blow a performer's hair in very Beyoncé ways.

The Rose Room stage
Courtesy of The Rose Room

Some may find it surprising that a state as conservative as Texas is home to a major venue showcasing such a decidedly un-conservative artform, but the Dallas drag phenomenon got its boost from good old-fashioned capitalism.

“Honestly, it started with local bar owners paying the drag queens an above-average wage,” says Love. “They appreciated the talent and paid accordingly. When girls in other cities heard what Dallas bars paid, many girls moved here. It drew many talented queens and grew from there."

Drag queens, kings, and gender illusionists of every fathomable description can now be found at spots all around town. On any given day or night of the week pre-Covid-19, you could catch a drag show somewhere in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. From The Round-Up Saloon & Dance Hall and Dallas Woody’s in the gayborhood to nearby Zippers, which ceased operations after being unable to recover from Covid-19-related bar closures, and Marty’s Live, which was shut down by the TABC in late June for not following state protocols for preventing the spread of the virus, drag draws crowds of super-fans and the ever-curious. Drag has found its way to House of Blues in Victory Park, Southside Ballroom in the Cedars, and even restaurants in the suburbs, which now host drag brunches and other drag-centric events.

Asia O'Hara at the Drag Race Season 10 finale
Asia O'Hara is one of a handful of Dallas queens casted on "RuPaul's Drag Race" in recent years. | Courtesy of VH1

Many attribute this to the near-universal popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But other TV shows are breaking barriers, too, including HBO’s makeover show, We’re Here, in which a trio of drag queens enlist locals to don wigs and stage shows in some of the smallest, most ultra-conservative towns across America. Its debut season, however, was abruptly shortened due to the pandemic, mimicking what was taking place in drag venues across the country, including The Rose Room.

To not have this performance space and its shows as an ever-dependable escape from reality is crushing to me and throngs of devoted fans all over the city. But its abrupt disappearance has impacted performers most of all.

“Since I was little I’ve loved to dance and perform, but coming from a Mexican family, taking any dance or acting training was 100% prohibited," says Sasha Andrews (aka Sasha Morua), who started drag at age 18 in San Antonio before being discovered by drag legend Erica Andrews. "I decided to do drag because it was my way of expressing myself on a stage and being who I truly am."

After 18 years, Andrews now makes her livelihood from performing and considers The Rose Room the best stage she's been on. “I definitely didn’t think it was going to be [closed for] this long. It makes it harder and harder each day, especially when performing is your passion and it’s taken away from you after so many years of doing it on a weekly basis. I’ve honestly come to the point that I put on makeup and costumes at home and jam out in my apartment by myself. It’s kind of sad,” she laughs.

The announcement of the shutdown made sense to Jenna Skyy (aka Joe Hoselton), who started drag 15 years ago as a hobby and turned it into a successful side career. Hoselton describes Rose Room shows as highly interactive with the audience, including spontaneous hugs and up-close-and-personal lip-syncing, two aspects that will most certainly disappear for the foreseeable future. But the announcement of the second shut-down of bars the very day The Rose Room was set to reopen was especially tough.

“There was a sense of responsibility [for people’s health], but this time it came with a great deal of sadness,” he said. “Even in a limited capacity, we wanted to perform for our fans and friends and see each other. Knowing that this wouldn't be a 'two week' closure, but very likely something that could take us out the rest of the year, we began to worry about our family -- entertainers and our family that work at our bars and clubs, those in the service industry that suddenly have no income, indefinitely. It's one thing to miss one another and our audience. It's another to worry about survival.”

Jenna Skyy
Jenna Skyy | Courtesy of the Rose Room

In addition to the regular performances being suspended and the lives of numerous Caven employees being impacted, the closure of The Rose Room created a bit of a domino effect, according to Bengston. She says the space is used widely for non-profits. She’s received the cancellation notices for several charity events (including Resource Center’s wildly popular monthly Gaybingo with sell-out crowds) and at least seven drag pageants through the rest of the year.

The recovery will happen, but it may be slow-coming, and nobody knows what the new normal will look like. There are always silver linings though.

Pivoting to Digital Drag Shows (for Now) Is a Life Raft for Performers

“Working for Caven has been a real blessing for our drag queens and performers. We are all employees and not contract labor like most places that hire queens for shows,” Love says. “This really helps when needing proof of income, from buying or renting a home or apartment to filing for unemployment.”

“It's funny how quickly we've all had to adapt to a digital life: grocery shopping, ordering food, communication/meetings. And what's been beautiful is how quickly drag has adapted to a digital stage,” says Hoselton. “Bookings can be hard to come by in Dallas. Competition to get onto a stage has always been fierce, but suddenly with everything closed we all have a stage and an opportunity. I've actually enjoyed watching talent evolve from the comfort of my couch, watching up and coming entertainers seize this opportunity to push their craft to a new medium.”

In most virtual drag shows, performers convert their living rooms into makeshift stages, often with green screens to add fun backgrounds and special effects. Through the video functions on their smartphones or computers, they’re able to chat directly with fans and perform for them over Zoom, Skype, Facebook Live, and Instagram Live, sometimes simulcasting on multiple platforms at once. Shows typically take place weekly and feature multiple performers, though some queens are producing solo revues filled with lip-syncing, dancing, and comedy to showcase their talents for a full hour or so. Because so many are out of work and strapped for cash, most drag queens are presenting their shows for free with virtual Venmo or Cash App tip jars in place for those who can spare a few bucks.

Layla LaRue (aka Rudy Ochoa), a full-time cast member at The Rose Room since 2003, hopes that this experience changes in-person performances for the better when they do finally return.

“I hope they will be more intimate and special,” she says. “Intimate by not so many people at once and special in the way that the show will be appreciated a bit more than before.”

Ways to support performers from The Rose Room and other employees impacted by the shutdowns:

In addition to returning to The Rose Room with enthusiasm (and tip money) when it eventually reopens, there are several other ways to support the employees of Caven Enterprises and its bars, but we also encourage you to seek out similar ways to help the countless number of unemployed people in all the performing arts.

GoFundMe for Caven Employees
This campaign has been active since March and has helped maintain an employee food pantry.

Cassie Nova’s Freakshow
Cassie Nova has taken her regular Monday night show and brought many of her Rose Room cohorts and other local entertainers to her online venue. The show’s a great diversion for those watching and anyone can tip virtually to help support the performers. A Rose Room virtual show is in the works. 

Share videos
Jenny Skyy has another nugget of advice. If you can’t afford to tip, share the videos you see online and maybe somebody else might be able to pitch in a few bucks. Spread the word, spread the love.

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Steven Lindsey is a Thrillist contributor.