Tag Archives: drag

A Night at The Max

January 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Here are the town eccentrics, the artists, the kings and queens of drag, those who love to dance and those attempting to hook up. Here are the civilized, but just as often the debauchers and hedonists, the flat-out jerks, and, at certain times, the tittering bachelorette bacchanals and the best and worst of Husker fandom.

This is the Omaha that dies every Monday morning, then rises again on weekend nights. And they flock to a distinct dance club in droves, all of them, proving—contrary to a well-worn blurb The New York Times issued once upon a time—The Max is no longer the place to be on Saturday nights. It’s the place where everyone is on Saturday nights.

And tonight, I am one of them.

“People coming to The Max for the first time think we just recently opened,” says Stosh Moran, one of the club’s staple personalities and partner of owner Bruce Barnard. “There’s a full crew working during the day to keep The Max looking fresh and new. Bruce is constantly ordering new lights and keeping on top of what’s new and trending.”

It’s too dark to tell, but I think I’ve discovered the lekking grounds of an ancient cult. That is, until a strobe flare overpowers a darkness flecked with polychromatic pin spots and lasers. I’m in the disco hall, the club’s most popular room, and a heavy fog of human flesh has been revealed. The air is surprisingly sweet, despite the stagnant humidity generated from perspiring bodies. I move amongst the movement, but I’m not drunk enough yet to dance.

The blast of light expires and a throng of swaying silhouettes returns. A shirtless man tugs at the bulge in another man’s jeans, drawing him in closer. Two women grind arrhythmically as their mouths attempt to meet, and the hands of a middle-aged man trace the curves of a middle-aged woman’s body. The dance floor doesn’t discriminate.

“No funny business, but can I touch your beard?” a young disciple of loosened inhibitions asks. “Just once. Seriously, no funny business.”

“Okay,” I say, because, you know, I’m at The Max, and at what other time can I entertain such an odd request?

As he pets my face, I close my eyes and dissolve into the soundscape, which is loud and hypnotic. “Turn Down For What” segues into a remix of “Baby Got Back” to the tune, or rather rhythm, of “Shots.” My foot inadvertently taps to the chanting of “Butts,” but I’m less entranced by the Top-40 pop of yore than the pulsating kick drum that accompanies every tune. It’s the heart of the club, the bringer of life. The same thump that I had felt under 15th Street as I made my way on foot to the multiplex.

“I remember being shocked by the sheer breadth of it—the multiple rooms, multiple DJs, and endless bars,” says Homorazzi blogger, Nic Opp, who reviewed The Max last year. “I think in the gay communities across North America, we’re more used to seeing the traditional dive bar that we have all mostly grown so fond of. In major cities, you see the bigger spaces as expected, but it was completely unexpected of Omaha as an outsider.”

I retreat to a room called the Arena, which radiates the sensation of slow motion, especially after experiencing the disco hall. Here, the contrast of bright and dark dissolves to an ocher dim. Hip-hop plays at half-volume and half-speed, and a small, esoteric cult pantomimes carnal rhythms on the showroom stage. I’m a convert, but only in spirit, for I’ve found a comfortable spot at the bar. Oh, and more importantly I’ve found God, or a real-life bartender that acknowledges I exist.

This, of course, is not an indictment on the club’s service, but a testament to the capacity they host. And what with the wild pack of rum-thirsty bros roaming the facility at all hours, it’s amazing that anyone gets a drink at all. But The Max gives us all the sort of room we need to find relief from our working lives, whether it be in the main floor lounge, the upstairs billiards lounge, the outdoor garden, the disco hall or the Arena.

“It’s unlike any other environment in Omaha,” says Mike Mogler, who isn’t afraid to take his shirt down a few buttons and leave it all on the dance floor. “It’s a place to be yourself and have as much fun as possible. It’s also the best place to dance in Nebraska!”

Omaha’s Historic 
Drag Scene

December 17, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 2004, The New Yorker published a story entitled “Homecoming Queens.” “Compared with most Midwestern towns,” writes author Mark Singer, “Omaha has an active gay demimonde that’s not so demi.”

Well, it’s been around for a long time, Mark. Take, for example, the Miss Max pageant. Rumored to be the longest-running drag queen title in the United States (though who first said this and where remains to be discovered—still, it’s a nice story to repeat), the pageant is produced every January at The Max on 14th and Jackson. It’s been that way since 1984.

“It’s kind of a coveted title,” says Chad Bugge modestly. He’s Miss Max No. 26 and the recipient of three of Omaha’s biggest drag titles. He won his first, Miss Divine Diva, six years ago, followed it up with a Miss Max win, and finally reigned as Miss Gay Omaha in 2011.

Or, rather, Anna Roxia did. “I started out as Anna Rexia,” Bugge explains, “because I used to be really, really skinny. But Anna Roxia is a little more rocker chick.” Anna is a shock queen with edgy performances to match. She’s been birthed on stage and shaved her head in front of a live audience, all while maintaining a high-level of makeup and body—the pads, hair, and so on. “It’s not beauty,” Bugge says, “not true female impersonation. It’s more of an artistic expression.”

Expression is what drag boils down to and what Omaha has fostered in its gay heart for more than 30 years. For Bugge, drag was the chance to overcome a shy persona and rock some confidence with an alter ego. For Steve Knox, it was about revisiting the allure of theater.

Knox is Miss Max No. 28, the current Miss Gay Omaha, holds a degree in theater, and calls himself Nicolette NuVogue: The Actress of Omaha. “He can probably recite every Miss Max by name and number,” says Bugge with a smile. “Drag is almost romantic for him—when you talk with him, you can see it.”

“If you ask anyone who came to the bars here 30 years ago, they would be talking about the Miss Max of their day. They were the top thing in Omaha their year. Everybody in Omaha knew who they were.”
— Steve Knox

Knox does have a bit of an encyclopedic knowledge of the names in Omaha drag over the years. “If you ask anyone who came to the bars here 30 years ago, they would be talking about the Miss Max of their day,” he asserts. “They were the top thing in Omaha their year. Everybody in Omaha knew who they were. The minute you’re Miss Max, you’re a celebrity in gay Omaha. Reina del Mundo, No. 23…she was 21, nobody knew her. The night the crown went on her head, everybody knew who she was, and it changed her life.”

Each city’s drag scene is different, Bugge says. “In Omaha, it’s very close. We help each other run for pageants, and the formers of all the pageants are a sisterhood. And then there are the families and houses that are all there for each other. And then not having as many bars to perform in, well, we’re all working in the same place.”

But, he adds, it’s becoming less of a stigma for gays, specifically queens, to be in straight bars. He compares the older years of Omaha drag to the pre-WWII years of the geisha. “It was this secretive, artistic performance for the elite,” Bugge says. “After the war, it sort of broke out and became more mainstream. That’s what’s happening right now with drag. Before, a queen would walk down the street, and people would be rude and catcall.”

He adds that negativity still happens, “but now more than anything you get stopped for pictures. The crowds that we get are mostly straight at, like, the casinos. And when I travel out of state, those crowds are mostly straight.”

The fascination with men dressing as women is certainly nothing new. “Drag hails from Shakespeare,” Knox says, matter-of-fact. “Men would go on stage to play women’s roles, and the script would have a note that said Drag. Dressed As Girl.”

Omaha’s drag scene may not quite go back to Shakespeare’s days, but Knox and Bugge are nonetheless proud to add to its history. “You want to share your art with everyone,” Bugge says.

“To be part of the legacy….” Knox shakes his head. “Alexandra Stone, No. 14; Dominique Divamoore, No. 19; The Amazon, No. 17. Those girls are the ones I used to watch and be like, you are so amazing.” He’s still not quite used to younger queens approaching him for advice. “It’s so weird! But it’s a level of respect now. I’ve earned my place in this.”

The Language

Like any subculture, drag has its own vocabulary. Chad Bugge (Anna Roxia) and Steve Knox (Nicolette NuVogue) shed a little light on a few phrases.

Audience whoring. “I don’t audience whore,” Knox says. “That’s when you go into the audience and flirt with the tables to get tips. No. You have to come to me.” Tipping is of course good form, but Knox and Bugge agree that if someone is clearly enjoying the performance, that’s perfectly acceptable. Just don’t try to have a conversation during a queen’s show. “It’s no different than being at a dinner theater,” Knox says.

Bio-drag. When a bio woman or trans-woman performs in traditional drag. “It’s turned into a melting pot,” Bugge says of Omaha’s drag scene. “I can’t speak for other cities, but if you wanna be on stage here, you’re welcome to, you just need to have something to show.”

Fish. The opposite of the old way. “It’s more of a natural girl look,” Bugge says. “Not the huge hair, not the crazy costumes, no body.” The word comes from fishy, as in “something’s fishy about that girl.” The more fish a queen is, the more she looks like a real girl.

Mothers and daughters. A more experienced queen will sometimes take a newcomer under her wing to teach a few tricks of the drag trade. “I’ll answer any questions and occasionally lend some things out,” Knox says. “But don’t lend anything out if you don’t trust them! Queens are shady—you spend two hours backcombing hair, you lend it out, you get it back, and…that’s not what I gave you at all.”

Nationals. These are the big, nationwide pageants, like Miss Gay USofA, Miss Gay America, Entertainer of the Year, Miss Gay United States, and Miss Continental. “Those queens are spending, gosh, over $50,000 for their dress, their package, their talent,” says Knox. “I went to EOY, and these girls were coming out with like Broadway revues.”

The old way. “I consider it the only way,” Bugge says. If a queen follows the old way, she puts on full body along with full makeup. Hip pads, breasts, the nails, the hair—it all goes toward a general polished look of perfection.

Shock queen. “Eye makeup to Jesus,” Knox explains. “Everything is over the top.” Edgy hair, edgy costume, edgy makeup, edgy performance.

Tipping around. “Not performing, just going out in drag,” Bugge explains. It’s a way to get a few supporting fans before trying out for a pageant. “Letting people soak it in, asking who you are. You get a buzz going.”

Unclockable. “Nobody can top what you’re doing,” Bugge says. “You are perfection itself.” In pageants, judges clock every mistake by a contest. “If you got the hemline just right, if there are no loose threads—you’re unclockable.”

Opera Omaha Guild

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1958, a volunteer organization called the Omaha Civic Opera Society took the stage, creating and fostering an opera-loving community in Omaha. After tremendous support, the organization became fully professional in 1970, making Opera Omaha the only professional opera company in Nebraska. As Opera Omaha has expanded its seasons of mainstage productions and increased musical events throughout the community, the company has found constant encouragement in the dedicated, fully volunteer-based Opera Omaha Guild, originally called Omaha Angels when it began in 1967.

The Guild stands behind Opera Omaha each year, raising funds to support its productions, creating outreach opportunities, and educating the community about opera through memberships and events.

“Omaha has a strong fine arts community, and it is so very important that opera continues to play a prominent role,” says Jillian Tuck, current president of the Opera Omaha Guild.

Tuck moved back to Omaha from Fort Worth, Texas, a few years ago and found that she wanted to support the arts in her former community. “I had been involved with a Fort Worth Opera volunteer group, so I decided to seek a similar opportunity here in Omaha.” Luckily for Tuck, the Opera Omaha Guild had just what she was looking for—a passion for opera and activities and social events that were accessible.

“Omaha has a strong fine arts community, and it is so very important that opera continues to play a prominent role.” – Jillian Tuck, president of Opera Omaha Guild

As president of the Guild, Tuck presides over the Guild meetings, appoints committee chairpersons, and serves as an ex-officio member of all Guild committees. “The Opera Omaha Guild is a working board with committee chairs and volunteers bringing the effort, organization, and energy behind all of the events. They are the reason for our success.”

Tuck loves opera and says that being in the Guild has allowed her to share that love with other people every day. Recently, she had the opportunity to talk about her passion at the Guild’s Cotillion graduation dinner. The Cotillion—French for “formal ball”—is one of the Guild’s fundraisers and provides the opportunity for Omaha sixth-graders to learn the art of formal dining, mature communication, and ballroom dancing through several classes and a final graduation dance.

Because the Cotillion supports Opera Omaha, Tuck knew she could reach out to a younger generation about opera. “Speaking to adults about opera can be challenging because they often have preconceived notions, [but] speaking to 300+ sixth-graders and their parents was something I found inspirational.” In her five-minute speech, Tuck felt she was able to open the door to an art that most of the children had never experienced. “I believe that opera truly is for everyone to enjoy throughout a lifetime, and creating young opera fans through the sharing of my own love for opera is something I will always cherish.”

Funnily enough, it was the Cotillion that got President-elect Lisa Hagstrom involved with the Guild. “I was in the first Cotillion class that Opera Omaha conducted in 1985,” she explains. “I had been looking for volunteer opportunities within the arts community and had attended a couple fundraising events for Opera Omaha. [Since then], I have been involved with the Guild as a board member for 10 or 11 years.”

“The great thing is that nearly 100 percent of all money raised [at Spirits of the Opera] goes back to Opera Omaha.” – Lisa Hagstrom, president-elect of Opera Omaha Guild

Hagstrom helps with several of the Guild’s events, including the Cotillion; the annual Opera Omaha Gala, which was held in February this year to celebrate the partnership of Opera Omaha and artist Jun Kaneko for the production The Magic Flute, one of Mozart’s most famous operas; and the currently on-hiatus Burgers & Bordeaux chef competition event.

The Guild’s most notable event, however, is the award-winning Spirits of the Opera fundraiser, which replaced an event called Wine Seller. “Wine tastings became a very popular fundraising idea for many groups, so we thought a cocktail tasting would be something different,” explains Hagstrom. “The first year of [Spirits of the Opera], we matched cocktails with operas, and attendees tasted eight different cocktails. It was a fun event, but it was lacking ‘something,’ and we just didn’t know what that was.”

Fortunately, the president of the executive board for Opera Omaha at that time, Jim Winner, found exactly what that “something” was while he was eating at Dixie Quicks, a Southern comfort food restaurant in Council Bluffs. One of the well-known Dixie Quicks servers, Bruce “Buffy” Bufkin, suggested to Winner that the Guild include a drag show as entertainment at the event.

Today, Spirits of the Opera is a drag show set to opera with the performers singing popular arias and other opera selections of their choice. The event is held at local hot-spot The Max, which is known as the best gay dance club in Omaha. The Max donates its space for the event, and all of the performers donate their time and talents. “It is an amazing experience,” says Tuck. “It blends the classical arias of well-known operas with some of the region’s most talented female impersonators.” In addition to the drag show, the event has the themed cocktails, silent and live auction opportunities, a raffle, and food from local restaurants, including Dixie Quicks.

Drag performers from the 2012 Spirits of the Opera event.

Drag performers from the 2012 Spirits of the Opera event.

“The great thing is that nearly 100 percent of all money raised goes back to Opera Omaha,” adds Hagstrom, who went out to Philadelphia last June to receive the Most Unique Fundraising Event award for Spirits of the Opera, presented by Opera Volunteers International.

As the Guild looks forward to this year’s Spirits of the Opera in May and further into 2013, Tuck says their goals remain the same. “[We just want] to support Opera Omaha and provide opportunities to educate the community about the importance and joy of opera.”

This year’s Spirits of the Opera will be held May 4 at The Max (1417 Jackson St.). For more information about the event or about the Opera Omaha Guild, visit operaomaha.org or call 402-346-7372.