Article Thumbnail

Drag Queens and Volunteer Firefighters Are Teaming Up to Save Rural America

Meet the troupe spreading the gospel of drag in conservative Western Pennsylvania — bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars to support rapidly dwindling volunteer fire departments and avert a public safety crisis

In the drab bathroom of the Circleville Volunteer Fire Department lounge, Scott Alison is in the throes of a sparkling transformation. His eyes are adorned with icy blue contacts and framed with thick lashes, dramatic contouring and blended purple and blue eyeshadow that sweeps up to his temples as he glues dozens of rhinestones to his head. By day, Alison, 48, works at a dialysis center, but he’s now well on his way to becoming Vivien Le Cher, his Cher-inspired drag persona. “My costuming is like a fishing lure. It literally attracts people,” he explains. 

Tonight, Vivien and her drag sisters Lizza Lips and Sabrina Storm have drawn quite a crowd. The Circleville VFD in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, has cleared out its truck bay to seat 350 people, more than triple what it expects at its regular Friday bingo nights. Doors open at 3:30 p.m. for a 7 p.m. show, which sounds excessive until you absorb the grand scale of the event at hand. A three-course meal (fried chicken with sides, nachos and pizza) plus beer, wine, sheet cake and 10 bingo games are included in the $25 ticket price, with additional raffle tickets and opportunities to win money available for purchase. By 6 p.m., the truck bay is full, and the fire station has a line out the door of people hoping to get a seat for the Sparkling Queens of Drag performance. 

The Sparkling Queens have teamed up with more than a dozen VFDs since their inception in August 2018 to raise an estimated $200,000 for small-town fire departments, with at least nine VFDs inviting the Queens back for a repeat performance. Drag queens and firefighters might seem like unlikely partners, but the Sparkling Queens of Drag have forged a strong relationship with local VFDs that complicates public perception of life in small-town America.

The group features only three performers — Alison’s Vivien Le Cher; Jeffery Kaczynski’s Lizza Lips; and Karl Rice’s Sabrina Storm; as well as their DJ, Jack Carbasho — but they bring with them a cast of almost 10 characters. Some, like Lucille Ball, Cher and Dolly Parton, are evergreen, while others, like Hocus Pocus’ Winifred Sanderson, are seasonal. The Queens began as a creation of the 27-year-old Kaczynski to offer more performance opportunities for drag queens in Western PA’s competitive drag scene. Inherently civic-minded, the group merged their love of performance and charitable work to travel around the region raising money for VFDs during the departments’ extraordinarily well-attended bingo nights, which the Queens have the power to supercharge by turning them into a spectacle capable of raising nearly 20 grand in a single night. 

Bingo is a staple of VFD fundraising, as some VFDs earn nearly all of their annual budget through weekly bingo. It’s also worth noting, as C. Brian Smith previously reported for MEL, that a majority of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers, including almost 97 percent of all firefighters in Pennsylvania. In addition to fighting fires without getting paid, these volunteers are responsible for fundraising almost all of their departments’ operating budget as well. This financial burden, alongside a massive shortage of volunteers, makes for a significant public safety crisis

Similarly of note, many, if not most, of the Sparkling Queens’ drag bingos occur in small towns that are otherwise considered very conservative. More than half of them have been in Westmoreland County, which is older and whiter than both neighboring Allegheny County and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania more largely. Trump won the reliably red Westmoreland County by 29 percentage points. Still, Westmorelandites love their drag bingo. 

The Queens’ consistently warm reception at VFDs is likely due to their two equally important goals: 1) to entertain; and 2) to fundraise. In service of putting on a good show, the queens are charming and approachable, calibrating their usual raunchiness to suit the older, more conservative bingo crowd. They invite the audience to ask whatever’s on their mind and dispel tension with one-liners. (One particular crowd pleaser, in response to the inevitable “Where do you put… it?”: “Well, where would you like it?”) Drag is more mainstream than ever before, too, which probably also helps small-town bingo-goers warm to the Queens, who enjoy the work of spreading the gospel of drag to rural America as informal ambassadors of the LGBTQ community.

When the Queens arrive at the Circleville station at 5 p.m., they settle into the firefighter-lounge-turned-green-room to apply the finishing touches to their makeup. Meanwhile, Byron Rice, the stage manager and Karl’s younger brother who is clad in feathered black angel wings and a halo, ferries in suitcases and garment bags full of costumes, wigs and makeup.

Forty-five-year-old Karl and Alison are blessed with certain natural gifts that make them ideal drag impersonators. Even out of drag, Karl’s face somehow evokes both Lucille Ball and Reba McEntire, and before Scott ever incorporated Cher into his oeuvre, audiences consistently mistook his drag persona for her. Karl’s drag persona, Sabrina, moved to Western Pennsylvania from Washington state by way of Vegas, and is at her best when doing celebrity impressions (from Ball and McEntire to Cyndi Lauper and Liza Minnelli). As for Vivien, she’s a showgirl who prides herself on a fusion of her own style with the glamour of classic drag impersonations like Cher and Lady Gaga. Over six feet tall without heels, she’s statuesque and commanding, dancing vigorously and sometimes incorporating American Sign Language into her act. (Kaczynski, as Lizza Lips, often acts as the host, introducing Sabrina and Vivien before their songs and flirting with firefighters in between sets; their way of life certainly made an impression on him — this fall, Kaczynski became a volunteer firefighter himself.)

Bill Sombo, Circleville VFD’s 60-year-old 1st Assistant Fire Chief, pops in and out of the green room to check on the performers. He’s the chairperson of the event and is thrilled with the turnout. “We’re actually running out of room!” he exclaims. Sombo tells me he saw the Sparkling Queens perform in nearby Elizabeth Township, where he serves as police chief, and suggested at a company meeting that the VFD book the Queens for a show themselves. He says it wasn’t a tough sell to get the rest of the company to sign on, since fundraising help is sorely needed. 

Once their makeup is set, Alison slips into spandex shorts attached to a giant, boxy foam hips and ass, over which he yanks four or five pairs of nude tights until what had initially resembled a couch cushion begins to look fairly human. Karl puts on his nylons first before stuffing foam pallets down into the tights and checking their placement in the mirror. Kaczynski attempts to hold the foam against his side with one hand and pull the tights over it with the other. “There’s a lot of grunting in this part of the show,” Karl remarks dryly. 

Once everyone is squeezed into their nylon shapewear, hands delicately flutter around crotches, presumably confirming everything is properly tucked away. Next, they change into their first costumes and walk out to mingle with the audience. 

A small bachelorette party has claimed the end of one of several long rows of tables, laying down a pink plastic table cloth sprinkled with penis-shaped glitter. The bride-to-be, 28-year-old Alicia, says that although she’s never been to a drag show before, she’s glad her friend bought tickets for tonight and is expecting “extravagancy.” At another table, Dawn is celebrating her 80th birthday by crossing things off her bucket list. She’s recently been zip-lining and skydiving, and now, she’s going to dance with her first drag queen. Dawn asks Vivien how she gets her legs so shapely, and Vivien extols the virtues of nylon and foam padding. “When you see a drag queen, you should be applauding them because of all the pain and work that they have to put in to look like that,” Vivien explains, raising her knee-high booted foot to the seat of a folding chair to better display her thighs.

At the start of the show, Sabrina takes the mic to set the tone for the evening. “My new friends, thank you all for coming — and I hope you have the opportunity of coming again later tonight,” she opens to uproarious laughter. She invites the audience to take pictures and ask questions of the performers as well as offers tips. “If we happen to offend you, what you should do is take a $20 bill, write your name and number on it and put it in my cleavage. Tomorrow I’ll call you up and tell you to get a sense of humor!” 

Each performer lip syncs to three songs with two bingo games following every song to allow the Queens time to catch their breath and change costumes. As each queen sashays between the long rows of plastic tables, audience members swivel in their seats to watch and catch a few seconds of video. Every 20 feet or so, the Queens pause to vogue or dance with an audience member or collect tips, often all at the same time. 

Midway through one of Lizza’s numbers, Dawn’s friend tips her $20 to give Dawn a lap dance. Holding an unlit cigarette in her right hand, Dawn extends her arms to receive Lizza who, in a red bodysuit entirely of fringe and rhinestone, straddles Dawn and begins to gyrate. Lizza leans forward to thrust her spandex-clad breasts into Dawn’s face, and Dawn looks up in quiet amazement. The rest of Dawn’s party howl with laughter while filming the interaction on their phones, as the male friend who paid for the lap dance waves more cash in the air. 

The firefighters, all men, seem more aloof than the rest of the audience, playing along when approached by a queen but not initiating contact themselves. Chad Grabiak, 43, Circleville’s 2nd Assistant Chief, tells me none of the firefighters felt uncomfortable about inviting drag queens to the station, but they thought it wise to check with the church across the street, because they let the VFD use their parking lot for various fundraisers. 

While Grabiak and I talk by the bar, Sabrina glides over as Winifred Sanderson. I step away to let the two of them chat, and when I look back, Grabiak has one of Sabrina’s fake breasts in his hand. “Hey, she gave me her boob!” he shouts. He lifts up his fire department polo shirt and mounts the breast on his own chest while Sabrina describes what it’s like to wear them for an extended time. Grabiak holds the breast ponderously before realizing that a collection of firefighters are giggling behind me as I snap photos. After he, with the boob still under his shirt, poses with Sabrina, he returns the boob to her and suggests some of the other guys join the picture. Blushing, they politely decline, but Grabiak insists. Soon, like a kid with a new toy, Grabiak has arranged for several other firefighters to pose with Sabrina, who is perched on the bar.

The show’s grand finale is always a “boot drive.” Typically, Karl explains to me, some firefighters dance with the Queens and collect donations, which go straight to the fire department, in one of their boots. A gang of six or so firefighters stream into the green room and start stripping off their shirts. Kaczynski had told them they could “wear whatever they want,” thinking maybe they’d put on a few pieces of firefighting gear. But as they strapped into their flame-retardant pants, I realized we were in for a final number less like a Veterans Day parade and more like a burlesque show. 

To the tune of the disco classic “It’s Raining Men,” the firefighters handily upstage the Sparkling Queens, rolling their hips, shimmying their shoulders and waving their arms in the air. The audience loves it, hurling cash and grabbing smartphones to capture the scene. A few of the guys go off on their own to collect tips, but some dance with a buddy, busting out some surprisingly sexual moves. I watch one firefighter jump onto a chair and bend at the waist to shake his ass at another firefighter who grabs the first firefighter by the helmet and thrusts his pelvis in his friend’s general direction.

After the performance, the firefighters are exuberant, high-fiving, hugging and complimenting each other on their moves. Watching them, I realize something’s changed: They’re touching each other. It seems like, in addition to putting on a wild show and raising thousands of dollars for the VFD, the Sparkling Queens have accomplished a third feat: They’ve created a space for Circleville firefighters to try out a different kind of masculinity — to model a fake breast, hang out with drag queens, dance suggestively and show physical affection for their friends. When, at the end of the night, the firefighters pose for a group photo with the Queens, the two groups no longer seem odd together. In fact, Bill Sombo’s already asking the Queens when they can come back.