Night Crawler

Kings for a Night
"It's a great opportunity to show off the wares, if you know what I mean," says a high-class gangster in a custom suit and wingtips. The smirk in his voice says it's not tailored pants he's talking about, but in case I missed the point, Danny O. steps out of the shadows in the DNA Lounge balcony and indicates, with a suggestive glance, that the "wares" might be in his pants. He runs an expert finger over the brim of his fedora and his smooth boyish face disappears in felt shadow. A photographer passes by and Danny O. is quick to "show some teeth," mugging for the camera as his friends look on.

"Don't worry, babe," he reassures me as he grabs his "dame" -- a curvaceous satin-clad brunette -- by the waist. "I'm just jerking your chain."

It won't be the last time tonight.
According to Pierce A. Dick -- one of the contestants in "Dragstrip" 's third annual Drag King Contest -- drag kings are all about jerking chains. "It's a matter of attitude," says king-lover Shannon Lewis. "Any woman can put on a pair of mechanic's overalls, but it takes balls to make a grease monkey."

In New York City, drag kings have become a requisite element in every nightclub a la mode, largely due to a jocular drag king named Mo B. Dick and a royal nightspot in the East Village called Casanova's. Here in San Francisco, only a few kings -- Elvis Herselvis and Annie Toone among them -- have been able to steal the spotlight from this city's more flamboyant drag queens. And while every club hound in town has heard of "Trannyshack," only a few could name "Club Confidential" or "Misster." That may all change with the arrival of "Throne" -- a monthly event thrown by "Dragstrip" promoter Lu Read "where kings cum." (It's held on the third Thursday of every month in the DNA's VIP lounge.)

Two weeks ago, Mo B. Dick came to "Throne" with an entourage of NYC royalty, and his reception was grand. If tonight's turnout is any indication, kings are coming out of the closet in droves. While there are only eight official contestants, the dance floor is swarming with grease monkeys, gangsters, bikers, hillbillies, leather boys, lounge lizards, Boy Scouts, and more cowboys than you can shake a bullwhip at. To make matters better, there is also an abundance of elegantly dressed ladies -- though not all of them are, technically, ladies.

"It took me a minute," admits Stuart Magole, a 24-year-old engineering major who stumbled into DNA tonight because it looked like the most promising club on the block. "I noticed the women first -- there's a lot of beautiful women in this place. Then I noticed some of the guys are a little short and kind of, um, hippy. I don't usually check out guys too close so it took me a minute in the dark."

Upstairs, Lu Read is posing as Fudgie Frottage -- her gold-toothed alter ego who sports a tremendous free 'fro and a gaudy tux jacket. Longtime drag king documentarian Cloe Atkins snaps off a few pictures for her next book.

"I was one of those kids that was mistaken for a boy throughout my childhood," explains Read. "I'm not a strong believer in the two-sex theory. There's definitely more to it than that."

Onstage, "Daddy" Herselvis (aka Leigh Crow) and co-host Donna Matrix (aka Jordan LaMoore) announce this year's celebrity judges -- a gender-bending collection of kings and queens (and everything in between) that includes tranny artist-in-residence Rodney Austin O'Neill, Vegas sensation Crush Velvet, Swiss pop phenom Lori Naslund as Hans Uber Easy, and DJ Deena Davenport and her "boyfriend" Texas Tomboy in matching pink satin evening wear.

The first contestant, Elvis Aaron Jr., who's wearing tight Levi's and a leather jacket, sings "Heartbreak Hotel" with great aplomb, but he is a tad curvy and the Willie Nelson who sidles up to the balcony railing beside me does not approve. The second contestant, Mr. Arty Fishal, has the stage set with a table, teacups, and a rose before he enters, wearing a gold New Jersey-style lounge suit complemented by pinkie rings, Italian facial hair, and thick-rimmed sunglasses. He is joined onstage by a demure femme in white go-go boots known as Shirley U. Jest (and also known as the very butch Fairy Butch, who runs the CoCo Club's women's cabaret). Fishal's version of "Me and Mrs. Jones" is as campy and as genuine as any rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," but with the added piquancy of masculine vulgarity.

"He's a winner," says a Jim Carroll look-alike (circa 1979). "You can smell it."

Taylor, an imposing biker boy with long hair and a handlebar mustache -- he won "Filthiest King" in 1997 -- performs "Born to Be Wild." Cletus Bushwhacker, a sweet-voiced country bumpkin, performs a traditional folk song dedicated to his honey-lipped gal. Squirrel and Possum -- two gaptoothed trailer-trash losers from somewhere past Concord -- make big points with the help of a well-endowed bikini model, until Squirrel falls off his case of beer and passes out. Laughs aside, the hairy beer bellies and stained T-shirts remind some folks of a part of society that doesn't translate well to SOMA.

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