Night Crawler

Noblesse Oblige
“I've been seeing drag queens everywhere,” says Felicity Southern, a Potrero Hill resident with an eye for detail and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. “I've seen them riding through town on big buses, eating in restaurants, boarding ferries, shopping for jewelry. Everywhere I go: queens. It's like a convention or something.”

Of course, no well-bred drag queen worth her weight in taffeta would attend something so vulgar as a convention. Balding businessmen in ready-made suits attend conventions; queens attend coronations. And this is the 33rd annual Coronation Week.

In the early '60s, when police harassment was still commonplace in San Francisco's Castro District, no one figure was more identified with the fight for tolerance and acceptance than beloved entertainer and community activist Jose Sarria, who, in 1961, became the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in the United States. In 1965, Sarria was honored by local merchants and luminaries with the title of “Queen of the Ball.” Not surprisingly, the title was not regal enough for Sarria; upon accepting the crown, she proclaimed, “I have always been a queen. Now, I am Empress!” The crowd was much impressed.

This sort of edict, however, was not new to San Francisco. For those not familiar with the story, in 1859 a well-respected businessman who had lost his fortune and his sanity during the gold rush sent a similar proclamation to a local newspaper. Henceforth, he wrote, Joshua Abraham Norton would be known as Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Even in the 1800s, San Franciscans loved the ludicrous, and very soon the Emperor Norton had an entourage who carried his coattails and swept the streets before his royal feet; commoners bowed and his signature was worth gold. When he dropped dead of a heart attack on the corner of California and Grant in 1880, Emperor Norton's became the largest funeral procession ever seen in the City by the Bay.

Inspired, Jose Sarria proclaimed herself Empress I the Widow Norton, wife of the late great Norton I, and the Imperial Court System of San Francisco was born. There are now 67 courts throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada, and newly formed courts in England and Germany.

While it's essentially a fund-raising institution, elegant attire and royal protocol within the Empire is no joke. In order to form a court, a letter must be sent to the Widow Norton — who, at age 75, still oversees her empire with great care and humor. A delegate from the Imperial Council is chosen to supervise the petitioner. If approved, the potential court becomes a principality for two years, during which time it must raise funds for charities before being elevated to Empire status.

Each court has its own knights, ladies in waiting, prince regents, solicitor generals, and so on. The reigning empress and emperor, who are chosen by public vote, may make two appointments during their rule. Lifetime titles must be approved by the Imperial Council, and only the Widow Norton can name blood relations (she now has one granddaughter and two grandsons). A Board of Heir Apparents has been established to take over all supreme royal duties upon the death of Widow Norton.

During Coronation Week, titles are elevated, a new emperor and empress are chosen by vote, and foreign courts come to pay their respects to the “old lady” who started it all. “She's a legend,” says Marlena, Absolute 25th Empress of All San Francisco, giggling. “In her own mind.”

At the Gift Center during Coronation 1998, the Widow Norton wears a stately floor-length gown and an imperial crown. There are well over a thousand people in attendance and the hall is an ocean of glittery tiaras, crowns, robes, capes, satin gowns, ermine cloaks, and velvet heels. Page boys rush from table to table, checking on their royal guests, and hundreds of visiting dignitaries approach the Widow Norton to kiss her signet ring and bow at her feet. She smiles for countless photos and accepts small offerings of goodwill with the grace and patience required of royalty. Onstage, the reigning Emperor and Empress of All San Francisco, Jacques Michaels and Veronda Lanai of the Full Moon Court of Gothic Glamour, welcome the visiting courts — a gem-gilded, gift-bearing, lip-syncing procession that lasts nearly five hours.

The courts take their seats while the candidates for 33rd Emperor and Empress of All San Francisco offer exhibitions of song and dance for the amusement of all. Popular favorites — Fred Lewis, whose ultrahip rendition of Chumbawamba's top-10 hit “Tubthumping” is tsk-tsked by traditionalists, and Alexis Miranda, whose hair is worthy of Beach Blanket Babylon — are given monetary approval by the crowd. After the reigning emperor and empress take their final walk — also in the form of lip-sync routines and monetary offerings — Lewis and Miranda are crowned.

“I think this is a marriage made in heaven,” says Widow Norton of the first Latina empress and her club-savvy emperor. “They've already gotten off to a great start. They're very cordial with one another, which is important because they'll be working together all year, representing us at foreign coronations, and they're both very well-spoken. Joshua must be looking down upon us.”

After a week of activities and nearly eight hours of ceremony, the Widow Norton seems exhausted. Still, she looks forward to Sunday, when the courts will make their annual pilgrimage to Colma to visit the Emperor Norton's grave site. “I consider them all my children,” says Widow Norton. “Some of them are very sick, but they come out on Sunday to pay their respects. It makes an old lady proud.”

The Imperial Court recently purchased a plot adjacent to Emperor Norton's burial place, where the Widow Norton will be laid to rest underneath a grand stone that reads: United we stand, divided they'll catch us one by one. The Emperor Norton would approve.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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