Chez Gisele Is Born
(A novel excerpt from from I ♥ Gigi)
by Dennis Ward
Chez Gisèle’s entrance door creaked open and three scrawny young men tiptoed into the bar. Gigi read fear on their faces. As if a hungry bear was going to jump out of the shadows and eat them alive any second.
“Come on in boys,” Gigi said with spirit. “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”
The timid young men gradually edged forward as if an invisible rope bound them together. All three sported bellbottom jeans and wore their hair in the current style of the Beetles’ shaggy haircuts. The blond leader of the group overcame his shyness and sashayed into the bar waving hot-pink, painted fingernails in the air. Gigi found the three gay twinks adorably cute and seated them near the jukebox on the opposite end of the bar away from some fat businessmen, who cast award-winning dirty looks in the direction of the gay boys.
“Are we welcome here?” asked Pink-Painted Nails. “Most places on Jefferson Street rudely ask us to leave or throw us out.
“There was that time you dated that cop and lost your underwear in the bushes” Pink-Painted Nail’s friend divulged.
“I don’t think the nice lady wants to hear about that!” Pink-Painted Nails said sharply, gouging her pink talons deeply into the flesh of her friend’s arm.
“I have only one rule in my bar,” Gigi said with a serious expression on her face, her large china blue eyes flashing. The three gay boys sat in rapt attention as if they were before a gestapo commandant. “At the end of the night, I want you to leave my bar having had the best time ever!”
The gay boys fell in love with Gigi at that moment, bursting with wide grins and laughter.
“I’m Gigi, the owner of Chez Gisèle.”
Pink-Painted Nails smoothed his blond bangs in the mirror before he spoke.
“My name is Princess Love and these two whores are Lucy and Ethyl.”
“She doesn’t like anyone to know her real name is Dick Burns,” Ethyl said.
“Speaking of burns, your face looks like it caught fire and somebody tried to put it out with a hammer,” Princess Love roared back.
Gigi knew there would be hair, teeth and eyeballs flying through the air if she didn’t quickly change the subject.
“It’s time for a joke,” Gigi said blithely. “What’s the difference between Spanish and Irish gay guys?”
The gay boys pondered the riddle, but shrugged their shoulders.
“Spanish gays are señor-eaters and Irish gays are gay-licks.”
Princess Love laughed so hard she almost toppled off her bar stool and had to be rescued by Lucy and Ethyl, who were shrieking with laughter that sounded like a convention of baboon hyenas.
“Hey, Miss Gigi, where’re you from?” asked Princess Love. “I love your accent.”
“I’m from Paris,” Gigi said. “The city of lights—gay Paris.”
“I speak French,” Princess Love said. “Toute ma famille parle français Cajun.”
Gigi and Princess Love began a long conversation in French. She became engrossed chatting with the queens and didn’t see the fat businessmen leaving the bar. As soon as they were outside, one turned to the other and huffed.
“Damn queers! They’re taking over!”
Gigi brought the gay boys another round of drinks and at the same time told them a joke.
“What did the termite say when he entered the bar?” asked Gigi, smiling at three blank faces. “Is the bar tender here?”
The three queens sat dumbfounded for a moment, but then Princess Love caterwauled in glee.
“Is the bar TENDER here?” Princess Love explained to Lucy and Ethyl. “Termites eat wood. Duh!”
For Gigi, the night passed quickly entertaining the gay boys and it was soon closing time. They had laughed and told funny stories until their sides ached.
“Gigi, I don’t remember when I’ve had so much fun,” Lucy said. “Chez Gisèle is our new found paradise.”
Gigi escorted the boys to the door and bid them goodnight.
“Miss Gigi, we’ve laughed so much my laugh muscles are numb,” Princess Love said.
“She’s numb from the neck up,” Lucy said.
“I’m sure I soiled my tidy whities,” admitted Ethyl, adjusting his crotch.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” the gay boys promised. “You can bet we’ll be on the phone tomorrow to spread the word about Chez Gisèle.”
“That one knows all the queens in Lafayette because she’s slept with them all,” Lucy said, pointing at Princess Love.
“Why you little bitch!” Princess Love slurred, staggering out the front door.
The next evening, Princess Love strutted into Chez Gisèle dressed like a Las Vegas hooker drowning in a vat of tie dye, wearing skin-tight, hot-pink stretch pants, orange platform shoes, a chartreuse day-glow tank top, and a large silver peace chain. A silk purple scarf and a cheap dime store perfume trailed in her wake.
“What did I tell you?” Princess Love said. “My Lafayette girlfriends will make Chez Gisèle the most popular gay bar from New Orleans to Houston
“Merci beaucoup, Princess Love,” Gigi said.
“I’m the lucky one,” Princess Love cooed. “Thanks to promoting Chez Gisèle, I’ve never had so many dates in all my life.”
“Mary, you better hurry down to the VD clinic and get an industrial-size shot of penicillin in that skinny little chicken ass of yours,” Ethyl hissed. “I heard your screams coming from the restroom.”
“I probably caught it from you,” Princess Love snarled. “You’ve been entered more times than the front door Walgreens.”
A week later, the word had spread in the gay community and Chez Gisèle was full every night. The overflow crowd spilled outside onto the sidewalk and many had to stand in long lines, attracting the attention of passing cars. Downtown Lafayette had never seen anything like Chez Gisèle and tongues began to wag furiously.
A white Rambler sedan with two prim ladies passed Chez Gisèle on a scouting mission for the Ladies of Perpetual Endurance, a group whose mission was steadfastly devoted to the proliferation of guilt and suffering. If the members could not find hardship and misery, they created some.
The Rambler passed so slowly a stray dog overtook the car. Even though it was a hot summer evening, the car windows were rolled up and the doors locked tight.
“I heard all those men get naked and have sex with each other,” one thin-lipped woman nattered to her friend.
“Quick! Drive around the block,” her friend said, gawking. “I haven’t seen any naked men yet.”
“Get a grip, Maud,” the thin-lipped woman snarled. “When I get home, I’m calling Pogey Moity. He’s our man to shut that bar for freaks down!”
Gigi was busier than ever and knew she needed a high-quality, professional bartender. She envisioned someone who dressed and carried the image of the upscale French Quarter bars. She decided she would call her old friend, Martin LeMayle and beg him to come to work for her. Martin had tended bar at the Turf Lounge in Lake Charles for Gigi in the past, but she would have to sweeten the deal for him to agree to drive the seventy-five mile commute to Lafayette.
A few days later, Princess Love entered the bar and introduced Gigi to three high-heeled ladies covered in fake furs and rhinestone jewels down to their open toe shoes. The air contained cumulus clouds of bargain brand, drug store perfumes.
“Gigi, this is Miss Marie.” She wore a mini dress so short her red panties with the yellow daisies peeked out when she curtsied.
“This is the lovely Miss Doo.” She waved and offered Gigi a friendly smile.
“Last, but not least, this is Miss Fancy Fontenot,” Princess Love said, finishing the introductions.
Miss Marie pretended to blow royal trumpet fanfare notes. Miss Fancy turned her head indifferently, continuing to powder her nose and exhale a long sigh as if she would collapse on the floor and die of boredom any second. Gigi had known drag queens with attitude in her time, but Miss Fancy exuded high-maintenance with a diva attitude to boot. Oh, well, that was part of being a drag queen, but she had the feeling that this one was going to be Miss Hurricane Fancy.
“Ooh là là, you all look fabulous,” Gigi said.
“They’re professional entertainers,” Princess Love said proudly. “They’ve been headliners at The Red Garter Show Bar in Pensacola.
“We want to perform here, Miss Gigi,” Miss Marie chirped, wearing a shoulder length, aqua-marine wig. “We’ve played every rat hole—I mean gay cabaret nightclub from Pensacola, Florida to New Orleans.”
“But I don’t have a stage,” Gigi countered. “Where would you perform?”
“We don’t need much room to do our routines,” Miss Doo said, fluffing her giant afro-wig.”
“We’ll do our first show for tips and a bar tab,” Miss Fancy said, pasting down a blond curl with a bit of spit on her elegant bouffant wig.”
“I love your auburn hair, Miss Gigi,” Miss Doo said. “Is it a wig?”
“No, it’s all mine,” Gigi said, laughing.
Gigi liked these girls; they would certainly liven up the bar, even with Miss Fancy Smancy’s royal attitude. Gigi thought of the stories her grandfather use to tell her about performing with female impersonators at the Folies Bergère in Paris. She unconsciously twisted the Star of David necklace in her fingers and received a good feeling about these girls. Chez Gisèle would certainly benefit and who knew what the future might hold in store, a larger bar was her dream.
“If you think you can manage to put on a show in this tight little bar, I’m happy to have you perform,” Gigi said, smiling. “Welcome to Chez Gisèle.”
Every hour of every day for the next two weeks, the drags practiced their routines. Most of the straight office workers enjoyed watching the drags rehearse during their lunch hour, but for others it was too much to see men dressed-up in women’s clothes for no good reason and they stormed out of the bar. “It’s July,” a hatch-faced woman complained. “It’s not even close to Halloween or Mardi Gras.”
Gigi was unfazed about those who disapproved and was excited about the grand opening night, planning all the details right down to the cocktail napkins. She took a gamble and invested money she really didn’t have in a new sound system and spotlights. The new speakers cost more than her monthly rent, but set on full amplification could blow down a wall. Everything was in place and the special night had finally arrived. The drags setup a dressing room in the ladies toilette, triggering a few gay gals to snipe a little.
“I not sitting down to pee with a guy in a dress on my lap,” groused one girl with a butch haircut.
Early in the evening, something told Gigi the show was going to be a big hit with her customers. She had procured the services of her long-time bartending friend, Martin LeMayle, and when the gay boys saw Martin’s handsome chocolate face dressed in his smart white jacket, the queens swooned. Martin was straight, but never had any problem working in a gay bar.
“Miss Gigi, don’t spread this around, but I secretly like the attention I receive from them,” Martin confessed. When the gay boys stuffed Martin’s pockets with sizable tips, their wandering hands attempted to explore his nether regions.
“Oh, Martin, do you ever do COCKtails with the boys?” Princess Love inquired, undulating by his side.
“Beau Martin, I have a secret place just waiting to be filled by your love,” said a curly-headed boy with soft brown eyes, panting.
“Steady, Mary, before we have to hose you down,” said his friend.
Martin would just laugh, keeping everything above board and on a professional level. Gigi knew he was worth his weight in gold for business.
By eight o’clock, the bar was already full of queens—a van load had driven as far away as Arkansas. The gay boys had beaten the tom-toms and word had spread about the new drag show like a forest wildfire. The show was christened, “Eleganza.” Miss Marie conceived the name in a gin-soaked moment, which was derived from the words elegant and extravaganza.
By nine o’clock, Gigi could not believe the bar was a crush of people filling every square inch of the bar. Fifty to hundred people, mostly men, stood outside the bar. Some paid small fortunes to insiders to take their places in the sea of people. The fire marshal appeared and informed Gigi the bar was exceeding legal capacity and some people would have to leave or the bar would be closed.
On the sidewalk, Gigi apologized profusely to a few angry, indignant customers, but told them it was out of her control. She had trays of free drinks brought outside and the generous gesture seemed to smooth the ruffled feathers on their boas.
Inside, Diana Ross and the Supremes were singing Baby Love, and the air dripped of the humidity of the Florida Everglades and the heat of the Sahara desert. Most of the boys had stripped to the waist, and a few immodest boys pranced around in their sweat-soaked underwear. In dark corners, lusty Olympians were groping each other behind the potted palms, hidden by the sea of bodies.
Outside, across the street from the bar, a tubby man sat in a long, sleek black Cadillac, writing notes and flashing photos. Earlier, he had captured a picture of Gigi dressed in a one-piece leopard cat suit and stiletto heels serving drinks to the group of queens on the sidewalk. Most of the customers were dressed casually and could have blended into any public place, but a few guys had dressed in revealing, skin-tight, white jeans split open on the sides up to their thighs. At the sight of naked male flesh, the tubby man in the Cadillac fumed hateful words.
“Those fucking freaks disgust me!” he snarled. “They should be jailed for public nakedness. I’m not having it! This house of weirdos is gonna be closed down.”
At the same moment, Gigi was squeezing into the minuscule lady’s restroom, improvised as the drag queen’s dressing room, and found Miss Marie, Miss Doo, and Miss Fancy in various stages of undress, and their make-up running down their faces faster than they could re-apply it.
“The Eleganza Show was supposed to begin over forty-five minutes ago,” Gigi said, zipping up Miss Marie’s dress. “What’s the problem?”
Towering over Gigi, Miss Fancy swung around with her hands firmly planted on her hips.
“If you haven’t noticed, Gigi, it’s only about one hundred-fifty degrees in here,” Miss Fancy wailed. “There’s more moisture under my girdle than the Gulf of Mexico.”
“I’m sorry,” Gigi said. “What can I do to help?”
“You can begin by helping me find my lost blue pump,” Miss Doo said, standing in one blue pump and a hosed bare foot. “I’ve been looking for that pump in this Hiroshima bombed out mess for over an hour.”
Like a bloodhound dog, Miss Doo frantically dug through piles of clothes and drag bags on the trail of the lost blue high-heel.
Gigi did a quick survey of the restroom and then looked down at her own feet. She made the decision quickly and without thinking twice. She removed her heels and slipped them on Miss Doo’s feet. Luck was on her side—the pumps fit perfectly.
“Thanks, Gigi,” Miss Doo said, holding Gigi’s hands. “Give us five more minutes and then announce the show.”
Gigi pressed her way through the hot, sweaty crowd and asked the boys to step back and make room for the drag show. The crowd was restless and many started chanting, “Eleganza now!” “Eleganza now!” but complied with Gigi’s request.
Gigi gave the signal to Wesley Boudreaux, who focused the spotlight and turned on the intro music. Miss Marie had chosen the popular theme song from the Peter Gunn Show. When the hot, dramatic music filled the bar, Miss Marie, Miss Doo, and Miss Fancy appeared, radiant and smiling, to thunderous applause.
Gigi introduced the show, standing barefoot and holding a microphone in hand.
“Madames and Messieurs, direct from the Red Garter Show Bar in Pensacola, Florida, I give you the lovely ladies of the Eleganza Show!”
A deafening roar erupted. Hoots, screams and applause echoed down Jefferson Street a block away. The tubby man in the long, sleek black Cadillac hit the gas pedal, narrowly missing a queen crossing the street in her glitter-green platform shoes. A talon-nailed fist shook in the air and a few expletives and curses were hurled at the driver as the car trailed exhaust and pealed around the corner.
Inside the furnace-hot club, the drags performed their opening number: Dancing in the Streets by Martha and the Vandellas. Everybody in the club danced along and lean, smooth, rippled boys swung their shirts over their heads.
Miss Marie broke away from Miss Doo and Miss Fancy and was boost onto the bar top by the audience. Dancing in her white leather go-go boots, she fluffed her straight, aqua marine wig from shoulder to shoulder as she shindigged down the bar, shimmy-shaking and high-stepping and sidestepping customer’s drinks. At the end of the bar, she backed up and did a perfect cartwheel forward, flipping off the bar into the arms of two strong shirtless musclemen. The crowd went into a frenzy of cheering and applause. Miss Marie’s aqua-marine blue wig covered her eyes, but a muscleman’s strong hand parted her straight hair. She lingered against his naked chest a few moments too long.
Miss Doo followed the opening number with a rendition of Judy Garland’s Somewhere over the Rainbow from the movie classic The Wizard of Oz. There wasn’t a dry eye in the beery, vodka-soaked crowd until special effects of thunder, lightning and wind blew Miss Doo off the floor. The wind machine blew Princess Love’s floppy blond bangs straight up in the air.
“Princess Love, you look like you just saw the ghost of James Dean,” Lucy shouted.
The drags reunited to sing the lively, popular song Mr. Lee by the Bobbettes. The gay boys started clapping their hands and tapping their toes to the lively song. Miss Marie swigged a bottle of vodka and loudly hiccupped to match a similar sound effect in the song’s chorus. Whether it was staged or real made no difference as the gay boys and girls doubled over in hilarity each time a hiccup was produced.
Miss Fancy lip-synced Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin, wrapping Miss Doo and Miss Marie in real chains and dragging the girls behind her around the bar while they sang back-up. Miss Fancy enjoyed the skit too much, savoring the opportunity to be a dominatrix.
Miss Marie snagged a cute boy in a white dress shirt to sing Lipstick on My Collar by Connie Francis. The young man was a good sport and gave a hefty tip to Miss Marie, even though he was left with a red lipstick stain on his white shirt and a trip to the dry cleaners.
At the end of the Eleganza Show, the audience wouldn’t stop clapping and calling for an encore number. A half-dozen, shirtless men carried Miss Marie, Miss Doo and Miss Fancy on their shoulders around the bar and placed the new stars onto the bar where they performed Lady Marmalade by Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells. Gigi was not forgotten. The musclemen lifted her onto the bar as well, and she linked arms with the girls in uniform kick step, dancing and singing voulez-vous couchez avez moi, ce soir. It was a memorable moment as the crowd joined in the singing. The evening established Chez Gisèle as the premier gay destination from Houston to New Orleans. On the sizzling, hot night of July 1968, Gigi was christened the queen of the queens.
Dennis Ward is a writer living in Opelousas, Louisiana. Presently, his historical novel Mademoiselle Gigi is being published, and he is writing the sequel Chez Gigi. Three of my personal essays, Higgins Lake, Planet Claire, and Desperate Living have been published this year in the Grey Wolfe Publishing Journal, Legends. This story is an excerpt from Chez Gigi, based on his play, Chez Gisele, about how a French lady (pictured) began the first gay cabaret nightclub in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1968. The play is being produced in Lafayette March 27-April 11 at Cite des Arts Theater and then moves to the professional stage at the New Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 2015.