by Anthony Glassman
Cleveland Heights--As National Coming Out Day swept across Ohio on October 11, events in Cleveland Heights, Cleveland and Dayton exemplified the spirit of the day.
Thirty students from Oberlin College volunteered to help Heights Families for Equality with their voter education drive leading up to the November 4 elections. On the ballot will be a domestic partner registry issue brought about through a petition drive organized by HFE.
The canvassing was a Coming Out Day project for the students, who were encouraged to bring heterosexual friends with them.
�It went really well,� said HFE spokesperson David Caldwell. �It was a great pleasure to have so many people we couldn�t fit in our office. It was inspiring, looking out over so many people at the canvassing training.�
Caldwell said that the group had identified over 200 more supportive voters during the drive, but would not know the exact number until the data entry from the canvass was finished.
Nearby, at the Western Reserve Historical Society, University of Illinois at Chicago professor of history and gender and women�s studies John D�Emilio moderated a panel discussion on oral history.
The day before, D�Emilio had presented a lecture at Case Western Reserve University on queer history. The professor has written numerous books on the subject, including his most recent, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.
D�Emilio was the first director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a position that, combined with his academic work, gives him a unique perspective on the state of the nation.
�Even though we�re living in the most conservative and reactionary time in the last 100 years, there�s more mainstream integration of lesbian and gay issues in society,� D�Emilio said in an interview before the panel. �I think that turn really started in �92 and �93, with gay issues in the presidential debate. It was a turning point in liberal awareness of anti-gay oppression.�
�It�s become part of who we are as Americans that queer life has become part of the social fabric,� he continued.
D�Emilio is not surprised that the issue of gay marriage has united some black religious leaders with white conservative Christians, but pointed out that African American political leaders have been very supportive of gay issues. He pointed out that the Black Congressional Caucus has a more uniformly pro-gay voting record than female members of Congress or even the Democratic Party as a whole.
Not all of the events going on for National Coming Out Day were as serious, though.
In Dayton, the Celebrity show bar held a Being Out Rocks party, featuring informational tables and drag performances. The event benefited the Dayton Lesbian-Gay Center.
Dallas--A week before an emergency session of worldwide leaders of the Anglican Communion, schismatic members of the far-right wing of the Episcopal church met from October 8 to 10.
The �A Place to Stand� conference, organized by the American Anglican Council, drew roughly 2,700 to Dallas. The meeting was a reaction to the Episcopal Convention�s approval in August of Canon Gene Robinson, an openly gay cleric, as bishop of New Hampshire.
There has also been unrest in the conservative wing of the church because of the General Convention�s decision to allow gay commitment ceremonies. The convention did not, however, establish rites for the ceremonies.
The Episcopal Church U.S.A. is the Anglican denomination in the United States.
The conference released �A Call to Action,� a document requesting that the primates, or leaders, of the worldwide Anglican communion discipline the American church and �guide the realignment� of the church in North America.
In early August, Robinson�s appointment was approved by just over the required two-thirds of the lay delegates and 62 of the 107 delegates to the House of Bishops, where a simple majority was needed.
Since then, conservative forces in the United States have been joined by Anglican leaders from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia in decrying the move, which the schismatics call �unbiblical.�
�We direct our financial resources, to the fullest extent possible, toward biblically orthodox mission and ministry, and away from those structures that support the unrighteous actions of the General Convention,� the �Call to Action� states.
The �biblically orthodox� ministry might be that of African churches like the one in Nigeria, where Primate Peter Akinola severed relations with a Canadian diocese after its decision to bless same-sex commitment ceremonies. Akinola, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of modernization attempts in the church, warned his parishioners to prepare for a split with the more Eurocentric churches, which are responsible for 80% of the worldwide Anglican communion�s funds.
�We are mindful of the backlash this strong stand can engender from the rich churches in Europe, America and Canada, who have long used their wealth to intimidate the financially weak churches in Africa,� he said. �Our boldness in condemning the spiritual bankruptcy of these churches must be matched by our refusal to receive financial help from them.�
Anglican branches in developing countries were started by missionaries following the route of the expansion of the British Empire, and many still adhere to the strictures brought by those missionaries centuries ago. A notable exception is South Africa, wealthier than many of its neighbors and far more progressive socially.
Rev. Winston Njongonkulu Ndungane, the primate of Southern Africa and Archbishop of Cape Town, said that religious dogma on sexuality is allowing AIDS to decimate the continent. He urged his fellow Anglican leaders to look beyond the issue of gay priests and do more to fight AIDS and stop the warfare that is tearing apart Africa.
There were three main options for the schismatic conservatives going in to the primates� emergency session in London, which ended after press time this week. The first option would be for them to establish a separate branch of the Anglican communion in America. A second option would have �flying bishops� serving congregations in many dioceses that wish to distance themselves from the more liberal main body of the church. A final option would have them aligning themselves fully with a more conservative church, like the Nigerian one.
The third option would appeal the most to Akinola and his associates, since some of the backers of the American Anglican Council and related organizations are wealthy arch-conservatives who advocate a �Christian� takeover of the United States. These include Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. of California, who inherited the fortune his father retained when his Home Savings and Loan went bankrupt in the 1980s.
In their �Call to Action,� the AAC-led right wing expressly mentions extending bishops� authority across traditional diocesan lines, which would cause a major upheaval in the church�s structure. Currently, the different branches of the church and those branches� dioceses are organized geographically.
That faction may also try to take over the Episcopal Church, to have themselves declared its stewards. This would cast the current leadership as the schismatics, a tactic already employed in the AAC�s statements.
According to Katie Sherrod of the Episcopal Women�s Caucus, that might help them claim church property, but would not guarantee it. Each diocese holds the property in trust for the national organization, so there are numerous claims to the property that can be deemed valid.
�Once you get into court, everything gets more complicated,� Sherrod noted, since then state laws can come into play as well as church canonical law.
She does, however, believe that the schismatics are being hypocritical in their arguments, especially when they bemoan the church turning its back on the beliefs of branches in the developing nations.
�They�re just a group of privileged white men behaving badly,� she said. �It�s not going to be easy, and that�s what is so sinful. They�re guaranteeing that money that would have gone to mission work will go to attorneys.�
Conservative forces have threatened schism in the Anglican Communion before, most recently over the issue of ordaining women. They did not make good on their threats then.
More progressive forces in the Anglican Communion, like Rev. Colin Slee, dean of Southwark Cathedral in London, believes that the conservatives are being hypocritical, noting that they object to homosexuality but not to divorce and remarriage, which he says is clearly against scripture.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the nominal head of the denomination worldwide, is being forced to walk a rather fine line. While he is personally fairly progressive, he must also appease the more conservative forces within his own church.
Unlike the Catholic Church, where the pope is regarded as the infallible central power of the church, the Archbishop of Canterbury is considered to be �primus inter pares,� first among equals, on par with the other primates in the Communion. Observers believe he may have to chastise the American church to keep the branches in developing nations from separating, although he and the other primates lack much authority over the Episcopal church.
Films, vigil and cabaret mark Out in Akrons return
Akron--In commemoration of National Coming Out Day October 11, the Out in Akron festival resumed with a full program following last year�s hiatus.
The nationally-known event, which features activities running October 4-19, is now a program of the Akron Area Pride Collective, which also operates the Pride Center.
Out in Akron was formed in 1996 as an October gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender cultural festival.
This year, the festival featured events including the Queer Shorts film festival held October 10, and folk singers Erika Kulnys and Deidre McCalla in concert October 11.
The winner of the film festival was Diane Wilkins for her 2001 On Becoming a Woman, a spoof of 1950s educational films that teaches girls how to avoid becoming lesbians.
The best-attended event was the hate crime vigil held October 7 at the Church of Our Savior.
Cabaret Q returned at its new location, the elegant Greystone Theatre, which once was Akron�s Masonic Temple.
The cabaret featured 19 local performers ranging from vocalists and instrumental musicians to original poetry and dance.
Out in Akron spokesperson Paul Schwitzgebel said one of the biggest accomplishments of the festival this year was �our relationship with new venues that put us in the heart of the community and the university [of Akron].�
All events were held at Greystone, the university, churches, and the John S. Knight Convention Center.
Overall attendance was down over previous years, which, according to Schwitzgebel, reflects changes in what people are looking for.
�You can now watch 11 hours a week of gay TV,� said Schwitzgebel, adding that this was not possible when the event began.
Event chair Terry Bates said, �There will be an Out in Akron event in 2004, but the format may change from what the community is used to.�
Organizers also note how the overall community of Akron has grown to take pride in the event.
According to Schwitzgebel, conservative local talk radio mentioned the event, but could not stir listeners to rail against it on the air as it had in previous years.
The closing event, a coffee house social, will be held October 19 at Akron�s First Grace United Church.
Cleveland--�The Eighth District Court of Appeals has sentenced my client to death,� said Columbus attorney Paige Martin in response to a decision handed down by the court October 9.
The Ohio appeals court reversed a jury�s decision that McDonald�s had to pay a gay man $5 million for forcing him out of employment once they learned he has AIDS. The three judge panel also ordered a new trial.
The unanimous decision was written by Judge Anne L. Kilbane, and agreed to by Judges Patricia A. Blackmon and Michael J. Corrigan.
The $5 million was originally awarded to Russell Rich of Akron, 39, in October 2001.
After nine days of testimony, the jury concluded that the fast food chain had wrongly forced Rich out of his employment as a manager because he has AIDS, a violation of both federal and Ohio law.
McDonald�s had tried to claim that Rich was not disabled, and, therefore, had no claim against them.
The entire $5 million award was compensatory damages, figured to include $135,000 per year cost of medication for the rest of Rich�s life. The jury was instructed by the judge, John J. Angelotta, not to award punitive damages.
Rich is currently unemployed and without insurance coverage for AIDS-related illnesses. He does not qualify for Medicaid, and is dependent on drug assistance programs for the $4,000 per month cost of 30 pills and two injections a day.
McDonald�s has not paid Rich anything to date.
McDonald�s exercised its right to appeal the decision citing six errors. The court heard oral arguments in Cleveland May 5.
Rich cross-appealed citing three additional errors.
However, the court ruled that Angelotta �arbitrarily refused� McDonald�s request for jury interrogatories, and declared all other issues cited by both parties moot, including the unanswered question that prevented Rich�s award from including punitive damages.
That question is whether or not McDonald�s lied to Rich when it said he had insurance coverage, and deducted premiums from his pay, then refusing coverage claiming a pre-existing condition once the AIDS was discovered.
The trial jury was not allowed to hear any testimony on the insurance issue.
Martin said the lower court left that issue �unresolved� due to motions left undecided, and the appeals court ignored it.
�If there�s another trial, there is no instruction to the judge as to what to do with this,� said Martin, adding it also makes another time-consuming legal hurdle and more McDonald�s appeals for Rich to clear.
�It�s like being in legal limbo,� said Martin, �and he doesn�t have that kind of time.�
Martin said the fact that the court did not address the other issues raised by both parties constitutes an error on the part of the appeals court, and she will either ask for reconsideration or appeal directly to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Martin commented that the appeals court took �much longer than usual� to reach its decision, also robbing Rich of time.
McDonald�s spokesperson Bill Whitman said his company is �pleased that the court decided to throw out the case, though not entirely, and that the initial award was overturned.�
Martin said that the reason why Angelotta refused to give the jury McDonald�s 44 pages of written questions proving they understood the evidence was that McDonald�s waived its right to them by turning them in two days late.
�The judge doesn�t have to give you jury interrogatories,� said Martin, �especially if you don�t follow directions.�
�Their interrogatories were also very complicated and would have confused the jury,� said Martin, �and the questions were heavily weighted to the defense.�
Whitman, from the prepared statement, said, �Once the facts are presented in court, McDonald�s will be victorious.�
Asked which facts McDonald�s believes it didn�t have the chance to present during the nine days of testimony, Whitman refused comment.
�I find it interesting that McDonald�s is equating a new trial with winning,� said Martin.
�McDonald�s filed four motions to suppress evidence during the trial and three were granted,� said Martin. �They didn�t produce a manager�s schedule or a copy of their HIV policy, even after three witnesses testified to their existence, so I�m thrilled that they are going to see that all the evidence is presented this time.�
Martin said a new trial could mean McDonald�s would be ordered to pay punitive damages if they are found to have misrepresented the insurance matter to Rich.
�I know what their defense is now,� said Martin, �and if there is a second trial, I am going to kick their ass even better this time.�
�We have no plans to settle,� said Whitman. �We want to make sure the court decision is based on facts.�
McDonald�s legal team is headed by Steve T. Catlett of the firm Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue in Chicago. Cleveland attorneys from the same firm also represent them, as does their corporate counsel Brett Rawitz, and attorneys from the Cleveland office of Duvin, Cahn, and Hutton.
Catlett was unavailable for comment.
Asked if McDonald�s was trying to delay until Rich dies so they won�t have to pay the award, Whitman said, �We wish no ill will on anyone.�
�McDonald�s took away my livelihood,� said Rich, �the jury gave me back my life. I think the court of appeals decision says, �We sentence you to die.�
Columbus--As he told an Ohio House committee why his so-called �Defense of Marriage Act� should pass, Rep. Bill Seitz of Cincinnati still held that it would not outlaw local domestic partner benefits. But the measure�s opponents and even one of its backers agree that it will, and it could affect private policies as well.
The House Juvenile and Family Law Committee, chaired by Rep. Michael Gilb, R-Findlay, heard testimony on the bill, number 272, on October 8.
The anti-gay bill would deny all recognition of same-sex couples, and could be used to void domestic partner laws and other �specific statutory benefits of legal marriage.�
Seitz told committee members and the 50 observers that his bill �deals with a narrow legal issue� and is to close a �loophole� in the current law, which, he also acknowledged, already defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
�This loophole exists because we have not established by statute that we will use the same standards in judging the validity of marriages and civil unions consummated in other states and foreign countries as we have long used in deciding the validity of marriages consummated inside the state,� said Seitz.
Seitz told the six of eleven committee members present that the Massachusetts �is widely expected to find a state constitutional right to same-sex marriage . . . any day now.�
He also used articles by anti-gay organizations to suggest that gay marriage will lead to group marriages, and a 1958 Ohio Supreme Court decision declaring a marriage between two first cousins from another state valid even though Ohio law forbids it.
�Statutory benefits� not defined in bill
In a footnote to his testimony, Seitz defined the contentious �specific statutory benefits of legal marriage� as including dower rights, spousal support obligations, and pension survivor benefits.
No definition of the term appears in the bill and this is the first time Seitz has addressed it. The footnote is not sourced. A footnote in committee testimony would not hold up in a court challenge.
Openly gay Cincinnati attorney Scott Knox said, after a legal analysis of the bill and testimony, that �the biggest problem is that nobody knows what [�statutory benefits�] means.�
�Seitz gives a few examples in a footnote, but he never defines this term by providing an exhaustive list of what rights would be affected,� said Knox.
Opponents of the bill assert that domestic partner benefits offered by local governments would be prohibited by the bill.
DOMA opens door for anti-gay suits
Knox added more examples.
�For instance, it would arguably prohibit courts from enforcing the domestic violence statute against a violent partner in a same-sex relationship,� said Knox, �Under Seitz�s bill, courts may hold this statute void as . . . it only applies to �people living as a spouse.� Gay victims of domestic violence would be left unprotected.�
�How many other statutes would be affected by this vague language?� asked Knox. �Nobody knows.�
�The language is vague enough to allow for endless lawsuits over single-parent adoptions, inheritance, domestic violence, name changes, or you name it,� said Knox.
�The legislature should not be passing legislation so vague that its very sponsor cannot tell us precisely which rights it will effect,� said Knox, adding that the language exists �precisely to open the door for the [Cincinnati] Citizens for Community Values and other such groups who pushed this legislation to begin litigating to remove as many rights as possible from gay couples and their children, well beyond the right to marry already denied under state law.�
CCV says it ends partner benefits
Seitz, also a lawyer, maintained to the committee his longstanding argument that nothing in the bill expressly prohibits the extension of such benefits, including domestic partner benefits, and as such, �this bill will have no effect on those issues.�
Seitz remains alone in that interpretation.
CCV, whose attorney David Langdon drafted the bill, said in its May newsletter �That provision would prohibit so-called �domestic partner benefits� in government agencies.�
Rep. Sandra Harwood of Warren, the committee�s ranking Democrat raised the only question for Seitz.
Harwood, also an attorney, believes the bill would also prohibit private employers from offering employee domestic partner benefits. She asked Seitz if he would add a sentence to clarify the definition so that would not happen.
Seitz said he would and later told the Gay People�s Chronicle, �I would be open to that if it was specifically in terms of health insurance.�
Harwood later told the Chronicle Seitz�s term �threw up the red flag� for her.
Harwood added that if Seitz removed the whole �specific statutory benefits of legal marriage� term, �the bill would be more acceptable than it is right now, but I still don�t see why we need it.�
Chilling effect on employers
Cleveland attorney Tim Downing, who heads the GLBT lobby group Ohioans for Growth and Equality, said Harwood�s analysis has merit.
Downing said Seitz�s language could open the door for someone to file suit against a company that offers domestic partner benefits claiming the company was doing something in violation of the strong public policy of the state.
Downing said such a suit could also allege a violation of religious freedom.
Downing, whose firm represents businesses in employment matters, added, �Whether or not they win the suit, the mere threat of suit would discourage companies from offering the benefits and would prevent companies who already offer the benefits from locating in Ohio where they would need to have special benefit policies.�
Ohioans for Growth and Equality is lobbying against Seitz�s bill.
According to Downing, proponent testimony on the measure will be held October 29 and opponent testimony will be held November 5. Gilb�s office has not, at press time, confirmed either date.
Cleveland--�The same power bids us to free ourselves from violence against gay kids,� said Democratic presidential candidate Dennis John Kucinich as he formally announced his candidacy from the Cleveland City Council chambers October 13.
Kucinich was referring to his plan to create a cabinet level Department of Peace as one of the cornerstones of his campaign, which he says would promote diversity, tolerance, and the end to violence inside and outside America�s borders.
�When people believe violence is inevitable they lose hope for peace,� said Kucinich. �We must challenge those thoughts with the power of hope, optimism, and light, and this is the moment.�
�He crossed the threshold today,� said the campaign�s national LGBT outreach coordinator Mari Engelhardt, �and I�m really proud of him.�
Kucinich supports same-sex marriage and adoption equality regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. He also supports ending the military ban on LGBT servicemembers.
Considered a long shot for the presidency by many, Kucinich has significant support among LGBT voters and those who consider themselves socially progressive. He finished second in an online Move On poll conducted during the spring.
Kucinich served in Cleveland as a member of City Council and as its mayor. He also served in the Ohio Senate, where he was known as an advocate for LGBT rights.
As a member of the U.S. Congress since 1996, Kucinich has maintained a 100 percent Human Rights Campaign voting record. He regularly participates in LGBT events including the annual Cleveland Pride festival in June.
Canton--The city�s mayoral candidates discussed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, including a proposed employment non-discrimination ordinance, after an October 14 candidate forum.
The two candidates did not address GLBT issues during the forum, which was broadcast live on radio and cable television. The evening, sponsored by the Temple Israel Brotherhood, is one of the major joint appearances of the campaign.
Questions were submitted in writing by the audience of 230 to the moderators. Specific GLBT questions submitted were not asked by the moderators, though a general �diversity� question was.
Both candidates answered the GLBT questions afterward.
Republican candidate Janet Weir Creighton answered the diversity question during the forum by saying her administration �would be diverse and be representative of the city of Canton.�
Asked later if that meant she would recruit and appoint openly GLBT people as she would other minorities, Creighton said, �I�m looking for qualified individuals. I don�t want to know what someone�s sexual preference is.�
Creighton, who is the current Stark County auditor, added, �I have homosexuals working for me now and they are doing a fine job.�
Stark County does not protect its employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Asked if she had an office policy that did, Creighton replied that she did not know.
As to whether she could support the city offering domestic partner benefits, Creighton replied, �I�m not going there tonight.�
Democrat candidate Bill Smuckler, who is currently an at-large member of city council and its majority leader, didn�t know what domestic partner benefits are.
�This is the first time I ever heard of it,� said Smuckler. �I have no idea� whether I would support it or not.
Smuckler said he would add sexual orientation to his office�s non-discrimination policy. �It makes no difference to me what someone�s sexual preference is.�
Smuckler said he supports a proposed ordinance introduced May 12 by Mayor Richard Watkins that would add sexual orientation as a protected class for employment throughout the city.
The ordinance proposal was submitted by the city�s Fair Employment Practices Board, chaired by Rabbi John Spitzer of Temple Israel. Spitzer said the board had �100 percent agreement� on the measure.
The board�s recommendation was made in 2001, but the bill did not move then because no council member sponsored it.
Smuckler said he didn�t sponsor the ordinance because, �The mayor sponsors most legislation, and in this case, I expect it to be passed before I become mayor.�
Creighton said, �I have not dealt with this issue before, and I would need more information, but I would be open-minded and talk it over with people I know and trust.�
Spitzer said the proposed ordinance is now in the judiciary committee, which is chaired by Smuckler.
The proposal has not been publicized.
�We wanted to see if it would go through quietly,� said Spitzer.
Spitzer said there is a current snag with the bill dealing with labor agreements, not sexual orientation. Once those are worked out, he expects the bill to move forward.
�It has been agreed to move it after the November election and definitely before the first of the year,� said Spitzer.
If the measure passes, it would make Canton the 12th city in Ohio with a gay and lesbian equal rights ordinance.
Compiled by Brian DeWitt, Anthony Glassman and Patti Harris
Last-ditch attempt to stop Canadian marriage fails
Ottawa--A final attempt by a pair of conservative religious groups to stop same-sex marriage in two Canadian provinces has ended in defeat.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled on October 9 that the two groups do not have standing to appeal provincial high court decisions allowing same-sex marriage in Ontario and British Columbia.
The Association for Marriage and the Family of Ontario and the Interfaith Coalition on Marriage and Family had argued that the government abdicated its duty when it did not appeal the two rulings. Both provinces� Supreme Courts ruled that the country�s ban on same-sex marriage was an unjustified violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian equivalent of the Bill of Rights.
The two provinces, which together comprise 51.6% of the nation�s population, now grant full marriage to same-sex couples. Hundreds have married, including many from the U.S.
The federal government has introduced legislation to allow same-sex marriage nationally. That bill is currently being examined by the Supreme Court of Canada to determine its constitutionality, and will most likely be voted on in mid-2004. Even if it fails, Ontario and British Columbia will continue to marry lesbian and gay couples.
HRC dedicates their new building
Washington, D.C.--The Human Rights Campaign dedicated their new headquarters on October 11, a $25 million structure that will serve as a monument to the stewardship of outgoing executive director Elizabeth Birch.
Tipper Gore and Washington mayor Anthony Williams attended the dedication ceremony, held on National Coming Out Day.
Later in the day, the organization held its annual national dinner, a gala affair attended by 3,000 people. The banquet was the last chance for many of the organization�s supporters to bid farewell to Birch, who is resigning to spend more time with her partner and their four-year-old twins.
A very different type of animal awaits under this Big Top
Cleveland--Varla Jean Merman is returning to the north coast, this time focused on finding a Big Top.
�I�ve heard people complaining for years,� squealed the drag entertainer, making her third appearance in as many years at Cleveland Public Theatre, �that there wasn�t a Big Top in Cleveland! So, I had to take action!�
Varla Jean Merman�s Under a Big Top is her latest act. Employing a dizzying vocal range, music videos, and considerable comedic talents, she will take on the world of circus, magic, and freak show in Cleveland Public�s Upstairs Theatre, where audience members can view her intimately from cabaret-style seating.
Merman, said to be the love child of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman, is the brainchild and alter ego of Jeffrey Roberson, who grew up in New Orleans. Varla Jean grew out of party games.
�When anyone has a party,� Merman said, �it is only a matter of time before someone pulls out the box of wigs and Goodwill pantsuits. That led to me pulling out the box when there wasn�t a party.�
�I started doing �video filler� with my dear friend Vidkid Timo in 1990. We would film hours of insanity while I was dressed up in some silly outfit and give them to the local video bars to play while they were spinning music. That led me to going out in drag occasionally. I wouldn�t call it �performing� . . . I would dress in drag, go out with a plastic baby in a baby carriage, chain the carriage and the baby to an outside pole like a bicycle, and then go inside and dance drunk on the bar while eating an industrial size can of refried beans. It wasn�t until I moved to New York in �95 that I started to sing as Varla Jean.�
It seems Merman�s early experience in dancing while eating refried beans was a precursor to one thing she is known for in her act: a show climax involves hitting high notes while downing Cheez Whiz. Indeed, it is an experience one will not soon forget.
She describes her shows as �Rock-�em, sock-�em, multimedia melange! But let�s face it, they�re not exactly Shakespeare . . . no, my �plays� are riddled with much more subtext and metaphor.�
In addition to Cleveland, Merman�s tours take her to Provincetown, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Ft. Lauderdale, Boston, Baltimore, and New York City, among others. While in Provincetown, she was inspired to create Under a Big Top.
�For the past few years, I have been lucky enough to spend the summers in Provincetown,� says Merman. �And, over the years, as I�ve eavesdropped--unintentionally--on the conversations of some of the �tourists,� I kept hearing one resounding complaint about Provincetown, particularly while walking home at 2 am. So many grown men whining and complaining about how disappointed they were that they couldn�t find a big top! Isn�t that sweet? That these grown men hadn�t let go of their youth one little bit. In fact, it was pretty obvious that some of them were desperate to relive it. But, that�s when I hit upon the theme for my new show! I realized that, come to think of it, I, too, could use a big top. Oh, I sure could. To make me feel small yet again. And, to help me forget an outside world that was apparently grinding to a slow, senseless, horrific, and agonizing end.�
In addition to Cheez Whiz, a highlight of her show is parody of popular music and the accompanying music video, which Merman and her team create from scratch. Favorite songs she�s parodied include �Reach Out and Touch Somebody�s Man,� the Johnny Cash ballad �Sunday Mornin� Comin� Down,� and her original creations �The Yodeling Weiner� and �The Kidney Harvest.�
This past June, she had a successful run in London�s West End performing her show Varla Jean Merman�s I�ve Got the Music in Me, which ran for three weeks at the Soho Theatre. After seeing the show, Elton John sent her a bottle of pink champagne.
�Now that�s a gay dream, � Merman said, �and Elaine Page was snorting so loudly as I sang Roy Orbison�s �Crying� (albeit on a toilet) that I thought someone was having a seizure in the audience.�
When asked which dream men she would love to have as part of her Big Top act, Merman insisted, �James Gandolfini, Ed Asner, Bob Hoskins, James Gandolfini, and James Gandolfini.� When pressed for the act she�d take on if she ever joined a circus, she knew immediately: �Definitely sword swallowing.�
Varla Jean Merman�s Under a Big Top will play Thursday through Sunday from October 23 to November 2 at Cleveland Public Theatre�s Upstairs Theater, 6415 Detroit Ave. Tickets are $20 general admission, $18 for students and seniors. For more information, call 216-6312727 ext. 500, or log onto www.cptonline.org or www.varlaonline.com.
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