Michael Gardner, aka Miss Pumpkin, has become synonymous with New Hope. A staff member at The Raven, Gardner is especially known for his charity work as Miss Pumpkin on behalf of groups as wide-ranging as the New Orleans’ Belle Reve residential treatment center for victims of AIDS, the New Hope Library, the New Hope-Solebury High School’s Diversity Committee, LifeTies and, of course, New Hope Celebrates.
PGN: You do so much for the area; are you from here?
MG: Yes, I was born and raised in Bucks County, just north of New Hope.
PGN: An only child?
MG: No, I have twin sisters and a stepbrother and two stepsisters, so we were kind of like the Brady Bunch from hell. At least that’s what we called ourselves.
PGN: What twin tricks did your sisters pull?
MG: Ha! They were constantly doing things. My mother dressed them alike except for different-color barrettes. So anytime there was any kind of giveaway, they would switch their barrettes and pretend they were the other twin to hit up the person again for money, gifts, whatever.
PGN: So what was growing up like?
MG: We had a beautiful farm so it was a great place to grow up. We had horses and a whole bunch of animals. Luckily a lot of our neighbors were interesting enough that we didn’t get bored even though it was rural. Our neighbors were in the theater and in the fashion industry, so they were cool people to have around us.
PGN: Who was a favorite character in the neighborhood?
MG: Oh gosh, so many. Well, one couple who were like our surrogate parents ran Elite modeling agency in New York, so they always had fun people around. I was good friends with a lot of supermodels in the ’80s. One of them, Kelly Emberg, was dating Rod Stewart at the time, so I got to hang around them and go to his concerts for free, which was wonderful.
PGN: What did the parents do?
MG: My father was career Air Force and my mother was a homemaker/artist.
PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up?
MG: An actor ... hence Miss Pumpkin. She’s my outlet.
PGN: What was life like on the farm?
MG: It was great. We had a little vineyard and an apple orchard and a chestnut grove, we had pet horses, chickens, sheep, goats, a pet peacock. The peacock was hysterical because he didn’t have a mate, so he’d always try to hump the chickens!
PGN: What’s a beautiful childhood memory?
MG: Summers with my grandparents. We’d either go crabbing at the Jersey shore or spend time with my other grandparents on the Delaware River along the canal going boating and stuff.
PGN: Where did you go to school?
MG: I went to a local community college and through that went into restaurant management and got a chef apprenticeship, which allowed me to travel to England and France for six months. That was an amazing experience. And I’m still working in the restaurant business today.
PGN: What is your current job?
MG: I’ve worked at The Raven as a waiter and bartender for the last 23 years. I sometimes come up with the specials too.
PGN: I bet you’ve seen a lot of interesting people over the years.
MG: Oh, yes. Two of my favorites were [Academy Award-winners] Patricia Neal and Celeste Holm. They stayed at the B&B next door so I got to cook breakfast for them and they hung out in the Oak Room and sang songs around the piano. They were two interesting ladies.
PGN: What makes New Hope so special?
MG: The area was originally settled by Quakers and I think their “Live and let live” mindset still echoes in the hearts of everyone who lives here. You know, people don’t care what color your skin is or who you sleep with or what church you go to. It’s more, Are you interesting and what can you bring to the table? People will bring their children to our drag shows, and our Pride parade is not just about gay pride: It’s community pride and everyone gets involved. I have as many straight people helping me build our float as I do gay people. Everyone pitches in and everyone watches out for each other. It’s wonderful. The minute someone is in need, there’s a benefit being organized.
PGN: When I looked up your name, almost every reference was attached to some sort of fundraiser.
MG: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, they call me the queen of the benefits.
PGN: Any personal hobbies?
MG: I faux paint, I garden, I love to cook. I got the artistic gene from my mother.
PGN: Tell me about your home.
MG: I live in a very cute place. It was built as a girls’ school back in the 1800s. It’s a stone building right on Bridge Street. I just moved there a year ago, so I’m working on making the backyard look pretty.
PGN: What’s your most unusual item?
MG: Oh God, I have an “I Dream of Jeannie” bottle on my nightstand! Exactly like the one Barbara Eden used in the show.
PGN: What’s a favorite outfit of yours?
MG: Ah, Miss Pumpkin. This last Halloween I did a circus theme. I came as a whole three-ring circus. We built a giant tent with my head sticking out of the top of the tent. And I once dressed as a giant pumpkin. The bodice was green with a giant orange hoop skirt lit from beneath so I looked like a giant jack-o-lantern.
PGN: Fun! I used to be the co-host on “The Bozo Show,” so the circus is near and dear to me.
MG: Really? That’s cool. My great-great-grandfather had a circus act in the early 1900s. He had a dog and pony act in the Paw-Paw circus, which was purchased by Ringling Brothers. He toured nationally for many years. I have a lot of circus memorabilia.
PGN: It sounds like a fun family.
MG: It sure is. There are a lot of us and last year we celebrated our centennial family reunion. Our first ancestors landed in the area in the 1750s. We’ve had continuous reunions for over 100 years. We even got a citation from the White House.
PGN: So, when did you come out?
MG: Well, growing up, I tried the dating scene with women and it just didn’t quite work out. I knew I was always attracted to guys, but wasn’t sure. I guess I was a late bloomer. I didn’t come out until college. Growing up, in the New Hope area, it was always around, and eventually after hanging out you’d find yourself at The Raven or the Cartwheel or the Prelude and finally say, “OK, this is where I belong.”
PGN: How did Miss Pumpkin come about?
MG: Monday nights at the Cartwheel were always the big night out. The drag shows looked like so much fun and the people out that night were the most fun people I’d ever seen. I got friendly with some of them and, one year at Mardi Gras, someone lent me a wig and a dress. And so Ms. Pumpkin was born. She’s a Mardi Gras baby. Now I do a Mardi Gras show each year and donate the proceeds to an AIDS hospice in New Orleans.
PGN: A favorite Miss P moment?
MG: One time we were in New Orleans at a bar and they played the “Xanadu” video. All the bartenders jumped on the bar wearing roller skates and twirled their napkins in the air. It was hysterical, it was bedlam and all my friends were like, “Oh my God, you have to do this number” and I said, “Oh no, I can’t roller skate,” which they decided would make it even funnier. So it’s now my signature number. And I still can’t roller skate so when I come out the announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, assume the crash position. Here she comes. Remember, if she falls, just pick her back up.” Last time I did it I came in so fast I crashed and landed on my tailbone. Luckily, I landed right in front of my chiropractor, who leaned down and said, “I can see you tomorrow at 11.” He forbade me from wearing roller skates again, so we might have to switch to a Segway.
PGN: Tell me a little about Michael.
MG: I love my charity work. It gives me great pleasure. A friend of mine runs LifeTies, which is an organization that runs Rainbow House, a home for children with HIV/AIDS. I’ve volunteered with them for about 15 years. Every Christmas, I get a wish list and make sure that Santa gets the kids what they want. A few years ago they opened Triad House, the only group home in New Jersey for homeless LGBT youth, and I got a bunch of designer friends to each design a room for them. A few weeks ago I got a citation from Mercer County for my charity work. It was really nice.
PGN: What differences have you noticed over the years in the community?
MG: Well, kids are coming out so much younger now. They’re so much more comfortable. We had to wait until we were out of the house, in our own place, working or at college. You didn’t come out when you were still at home. Now they have gay proms. It’s a wonderful thing. And kids have more visible gay people to identify with, so they know that they’re not the only ones. All we had was Uncle Arthur from “Bewitched”!
PGN: What’s the first thing you look for in a man?
MG: A pulse! ... and he has to have a sense of humor. If you can’t laugh, you can’t live. And a nice set of eyes.
PGN: Who’s your favorite singer?
MG: Cyndi Lauper. I actually met her a few years ago and she’s a great girl.
PGN: Something people would be surprised to know about you?
MG: As Michael, I’m pretty shy. Pumpkin is much more outgoing.
PGN: Others are embarrassed when you ...
MG: Oh, that could be anything. I love to make people laugh. If there’s a situation where everyone’s thinking something but afraid to say it, I’ll say it. If someone has toilet paper on their shoe, I’ll point it out. And I won’t be discreet about it! And I’m the first to make fun of myself as well.
PGN: Worst clothing disaster?
MG: That would be any time you see Miss Pumpkin without a girdle!
PGN: Three people you’d like to see in drag?
MG: Michael Weatherly from “NCIS,” Mayor Nutter and Mitt Romney as Marie Osmond.
PGN: Any paranormal experiences?
MG: Growing up we had a ghost at our house. It was a little girl and the weird thing was whenever we saw her, we’d find one of her toys shortly after the sighting. She’d appear and the next day, you’d be playing in the garden and find an antique doll head or marbles, maybe a figurine. It was like maybe she was looking for her toys. Kind of creepy. I’ve always wanted to research the history of the farmhouse and the family that built it and see if I could figure out who she was.
PGN: What was your most unusual job?
MG: My friends are going to laugh. I worked the night shift at a gas station. It was horrifying!
MG: First you learn to laugh at yourself and then you can laugh at everybody else.
PGN: So what’s happening this weekend for New Hope Celebrates?
MG: Well, tonight we’re having Miss Pumpkin’s Friday Night Follies! I don’t know if you heard, but the Bucks County Theater is reopening, so we’re doing a tribute to Broadway with all your favorite hits. It’s at The Raven and tickets are only $5. There’s also the Pride Train Ride, a two-hour ride through the countryside with a vintage dining car, music and light appetizers and top-shelf booze. There will be fireworks tonight, a dance party at The Raven and a Girls Night Out party at Triumph. Tomorrow is the vendor fair and the annual Pride Parade as well as film screenings, softball and more parties. Sunday is our biggest tea dance of the year, the Rainbow T-Dance, hosted by Miss Pumpkin with special guests Poppy Champlin and Adam Sank; then there’s the Ladies 2000 party and much, much more. It’s all on the website at www.newhopecelebrates.com.
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