Brian Strachan wears many hats. And they’re sometimes big pink ones atop towering wigs. He fills his daytime hours as a teacher, inspiring the next generation at the University of the Arts, but once a month he dons a themed costume and teases, taunts and tickles the crowd as a Bingo Verifying Diva at Philadelphia’s popular GayBINGO. Now entering its 14th year, GayBINGO has raised thousands of smiles and more than $2 million for people in the Delaware Valley living with HIV/AIDS.
PGN: How did you become a BVD? BS: My partner, Domenick, saw a blurb about it on the Theatre Alliance Web site. He wanted to do it, but I was reluctant. [Laughs.] I mean, once you take that step, you’re officially a real drag queen! There’s no going back. We went to the first interview, though, and I realized how much fun it was going to be. Our first event had a Madonna music theme. I went as “Cherish” and I wore a big pink dress and a pair of glasses and I was hooked. We’ve been doing it for two-and-a-half years now. My drag name is Thunder Showers and Domenick is Summer Clearance.
PGN: Tell me about the day job. BS: My title is director of dance costumes in the dance department at the University of the Arts. I also teach a class in “Costume Design for Dance.” Outside of the school, I also design costumes for various theater companies in the city. I’m doing a show with the IRC [Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium] in March called “The Gnadiges Fraulein.” It’s one of Tennessee William’s lesser-known plays. I’m also doing “Waiting for Godot” for EgoPo in March and I design for the Sharp Dance Company. One of my favorite things to do in the summer is working with Neill Hartley, who is the artistic director for a group called Actors Without Boundaries. AWB was founded by Christine Rouse and is an acting program for children, teens and young adults up to age 30 who have physical disabilities. Their motto is, “What makes us different makes us beautiful.” Last year, we did the “Sound of Music” and this year we’re doing “Grease.” It’s always amazing.
PGN: Do you live in Philly? BS: My partner, Domenick Scudera, chairs the theater and dance department at Ursinus College, so we live out in Collegeville now. We’ve been there for about five years. I used to live in Center City, where I also taught aerobics at gyms around town and was a dancer myself.
PGN: What’s the biggest costume mishap you’ve had while dancing? BS: Years ago, when I was dancing with Theatre West Virginia, I did this Indian dance and my loincloth fell off. It’s always interesting when you’re on stage pretty much naked with your butt hanging out! [Laughs.] But that always happens in dance: Your butt always seems to be the first thing to rip out of your costume. There was one time when one of the female dancers was performing and the trim of her tutu started coming off. It just slowly unraveled so by the end of the dance she had a long tail of chiffon.
PGN: That sounds like a Carol Burnett skit. BS: It was! After a while the audience just began to laugh and giggle the more it unraveled and, by the time we got to the end, it was ridiculous. But of course we had to keep going.
PGN: Where did you grow up? BS: I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh called Sewickley. One of the recent bachelorettes, from the TV show, is from Sewickley.
PGN: Siblings? BS: I have three siblings but one of them, my younger brother, died of cancer about five years ago. I have an older brother who is a truck driver in South Dakota and a younger sister who lives in Nags Head, N.C. My father lives there too. He worked for U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh for many years until he retired.
PGN: So your father was a real Pittsburgh steeler? BS: Oh, yes. And they were real fans of the team too. That was back in the day when the team was really famous for The Steel Curtain, when they won several Super Bowls in a row.
PGN: So how did a little gay boy fare in Steel town? BS: Eh, I managed it. I just did my own thing. I was into diving and went to dance classes three times a week. Of course I got teased, but I really didn’t pay much attention to it — I just didn’t care. As I got older near the end of high school, I taught lessons as well. I made friends with people and they began to embrace me and came to support me at swim meets and stuff. That made me sort of a jock.
PGN: So you were a diver? BS: Yeah, I did AAU diving. That’s the Amateur Athletic Union.
PGN: How did you start diving? BS: When I was young, 8 or 9, I took dancing classes and did a lot of acrobatics. We started taking swimming lessons and, one day, I was fooling around on the diving board and one of the instructors saw me. He encouraged me to take lessons and I soon started competing. I went to the University of Maine to be on the diving team.
PGN: What was your best dive? BS: The highest-degree dive was a 3.0, which was a triple-twisting forward one-and-a-half off the high board, but the best dive I ever did was in competition. I did a back dive at a meet and got a perfect 10. It’s shocking because you come out of the water and everybody’s screaming. You can tell that you did a good dive when you hit the water but you don’t know that it was perfect until you hear the crowd. If you do it right, there is a ripping sound when you hit the water. You just slide in and there’s no splash and it feels good.
PGN: How scary is it being up on that platform? BS: You are concentrating so much on your technique that you don’t really pay attention to the height, though I wasn’t a big fan of the high dive. It was pretty scary when you did think about it.
PGN: Where did you go to school? BS: I went to the University of Maine for four years and got a degree in art from there, then I went to Point Park University in Pittsburgh and got a degree in dance from there. In Maine, I was a typical college student. I was still in the closet. I competed on the diving team and had a girlfriend. When I came back to Pittsburgh and went to dancing school, it was a different story. I came out and it was a blast. It was in the ’80s where everything was “anything goes.” Then I went to Temple for my master’s in 2007.
PGN: Any one person who kick-started the coming-out process? BS: There was a guy at Point Park who flat-out asked me if I was gay and I said yes. It was the first time that I really acknowledged it even to myself. One of my first boyfriends was responsible for outing me to the family. He called, and my mother listened in on the other line to our phone call. It wasn’t pretty. I ended up moving out but eventually they came around. It’s amazing, with the students I have now, so many of them are out and proud and handle it well. Some of them are still struggling, especially those with religious families to deal with. They still have to rely on their families for financial support and other things, so they have to be really careful. We try to support them as best we can.
PGN: Anyone who really moved you? BS: There was one kid who told me a sweet story. He said he knew his mother always knew, but one day his father was sitting on the porch with him and just turned and said, ‘Ya know I love ya right?’ and that was it. They didn’t need to talk about it; his father just let him know where he stood. I just thought that was so endearing because it was so different for me. It was very touching.
PGN: Do you collect anything? BS: Oh yes, I used to collect tons of stuff. I collect Goofus glass and used to collect Victorian and vintage clothing and jewelry.
PGN: So was GayBINGO the first time you donned a dress? BS: Oh no! The first time was when I was doing summer stock. We had a show called “Miss Grand U,” which was a mock beauty contest. I did a lip-sync number as Ponetta Point-n-stuff. I wore a big purple tacky dance costume.
PGN: Any pets? BS: We have four dogs.
PGN: Now for some arbitrary questions … What’s the most money you ever found? BS: Ha ha! We were driving from Center City to Temple and I saw a bill blowing across the road. I pulled over and ran after it. It was a $20 bill!
PGN: Best conversation piece in your house? BS: When we moved into the house, the cat went under the eaves. Domenick crawled under the eaves to look for her and when he was shining his flashlight around, he saw something shiny. He pulled it out and it was a big sword. It looked like something you’d see on “Antiques Roadshow”! It’s one of those maritime swords that they call a Dutch hanger. Who knows where it came from or why it was there.
PGN: “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”? BS: “Star Wars.” Although now it would be “Avatar.” We got our tickets a week in advance to see it at the IMAX theater. It was awesome.
PGN: Speaking of movies, what’s a favorite movie line? BS: [With great flair] “Success is nothing, Tracy, without someone you love to share it with!” from the Diana Ross film “Mahogany.” My other favorite line is from “Imitation of Life” with Lana Turner. It’s the scene when Lana Turner becomes a big star. It’s right after her first big role and they’re waiting for the reviews. She’s in the apartment of the director and they’re looking out at the New York skyline. He says to her, “Lady, there’s your empire.” The camera is on her face as you see her become a diva right then and there. It’s great.
PGN: Who would you want to play you in your life story? BS: Well, people tell me I look like either Drew Carey or Jeff Daniels, so I guess it would have to be one of them.
PGN: Any stage superstitions or phobias? BS: We have all of them, like you’re not supposed to whistle backstage. If you do, you have to turn around three times and swear. I think that comes from the days when they would whistle for someone to lower a prop. I guess someone whistled casually and got a sand bag or something dumped on their head. So no more whistling. You’re also not ever supposed to wear peacock feathers — I don’t know where that came from. For phobias, I used to be afraid of spiders, but then I started working at the Academy of Natural Sciences on the Parkway in the live animal center. They had live tarantulas and the kids always wanted to see them out of the cases, so I just had to suck it up and get over it.
PGN: Best karaoke song? BS: “Cabaret,” the Liza Minnelli version, then “Delta Dawn,” and I also do a mean version of the disco hit “I Love the Nightlife.”
PGN: The woman who sings that, Alicia Bridges, came out of the closet, didn’t she? BS: I think she was always out; at least that’s what my friend Henry says.
PGN: The bartender knows I drink … BS: Gin martinis, shaken.
PGN: And what’s a funny moment from bingo? BS: Well, every night is crazy there. My best line was on the night that we did a Cher theme. I was wearing a big pink outfit and there was a young guy named Eric calling the game for one of the sponsors. I came up to him and said, “Hey, Eric, I bet you haven’t seen this much pink in a long time … ” It was fun. People can bring their own food and some of them go overboard with giant feasts. Usually I go over and start helping myself to their picnic baskets.
PGN: And what do the BVDs do? BS: We entertain the crowd. There’s a dance number we do each night, which is really funny when we rehearse. We meet 45 minutes before the show and different people have different attitudes about it. There are some who take it really seriously and you can just imagine the drama and histrionics that go with that. And of course we verify the bingo winners. It’s fun: When you get in drag, you can get away with saying anything to people.
PGN: What would you tell people who have never been? BS: It’s for such a great cause and it’s good old-fashioned fun with a new twist. People make friends at the tables and have a great time. If you’re into the bar scene, you can come early and it’s a great warm-up before going out. And there’s a huge mix of people: gay, straight, young and old. It’s a nice way to get to know people. It’s such a great way to have fun and all you have to do is show up. We provide the rest!
The next GayBINGO will be themed “Golden Globes After-Party: Red Carpet, Paparazzi, Tabloids … Oh My!” and take place at 7 p.m. Jan. 23 at The Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St. Reserved floor seating is $25 and balcony seating is $20. Tickets can be purchased by phone at (215) 731-9255 or in person at the AIDS Fund office, 1315 Spruce St., fourth floor. For more information, visit www.Gaybingophilly.com.
To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].