B-I-N-G-O GayBINGO is its Name-O! My, how time flies. It was 25 years ago, a full quarter of a century, when the AIDS Fund straightened its wig, put on mascara and clicked its heels for the first ever Gay Bingo fundraiser. Get ready to return to 1996 for this month’s theme: the year that launched ebay, mad cow disease, the summer Olympics in Atlanta and Rent on Broadway. This isn’t your typical church bingo! Gay Bingo is hosted by the infamous Bingo Verifying Divas (BVDs) who always come dressed to impress (or distress depending on the theme) and keep the energy high, the games going and the cash flowing. Tickets are just $36 for reserved seating or become a Very Important Diva! and get an entire table for 18 of your closest friends for $900 That’s only $50 each for you math challenged peeps and it comes with extra perks.
The evening will feature CBS3 Anchor Jim Donovan as the Superstar Celebrity Caller. The BVD’s will kick off the evening with a special opening number with lots of surprises throughout the night. One of those surprises features this week’s Portraits, Garrett Olthuis and Sean Green. The couple met at Gay Bingo and are now happily married (it’s a great place to meet people!). The talented duo work together as performing artists and own the Haus of Wood hair salon in Old City.
So tell me a little about yourselves.
Green: I was born in Germany. My parents were in the military so I lived there for a few years before we moved to the US. We moved around quite a bit and then I landed in Philly as a young adult.
I’m going to guess that like me, you’re mixed.
Green: Yes, my mother is African American and my father is Irish with a little Dutch sprinkled in. But I don’t really communicate with my family, I’ve been living as a stand-alone adult in Philly for the past 8 years. One of the reasons I love it so much here is that there’s so much support available, especially as a queer artist.
Olthuis: I was born in New York City, and similar to Sean, my dad was in the coast guard so we moved up and down the East coast. They settled in Cape May so that’s primarily where my family is now, and that’s how I ended up in Philadelphia. It was accessible and closer to the Jersey shore than NY. As an artist and creator it was an easier place to establish yourself and be whoever you wanted to be. NY always felt a little overwhelming.
What’s a good memory from Cape May?
Olthuis: Before we moved there we used to go every summer. I think I was more fond of it when we’d go and stay at my grandparents house with all my cousins for two weeks. Nine kids all going crazy and having fun. My grandparents lived in North Jersey and they were undertakers so it wasn’t like we’d go have dinner with them often because there was always something going on at the funeral home which was also where they lived. Being in the military, we weren’t around the family a lot, so those two weeks were special.
Sean, how would one of your teachers have described you?
Green: What a question! Hmmm, very curious, I asked a lot of questions. And persistent, especially if I was told that we’d come back to the question later. I was the kid who followed up for an answer! And I liked being outside, I’d get in trouble at school for just leaving to go outside by myself.
What did you want to be?
Green: At a young age I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to work with bottlenosed dolphins. I love being surrounded by animals. I went to school in Miami with marine biology as my major and scuba diving as a minor, but I soon realized that I preferred to explore my artistic side. I fulfilled my need to be around animals by volunteering at pet shelters.
What was your best in-water adventure?
Green: I was always a swimmer, so just being in Florida and having access to water like that was a life changing experience. It was fun training in open water with people who didn’t think I was crazy for wanting to go out farther than the lifeguard was comfortable.
What was your scariest moment?
Green: I think it’s when you come back and realize that there were large creatures out there who might consider you a snack. I’ve had a couple of those moments. My father used to jump in the water from helicopters and would tell stories about great white sharks in the water. I try to not do that crazy stuff anymore.
What did you want to be Garrett?
Olthuis: I think I always played pretend with service oriented things, I pretended to be a waiter, or a cook, and later I thought I wanted to be a designer or an architect. But once I got into my teens, I knew that I was going to do hair. I did theater, and I was a shy kid trying to find my voice. I liked having a role to play whether it was as a server or performer or doing hair. It allowed me to engage with people.
Did you get into hair or dance first, what was that trajectory?
Olthuis: Both about the same time, I got into dance through musicals at school. It came to me pretty easily and people suggested that I could get into college with it, so I went to Wagner College in NY for musical theater, but after one semester I chose to switch schools and focus on dance. I wasn’t feeling the interpersonal relationships in theater, it was more competitive than collaborative. So I moved to Philly and studied dance at UArts and it was a much more communal and supportive situation.
And how did you two meet?
Both: Gay Bingo!
Green: I was still in high school, and there weren’t any openly queer people there, so my mom tried to help me assuage my teenage depression by taking me to Gay Bingo. It was Valentine’s Day and Garrett was one of the dancers from UArts. It was amazing. Art and dance had been intentionally deprived from me when I was young because of my upbringing, so getting to see something like that was pretty cool. Later that night one of the volunteer drag queens pushed us together and the rest was like a Lifetime movie!
Olthuis: Sean was a very outgoing teenager and had this level of confidence that I didn’t have even in my early 20’s. They’d asked for a volunteer to come on stage and take their shirt off, and Sean ran up to the stage wearing a hoodie with the logo from their high school swim team and then when the MC realized that Sean was only 17 they said, “You are beautiful, but we don’t think we can have an underaged individual taking their clothes off!” I had already clocked Sean in the audience, I mean, look at that face! And what a beautiful person, and as Sean said, one of the drag queens said, “You two bad-asses better exchange numbers!”
And how did the hairdressing come into play?
It has always been a part of my life. I did my mom’s hair, and I have two sisters and did their hair and was pretty good at it. In high school, I would do hair for proms, mostly styling, and in school I did a lot of behind the scenes styling for musical theater, that’s where I learned make-up too. In college, it was mostly women at the school and it was a nice way to connect with people and make some spare money. I did it all through college, and at 23 I went to the Aveda school and got my license. At the same time, Sean was managing a hair salon, so when we started working on our life together, Sean went to the same school and got a license as well. We work really well as a team, with the styling and also with our drag characters. We practice with the wigs and imagery and help each other.
What are your drag names?
Green: I’m Fire Wood.
Olthuis: And I’m Drift Wood.
What was your coming out experience?
Green: I came out at 14 and was disowned a week later. My parents both divorced and remarried when I was 5 or 6. I was sent from one family group to another, I guess they were hoping to quell that urge. That obviously didn’t work and as a result I do not speak to either of my associated groups of family.
If your mom took you to GayBingo, it sounds like there was a little effort there.
Green: Sorry, that was my step-mom. Yes, she took me to GayBingo while my father was deployed overseas. I stayed with them from ages 14 to 19, but during those 4 years, my father was deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq for 3.5 of them. She tried to be supportive, but it was hard to battle against my father. She was a flight attendant for 13 years, so all of her friends were gay men but then she had to deal with my father, who was literally absent the whole time, telling her from overseas how to raise his queer child.
I’m learning as I get older that people get married and make commitments and for whatever reason she chose to let him dictate things, but I didn’t understand it as I was going through that lived experience. I am grateful for her taking me to GayBingo because that day changed my life.
Olthuis: My experience was totally dissimilar. I was 18 when I told my parents. I was home sick with mono, actually I was in the hospital. I had gone on some dates with a doctor and he’d text to check in on me. I felt bad that I was secretly trying to talk to him about health stuff with my mom right there (she was a nurse). She’d sit there knitting and finally I turned to her and said, “Mom, you know that I’m gay right?” She looked up and said, “Yeah, I know” and went back to knitting. I’d been non-gender conforming my whole life, wearing dresses for as long as I can remember and there was never an issue with it from them. It was only when I was older and other people said things that I started thinking that I shouldn’t. But my parents were always supportive. I get the feeling that they started doing the work to educate themselves from the time I was young. I was very lucky.
What should people know about GayBingo?
Green: It’s a lot of fun, but the cause is serious. You’re going to get educated about how in distress Philadelphia is around HIV/AIDS education. As a queer person who’s lived here for 8 years, I have not seen much discussion on how impactful it still is in my bubble of friends and all across the community. There’s a sobering moment when we talk about it and what’s happening right now. It’s a message that really needs to be spread and I always look forward to hearing that part of the presentation. There are also some great performances; and I hope that everyone realizes that it’s all volunteers. We can always use more help!
What are some of the themes?
Green: The one coming up is Black Tie, so it’s formal and it’s always an incredible night. The last one was a zombie wedding, before that I think we had Cher night; we’ve done Under the Board Walk.
Olthuis: Reject Barbie was a good one! The theme for the Black Tie event (the last Bingo until September) is “Spectacular!” It’s the 25th anniversary and it is going to be spectacular. As Sean said, it’s going to be fun, but in the end it’s about supporting people with HIV/AIDS. The money goes for a lot of things including emergency funds for those living with HIV and providing education and awareness of HIV/AIDS issues. To date, the program has raised over $4.3 million. For this last event, we’re also encouraging people to bring new school supplies to be collected for students affected by HIV.
I read there was almost a real wedding held at GayBingo.
Olthuis: Yes, we were planning to get married at GayBingo where we met, in March of 2020. Well, because of Covid that didn’t happen. We ended up doing a Quaker ceremony in Mexico. But we may or may not have something fun planned for June 18th.
Green: The great thing about Bingo is that you can come by yourself or, even better, come as a big group and get a whole table. You can bring drinks and snacks and be social. The regular tables are communal style, so it’s a great way to meet people, see some great entertainment, and get harassed by the BVDs. And you have a chance to win some money!
I won $200 there the last time I went!
Olthuis: That’s fantastic!
It was! But even without winning money, just being there and having so much fun was a win. But back to you Sean, who would you contact at a seance?
Green: Whitney Houston.
Ha! I tried to hit on her once at the Mann music center!
Green: What?!? That’s great. You’ve got good taste!
You both have traveled, what’s the most adventurous thing you’ve eaten (by American standards)?
Olthuis: I have a really delicate stomach, so I can’t imagine. I’m boring when it comes to that, especially when traveling; I’m already afraid of getting sick from bad water. But I have had frog legs and crickets here in Philly.
Well, you have me beat. What’s your happy/sad song?
Green: There’s an artist named Bree Runway; she has a song called, “Somebody Like You” that has been on repeat for me for a while.
What store would you choose to max out your credit card?
Olthuis: TJ Maxx all the way!
Green: We are the original Maxxinistas.
Olthuis: You can get everything there, things for your home, wardrobe, food, anything!
Last thing that made you laugh out loud?
Olthuis: [Moves closer to the zoom camera and points out cuts on his nose] If you can’t tell, last week I got clotheslined on my bike by a metal pole. I really thought I was cruising on my bike and then wham! Not funny in the moment, but I can laugh at it now! I imagine myself as a cartoon.
Okay fashionistas, last question. Favorite piece of clothing?
Olthuis: I have a leopard print, pony hair, Versace motor cycle jacket. [Laughing] I bought it when we were doing well, before the pandemic. It was on sale and I had to have it. It’s literally my favorite, it feels like me! Take a look!
Green: [producing a thong sized object] Mine is a little smaller! This is my favorite article of clothing. It’s from a brand called, “Tuckituppp”. It’s the BEST drag panty ever! When we dance we kick our legs up and this little thong is so good. This one is a nude colored latex, but they come in different colors and textures. I’m obsessed.
Well, I look forward to seeing you kick up your legs and anything else on the 18th. Thanks for the chat!