It might be the dead of winter, but it’s still Pumpkin season in New Hope.
Local drag star Miss Pumpkin (a.k.a. Michael Gardner) is celebrating her 25th anniversary in drag with a Mardi Gras-themed show to benefit New Hope Celebrates, Feb. 17 at Bucks County Playhouse.
“It’s not easy,” Gardner said about lasting 25 years as a drag entertainer. “It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. I move a little slower and the heels aren’t as high as they used to be.”
The show finds Gardner coming full circle, as he first performed as Miss Pumpkin 25 years ago in New Hope.
Gardner reflected on how much things have changed, even in New Hope, since he started.
“Twenty-five years ago, there were three gay bars in town and, even though this town is extremely gay-friendly, where it just doesn’t matter and everyone is accepted here, we had three different bars to go to,” he said. “Now, I do a show at John and Peter’s in New Hope the last Sunday of every month, which is the ‘straight bar’ I work at. But it’s not straight. It’s New Hope: Everybody mixes, which is nice. They used to have to come to us to a gay bar, but now we’re everywhere. Now I can be doing a show at any bar or restaurant in this town for any event. We did a tribute for the fire department. I don’t think that would happen anywhere else.”
Gardner added that he would have never imagined drag becoming as mainstream as it has when he started performing.
“It was definitely a gay thing,” he said. “That was it. People came to the clubs. Now it’s accepted everywhere. Now you see a lot of straight guys getting dressed in drag for Halloween, which cracks me up. We just did a winter festival here last week and there was a tribute to an older couple in town and I was the special guest entertainment. A few years ago, we did a thing where we put the straight men in drag and the drag queens coached them to do a show for charity. This was one of my people and he was an older gentleman and let’s just say he wasn’t the prettiest but, because of that and our friendship, I got to speak at his testimonial last week, which was kind of fun.”
Gardner joked that he has witnessed first-hand how clumsy straight guys can be when it comes to the art of drag.
“They’re usually horribly bad because they don’t practice enough and they are screaming in agony as they are putting their shoes on or the bodysuit and the waist-cincher,” he said. “We laugh at them. Now you know what we go through every time you bring your wife to a show. They love to pick on us, like ‘Hey, give our wives some make-up lessons.’ And we always side with the wives: Shut up and go buy her something nice. They try to walk in there like they’ve been riding horses bareback across the desert. They can’t think to keep their knees together. It’s comical.”
But Gardner said that kind of slapstick spectacle humor is well in Miss Pumpkin’s comfort zone as a performer.
“I’m very bawdy and comedic,” he said. “If I can go for the laugh, I go for the laugh. I’m not standing there doing some sad ballad. If I can roller-skate out on stage and crash and make people laugh, I will. If I can wear water balloons for breasts and have them bounce all over the place, I will. I’m very much the comedian of drag family up here.”
Gardner said he drew inspiration from New Hope’s drag family when he was starting out, along with some musical icons.
“Back in the day it was Tinsel Garland, who is still around,” he said of his influences. “I still do a show with her once a year. She’s out in Pittsburgh now. Also, Monica Ray, who was a great entertainer in the area back in the day. And of course Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler and Dolly Parton. We all love our divas.”
Like many drag performers, Gardner said he is happy to pass along his knowledge to the younger generation.
That is, if they are willing to accept it.
“Some do, some don’t,” he said. “A lot of them create their own thing and don’t want to be told. There are others that do look up to us and listen when we say, ‘Try this cosmetic’ or ‘Do this; you’re still a boy in a dress and you need to make the illusion.’ Some do it as an androgynous thing or they want to be a club kid, and others want to be that person or their own character. It’s interesting. It’s about 50/50. Here, we take the new ones under our wings. Some take it and use it and some say, ‘Oh, you’re a crazy old person.’ No, we’re not. We’ve been doing it forever. Listen to us.”
For Miss Pumpkin’s 25th anniversary show, Gardner said he’s pulling out all the stops.
“I have a huge production number for the opening and the closing, which is going to be a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to do things that everyone said I was too young to do. I was always an old showgirl stuck in a young showgirl’s body. Now I’m doing the songs that I’ve always wanted to do, but now it’s a little more appropriate and funnier and campier that I’m doing them.”
When asked about the highlights of his drag career, Gardner said there are many, most of which come from living in a supportive, open-minded community.
“New Hope is amazing in the way that, if someone is sick or in trouble, we put together a show or event to help pay medical costs,” he said. “I can’t roller-skate but I’ve been on roller-skates doing Olivia Newton John’s ‘Xanadu.’ And I love seeing people falling over from laughter because it’s funny to watch and they are gasping for breath because I’m doing something utterly ridiculous. The first year we did our gay Pride parade here, I came down the street and the place was packed. I heard them all screaming my name. I’m blessed to live here. I’m lucky to live in such a wonderful little town.”
Bucks County Playhouse presents Miss Pumpkin performing in “Mardi Gras Drag Madness,” 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17, 70 S. Main St. For more information or tickets, call 215-862-2121 or visit www.bcptheater.org.