Davenport drag queen balances illusion, reality

Posted Online: April 04, 2013, 9:56 am
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Sometimes being a drag queen is literally a drag.

Dena Cass, 45, of Davenport, is a regular performer in the monthly drag shows ("A Night of Illusions") at The Speakeasy, 1818 3rd Ave., Rock Island; the next one is tonight. She loves getting made up and wearing the flashy costumes every weekend (Ms. Cass also performs in Davenport), but laments that the shows are not as frequent as when she started in the business in the 1980s.

Drag shows -- where gay men or transsexuals like Ms. Cass dress as women -- are more difficult to succeed at today than they were then, she said. With the downturn in the economy, bars aren't putting on or paying for as many shows, Ms. Cass recently said, noting she used to do weeknight shows, but those days are done, she said.

"You really have to love doing it," she said. "It's not something you make money at."

Ms. Cass grew up in the tiny town of Beardstown, Ill. (between Macomb and Springfield), andsaid she knew she was gay as a 2-year-old boy. She started performing in musicals around age 20 in community theater in Springfield, Ill. As a gay man, Ms. Cass was cast as a woman in the first show she tried out for, "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine."

She got a sex-change operation when she was 25, and has lived off and on in Davenport for 20 years. Shehas friends and family in the area.

"I just love to entertain. It's all I've really done," Ms. Cass said. "Musical theater is what I wanted to be part of." Entertainment is"like being a gypsy," having to travel so much, she noted."It's a different kind of life," Ms. Cass said. "I've lived all over." She has performed in 38 states in the U.S., and said drag shows always have an audience since "every state has gay people," she said.

Among many competitions she's been part of, Ms. Cass won the national Miss Continental Plus Pageant title in 1997. That contest is held during Easter weekend each year in Chicago in conjunction with the Miss Continental Elite Pageant -- one of the most coveted titles to hold in the art of "Plus Size" female impersonation.

"A Night of Illusions" has four or five performers on the first Friday night of the month at the Speakeasy, and for the past six months, the 100-plus-seat venue has been consistently at or near capacity, Ms. Cass said."We try to do more of a Vegas-style show, with illusions of the stars," she said.

"We have a lot of parties that come in. It's gone over really well," she said. "It's a great show. It's the cheapest kind of entertainment."

Ms. Cassperforms every weekend at the gay bar Connections, 822 W. 2nd St., Davenport, and said more people feel more comfortable coming to The Speakeasy. "Our crowds are mostly straight," she said. "Night ofIllusions" mostly is lip-synching to music, and taking on personalities of well-known celebrities like Dolly Parton, Elvira and Cher, Ms. Cass said.

"Since starting those shows, they have been very well-received," said Brett Hitchcock, Circa '21 director of audience development. "We've been getting bachelorette parties, groups from law and dental offices around town and even a group of 20 school teachers that came for their Christmas party. We seemed to have found a niche with people that have always wanted to see a drag show but maybe were not be completely comfortable, for whatever reason, going to one of the clubs in Davenport."

The 8 p.m. drag shows are $10 per person (the first Friday of the month), and tickets for all events at The Speakeasy are available at the Circa '21 ticket office, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island or by calling 309-786-7733, ext. 2. For more information, visit circa21.com under "The Speakeasy" or on Facebook at "The Circa '21 Speakeasy."


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