It’s Saturday night, and the dance floor of the upper room at Denver’s Mercury Café is packed with roughly 80 gyrating bodies.
Roughly half a dozen are men. That includes the guy in the black wig, black mini-dress and black-and-white striped tights. He’s shaved his armpits for the occasion, but not his goatee and mustache.
Welcome to the annual performance of The Dead Sinatras. This rite of summer, like every other Dead Sinatras gig since 1988, is an act of goofy music and gay liberation by a troupe of lesbians. On this night, they bring a sense of freedom and smiles to 400 or so fans who have shoehorned themselves into the packed nightclub.
“The Nancies,” as the band’s members call themselves, are at their best. But don’t be looking for any somber Indigo Girls or Melissa Etheridge messages. Don’t be looking for any punk rock, even though one of the Nancies refers to the group as “the schlocky step-sisters of The Dead Kennedys.”
In the case of The Dead Sinatras, getting down means looking “glamorous,” while “zeroing in on the cheesiest music of the Sixties.”
The joke is not on the six “Nancies” and one “Nancy Boy” who make up the band. The joke is on the sexists of another era and the homophobes of today.
The message – if there is one – is this: Proudly be who you are. The mostly same-sex couples grooving on the dance floor do just that. There are women and men from state and local government here. There is at least one judge. There are teachers and lawyers. There are disabled people, some trans-gendered folks and a decent dose of heterosexuals. In other words, this is a cross-section of Denver joined in its appreciation of diversity.
One child wears a T-shirt that says, “My dad rocks.”
So do the Nancies. Virtually all of them sing. They can do three part harmony. They can also do choreographed steps in their mini-skirts and patent-leather go-go boots. The bee-hived hair-do emerging from the head of singer/saxophonist Kay Conger is so immense that you fully expect it to pull her over backwards.
Instead, Conger and band mates Kathleen Corbett, Sabrina Green, Mara Pawlowski and Kevin Gilmore remain upright, playing guitars, a bass, drums, a saxophone and, yes, an accordion. A “special mystery guest,” Monica Marquez, cross-dressed as “Herb Alpert,” punches up the beat with her trumpet.
The “Nancy dancers” – the guy with the shaved pits and facial hair and a puckish woman in a mod, red cap – grind on small platforms in front of the stage, then run into the audience and urge people on to the dance floor.
Way over the top, you say?
God, they hope so.
By day, these people are perfectly respectable. Guitarist and lyricist Corbett is an architectural historian working on her Ph.D. Conger designs custom jewelry. Accordion player Sabrina Green is a fire hydrant mechanic for the water department. Guitarist Pawlowski is a retired lawyer. Gilmore – aka “Nancy Boy” – works in an archaeological institute at the University of Denver and, like Corbett, is a Ph.D. candidate. Marquez is an assistant solicitor general for the state.
The original act, started two decades ago, included Corbett, Conger, Green and two other women. It was a practical joke intended to inject some levity into a not so light and witty annual event called The Lesbian Follies.
“We learned two songs – ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ and ‘Venus,’” said Conger.
They outfitted themselves in “dime store hooker” fashions from thrift shops and performed.
“Our drummer didn’t have any drums,” Conger explained. “She played on a suitcase and a phone book.”
Equipment or not, The Dead Sinatras soon got offers to play other gigs. This, in turn, led to regular rehearsals and an expanded set list, stuff like the TV theme “I Dream of Genie,” “Call Me” and anything with a sexist bent.
“A sexist song sung by lesbians turned the intent on its head,” Conger said.
The Nancies did AIDS fundraisers and gay and lesbian community fundraisers. But in 1992, as bigots tried to constitutionally outlaw gay rights with Colorado’s notorious Amendment 2, the band found a serious mission for their foolishness.
“Amendment 2 was a slap in the face to those of us who had adopted this state as home,” Conger said. “We were poor, but we could raise a heck of a lot of money doing this, and we did.”
Colorado voters approved Amendment 2 before the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the amendment as unconstitutional. The Nancies saw it through to the end, but in 1996 they disbanded. Eight years later, in 2004, they reunited for one or two shows a year to battle a new foe:
The Bush Administration.
New songs include a parody of the president called “Georgy Boy,” sung to the tune of “Georgy Girl” and “Cheney,” sung to the tune of “Windy.”
And so the Nancies intone:
Who told us all about mass destruction?
Weapons inspectors, what do they know?
Who got the feds to hire Halliburton?
Everyone knows it’s Cheney.
Everyone who hears the Dead Sinatras knows they are a hoot.
As the three-hour set ends at the Mercury Café, the audience that isn’t on the dance floor stands and applauds wildly. The Nancies, the celebrants know, are probably done for another year.
But oh, where they might turn up next time.
“We got a couple of offers to play at events during the Democratic National Convention,” Conger confides. “We hope to play. We want to get back in the game. We’re just bristling at what’s gone on the last seven years.”