SAN FRANCISCO – Camp had unexpectedly decamped from the stages of this most flamboyant of cities about a decade ago, and at the worst possible time, too – the holiday season.
What a drag.
The vaunted "A Karen Carpenter Christmas" had become nothing but a fond, warm-and-fuzzy, misty- watercolored memory for those who seek seasonal snark and snickers. "Christmas With the Crawfords" had, sadly, bent its last wire coat hanger, as well.
You could just picture scores of San Francisco drag queens crowding unemployment offices in their slit skirts and fright wigs, bereft of seasonal work. Their legions of fans, too, no doubt felt a gaping maw of emptiness without a campy show to provide a Christmas chortle or three.
For Heklina, a.k.a. Stefan Grygelko, this simply would not stand. Heklina, whose 4-inch heels first clacked on the streets of San Francisco about the time the curtain was closing on "Karen Carpenter," could have simply mourned the passing of an era like everyone else. But all that sobbing would've ruined her mascara and, besides, she had plans eight years ago to pick up the torch and run with a new idea she hoped would reach "holiday tradition" status.
Was San Francisco ready for "The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes"?
It was, dear reader. Oh, it certainly was.
In fact, the drag show based on the beloved 1980s sitcom about four geriatric women sharing a house and wacky adventures in Miami Beach has become something of a San Francisco tradition, not the least of which is because the show appeals to two important San Francisco demographics: the LGBT community and terminal hipsters.
Yes, sometime around 2005, those oh-so-ironic hipsters started wearing "Golden Girls" T-shirts to match their horn-rimmed glasses and fixie bikes. Why? Just because. If you have to ask a hipster about a certain accoutrement, well, guess you're not a hipster, then.
As for the gay and lesbian community, it has always held the "Girls" close to its heart. As Heklina and a gaggle of fans patiently explained to this clueless straight, white, middle-aged suburban male, it's a show about growing old in a "chosen family," a major concern for this demographic in the pre-gay marriage epoch. And, of course, the sitcom starred hulking, husky-voiced Bea Arthur – the closest thing a real woman can get to a drag queen – and man-crazy Rue McClanahan, who could serve as a role model to any number of gay men. Plus, Betty White and Estelle Getty were just so darn cute in their roles.
"The great thing about the 'Golden Girls,' " Heklina said, "is that for a show of that time, they surprisingly handled a lot of issues that were gay-themed. We took our show directly from the episodes. They had an HIV episode – which was brave for the time – but we don't do that one. Kind of a downer. But we definitely do the ones featuring Blanche's gay brother, Clayton."
All four characters – the drag counterparts of Dorothy (Arthur), Blanche (McClanahan), Rose (White) and Sophia (Getty), that is – have assembled at the ornate Victoria Theatre in the Mission District for a month's worth of performances (through Dec. 30).
To be present at opening night was to see a significant San Francisco subculture reveling in holiday cheer. Gays, straights and those lying somewhere in between were engaged right from the first piano notes of the "Golden Girls" theme song – the campy but heartfelt "Thank You for Being a Friend."
Though the show was not billed as an audience-participation event, it just seemed the thing to do. So, of course, they sang along to the theme song – not at all embarrassed that they knew every single word of the lyrics. They also echoed the refrains from the old TV advertisements played during set changes between scenes. Remember the "Who wears short shorts?" commercial for Nair? Well, the crowd here sure did.
The episodes themselves are surprisingly true to the originals. Heklina said the fans demand nothing less. She said she and her cohorts don't "take the exact, word-for-word script," which is one reason she says they can get away with re-creating a TV program. The other reason: The fair use doctrine, which holds that copyrighted material can be used for satiric or parodic purposes. Heklina said that, though none of the four lead actresses ever saw the drag re-creation (only White is alive), "one of the show's original writers has come. He said he had a lot of fun."
What's not to like? Heklina portrays Dorothy, the sarcastic, cutting and (sorry, but it's true) mannish Arthur character, and makes it look so easy that it doesn't even seem like acting. But Dorothy is merely the straight man (in a manner of speaking) to Rose and Blanche, who get all the funny lines.
Matthew Martin's Blanche, in particular, is an audience favorite, with an insatiable thirst for men. Veteran drag performer Pollo Del Mar mugs shamelessly but winningly as the dimwitted Rose, though her facial expressions and painted-on smile brought to mind Tammy Faye Bakker more than Betty White.
In the episode in which Clayton comes to visit, and comes out, Rose tells Blanche, "Oh, we'd better put out our welcome mat, then."
Blanche: "We don't have a welcome mat."
Rose: "What about the one Dorothy says is at the foot of your bed?"
Cue the laughs.
But this was no canned laugh track. These were belly laughs from a live audience. And it really wasn't overly bawdy, either.
"It's probably the only family-friendly show I do," Heklina said. "You can bring your mom, your children, grandparents, anybody. As long as you're not homophobic and hate drag queens."
Not that I doubted Heklina, but to test her contention, I searched the crowd for the most flaming straight people I could find.
I introduced myself to middle-aged Joy Crosser and Bob Leonard, who are married but have a bicoastal relationship. (She lives in San Francisco, he in Deale, Md.) Joy wore a bright-red Christmas sweater and a jaunty felt hat; Bob had on gray slacks and a button-down. This was their first time at the "Golden Girls" show. The next day, they were scheduled to see "The Nutcracker."
"We thought it would be fun," Crosser said.
"It was either this or go to a charity auction," Leonard added. "This is a lot cheaper."
Leonard had never seen the original "Golden Girls" in the 1980s and '90s.
"It was on too late," he said. "I went to bed really early back then. But I really wanted to come tonight. You might find something like this in Baltimore, but you'd have to search for it. In San Francisco, this is mainstream."
Seventh annual 'The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes'
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 30.
Where: Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco
More information: goldengirlssf.eventbrite.com