Drag in the House: Queens look back at what made Parliament House so special

(Photo by Ebyabe, from Wikimedia Commons)

The Facebook post from the world famous Parliament House on Oct. 28 was a shock to Central Florida’s LGBTQ community.

“For over 45 years, The Parliament House has called Orange Blossom Trail our home,” the post began. “We put up a good fight over the last 11 months to secure financing and renovate our existing property. Unfortunately, that fight ended today with no deal.”

Those words were followed with the announcement that the LGBTQ club that had been a staple in Orlando’s community for nearly half a century would have its Last Dance Nov. 1.

While rumors of the Parliament House closing seem to have been around for nearly as long as the resort has been an LGBTQ safe space, the recent coronavirus pandemic appears to have been the final hill that was insurmountable.

Everything seemed to move fast once the announcement was made. The Last Dance was four days later, less than a week after that there was a chain-link fence around the property and its new owners had applied to the city to have the building torn down.

Parliament House carries with it a large part of Central Florida’s LGBTQ history, hosting some of Orlando’s largest celebrations every year from parties during Gay Days and Come Out With Pride to huge Halloween and New Year’s Eve blowouts.

The stage played host to hundreds of national headlining performers; however, the thing that made the Parliament House what it was were those faces who greeted us every night.

“It has never been about the building,” Parliament House wrote in its goodbye post. “It’s about the people,” and some of the people that kept us coming back night after night, year after year were the amazing drag queens who ruled the stages of the iconic resort. Legends like Miss P, Miss Sammy and Carmella Marcella Garcia.

We spoke with four of Parliament House’s iconic queens who were there in its final year about what it was like to perform in that historic space and what is next for them.

Ms. Darcel Stevens

Ms. Darcel Stevens hosts the annual fundraiser Babes in Bonnets in the Footlight Theatre in 2019. (Photo by Jake Stevens)

As the Parliament House’s entertainment director for the last 20 years, Ms. Darcel Stevens has seen history embed itself in the walls of the world famous nightclub.

“Parliament House wasn’t just a building, it was a refuge, a church, it was a safe haven. It was so many things to so many people,” Stevens says. “That’s what was so precious about the Parliament House. When the shuttle blew up, when 9/11 happened, when Pulse happened; we didn’t run home, we ran to the Parliament House. That was our place, that was our sanctuary to draw strength from each other. And now we don’t have a place like that. For a place to be that you need walls that have been through the test of time. And those walls were fortified with history that could give you that comfort.”

Stevens, who first performed at the Parliament House in 1992, remembers what a pivotal moment it was for a drag queen to get the chance to showcase their talents there, especially in those days.

“There was something really profound about performing at the world-famous Parliament House and on that stage,” he says. “It was long before ‘[RuPaul’s] Drag Race’ and you knew you really made it in the drag world if you performed at the Parliament House.”

Stevens, who became entertainment director in 2000 after the legendary Miss P retired and shortly after Don Granatstein and Susan Unger purchased the Parliament House, says that one of the reasons queens felt like they had made it there is because of how they felt performing in the Footlight Theatre.

“There are not a lot of places where people perform drag that have a theatre setting like that, with the stage, the lights, the sound,” he says. “There are not a lot of institutions that cater to that, so it was always a privilege to get into that theatre and it made you feel not only like an entertainer but it made you feel like a professional.”

Stevens kept that feeling alive by continuing to enforce a set of ground rules instilled in him by Miss P.

“There were certain etiquettes within the theatre,” Stevens says. “There are rules of the theatre that keep that hall hallow and I made sure those rules continued. Because in our lifestyle it is so easy to make things very lax.”

After 27 years of performing in the Footlight Theatre, Stevens says he still had an element of nervousness stepping out on the stage, up until his last performance on it.

“Every time it was that way and that is because of the legacy of that stage, for all the entertainers that graced it before me,” he says. “That is what gave me that little extra jitter and nervous energy. But all entertainers will tell you that you should be a little nervous when you perform anywhere, especially on a stage like that. You harness that nervousness to make your performance shine a little brighter.”

Stevens says he has seen a lot of legendary entertainers on the Footlight Theatre stage over the years, icons of drag like Rusty Faucet, Lorri DelMar and Geraldine Jones.

“These are some living legends who are still here, and I’m a very sentimental person and someone who loves history, so whenever I step onto the stage or when I see them, I realize I stand on the shoulders of all of these great entertainers who may not be in their prime anymore but they are still relevant in my eyes.”

Of all the amazing things the Parliament House has helped Stevens to experience — meeting Matthew Shepard’s parents, chatting with Jordan Sparks about her relationship with Whitney Houston, becoming Twitter buddies with Jennifer Hudson — the moments that mean the most to him are the ones spent guiding and molding future talents.

“That is really gratifying to me,” he says. “To take a girl who is raw, doesn’t know anything about the theatre or the business, and help turn her into an entertainer. Then watch them go into the world knowing that they now have the tools and the skills to make it anywhere.”

After the Parliament House closed its doors, Stevens took to the road launching his “Bitch Gotta Work Tour.”

“I’m enjoying the tour right now, going around on the weekends, meeting folks,” he says. “I’m finding myself being an ambassador for the Parliament House, I always thank people for being a part of the Parliament House family.”

Addison Taylor

Addison Taylor first visited the Parliament House at the age of 15 and started dressing in drag a few months later when he would go out.

“My first performance was a Wednesday night ‘Anything Goes’ talent show with Miss Sammy and Carol Lee in 2000,” he says.

Addison Taylor hosted Flesh Fridays each week bringing in adult entertainers. (Photo Courtesy Parliament House’s Facebook)

Taylor says he doesn’t remember much from his first performance other than he was “awful.”

“I wore a pair of girl’s jeans, a chunky boot and a blue gypsy top from the Magic Mall with huge hoop earrings and a ponytail,” he says.

Taylor moved on from the jeans and chucky boots and went on to become Miss Comedy Queen 2006 and Miss Large & Lovely 2009, performing hundreds of times on the Footlight Theatre stage and hosting several nights at the Parliament House over the years.

“There are too many [favorite memories from Parliament House] to mention,” Taylor says. “This sounds corny but they have all been my favorite. I’ve seen thousands of performances from queens, hundreds of stage shows and private events, and been involved in shows on the stage, disco and on the pool stage over the last 20 years. To be able to pick out a couple of favorites would be impossible. I’ve enjoyed the bad performances from baby queens just as much as the incredible ones from seasoned entertainers.”

Taylor echoes Stevens about “making it in drag” once you’d performed at the Parliament House, and says that he is proudest of the fact that he will be remembered by people the same way that he remembers the girls that came before him.

“I always, always, ALWAYS had to be front and center when Sierrah Foxx and Maya Andrews were performing,” Taylor says. “My drag mother introduced me to Maya after a show one Sunday and I was so star struck that I don’t even think that I could speak.”

With the Parliament House now closed, Taylor is moving on to Southern Nights and District Dive where he will bartend and host Bad Ass Bingo. You can keep up with Taylor by going to TheAddisonTaylor.com.

April Fresh

Loc Robertson goes by the name of April Fresh when he is all dragged up. As a patron, Robertson started attending Parliament House in the mid-’90s and in 1997 he was hired on as a bartender.

“The Parliament House is responsible for starting April Fresh,” Robertson says. “When I started working at Parliament House we had an employee turnabout. I did a comedy number for it and that’s when people started to really enjoy what I do. That made me realize that comedy is my forte.”

Robertson won his first pageant, Miss Comic Strip, in 1999 and started dressing in drag during his Tuesday night happy hour behind the bar. “I needed to improve my makeup skills,” he says, “so getting into drag every week kind of forced me to figure it out.”

Loc Robertson, as April Fresh, accepts his WAVE Award at Ember in 2019. (Photo by Dylan Todd)

Parliament House gave Robertson the opportunity to start his own pageant in 2005, Miss Comedy Queen.

“We were trying to do a local thing that was going to be a serious pageant, but based on humor and creativity,” he says. “We were like ‘we don’t know how this is going to work but let’s give it a shot’ and it blew up.”

15 years later, Miss Comedy Queen is now a three-day national pageant with people coming from across the country to watch and participate in it.

“The fact that something we just started there as a test has become this national thing has been really awesome and it wouldn’t be possible without the Parliament House,” Robertson says.

Parliament House has had an array of ‘80s talent perform on its stage, something Robertson — as an ‘80s enthusiast — is going to miss seeing.

“I’m a concert goer and I love live music,” he says, “and the fact that we have had a lot of ‘80s artists there coming to do concerts is something I’ll never forget. Cyndi Lauper is my favorite of all time and so the fact that she played there several years ago for Gay Days was really awesome.”

Robertson’s love of the ‘80s carried over to his Manic Mondays night at Parliament House , but one thing he has been most proud of is his April Fresh’s Comedy Brunch at the Footlight Theatre.

“They approached me about doing it and I was hopeful, much like with this comedy queen pageant, I was hopeful that it would do well and it did. It was hugely successful and many of them were sold out,” Robertson says.

Even though Parliament House is now closed, that doesn’t mean April Fresh is done bringing you brunch.

“I’m carrying that tradition onto Southern Nights for the time being,” Robertson says. “Get your tickets now to April Fresh’s Comedy Brunch at Southern Nights with food provided by The Hammered Lamb.”

April Fresh’s next Comedy Brunch is Dec. 13.

MrMs Adrien

MrMs Adrien started in drag doing talent shows at Pulse. That’s how he met Taylor who would eventually bring Adrien to Parliament House for a new Monday night gig.

“I hate competitions, so I was excited to just have an open stage where I don’t have to worry about impressing anybody and I can just go have fun,” Adrien says. “I remember going and the second I walked into the Parliament House you felt like you’re walking into history. You start thinking about the people who must have walked through these halls and the performers who must have hit this stage, and that was before I knew anything. I had no concept of how legendary the place was.”

Taylor gave Adrien his first paid job at Parliament House in 2013.

“I was on cast with her for a night called Drink 101. I wasn’t wearing pads, I wasn’t wearing wigs, I wasn’t wearing tits; I was like a boy queen, he says. “The Parliament House was so influential to me back then, just having a place to go and not worry about impressing and not worry about winning. Just be an artist.”

Adrien built himself up as an artist not only by performing at Parliament House, but also by watching queens on the stage in the iconic theatre.

“One of my favorite memories from Parliament is my very first Footlight Player show I ever saw. I was probably 19 years old and Sharon Needles was there … Nina Flowers was in the show and then obviously Darcel, Sassy Devine, Shanttel DeMarco, Barbie Royale; just the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen in your life and that was the first time I saw Darcel host,” Adrien recalls. “I just remember watching and thinking this is like the Broadway of Drag. This is just the best of the best.”

Adrien moved to New York but the opportunity to bring one of his shows to the Footlight Theatre stage was too much to turn down.

“They asked me to come do my ‘Devil Wears Prada’ production. Just being trusted with that stage that I respected so much was overwhelming,” he says. “That was the beginning of being able to write the ‘Rocky Horror Drag Show,’ to being a part of ‘The Golden Gals’ and all the TVLand Live! shows which have been so monumental in my life.”

Adrien’s “Rocky Horror Drag Show” was the final ticketed show to run in the Footlight Theatre.

MrMs Adrien (front) and cast perform “Rocky Horror Drag Show,” the final show on the Footlight Theatre stage before the resort closed its doors. (Photo by Jeremy Williams)

“I felt a tremendous responsibility and I’m proud that that show was the final one,” he says. “That’s certainly the biggest show I’ve ever done as far as production but with the set, the costumes and the fact that Ginger [Minj] and Gidget [Galore] agreed to do the show, another two entertainers that I respect tremendously. It sucks that it had to close but if we had to go out, that’s a kick ass way to go out.”

Granatstein has said that he plans to reopen Parliament House in a new location and while some commented online that the name should end with the razing of the resort, Adrien says he welcomes a new location for the iconic name.

“When the dust settles, this is going to be a beautiful thing for the Parliament House, for the city of Orlando and for the gay community of Orlando,” he says. “It’s insane the size of our community and the few safe spaces that we have. This town is lousy with talent and on the flip side this town is lousy with queer people who need safe spaces to go and let their hair down. Not just that we need it, we deserve it.”

In the meantime, you can catch Adrien every Saturday at Stonewall Bar with Savage Saturdays and get your tickets to see him, along with Minj, Galore, Divine Grace and Doug Ba’aser in “The Golden Gals: A Christmas Musical” at the newly-opened Haos on Church.

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