“Dugan’s Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady” by Owen Keehnen— How It Was

Keehnen, Owen. “Dugan’s Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady”, OutTales, 2018.

How It Was

Amos Lassen

Owen Keehnen, Jeffrey Mark Bruce and Richard Knight Jr. remind us of how it once was at the hottest disco in Chicago. Dugan’s Bistro was the place to be for gay men who love to dance.

From 1973-1982, the sign above the door and on the club’s matchbooks read: “Dugan’s Bistro, the Home of the Bearded Lady.” “The Bearded Lady” was a celebrity unique to Chicago who for over ten years was covered in the LGBT magazines and in the gossip columns of the “Chicago Tribune” and “Sun Times” as well as several national and international publications. Even though he was quite famous as the Bearded Lady, his life story was mysterious and it was not until Owen Keehnen published this book that we learn anything about him. (Let me tell you that his little book is quite a treat and I relished every word as I read).  We see how time and place came together to allow the rise of both the LGBT community and the Bearded Lady. This is a story of the decadent nightlife and the exuberance that epitomized the “lost” generation.

Dugan’s Bistro was a genuine nightlife phenomenon as well as the “Home of the Bearded Lady.” This was long before Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision Song Contest wearing a dress and having a beard. The Bearded Lady was every bit a star and he faced the press head-on and loving the limelight. He was truly a celebrity at a time when so many of us dared not leave what we thought was the safety of the closet. He loved everyone and everyone loved him. I love that he dared to be who he felt he was.

He was audacious and lived by his own rules and was paid well to perform and “carry on” at private parties yet he always made it back to the Bistro before midnight. He seemed to be everywhere but he always came back to the Bistro. He loved attention and do what was necessary to get it even if it meant posing with a pig next to his face. Bearded Lady always dressed for the occasion like in the 1976 Chicago Pride Parade when he wore a mini-sundress, a hat and veil and satin opera gloves. Going to a rock concert, he wore an enormous polka dot ante-bellum gown with a zebra print shawl, and a huge hat with ermine tails hanging from the brim. Over the hat was a surfeit of black bridal netting that he tied beneath his chin in an oversized bow. He sparkled with glitter.

He seemed to become more outrageous in every subsequent photo. He was always over the top and read to raise a ruckus. He even made it into Time Magazine in 1977 in a piece showed him waiting in line at a concert wearing silver platform shoes with black and gold ankle ribbons, silvery hose with garters, a leopard print hot pants/top combo, gold workout belt, black coat, pink sunglasses and a biker hat with a pink floral purse slung over his shoulder. The leopard print top was open to his waist, revealing two slabs of meat fashioned into a bra. When Time hit the stands he was ecstatic and came onto the Bistro stage that night wearing a red, white, and blue sequin outfit with lit sparklers in his hair screaming, “Your Mother has made Time Magazine!”

It is so good that we have people who are concerned with recording our history. Imagine how much we would have lost without this wonderful look at a time that is gone forever. Writer Owen Keehnen book gives us an in depth  description of Dugan’s Bistro and it’s founder and his entourage. It does not then take much thought to imagine how it was once. This is a quick and short read at less than 150 pages and at times it is as audacious as its subject and I am sure the same kind of fun.  And there are bonuses—-we have “My First Gay Bar” by Richard Knight Jr. and wonderful photographs. We also learn that Jeffrey Mark Bruce made contributions to the text but there is no index. “The only time a gay person goes straight is when they go straight to the Index to check the names”… The Bearded Lady

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