Nightclub owner Drollinger is 1st San Francisco drag laureate

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday May 18, 2023
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D'Arcy Drollinger has been named San Francisco's inaugural drag laureate. Photo: Gooch
D'Arcy Drollinger has been named San Francisco's inaugural drag laureate. Photo: Gooch

Oasis nightclub owner D'Arcy Drollinger will serve as San Francisco's inaugural drag laureate. Her tenure in the first-in-the-world position coincides with her working to open a film production studio in the city where she plans to shoot her new feature motion picture.

Mayor London Breed will officially introduce Drollinger as the city's first drag laureate Thursday afternoon at the LGBT Community Center. As an ambassador for the drag community and LGBTQ nightlife, Drollinger will serve for the next 18 months.

"It is pretty awesome. I am super proud and excited to, sort of, help define what this role is and does," Drollinger told the Bay Area Reporter during a May 15 phone interview to talk about being selected. "It just makes me want to be that much more fabulous and sparkle that much more harder."

Two weeks ago, prior to her leaving for a trip to Israel, Breed called Drollinger to inform her of her decision.

"I know, getting a call coming from the cellphone of the mayor is pretty cool," said Drollinger, 54, who was born in San Francisco and, at age 3, first dressed up in drag as the beloved nanny character Mary Poppins.

Having "to play dumb" ever since with her family and friends who have asked her for updates on who had been picked has "been very difficult," noted Drollinger. She was forbidden from talking about it publicly until the mayor's office officially announced the news May 18.

"I swear, it is more locked down than who are the new contestants on 'RuPaul's Drag Race,'" joked Drollinger, referring to the globally popular televised drag contest with competitions now in numerous countries.

Being drag laureate comes with a $55,000 honorarium to help cover the costs of Drollinger performing her duties. It is modeled after the city poet laureate role.

Breed had secured the funding last year, and the city library is administering it since it also oversees the poet laureate program. The mayor's office did not make Breed available for an interview with the B.A.R. about her selecting Drollinger.

In a statement, Breed said, "While drag culture is under attack in other parts of the country, in San Francisco we embrace and elevate the amazing drag performers who through their art and advocacy have contributed to our city's history around civil rights and equality. I am proud to invest in programs that create a platform for individuals who, like D'Arcy, are sending a message to the nation and the world that our great city is a beacon for acceptance and opportunities for all."

Drollinger was one of five applicants for the post who were recommended to the mayor by a selection committee tasked with reviewing all 16 people who had applied. They had to be full-time San Francisco residents at least 21 years old.

"I think it is an amazing choice. D'Arcy is a leader in our drag community," said selection committee member Michael Nguyen, a gay attorney who performs under his drag persona of Juicy Liu. "I am very excited to see what happens next with this new drag laureate."

San Francisco was the second city in California to initiate having an official drag ambassador. In 2020, West Hollywood was the first known city anywhere in the world to approve the creation of a drag laureate.

But its selection process was delayed as city officials retooled their position and sought more funding for it. It now comes with an annual honorarium of $15,000 for appearances and a yearly event the drag laureate will be expected to host during their two-year tenure.

The city's Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission is set to recommend a person for the position at its May 25 meeting. The West Hollywood City Council is then expected to finalize the selection at its June 26 meeting, with its inaugural drag laureate serving from July 1 through June 30, 2025.

"We are still planning for an in-person installation event for the Inaugural Drag Laureate on July 16, International Drag Day," West Hollywood Arts Manager Rebecca Ehemann told the B.A.R. this week.

Asked about collaborating with her Southern California counterpart, Drollinger told the B.A.R. it would be "a lot of fun" to do so.

"I would love to invite us to maybe create something for California, if not the nation," said Drollinger. "But we could definitely look at creating some sort of bigger events that reach out past our cities."

Cultural heritage

As the B.A.R. has previously reported, having an ambassador for the local drag community was proposed in San Francisco's groundbreaking LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy first released in 2018. Due to the COVID pandemic, it is now seen as a way to boost local nightlife venues and drag performers whose revenues were impacted by the global health crisis over the last three years.

Working to ensure her club survived the forced closures imposed on nightlife venues, as well as her employees and the drag performers who graced Oasis' stage, motivated Drollinger to apply to be the drag laureate. In 2020, she and her team quickly began posting recorded shows online, which included ways for people to make donations.

It led to their launching the OasisTV subscription service as a way to secure financial support. Drollinger also launched the meal delivery service "Meals on Heels" that employed drag performers who would lip synch a song at people's doorsteps.

"It really felt like my life has grown a lot in the last three years, working through the pandemic and coming out of the pandemic, and working so hard with my community and the San Francisco community at-large, that it felt like it made sense for me to take something like this on," said Drollinger. "You know, when reading the description of what they were looking for and the qualifications, it felt a lot like, in many ways, it was speaking to me. I might not have said that pre-pandemic."

D'Arcy Drollinger performs at Oasis in 2015. Photo: Steven Underhill  

Ambassador for nightlife
As San Francisco's drag laureate, Drollinger will be expected to participate in and host community events while serving as an ambassador for the city's LGBTQ, arts, nightlife, and entertainment communities. One of her first public events in the role will be presiding as a co-emcee of the public memorial May 23 for Heklina, her close friend and initial co-owner of Oasis when it opened in 2015.

The drag persona of Stefan Grygelko, Heklina died unexpectedly last month while on tour performing in England with her friend Peaches Christ (Joshua Grannell). Along with Sister Roma of the drag philanthropic group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Peaches Christ and Drollinger will introduce the speakers and performers taking the stage during the evening event at the Castro Theatre.

Drollinger told the B.A.R. that she hadn't spoken to Heklina about applying to be drag laureate. They focused more on the projects each was working on when they talked, as Heklina had moved to Palm Springs and sold her shares in Oasis.

"I am sure she would be very jealous," Drollinger quipped about Heklina learning she had been tapped for the post. "You know, obviously, the last six weeks have been really overwhelming in both losing Heklina and what that has done to the community. And it's also been intense, as I am simultaneously moving into this gorgeous space that I got the grant for and I am getting the drag laureate position. It is all fabulous but bittersweet, in a sense, and also a really, really, really important reminder to pay attention to the people you love and live everyday to the fullest and tell those around you that you love them."

As for the grant, Drollinger was referring to roughly $300,000 that has been donated to the nonprofit arts organization she launched last year, Oasis Arts, to support local LGBTQ artists, drag performers, filmmakers, and others. Most of the funding has come from the San Francisco Film Commission and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation.

The bulk of the money has gone into renovating a large commercial space in the South of Market neighborhood on Fourth Street at Bryant. It will have a 5,000 square foot soundstage that local queer filmmakers will be able to use.

It is where Drollinger plans to shoot the sequel to her 2020 film "Shit & Champagne" starring her stripper character Champagne Horowitz Jones Dickerson White. Construction on the space should be completed in July.

"We are creating a fully functional film production studio," said Drollinger. "Because of these amazing two organizations believing in what we are trying to create, we have been able to make it all possible and to move this quickly to create something at this profound of a level."

Coming home to SF
It will be another lasting legacy for Drollinger in the city she called home until the age of 7, when her family moved to Stockton, California. They then relocated to Apia, the capital city of Samoa, due to her mother, who was an anthropologist, being hired for a job in the Polynesian island country.

In 1980, at age 17, Drollinger moved again to Nevada City, California, where her parents taught at a Quaker boarding school. By the early 1990s, she was living back in San Francisco, working at the nightclub 1015 Folsom.

It was there, when RuPaul came to perform her dance hit "Super Model," that Drollinger first dressed up as a drag queen in honor of the special guest. While her look was more that of a club kid, recalled Drollinger, she had "such a good time" she kept dressing up in drag.

She wrote and produced her own four musicals in San Francisco. Wanting to have a career on Broadway, Drollinger moved to New York City in 1998.

She landed a job with the production company behind "Hairspray" and worked on the out-of-town tryouts in Seattle. After it opened on Broadway, Drollinger landed a job assisting the production team behind the musical "The Producers."

Through mutual friends RuPaul hired Drollinger to choreograph her Diva's 2000 concert at Madison Square Garden. Drollinger's last Broadway job was working for costume designer William Ivey Long.

"That was my stint on Broadway. It was exciting and very eye-opening," recalled Drollinger, who moved back to San Francisco in 2011.

Her drag name is the name she was given by her parents. Since D'Arcy works as a gender-neutral name, she decided to use it both personally and professionally, though she acknowledged, "it gets a little bit confusing."

"I am closer to someone like Charles Busch, who is also a writer and a performer," said Drollinger, referring to the acclaimed drag queen and playwright whose "The Confession of Lily Dare" is having its regional premiere this month at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center.

On June 2, Drollinger will join Breed on the Mayor's Balcony at City Hall for the annual raising of the Pride flag to mark Pride Month. She is also likely to take part in the 13th SF Nightlife and Entertainment Summit taking place Monday, June 5, and is already preparing a whole host of parties and performances at Oasis throughout the month.

"I will be very busy this Pride," said Drollinger, joking, "I am going to live my life in drag 24/7."

Her serving as drag laureate comes as Republican lawmakers in states across the country are banning drag events from being held at public venues and criticizing parents for taking their children to drag brunches or drag story hours at bookstores and public libraries. Businesses that host drag shows have also come under fire, threatened with losing their liquor licenses.

Drollinger told the B.A.R. that she finds it "pretty profound" to know San Francisco officials didn't decide to create the position in reaction to the legislative assaults on drag performers. Rather, they have long seen the drag community as a vital part of the city's culture worth fighting to protect and support.

"This isn't a response to that but really shows how much San Francisco appreciates and cares about the drag community," said Drollinger, whose motto is "drag saves the day."

As for why she wanted to take on the extra responsibility of serving as drag laureate, Drollinger joked, "Cuz I am insane and a glutton for punishment."

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