ChuckGillis Eulogy

By Darrin Hagen

These are my snapshots. Now, if this were my mother’s photo album, everything would be blown up to portrait size, mounted under sticky cellophane in chronological order, with little ballpoint labels telling you who’s who.

But this is my family album. They’re just snapshots, because at the time, I didn’t think a full portrait was necessary. They’re just snapshots, a little out of focus because it was all moving pretty fast. They’re just snapshots, but there’s thousands of them... overflowing, spilling out of boxes and basements...shining, perfect moments frozen forever like the river in winter.

I wasn’t there when Chuck was born. I am told he was a sweet, fun-loving kid who never said a mean thing about anyone. But I was there when Lulu was born.

Chuck told me that he had wanted to move to a city where he had no relatives. Obviously, like many of us, he had some self-discovery to do. He looked on a map of Canada, and figured Edmonton would work. The first night he walked into Flashback, he ran into his cousins Gregg and Colin. But he stayed in Edmonton.

Grandma Hole, AKA Mz. Flashback 5 Tina, remembered the first night that Chuck did drag. He was wearing a white Peter Pan blouse and a black flannel skirt. He didn’t have a wig, so of course, he wore his own hair. And – get ready – blue eyeshadow. Lots of it. A librarian on her night out.

Tina and Trash, Mz. Flashback 5 & 6, looked at each other and said, “There’s a Lulu.” 25 years later, they remember that she reminded them of Lulu from Hee Haw.

Chuck’s voyage of self-discovery ended up being a tide of inspiration that swept thousands of us into his stream of humour, creativity and loyalty.

But the Lulu most of you know – the finely polished performer, the amazing wit and skill - had to start somewhere. I feel lucky that I got to be there at the beginning. I was the other queen in Lulu’s very first pro gig. It was my second time in drag. When I first met Lulu, it became immediately obvious that we were of the same mold. Both of us were tall, impossibly loud, wild, and had size fourteen shoes. Like gigantic screaming Barbie dolls with no “off” button. Lulu was one year old.

Around this time, a strip agent that we partied with offered us our first professional gig. She wanted to start booking drag acts in lieu of the strippers that she usually sent to bars. Even though my drag career was less than a week old, Lulu and I said yes and started to put together a show.

“If you’re gonna do this, we might as well go buy you some real tits,” she said. I had “borrowed” hers for my debut, but we were both in this show, so we needed two sets. We went to the bra department at Woodwards and searched for a saleslady. After standing around being ignored for fifteen minutes, we approached an older, non-threatening, matronly woman.

“Can you show us where your prosthetic breasts are?” asked Lulu as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The saleslady didn’t bat an eye. “Certainly,” she said efficiently, and led us to the back of the department. She went to a set of small drawers set discreetly into the wall, opened one, took out a decorator box, opened it and removed a velvet bag with a drawstring, opened it and took out something wrapped in bubble plastic. She unwrapped the plastic, and proudly displayed the breast.

“It’s only $450. Top of the line.”

Lulu and I looked at each other, trying not to laugh. The saleslady was only trying to be helpful, but she had clearly misunderstood.

Lulu smiled and, without missing a beat, said, “Have you got anything in foam?”

We were very practical girls, in many ways.

A week later, we stood on a tavern stage in front of a grimly silent bunch of straight farmers in Gibbons, Alberta, population 2335. They had all showed up looking for naked female flesh, and were instead presented with two six-foot eight amateur drag queens lip-synching to a loud ghetto-blaster. When some of the drunker patrons began screaming they wanted to see some tits, Lulu pulled out her foamies and threw them onto his table. “Here, you can hold onto these. Now shut your hole, honey, ‘cause mine’s making money.” The audience howled. The heckler even laughed. It was my first experience with the power of shock, of turning the tables and making your freak status into a weapon. Gradually the mood shifted from hostility to mild amusement, and by the end of the show, they were even clapping. We each made fifty bucks. It was the first time either of us had gotten paid for doing drag. On the way home, Lulu said, “We have to tell everybody how fabulous it was, or they’ll never let us hear the end of it.” We got to the club and boasted of our triumph, and suddenly we were professional queens.

Lulu rapidly scaled the heights of Edmonton’s drag world, winning the titles of Empress IX and Entertainer of the Year. Lulu was always the consummate performer, even in the early years. But what Lulu did onstage was more than just proficiency or good lipsynch. Lulu had charisma….and a way of reaching out to the audience that was very special. And a versatility that stretched from wicked one-liners to the best big drag ballads money can buy.

He moved to Toronto in 1989, and began working with the legendary Great Imposters under the wing of Rusty Ryan.

Through it all, Chuck and Lulu attracted talent like a magnet. His life was full of people who took their artistic baby-steps under his watchful eye. He was not only a mentor to many, but a muse. With Chuck, no idea seemed too outlandish, no dream impossible. I can honestly say that the years I spent by his side prepared me for almost every challenge I’ve ever faced. Not only did he save my life (twice), but he made life worth living,

Every life is a work of art . Every piece of art changes the world. Every Queen knows that he secret to a good drag number is the big finish. That’s what we’re seeing now…Lulu’s big finish. The last long note. The kickline. The stunning pose before the spotlight fades to black.

When I called ChristopherPeterson? in Florida to tell him the news about Lulu, he chastened me for being sad. “Girl, she was the Queen of Halifax. She got a farewell tour, a final show in her old home town. She got months of people telling her how much they loved her. She found Prince Charming and married him. There will be hundreds at her funeral.” Then he paused. “WE aren’t gonna get that!”

In the February snow in Edmonton, I think back to the warm September I was in Halifax. Lulu was so excited…she had managed to get her hands on a piano. She had wanted to keep it a surprise, but couldn’t, and had sent me an email with a picture of it sitting in their living room.

When I got to his place, I sat down and started playing. Day after day, Chuck would putter around, tidying, cleaning, going about his life while I re-learned songs that used to be the soundtrack of our early years. Gradually, the songs come back: the Kate, the Rickie, the Babs, the Bach. My fingers, a bit hesitant at first, eventually remember where to go. And one day, with the sun streaming in, I feel transported back in time. I hear Chuck humming behind me. The ringing of the piano hangs in the air. I hear him say, “I love that song.” “I know,” I reply. And we are nineteen again. And the whole history of the world is before us again. All the possibilities, all the laughs, all the heartbreak…all of it is just beginning again. As complicated as our lives became, it was always simple moments like that one that made me love my time with him. Those moments, and the air of potential that always hovered over us.

And always returning to square one. Never being afraid to start over.

Their names are all now legend Underground. The land they ruled over churns on and on without them. You can’t stop time. Crowns get passed around like rhinestone cookie cutters. Prizes for being the most... whatever it is at the moment.

But here on earth, there’s just big empty spaces where they used to be.

Every time I hear one of their old drag numbers, a snapshot pops into view-- sculpted hair, lips quivering, arms stretched out at the standup mike, the brilliant spotlight cascading down, then breaking like a million mirrors, refracted by jewels into shattering beams until we were blinded, their eyes gazing upwards, sparkling with life and emotion and passion for their separateness, their existence, that moment, like their whole life culminated on that stage in that moment, that shining, perfect moment...

The Applause.

The Lucky Ones.

Everyone should feel that before they die.

Parts of the eulogy are excerpted from "The Edmonton Queen" originally published in 1997. A new edition, "The Edmonton Queen: The Final Voyage" will include new material that deals with some of Hagen's final experiences with Chuck.