(Text and photos by Michail Takach, for an historical panel created by this project in 2019. The panel is on loan to the 'This Is It' bar in downtown Milwaukee.)
Inspired by the Jewel Box Revue and other female impersonator shows, drag made a major comeback in midcentury Milwaukee.
Adrian Ames, the "Million Dollar Drag Queen," was Milwaukee's most fabulous drag diva of the 1950s. Almost forgotten now, Ames ruled over midcentury Milwaukee with a sapphire blue mink stole, a $10,000 movie star wardrobe, and an amazing talent for shameless self-promotion.
His first known appearance was on December 5, 1949, where he proclaimed himself Hollywood's favorite female impersonator. "The Name Adrian Ames Means Business," read the ads for his cabaret at Club Terris (521 W. Wells). "He is Milwaukee's Most Scintillating Starlet: A Floor Show Unto Himself." Of course, Ames carefully designed and worded all of his ads himself, and often included quotes from people who may or may not have ever said them, or people who may not even have existed.
Furiously flamboyant, Ames lived a movie star's life– and made sure to keep himself in the news headlines. He sent long-winded press releases outlining his seasonal costume purchases. He publicly confronted journalists who dissed his show. He threatened to destroy many careers, and sometimes, he actually succeeded. He famously announced a divorce from his "longtime companion" Lilly on the grounds of emotional cruelty. When reporters pressed for details, he revealed that Lilly was his French poodle, who had shredded his favorite 12-dollar hat.
If society events got stuffy, you could always count on Adrian Ames to show up, throw a drink, slap a critic, or drop a sassy line or two.
Like all female impersonators of his era, Ames used the title "Mr." in his advertisements. This was a deliberate ploy to separate "female illusionists" (i.e., someone delivering a performance) from "sexual deviates" (i.e. someone who cross-dressed for sexual excitement.) Still, Ames was probably the best-known local homosexual of his time. News articles of the 1950s often describe effeminate men as "Adrian Ames types" with heavy-handed homophobia.
By September 1959, Ames was bored with Milwaukee. "This town is dead," he proclaimed. After touring both coasts, he decided to leave Milwaukee, but he wasn't leaving without a grand finale. He recruited drag performers from New York's Club 82 and San Francisco's Finocchio's and launched the "Paris to Harlem Revue" at Club Jay-Jay (1123 W. Vliet Street) in May 1961.
Determined to make a profit, Ames ran the show for 12 full weeks. But Milwaukee's decade-long drag craze had already come to an end, leaving Ames with a half-empty house and an empty bank account. All of the great drag cabarets of the 1950s– including Club Terris– had already closed, and drag had gone back underground into the gay bars.
Ames moved to San Francisco, where he continued to perform at the Beige Room into the 1970s. He died in October 1980 of natural causes.
The San Francisco Crusader planned a memorial issue in Ames' honor, but it never happened. It seems nobody could promote Adrian Ames like Adrian Ames himself.
Credits: Web site concept, design and most content by Don Schwamb
Photos and text on this page by Michail Takach
Last updated: May-2021.
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