David Cerda, 51, is artistic director of Hell in a Handbag Productions, which he cofounded in 2002. His writing credits include the musical drag parodies Rudolph the Red-hosed Reindeer, Poseidon!, and Scarrie. —Tony Adler
I kind of reached a crossroads in my life—that big moment where you have to either shit or get off the pot. It was my early 30s. I was just a big alcoholic and partier. When I came out, it was 1981, and then there was AIDS, and I was terrified that I was HIV positive. I decided to finally get tested in my early 30s. When I found out I was negative, I had this come-to-Jesus moment. I ended up getting into recovery. I decided I’m here for a reason. I’d been wanting to write and be a performer since I was little, but I was terrified of doing it, of putting myself out there.
I was born in northwest Indiana, in Hammond. Before I even knew what gay was, people were calling me a faggot. It was like, what are you talking about? I was 130 pounds and I had no idea how to fight for myself, so I developed this wicked, very mean sense of humor as a defense. I’m the kind of person you can’t say anything about because I’ll say it first. I’ll say it better.
I moved to Chicago when I was 20 and I discovered clubs and the punk-rock, new-wave scene. I wore black eyeliner and fishnets on my arms and spiked my hair. I was sort of like a goth Jayne Mansfield.
I loved camp before I knew it was camp. I didn’t know the Brady Bunch and Joan Crawford movies and [What Ever Happened to] Baby Jane?—I didn’t know groups of gay men watched and tittered. I could relate to that because my life was so dramatic for me when I was a kid. I’d have horrible anxiety spells, and I’d see these women emoting on television, and, “That’s how I feel!” For me, over-the-top camp—that’s normal. That’s how I live my life anyway.
My one biggest influence was John Waters. I saw a double feature of Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos at the Parkway Theatre on Clark. It kind of changed my life. When I saw that movie I was like, “Oh my God, there are people who have my sense of humor, my mind.”
I met Kelly Anchors from Sweetback Productions, and she read my stuff and loved it. Kelly was doing a stage version of Female Trouble. I’d never acted before, but I was interested. So I met Kelly and I read for her, and I got cast in a very small part.
Then I had the idea of doing [the 1976 horror movie] Carrie. I figured it would be really funny as a musical. Kelly really encouraged me. I didn’t know how to read or write music—I still don’t. So I’d sing into a tape recorder—I’d think of the melodies and just start thinking of lyrics and singing the songs. I gave them to somebody who’d take them and transcribe them into music and make, like, karaoke tracks. That’s how Scarrie was developed. It became this big underground hit. We did The Birds, which is probably my most critically acclaimed show. It was about Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren while they were filming The Birds.
Kelly had a different kind of style. I basically took most of the company and just formed my own company, Hell in a Handbag Productions, because I couldn’t work with her anymore. I love her—we are friends now again.
I have more shows I want to do. I’d like to cultivate camp, raise camp and parody to a more acceptable level. I think we get a little dismissed. I think camp is an art form. We seem to have a chip on our shoulder because nobody seems to take it seriously—”Oh yeah, you do that thing in drag,” you know? It’s so much more than that.
There’s no way I could change. I could never act straight. It made me not like myself for a long time, because I was told that it was bad. I realized later on that you have to love yourself to be loved. You have to be comfortable in your own skin before people are going to be comfortable with you.
There are times I still feel like that 15-year-old teenager who just wants to hide under the bed. Didn’t you ever feel that way? Everybody’s like, “When I was a kid . . .” I’d never want to go back to being a kid again. But like Joan says: life is tough enough when you’re loved.