The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5—SEX! Credit: Rick Aguilar Studios

When we talk about The Golden Girls, we need to talk about sex. 

According to Buzzfeed, the four women had over 260 lovers over the course of seven seasons, with Blanche Devereaux clocking in at 165. (Get it, girl.) In a truly stupid culture that often treats women over 40 as untouchables, the sitcom’s depictions of grandmas who fuck are actually pretty radical—especially for broadcast TV at the height of Reaganism and all of its poison. 

It’s fitting, then, for Hell in a Handbag’s The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5—SEX! to be staged at the Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M) in Rogers Park. It’s a new collaboration between the storied research library and theater company, though both display lovingly confrontational approaches to queer lives and non-normative sex. Handbag, which opens its 20th season with SEX!, famously puts on original drag parodies, with many produced at Mary’s Attic, upstairs from Andersonville’s Hamburger Mary’s (RIP). LA&M is a singular research library and museum devoted to leather and kink; it just turned 30 this year

Handbag artistic director David Cerda and LA&M executive director Gary Wasdin both identified how drag and leather seem like polar opposites but really possess the same kind of extreme, larger-than-life visages. 

“With leather, you might think of this dark, black intensity—like Tom of Finland—versus drag, which is this bright, extravagant act,” says Wasdin, who has been with the archives since January 2018. “Both are political acts, however. They’re these statements of power.” 

Wasdin says it’s impossible to do drag without being political; the same goes for leather. Cerda echoes this sentiment, citing the way his performances act as a reclamation of self and cultural fantasy. 

Spatially speaking, the Leather Archives’s building was a site of worship and spectacle long before doms and leather came into play. Initially a synagogue built in the 50s, it became a black-box theater in the 90s. After beginning in local gay icon Chuck Renslow’s office in 1991, LA&M moved into the 10,000-square-foot building in 1999 and fully acquired the space after a few short years. 

Handbag’s show will take place in the LA&M’s Etienne Auditorium, which is named in tribute to the late artist whose murals line the walls. The homoerotic paintings, composed by “Etienne” (Domingo Orejudos), originally hung in the Gold Coast, the gay bar Orejudos and Renslow, his first lover, established. Renslow also founded the legendary gay bathhouse, Man’s Country.

It’s an ideal home for Handbag’s first live show since the pandemic ruined the party. Cerda, who cofounded Handbag, wrote and will star in this latest iteration of the company’s Lost Episodes series. (FWIW, he makes a great Dorothy Zbornak.)

The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5—SEX!
Previews Thu-Sat 9/16-9/18, 7:30 PM; opens Sun 9/19, 7 PM; regular run 9/24-10/23, Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Thu 10/21, 7:30 PM, Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 N. Greenview, $27 general admission, $35-$45 reserved/VIP seating (includes 30-day membership to Leather Archives), 18+, proof of COVID-19 vaccination required, goldengirls5sex.eventbrite.com

The two “episodes” featured in the new show (directed by Madison Smith) take a campy, slippery look at senior sexuality. In the first, Rose—originally played by Betty White—lures her boyfriend to the Pleasure Dome, a Miami hotspot that’s sure to relight their fire. Blanche and Dorothy tag along for “support.” Meanwhile, Sophia takes on “a mysterious part-time job that keeps her out all hours of the night.” Episode two witnesses the unthinkable as Blanche takes a vow of celibacy. Sexy antics ensue.

For Cerda, this classic approach to drag has a meaningful place in the ecosystem of queer performance. 

“I know we’re kind of old school, but we try to touch on lots of different things,” he says. “It’s like when a dog is sick and you wrap a pill in the bologna. We wrap some hard truths in our campy bologna.”

While the end goal is a transformative experience, Handbag also has a very loyal, tightly knit following. It’s the drag show you can take home to meet Mom—I took my mother-in-law to see Handbag’s The Drag Seed on her first trip out to Chicago after I married her son. In my mind, it was an introduction to the family I came from: midwestern queers who powerfully hated high school. 

Cerda, a native of northwestern Indiana, is also a part of that family. He says that one of the reasons he chose The Golden Girls as a vehicle for these shows is its mass appeal and stealthy radicalism; he’s not the show’s number-one superfan, but he understands the power of pop culture and its ability to save lives. 

What’s particularly moving about this collaboration, however, is the way it marks time. When LA&M began, the LGBTQ+ community faced genocide at the hands of its own government during the AIDS crisis; when Handbag came to fruition, our country was mired in the flag-waving nationalism of the early post-9/11 world. Here we are in a moment when a pandemic continues to destroy the most marginalized while white jingoism steamrolls the last of our better angels. It’s a brutal context for this artistic duet, but its cracks are still letting light in. 

Picture it: A ragtag group of drag queens gear up in wigs and leather, surfacing joyfully after months of isolation, down the road and back again.

2021 FALL ARTS PREVIEW

2022 Fall Theater & Arts Preview

A fall edition

A note from the Reader’s culture editor who focuses on film, media, food, and drink on our Fall Theater & Arts Preview issue.