Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player

By Justin Hayford

If you’ve spent any time around Chicago’s cabaret circuit in the last few years, you probably know Honey West. She’s the vivacious, voluptuous drag queen with a tongue like a stiletto and a voice like electrified butter-cream frosting–a true cabaret dream.

And then there’s Paige Turner.

The poor thing appears only once a year or so, playing piano beside Honey, uttering an occasional lyric like she’s reading the list of ingredients on a jar of peanut butter. Musically, she gravitates toward Hall & Oates, Peaches and Herb. She flatters herself when she describes her looks as a cross between Anjelica Huston and Mr. Ed.

Life hasn’t been easy for Paige. She spent a few years at Paducah Beauty and Bible College, the renowned theology and finishing school, but was kicked out for wearing makeup (which she needs like you and I need oxygen). She had a whirlwind romance with Junior Hormel, heir to the Spam fortune, but it ended badly. To make ends meet she put together a nightclub act and toured the finer bowling alleys and steak houses of Chicago and northwest Indiana. Sadly, she bounced one too many checks at the Fashion Bug and landed herself a stint in the big house.

But that’s all behind her now that she’s working with a cabaret sensation. Still, Paige remains realistic. “Honey is the pretty one,” she says. “I’m…the tall one.”

Paige Turner is actually the drag persona of Dan Stetzel, one of the busiest musicians in town. For the last three years he’s taught acting for the musical stage and cabaret at Roosevelt University while maintaining a roster of 60 private students. He’s accompanied just about everyone who’s ever sung a note in a nightclub or auditioned in a theater, and he runs the open mike every Tuesday night at Gentry on Halsted. In his spare time he’s worked as musical director for several local and regional theaters, once conducting the national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. “I would say I was musical director of that show,” he says, “except no one listened to a word I said.”

It’s 6:45 on a Sunday evening, three hours and fifteen minutes away from Paige’s first performance since her big getting-out-of-jail bash a year ago. Stetzel sits slumped on a piano bench in his kitchen; he had to cut short a weekend getaway for a wedding gig earlier this afternoon. Professional makeup artist Scott Montgomery hovers in front of Stetzel, scrutinizing his eyebrows. “I don’t think we’re going to have to pluck,” he announces, sounding like a surgeon deciding to forgo exploratory cancer surgery.

“Great,” Stetzel sighs, reaching for a cigarette. “I don’t want queeny eyebrows. I hate that.”

Paige was born five years ago on a dare from Don Auxier, Honey West’s nondrag identity. Her first night out was somewhat less than ideal. “This mean drag queen at Cheeks put her cigarette out on my wig,” Stetzel recalls as Montgomery applies a third layer of powder. “And it was Don’s wig, so I ended up having to pay for it.” After their second show, Paige almost disappeared forever. “I hated drag,” Stetzel says. “I had a big hang-up about the stigma. I made Honey a nervous wreck.”

These days Stetzel thinks doing Paige is a “kick,” though it’s clear he’s no seasoned drag queen. Not only does he need someone to do his makeup, he needs someone else to iron his dress and tell him which side is the front of his jet-black light-support slimming panty hose.

“The object of the show is to be underrehearsed,” he explains. “So it’ll either be great or a disaster.”

At 9:30 Paige sits at the bar at Legacy 21, one of the few honest-to-God neighborhood gay bars left in Chicago, slugging scotch in her shapeless black dress and beaded wrap. She and Honey have a regular Sunday-night show here during August, beyond the gay hinterlands at Irving Park and Sacramento. Along one wall hang pastel caricatures of Bob Hope, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton, and Robert Montgomery. The place was probably last redecorated during the Johnson administration, to borrow one of Paige’s favorite expressions. The room is nearly silent with only six patrons in attendance, including a gray-haired gentleman who’s been pushing buttons on an electronic slot machine for the past 20 minutes despite the flashing “game over” sign. Eventually Honey sweeps in, dressed in an oversized purple satin shirt and black hose, her hair and makeup impeccable. She sees Paige and stops dead, astonished. “You’re pretty,” she says. She’s lying.

The two make their way back to the tiny makeshift stage, almost every square inch of which is occupied by a black upright piano with a broken string on the E flat below middle C. There’s a hole in the ceiling where a light fixture probably used to hang. Honey notices that several of the track lights that should spotlight her are out. The cocktail waiter arrives with a lightbulb while Paige slumps into a chair, looking, as always, put out. “Not all gigs are perfect, you can quote me.”

Showtime is at ten o’clock. At seven minutes past, there are four customers in the place. Honey and Paige decide to wait a while for the crowd. In comes a blond, big-boned drag queen whom Paige waves over like a monarch summoning a supplicant. “Come here, let me see you,” she says, then stares at the newcomer for a moment. “OK, I’m prettier, you can go.” She throws her head back, cackling silently. “You see what a cunt I become when I’m insecure about my looks?”

By 10:30 a dozen or so fans are crowded into the tiny cabaret room, which is done up in a kind of contemporary conquistador look. The girls take the stage and launch into “Reunited.” Honey’s voice caresses every contour of the melody while Paige tunelessly drones, “I won’t let you go, I won’t, ooh,” nearly digesting her microphone in the process.

Honey sings “Ben,” although she can’t find the rubber rat she usually uses during the number. Instead she sings to a plastic Godzilla squirt gun. Paige makes storm noises. Then the ladies team up on the theme from Twin Peaks, with a forgettable lyric by David Lynch. They try to give away a 12-pocket floral-print shoe organizer, but the guy who wins it–by knowing that Morey Amsterdam wrote the lyrics to “Rum and Coca-Cola”–doesn’t want it. Instead he goes for the windup hopping polyurethane penis called the Jolly Pecker. Next they’re off doing Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” in one of the most god-awful arrangements imaginable. Before they start, they smear chocolate on their teeth because they think it makes them look British.

It’s a long night for poor Paige. Though the crowd is kind, especially the long table of besotted men who sing along with everything at the top of their lungs, she forgets lyrics by the bushel and often disappears entirely behind the piano trying to read the tiny words printed on the music in front of her. At one point she’s discovered passed out on the keyboard. She pulls herself together for her big solo number, “Bruce,” John Wallowitch’s musical lamentation to a bad drag queen (“Bruce, you’ve got to reduce / Spruce up that caboose, Bruce / Or wear something loose, Bruce”). But she can’t disguise the fact that she’s a wreck–her every look is a glare, and the smiles that occasionally appear on her face look like involuntary reactions to burped-up day-old garlic.

By 12:30 the duo has made $3 in tips. Honey has sung gorgeously. Paige has been consistently tall.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Stetzel photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.