Old Boys at Play

Do you hear that whirring noise?" chortled a man in a beautiful William Morris-patterned vest. "That's Jesse Jones spinning in his grave." Nabbing a deviled egg from the buffet, he cast a connoisseur's eye on the tuxedoed throng that milled through the upper level of the stuffy Houston Club last Saturday night -- a retrograde marvel of oversized spaniel paintings and marbled 1950s swank that has long been a haunt of the city's blue bloods and downtown establishmentarians.

At first blush, the late power broker Jones might have taken the middle-aged, penguin-suited mob for just another Houston Club gathering, albeit one almost wholly male. But from the sea of black leapt clues that the 42nd Annual Diana Awards was not Houston Club business as usual. A jeweled bow tie glittered here; a matched set of tiny lapel corsages blossomed there; a smattering of black-sequined jackets sparkled over yonder. South of the cummerbund line, anomalies multiplied. One formal-jacketed fellow had completed his ensemble with a flowing skirt of green crepe. Beneath the pants hem of another celebrant peeked stiletto-heeled black pumps. And wait... "Is that a woman?" whispered the deviled-egg eater, eyeing a striking platinum blond in marabou-trimmed palazzo pants and full maquillage.

It wasn't. Nor was the elderly bewigged businessman in white sequins, boa and long gloves. "Bad arms!" hissed an onlooker in the half-catty, half-delighted tone that has come to characterize the Diana Awards in the years since it began as an informal TV party at which a circle of gay friends watched the Oscars and distributed their own barbed "best performance" prizes. Over four decades, the underground Diana soiree evolved into a linchpin of the gay social season, held in ever-more-public venues (for awhile it was at the Tower Theatre) and raising substantial sums for such mainstream causes as the Houston Ballet and the Wortham Center Building Fund.

It's the classic Houston story: today the 73-member Diana Foundation has grown into a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that serves a panoply of AIDS-related charities and bills itself as "the oldest continuous gay roast in the nation." Now that changing times have unlocked the closet, the Dianas seem less subversive -- even a little quaint. But one thing hasn't changed: the aging membership still considers itself the creme de la creme of Houston's gay society. Which made their 1995 ascension to the tenth floor of the dinosaurish Houston Club oddly fitting, poetically just. "They must have no business here at night or they'd never have let us in," cracked one veteran Diana member as he surveyed the cocktail-swigging horde, whose number included such prominent personages as a jeweler, a TV weatherman, a model czar, a publicist and a small herd of doctors. If the Dianas started as an in-joke, then their evening at the Houston Club may have been the biggest in-joke in its history.

It was a joke not universally appreciated. As the revelers filed into the Texas Room for the musical extravaganza that is the evening's raison d'etre, Houston Club staffers lurked on the sidelines, their lips twitching with bemused, incipient smiles; the eyeballs of one venerable African-American waiter rolled back in his head. When the first of many lip-synching numbers struck up -- complete with a gaudy chorus of dragsters aping Liz Taylor, Joan Crawford and "God knows who else," as one onlooker put it -- a small, hair-netted woman with a pre-Columbian profile emerged from the kitchen and stood staring, as if she had a front seat for the end of the world.

Actually, it was more like a seat for somebody else's awkward high school skit night. One blushing awardee was twitted as an anal retentive Martha Stewart who has "the only revolving charge account at Arne's," the cut-rate party supply warehouse; another was mocked for "thinking she's a pillar of Houston society when she's nothing more than a cracked slab on Hawthorne." Muscular dancing boys, clad in gold lame loincloths and what one spectator delicately termed "butt floss," livened the sophomoric proceedings -- and provided a painful contrast to the real bodies of scantily clad Diana members who cavorted in several numbers. "That's my ophthalmologist!" gasped a man at the "Grace Kelly Table" as a Rockettes line of red-sequin jockstraps and work boots danced past.

The amateur drag queens were in the unenviable position of being followed by The Fabulous Lypsinka, nee John Epperson, perhaps the most sophisticated drag artist of our time, who had been imported for the evening at a much gossiped-about price ("$8,000!" huffed one disapproving member). Not everyone in the old-line crowd was ready for the manic postmodern ironies that have made Lypsinka such an off-Broadway hit. She answered frenetically jangling telephones with a tour-de-force staccato of neurotic lines culled from Hollywood films; flipping her flame-red bob and flouncing her white satin cocktail dress, she delivered a version of "Getting to Know You" more knowing and cynical than anything Rodgers & Hammerstein could have imagined. And she was gorgeous: you could see why Thierry Mugler has used her in his fashion shows, why drag at its higher levels is such a mesmerizing tug-of-war between illusion and reality.

Afterward, out near the buffet loaded with unstylish fried vegetables and that quintessential Houston chestnut -- haunch of beef with baby buns -- reality set back in. "There's Harold from my gym!" exclaimed a partier; Harold's iridescent pink lipstick and kohl-rimmed eyes were undercut by the chest hairs peeking from the teardrop cut-out in his sequined sheath. In a corner chair, an older Diana member nodded off, to be nudged awake by solicitous friends -- a perfect Houston Club tableau that caught the underlying pathos of the evening.

Here, in a relic of a Houston that is no more, another band of survivors had gathered. They had lived through an era when you couldn't admit you were gay, only to find themselves in an era when being gay meant seeing your friends die by the score. Perhaps it made the jokes even sweeter, just as the worm-has-turned setting did. "When you lean down from the barstool to adjust your wedgie and see nothing but old cocktail straws and old confetti on the floor," lamented a mock Liz Taylor, "you know the parade done passed you by." It was one of the most raucous applause lines of the night.

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