Who is Miss P? Conversations about the historical significance of local drag and Parliament House at the Footlight Theatre (Part 1)
By Alexis Rodriguez
The colorful crowd, loud music, the open declaration of love and drag performers; yes, it’s Pride. The month of pride has played an important part in both demonstrating the presence of LGBTQ communities in the United States, and the power in collective resistance through innumerable parades that engulf the streets. From the Stonewall riots and the Pulse nightclub massacre to the recent lawsuit against the Trump administration by a coalition of LGBTQ groups towards the stripping of medical protection for the trans community; it would seem that our reality is a political war zone. Regardless of the attempts made against the community, our culture continues to dance and celebrate life, especially with its drag performances. What’s more rebellious than a man in “women’s clothing”?
Most of our history has remained predominately within the scope of the club and bar scene. In several ways it has been, as Michael Wanzie would suggest, a haven where you could truly be yourself. Spaces within Central Florida like Southern Nights, Parliament House, Sadie’s, Faces, Bradley’s and countless others that have come and gone have permitted everyone from all walks of life to escape reality for a just moment and enjoy a few drinks, music and drag shows.
Before RuPaul’s Drag Race and the burst of contemporary drag performers, such performances were considered a social taboo. Interestingly enough, it stirred controversy even within the LGBTQ community during the prime day of gay activism in the 1960’s and 70’s. When The Queen, a behind the scenes documentary of drag queen beauty contests in New York City was released in 1968, a member of the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) commented, “…this film does more harm than good in furthering an understanding between the straight and gay world,” as it further perpetuated a biased image of the “effeminate gay man”. As time went on, the historical presence of drag in Queer narrative was made apparent; transforming into a prominent symbol of rebellion against heteronormativity, as popularly shown through the 1968 Tenderloin riots or the 1969 Stonewall riots, where the Queens fought back against the police. Fast forward to the present day, drag culture has become so popular that shows like Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race have made themselves a household name (Miss Vaaaaaaanjieee for those who get the reference). As it continues capturing everyone’s attention, it would seem that to make it as a drag performer, one has to make it on RuPaul. Yet some would contest to that.
Earlier this week I met with Loc Robertson, bartender and drag performer at Parliament House to gather some history and information about Miss P and the Footlight Theatre. As part of my internship, I began conducting research for several images of drag queens that are archived at the LGBTQ History Museum of Central Florida, which unfortunately have no information. For those who don’t know, Miss P (known as Paul Wegman) was originally the MC for Parliament House, before Darcel’s tenure up to the present day. But why Miss P? To understand this, one needs to understand the theatre. The Footlight Theatre at Parliament House has remained quintessential for many drag queens to perform and become famous. Queens like RuPaul, Alaska Thunderf*ck, Bianca Del Rio, Sharron Needles and so many others have journeyed and performed at this place. Even local Leigh Shannon, owner of Ritzy Rags and former employee, in reference to Parliament said that, “They come from all over to visit this place. The shows, the icon factor, it’s world famous… that’s why I moved to Orlando 29 years ago. I landed a job there as a performer.”
As we journeyed between these thick black curtains on the stage, Loc Robertson pointed out some of the famous queens that performed there as well as the greater significance of Footlight Theatre to drag culture. “Because of this theatre, people from all over the country want to work here, and you know a lot of places and a lot of big name girls have worked at a little neighborhood bar that has a little tiny stage in a corner, if that, or might be on a dance floor. So, to have the curtains and an actual theatre-style setting, the girls love that, you know? It’s usually an honor to work here…all the plays they had here, plus they do a lot of different type of things here.” He even mentioned how the very curtains augmented and enhanced the performers’ act and dress or costume. “Chuckles used to be the soundperson for many years, and he would always decorate backstage with a different theme, but Susan saw it and was like its better with a black curtain behind you because you can really get to see what the person is wearing and it’s not about the background, as much as it is about the person.”
Robertson paused as we stood in the center of the stage and looked up towards the ceiling and smiled. “I never saw a photo but there was a swing here, where they would just hook the thing and Miss P had one number that she would swing over the audience…it was pretty cool too.”
Paul Wegman, known as Miss P, was born and raised in Rochester, New York and moved to Florida in the 1960's, where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Theatre at the University of Central Florida. The character Miss P came about in the early 1970’s at Palace Club, near the Orlando Executive Airport but became established at Parliament in 1975. Here, he could be Miss P without reservation, as known for her witty insults to the audiences, while at the same time venturing out and presenting a number of gay-themed plays.
Most of those who have seen the shows at Footlight know how crowded it gets inside and you must rush to get a good spot to watch it. One Sunday night, I came too late and stood in the back, tiptoeing to see who was performing and looking around for a better spot. In that moment, I noticed a framed photo of drag performer but thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until Loc and I gazed across the theatre during the interview, that the familiar image had a name. Miss P. “That photo over there, that photo I took as well on this stage and it’s from the cover of the Paul Wegman Documentary,” Robertson commented as we walked across the stage to the image of the famous one eyebrow look that Paul started in mid-1990’s. “At the end of her career she did the one eyebrow thing, but I don’t know why, it was just her kind of signature thing. And it’s exciting for me that a photograph I took is something that memorialized.”
While Robertson gave some back stories, he explained to me that Willie Tillmon would be the best person to talk to about all of this. Tillmon or known on stage as Geraldine Jones, is a performer who worked alongside Miss P throughout the 45 years at Parliament House’s gay tenure and still is there, pulling the curtains for the queens. “She could’ve been retired many years ago but likes to work because that’s what keeps her young. But she is the curtain puller for every pageant, she keeps the girls in check, and she would be somebody who you should interview, and I can do that.” (He pulled his phone out and messaged Tillmon to schedule an interview before I could speak. Tillmon agreed.)
What started as research for gathering some information to add to photos that were missing dates, location and even the performers now became something more. Most young people, including myself tend to view Parliament House in a rather critical light. However, the further I research, the more I become aware of the significance of Orlando’s drag culture on the greater LGBTQ community through the Footlight Theatre. As we walked back on stage to head to the dressing room, Loc explained that some of Paul’s ashes were put under the stage because they wanted some of her spirit to live on, as well as everyone who performed on the stage to have a little touch of Miss P. If international drag queens, Robertson explained, gravitate to performing at the Footlight Theatre, what does it say of the performer who was its MC? Reflecting on this, I realized that regardless of everything, the Footlight Theatre will always remain an important part of the drag scene and her spirit.
 Betty Luther Hillman, “ ’The most profoundly revolutionary act a homosexual can engage in’: Drag and the Politics of Gender Presentation in the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement, 1964–1972,” Journal of the History of Sexuality Vol. 20, No. 1 (January 2011), pp. 153-154.