Eli Torres and Suki Berry were downright thirsty for a sickening—that’s drag slang for “amazing”—queer arts scene in Santa Cruz last year.
“We didn’t have that and didn’t think to travel over the hill to find a drag community to latch onto,” says Torres. “So we started one ourselves.”
The two friends founded the drag house Haus of Libations, and Berry quickly took on the role of house mom.
“But I like to joke that she’s more the Peter Pan to our Lost Boys,” Torres jokes. “And I’m Captain Hook.”
Drag houses stem from ballroom drag culture of late-20th-century New York. Queer, Black and Latino members of the scene would band together into households and teach each other how to make outfits and do their makeup, while providing shelter in an accepting, chosen-family setting that was sometimes a stark contrast from their biological families. As the houses grew, they began throwing underground pageants to compete with each other for different prizes in categories like “realness” and “runway.”
The Haus of Libations follows this tradition, as many of the members live under the same roof, and everyone does drag.
“We all live double lives, and we’re all so stupid together,” says Torres, a Santa Cruz local who studied art and art education at Humboldt State, where he originally met Berry.
After graduation, both Berry and Torres found themselves back in Santa Cruz, randomly rekindling their friendship in the most artistic way at the now-defunct Palace Art store on Pacific Avenue.
“We were both like, ‘Please, I need friends so bad,’” Berry remembers. “We were equally crazy, equally gay and coming from a similar background. We both needed an outlet badly.”
That outlet came with wigs, heels and one hell of a fabulous wardrobe.
The pair trace the origin of Haus of Libations back to San Francisco Pride 2018, when they ran around the city together in drag. But it wasn’t until Berry threw a house party in November 2018 that Torres began performing live.
“She told me, ‘By the way, I’m having a drag show and you’re in it,’” he remembers. “And I told her, ‘No, I don’t perform, I just do it for myself.’”
Berry’s response? “Too bad, I already made a flier, and you’re practically headlining it.”
After that, the two began performing renegade shows at other various parties, arriving in costume as their alter egos—”Cherry Cola” for Torres and “Franzia Rosé” for Berry—and taking over.
“We would show up and say, ‘Hand me the auxiliary chord,’” remembers Berry, who performs female drag as a woman, something often judged harshly in the drag community. But she doesn’t let that hold her back.
“A lot of people see it and say, ‘I didn’t know that was allowed,’” she says. “It’s always been allowed. There are so many different iterations of the queer experience I think it’s reductive to reduce drag to just one side of the queer spectrum.”
What Torres and Berry didn’t know at the time was that they were at the forefront of a new queer-art revolution in Santa Cruz, one powered by a river of gender fluidity, humor and a backlash against societal norms. As Santa Cruz celebrates its 47th Pride festival this weekend, this burgeoning movement is injecting new energy into the local queer scene.
OFF THE DEEP END
Torres and Berry will take a victory lap at Santa Cruz Pride this weekend—the aquatic kind. They’re hosting Hotel Paradox’s annual Pride Pool Party on Sunday, June 5 as Cherry Cola and Franzia Rosé.
“We’re going to be off-duty lifeguards who don’t know how to swim,” says Torres.
Everyone is likely to be in a celebratory mood this weekend, as it’s the first full Pride weekend since the pandemic. Just don’t call it a comeback.
“Pride has never gone away,” says Santa Cruz Pride Chair Rob Darrow.
He points out that in 2020, amidst the confusion and chaos of Covid, Santa Cruz Pride held a “virtual parade” complete with interviews featuring local politicians like then-mayor Justin Cummings and Congressman Jimmy Panetta, along with a Queer History online exhibit presented by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and virtual performances by local artists and dancers. Last year, Pride once again pivoted with the changing times and manifested itself as an outdoor picnic at DeLaveaga Park.
A native Santa Cruzan, Darrow is an educator and historian by trade, and spent much of his career teaching LGBTQ+ history. It wasn’t until he was 50 years old that he also came out.
“I tell some people I lived the first 50 years of my life as a heterosexual, and I’m living the second 50 as a homosexual,” he says with a smile.
He’s now an LGBTQ+ education consultant for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and works with school districts on how to teach queer history.
“Santa Cruz is what Santa Cruz is because of the LGBTQ community,” Darrow states. “And people from Santa Cruz have contributed to the LGBTQ movement. It’s gone both ways.”
Case in point, this year’s 29th annual Dyke Trans March, which meets at the Santa Cruz Town Clock on Saturday, June 4th at 4:20pm.
“At the first LGBTQ Rights March on Washington [April 25, 1993] there was a group of women on motorcycles that rode it,” Darrow explains. “There were several women from Santa Cruz there, and they brought that concept back with them.”
Along with the Dyke Trans March, several other celebrations will return, like the Queer Men’s Dance at the Diversity Center (also on June 4) and the Pride Parade and Festival, both of which will take place on June 5.
But 2022 also brings new sights, sounds and celebrations for Pride, like the screening of the documentary Genderation on Friday, June 3rd.
“The other thing that’s new is we have a Youth Pride at the Boys & Girls Club on the afternoon of June 5,” says Darrow. “It will be for kids 12-20 to have their own space to play games and participate in activities.”
All of this weekend’s festivities will have a little bit extra sass thanks to the local queer-art boom, which has taken off in the past year with drag shows, burlesque, and body-positive art.
Somewhere near the center of it all, appropriately enough, is the Cherry Pit, which is hosted by Torres and Berry.
Billed as a monthly drag and dance party variety show at the Blue Lagoon, the Cherry Pit has become a major hit. Outrageous, flawless and rooted in scandalous humor, its debut show in July of 2021 had patrons lined up out the door, spilling onto Pacific Avenue. Since then, every month has sold out, with a rotating list of drag performers, visuals by queer collective BEARPAD and music by DJ Ayumi Please.
“I could not believe the way we packed that house,” Ayumi recalls of the first Cherry Pit. “It was awesome!”
Born and raised in Salinas, Ayumi has deejayed for the last 11 years. Although he currently lives over the hill and can be found weekly dropping beats at San Jose gay bar Renegades, he’s also an honorary resident DJ of the Santa Cruz scene.
It was Ayumi, along with Patrick Stephenson and Jordan Fickel of BEARPAD, who first came up with doing a drag show at the Blue Lagoon, where Fickel had worked for several years. The idea was born when they all lived together during 2020 and threw streaming dance parties online. When events started up again in 2021, they knew they had to do something big and in-person.
“I was going stir crazy being at home, so from the moment I was able to start working again, I wanted to,” Ayumi remembers. “Because of the pandemic, drag had died a little bit. Everyone was off and there was no place to do it except virtually.”
Ayumi had already known Torres for about a year, and knew his Cherry Cola alter-ego was the perfect hostess with the mostess.
“I loved their perspective on drag, and how campy, goofy and fun it was,” explains Ayumi, saying Torres was also just as stir crazy to start performing again.
The Cherry Pit isn’t the only regular show Ayumi works, but he says it’s definitely the most successful one he’s curated. He believes the reason is two-fold. First, because of its unique flavor. Each month there’s a different theme, ranging from “Fresh Meat” (new performers) to “Drag Kings” (when everyone performed as male drag artists, with Franzia Rosé and Cherry Cola as an absolutely stunning Jareth–aka David Bowie in Labyrinth–and Freddie Mercury, respectively), and every performer also brings a stunning floorshow with one-of-a-kind handmade costumes. Each Cherry Pit also ends in a dance party, with Ayumi spinning a unique blend of punk, emo, k-pop and female rappers.
“I love all music, but also want to play things that don’t get played very often,” he says.
Another reason, he says, is the audience themselves.
“We have an audience who is dedicated to keeping the space open because it’s for everybody,” he says. “Our audience trusts that no matter what, we’re going to have fun, it’s going to be silly and we’re all going to enjoy ourselves.”
Visuals for the Cherry Pit are projected behind—and often onto—the performers, curated by Stephenson. While BEARPAD is an art collective, Stephenson and Fickel are the heart and soul. Since 2020 they have created queer, sexually explicit, pro-bigger-bodied male art in mulitple visual platforms like videos, t-shirts, stickers and four-by-eight-foot wood cutouts.
“Gay bars have a history of wooden cutouts of men who are these traditionally sexualized ideals, and often white, like the art of Tom of Finland,” Fickel explains, adding while they don’t use skin colors, many BEARPAD designs are black or non-white coded, identified by hair patterns or physical features.
“So we’re referencing that, but subverting it by making our characters cozy, cuddly and affectionate.”
“We want queer bodies in public spaces,” says Stephenson. “So I find the stuff we make is too big to hide.”
Since the lockdown lift, BEARPAD has worked nonstop to maintain that goal, with their art featured in everywhere from Something Queer—a dedicated Queer party created by Burning Man faithfuls—to Daddyland, a Southern California pop-up “adult amusement park” art installation.
“It’s like Disneyland, but hornier,” Stephenson chuckles.
MAJESTY AND MORE
Of course, the Cherry Pit isn’t the only show in town offering drag, dance and burlesque—it’s not even the only one hosted by Cherry Cola. The quick-witted queen also hosts a number of other shows, including co-hosting this month’s Pride Majesty dance party and variety show at Motion Pacific Dance with Franzia Rosé, also on June 3.
Unlike many of the other queer shows, Majesty predates the pandemic. A bi-monthly event, its roots lie in 2017, when Motion Pacific put on its first Cabagay, a Queer cabaret and variety show. The next summer they held another, themed “A Midsummer Queer’s Dream.”
“It was so much fun we wanted to do it all the time,” says Motion Pacific artistic director and teacher Melissa Wiley (whose burlesque name is Vyxen Monroe). “So we decided to do a mini-version every other month, and that’s how Majesty was born.”
Like the Cherry Pit, Majesty combines drag and an aftershow dance party, intertwined with burlesque, Wiley’s expertise. Their first show back since the pandemic was last October, held in the Motion Pacific parking lot. Wiley tells GT it was “heartwarming” to see such a robust audience brace the chilly weather, excited for the show’s return.
“It definitely feels like we’re seeing a lot of new energy right now,” she says of the local queer art scene. “I haven’t really felt that since the days of [Club] Dakota.”
On the Eastside of Santa Cruz, there’s a brand new event called the Tasty Teaze cooking up sensual, daytime treats at Greater Purpose Brewery Company with DJ Ayumi behind the decks and Cherry Cola on the mic.
Billed as a brunch burlesque show, it can be found once a month on Sundays at the Greater Purpose Brewing Company (GPBC) on East Cliff Drive. Tasty Teaze combines sweet and savory pleasures mixing drag and burlesque with food from Sweet Bean Bakery, Laurel Bakes and a chosen food truck. It’s the brainchild of Selina De Vestige, who not only produces the show, but performs it as well.
“I realized there weren’t any daytime shows in town and I wanted to bring that flavor to town,” she says. “As far as exposure goes, it’s great for queer culture.”
De Vestige lives and breathes art, embodying flair with diva outfits and glamorous makeup for everyday outings around town. She started doing burlesque in 2018, and says it has given her a sense of body empowerment and confidence not shared in other art forms.
“Everyone’s body is different,” says De Vestige. “And [burlesque] gives a sense of worth to everyone.”
As if three gigs weren’t enough, Cherry Cola also hosts the weekly Drag Bingo, every Thursday night also at Greater Purpose. Not your grandma’s bingo game, Drag Bingo comes with flamboyant style, double scoops of shade and innuendo and topped with a ton of audience participation. Because Santa Cruz lacks a dedicated gay bar or queer cafe, Greater Purpose Brewery has become the defacto place for the community. They often hold Pride Pint Nights, designated nights when part of the money made from beer sales is donated to The Neighbors Pub, an in-the-works dedicated queer cafe/pub.
Still, Santa Cruz’s Queer community is hungry for a space of their own.
“It always feels like you’re a guest in somebody else’s house when you’re anywhere else,” says BEARPAD’s Patrick Stephenson. “It would be great to have a space that felt like ours.”
Yet even with a dedicated queer space, another challenge faces this new wave of Santa Cruz queer artists: availability. Right now, despite all the activity, there is only a small group of individuals at the core of the growing movement, and everyone involved knows that with continued growth comes better representation.
“I hear people say their intersections are not fully represented,” says Ayumi. “So I think it’s very important for others to find a way and make a path.”
“Our hands are full!” Berry admits. “We need the community to step up and go do something fun and weird. We’ll come, we promise.”
For Torres, the answer is simple.
“Show up and ask for the auxiliary cord.”
Santa Cruz Pride Schedule
FRIDAY, JUNE 3
6pm–8pm: “Groundation” Film Screening
Hotel Paradox, 611 Ocean St., Santa Cruz.
8pm–12am: Queer Majesty
Motion Pacific, 131 Front St. E, Santa Cruz
SATURDAY, JUNE 4
4pm: Dyke/Trans March
Town Clock, Santa Cruz.
8pm–12am: Queer Mens Dance
Diversity Center, 1117 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
SUNDAY, JUNE 5
11am: Pride Parade
Along Pacific Ave
12pm–4pm: Pride Festival
Abbott Square, 725 Front St., Santa Cruz.
1:30pm–3:30pm: Youth Space
Boys & Girls Club, 543 Center St., Santa Cruz
2pm–7pm: The Deep End Pool Party
Hotel Paradox, 611 Ocean St., Santa Cruz.