The two guys that owned the Disco 425 went on later in the ‘80’s to open up Signature’s, which was a really nice restaurant, lounge, and coffee shop—just a really cool place. They served lunch. It was great. You could go out shopping and stop in for lunch. There was always people hanging out. They went bankrupt, unfortunately. One of those men is still here in Spokane. His partner has since died, but they were extremely pivotal in the community. In those days, that’s really all you had to do, was go to the bar. They were forerunners, as far as that whole concept of having something other than just a bar. [The owners were] Kenny [Mealer] and Billi [Kelly]. I don’t know when they opened their first bar, but it was probably early ‘70’s. They were together as a couple for many, many, many years. They both were [involved] with the Court for many years and did a lot of good things for the community.
It was in the ‘80s that I got involved with ISCS [Imperial Sovereign Court of Spokane] and ended up holding a couple titles. I became the first person—in at least eastern Washington, if not all Washington—to take gospel music into the [gay] bars. For six years I had a bar ministry, called “Celebration Ministry,” complete with heals and wig. I was a 6’4” drag queen preaching the gospel of Christ in the bars. I’m still amazed at how well that was received. When the Empress was Lucy Ball and the Emperor was Shelley, [Shelley] asked me to be part of her royal family for the year of her reign [1986-87]. At her step down, she bestowed upon me the perpetual title of “Miss Christianity.” I have a statue thing that stands about this tall [holds hands about 10 inches apart] that I never know what the hell to do with. It’s stuck away in a drawer, for my service in ministry to the community. I’ve had a very interesting life. [Laughs.] [My drag name was] Leni Lenai. I started out with a troupe of people and we traveled around Washington. My partner, when I started Celebration Ministry, was a wonderful, wonderful black man, with a voice to die for. He played himself and sang live in all of our shows. Years later he went on to become a drag queen. Of course, during that year of being involved with Shelley’s reign, I went as far as Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Portland, to all those different coronations. Whenever I was asked to perform, I had a signature song called “Love in Any Language,” which I think some of the queens even today are still doing. It was [originally] done by a Christian artist, but it is such a beautiful message that it was one of those [songs] that just kind of transcended, “Love in Any Language.”
I was surprised by how well I was received and how quickly I became known because of that uniqueness [i.e., performing gospel]. I never wavered from that. I did other types of music. I did Streisand and any number of people, but [gospel] was always the core. Any show I did—and God knows I did a lot of them—always had at least two gospel songs in there. People come up to me today who only knew me as that persona, and I have no clue who they are! There was only one time in the very beginning when I had hecklers; the bar owner removed them. It was like, “Wow!”
I did the Celebration Ministry for six years and basically retired from that in ’92. Then, in 2002, when Emmanuel [MCC] was celebrating its 20th anniversary . . . I don’t remember doing this, but apparently at some point along the way, I made the statement that, if [the church] ever made it 20 years, “Miss Thing” would come out of retirement and emcee the anniversary celebration we were going to do. Unfortunately, some people remembered that and held me to it. So, four years ago, after many years of not doing any performing, [Leni Lenai] came home from the villa. She lives in Monaco now. It was a great time. A lot of the Court people were there for that celebration. We had that at the Unitarian Church. Even now, when I think back, people who were actively involved in the community in the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s . . . It would be a rare person who doesn’t know my alter ego. I still find that somewhat alarming. It’s like, “Oh man.” [Laughs.]
The Court, I think, is probably the singular best organization in this community for raising a lot of money for . . . you name it: for Spokane AIDS Network . . . They provide scholarships every year . . . They have been the backbone for other organizations. In the early years of the [EMCC], they were there to help. They would do fundraisers and help us, as they did with all the organizations.
It’s been years since I was involved [with the Court], but what I do see—and what I hear—is that the Court today is basically a mere shadow of what it was. It was a powerful entity in the community. You know, like with a lot of things: those people that were involved have all gotten older, they’re tired, they’ve done that forever, and they can’t do it anymore.
***[The Dorian Group was] a national organization. It was based on Dorian Gray, who, I didn’t know this, but apparently he was gay. Most of the national chapters of Dorian were geared to be politically active type things. The local [Spokane] group, when it started, decided that, really, what we needed in Spokane was social alternatives to bar life. We sponsored a lot of dances. We were kind of the predecessor the O.W.L.S. group [Older Wiser Lesbians] now, and Giant Ass Drum Corps, and those kinds of things. At that time we were the only [social] alternative [to the bars]. We had a membership and we brought in money. Through the generosity of some people who would offer space to us, we could sponsor these things. For several years we met at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, because the priest there . . . He and his partner, while they lived a very quiet life, that particular parish knew about them and was okay with them. In the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church, it was not talked about. They had a pretty quiet life. But their parish knew. Holy Trinity: it’s over on West Dean, over in the Courthouse-part of town. So many of the people that were involved [in the Dorian Group] back then have since died of AIDS, or moved away . . .
You know, most everybody I know in my age category, we went through our party years and our “hanging-out-at-the-bar” years. I personally could care less if I walk inside a bar again. I go there for special functions and that sort of thing, but that’s not were I want to spend my life. I think everybody kind of goes through those phases. I think that’s one of the reasons the bars in this town have struggled throughout the years. Something new will open up and everybody flocks to it for a while and then that’s old hat. I would not want to try to be a singularly gay-oriented business owner in this town, unless I had lots of money to lose. Which is very sad that, with a population the size of ours, that we can’t support our own people’s businesses. But I don’t think we are unique in that.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel first published in 1891.
Source: Interview with Maureen Nickerson and Katya M., 2007; held in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.