Photos by Caitlin Abrams
For a few weeks every year, just before Christmas, Miss Richfield 1981 takes the stage here for her annual—and annually sold out—Christmas show. When the house lights go down, a spotlight hits the stage, and then, galumphing onto it or stomping onto it or struggling through the curtains to get to it, she appears. With her stick legs, her flat chest, her red rubber band of a vast lipstick grimace, her everything-and-the-kitchen-sink billboard of a bouffant hairdo, this is one of Minneapolis’s most recognizable characters. “Where are you from, darling?” She implores an audience member from the stage. “Oh Orono. Orono. That takes a lot of work doesn’t it? You never sleep if you have to support that many kids in Orono, do you? Tell me, in the middle of the night when you wake up from the stress, do you ever think of chucking it all for a simple rustic existence, somewhere close to the land, like Wayzata?” The crowd goes wild, and if that joke makes no sense to you, you’re not from around here. But the most significant female character comic this side of Dame Edna is very much from around here, and Minnesotans would likely be surprised to know the true story behind Miss Richfield. Grab a cocktail and give a listen.
In the 1970s on a Saturday night near the corner of 67th Street and Grand Avenue, a boy named Russ King sat in his Richfield living room and flicked on the family’s only television. Here came the must-see run of shows on CBS: Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and, finally, the crown jewel, Carol Burnett. His mom, Barb, shook popcorn in its pot in the kitchen and warmed a little pan of butter. His three older brothers in this strict Baptist house were out, seeing friends, riding bikes. They were not at the movies or dancing—those were forbidden by his strict Baptist family.
As King and his mom settled in, laughing at Burnett characters like Nora Desmond and Chiquita, neither of them imagined this would be the crucible that would create Miss Richfield, the most important cabaret persona in the history of Minnesota, and one of North America’s top drag stars.
Most Minnesotans think of Miss Richfield 1981 as merely a Christmas phenomena, and sensibly so, because she appears annually, not long after the Thanksgiving leftovers are dumped, and lingers for a few weeks at the Illusion Theater. Then, she disappears. Most people might guess she gets boxed up until next Christmas with her giant hair rollers.
Not so! We don’t see Miss Richfield around these parts the rest of the year because she’s off performing some 100 shows a year nationally. Most are at The Crown & Anchor in Provincetown, Massachusetts, but she also has long engagements annually at the resorts and cruises run by the gay-oriented tourism company Atlantis Events. She also has occasional runs in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Auckland, New Zealand.
Miss Richfield appears regularly on the television show Cake Boss, and was the travel company Orbitz’s television pitchwoman for five years. There are few female impersonators who sell tickets like Miss R.; she’s among the top handful in the country, with the likes of RuPaul, Varla Jean Merman, and Miss Coco Peru. If you’ve never heard of any of these people except RuPaul, know this: In the world of men acting as women on a stage, Miss Richfield is Bette Midler to RuPaul’s Beyoncé. Lower profile, yet certainly of the first rank and preferred by many.
King doesn’t consider himself to be working in the métier of drag, per se. “I don’t really like the term ‘drag queen,’” he says. “That connotes a particular kind of performance that I don’t connect with—lip-syncing and a certain ‘My gosh, can you believe it’s a man?!’ hyper-verisimilitude to the signifiers of pop-star female-ness, like sequins.” Miss R. doesn’t follow those ideals. “I’ll never put boobs in,” King continues. “It’s funnier to not have them. To do this, you either need enormous boobs or no boobs; regular boobs and you look like a woman, and what’s the fun in that?” But if not a drag queen, what? “I consider myself a cabaret performer. Or comedic cabaret performer. My show really is a variety show—a little singing, a little dancing, some jokes, like Carol Burnett.”
I parry that the show, a new version of which has run every year since 1999 at the Illusion, also has a good dose of the one-person play to it, bearing a certain authorial firm point of view, focus of character, and of-the-moment social commentary, not unlike, say, an hour of Spalding Gray or John Leguizamo, though with more improv. “Well you’re very kind,” King responds. “Though, honestly, not everyone can do improv. It’s great to include a little off-the-cuff yakking in every show; it makes people come back. When we poll people, that always comes up: ‘We like it when she talks to the audience.’ And if, heaven forbid, the audience is unfocused, as soon as you talk to people, everybody snaps right to attention: ‘Oh my God, here she comes. I hope she doesn’t talk to me!’”
Let’s give a quick word of thanks to the Richfield public schools of the ’70s, for that’s where King got his formal theater training. “Our high school was a huge powerhouse in music and theater,” King says. “We had a full-time orchestra conductor, a full-time band director, three or four choirs, a swing choir—in this day and age, it’s unimaginable how good our programs were. I didn’t like sports, so my artistic abilities were developed.” King graduated Richfield High in 1981 (hence the 1981 in Miss Richfield’s name) and, as a good Baptist, he left to deepen his religious understandings at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
And yet, King, who had realized he was gay “from when I was little, little, little,” began to think that his life likely lay in a more secular setting, so he transferred to Bemidji State. Upon graduating, he took a job as a newspaper reporter in International Falls, but soon enough, “I decided I really wanted to come out. I just wanted to be gay at home, close to my family. We’re all close to each other, and I just wanted to be near them,” he says. (King says his family was “not surprised, yet not supportive either” about his coming out, but eventually they became understanding and regularly attended his Miss Richfield shows.)
Upon returning to the cities in 1993, King became the communications director at the Minnesota AIDS Project. Those were tough, but in many ways good, years, King recalls. It was before the anti-retroviral drugs that helped people with AIDS to live longer, healthier lives, and there was widespread prejudice against gay people in general and AIDS patients in particular. “Persecution really drew people together,” King remembers.
At The Minnesota AIDS Project, King liked to do little things to boost morale. One hectic week everyone had to box up everything so that the carpets could be replaced. “As a thank you to the staff, we got hors d’oeuvres,” and he fashioned a dress out of some of the old carpet. “I was Carpetina!”
That moment served as King’s first step toward the stage. His final leap upon it was an accident. When friends who had long thrown a Miss America party invited him to a get-together at a house in Kenwood, he thought he had been invited to their Miss America party, so King invented his imaginary beauty queen, Miss Richfield 1981. Upon opening the door, he discovered it was actually a housewarming, a plain old, costume-free housewarming. He was warmly welcomed, and spent the entire party in character, acting the daffy, Richfield-obsessed suburban aunt to a crowd of well-heeled and straight-laced folks (who were both gay and straight). Suddenly, all the critical characteristics of Miss Richfield 1981 came together—she’s an addled interloper in polite society, never quite getting what she’s missing, but plowing on amid well-wishers who see more of the joke than she does, but never reveal their knowingness. (When you think about it, that is a quintessential Minnesotan characteristic.) Later, friends encouraged King to reprise his role for an upcoming Gay 90’s show Aids Project fundraiser—and the rest is history.
Miss R. returns to Minnesota every year at Christmastime, but mainly for love, not money—Miss Richfield 1981 makes her dough on the road. He comes home to see friends and family, and hole up in his downtown Minneapolis apartment to write his next season of shows. He also comes back to connect with the muse of a suburb that has fueled his career. “All successful comedians will tell you: All good humor is local, really,” King says. Yet his Richfield is also abstract. “People come up to me all the time and say: ‘I’m from Richfield!’ But they’ve never been to Minnesota.” Richfield is bigger than Richfield, he explains. “It’s a place that’s disapproving and critical, but passive-aggressive and cheerful and would never say anything bad to your face.”
King says Miss R. will live by his side forevermore. “When I get old, I’ll put gray roots in the wigs. The more I do her, the more I understand her. She’s a part of so many people’s lives; there are people who have seen every single show. They need Miss Richfield to age with them. It’s just such a good life as Miss Richfield. I can’t imagine a better life. Neither can she!”