Make the Yuletide Gay with Miss Richfield 1981’s Annual Holiday Show

Miss Richfield’s holiday review celebrates queer spaces in a heteronormative holiday season

There are many terrifying missteps in the grand history of storytelling. During the holiday season, chief among them is the harrowing and vacuous Christmas lineup peddled by the Hallmark Channel. In 2019, their roster includes a record 40 new movies—all of them with straight, cisgender leading characters. And if you take a look around the local holiday-themed arts scene this time of year, it isn’t much better.

Providing a welcome alternative, Minnesota drag queen Miss Richfield 1981’s queer-friendly holiday show has been going strong since 1999 and has become, for many, a local holiday tradition.

The lightness, cheer, and vulnerability of what Miss Richfield 1981 brings to the stage throughout the whole year lends itself perfectly to the holiday season, which is already pretty queer when you think about it. You fist a turkey, Jesus has two dads, you dress a tree in drag—the list goes on.

“It’s poignant and funny—and you can be both at the same time,” says Russ King, who created his popular Miss Richfield 1981 character at a Miss America party in 1995 and soon after began performing as the personality at the Gay 90’s.

Russ grew up in Richfield, Minnesota where the local beauty pageant, Miss Richfield, had ceased to exist during the women’s movement of the 1970s and was subsequently resurrected in 1982. Russ saw an opening, and claimed the never-bestowed title of Miss Richfield 1981.

Seeds for her holiday show were planted when Michael Robins, the executive producing director at Illusion Theater, served on the board of directors at the Minnesota AIDS Project. The managing director of the organization, Lorraine Teel, took Michael to a drag show at the Gay 90’s where Russ, then communications director for the AIDS Project, was performing.

“Russ was a pioneer,” said Michael. “It wasn’t about glamour and being a woman. It was about being a character and being this person and doing all of your own everything.” He continues, “She was just too good of a comedian to not figure out how to create her own show.”

Russ eventually left the 90’s to do cabaret work around town and ended up performing on the Fresh Ink series at Illusion Theater, which maintains a particular focus and commitment to the development of artists and new work. The holiday iteration of the partnership began when Miss Richfield 1981 christened Illusion Theater’s newly renovated space on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.

In Russ’ show, Miss Richfield 1981 explores, through humor and musical performance, the trope of the person who was once a beauty queen in small town USA, yet, decades later, hasn’t moved on and still considers the accomplishment the highlight of her life. “We all know people like that and we can all relate to it on some level,” says Russ.

At one point, this variety extravaganza had special guests, but now it focuses on a few core elements: Miss Richfield 1981 and long-time collaborator pianist Todd Price. The show includes a first act consisting of material that Miss Richfield 1981 has been performing all year in shows around the country and during her 60-show summer run in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Then, during intermission, the holiday decorations come out and act two includes a few standard traditions, like a sing-a-long, a video, some kind of monologue, and a game with the audience.

The show has only grown in popularity over the years at Illusion Theater, which holds approximately 250 people, and attracts spectators both queer and straight. “We are committed to the artist and together we’ve built an audience,” says Michael. “From the beginning, we were lucky to fill three nights—now we do 10 or 11.” He continues, “There’s a good group of people that comes every single year.”

In part, the show has served to educate audiences about the queer experience. During the lead-up to the legalization of gay marriage in Minnesota, Miss Richfield 1981 asked couples in the audience how long they’d been together, describing how important it was to have some of the straight couples see gay couples who had been together for several decades. The 2019 show, entitled “Gender Fluids,” is about Miss Richfield 1981 working to understand the many different classifications of gender. True to form, “she’s a little confused at first,” says Russ.

Ultimately, Russ hopes that the show can help people forget about their problems for an hour. Looking ahead, he plans to keep the holiday tradition alive, giving Minnesotans a queer entertainment option during the predominantly heteronormative season. “I think the older I get, the funnier it will be to an audience,” says Russ, age 57. “To see a 70-year-old guy in drag will be a riot.” 

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