Before An Evening at the Chez Nous had even begun, Bronzeville native Marlow La Fantastique—whose career the event was celebrating—was already in her element. She worked her way about the room, doling out hellos and bisous with the grace of someone very familiar with the spotlight. That, of course, is an understatement. For decades, her relationship to spotlights was like a fish’s to the sea: she basically lived in them, performing not only in the States, but all over the world. Hers was truly a star-studded career, one with too many high points to easily identify any single apogee. But if forced to, one might point to La Fantastique’s time performing at the Cabaret Chez Nous, the famous West Berlin nightclub known for featuring drag queens and trans women performers as well as its celebrity patronage.
The University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center co-hosted An Evening at the Chez Nous in the Logan Center for the Arts on November 18 to celebrate the legendary queer cabaret and the native Chicagoan’s involvement with the place. But it became clear that La Fantastique’s significance goes way beyond her nights at the Chez Nous. She’s a queer icon whose performance career began in Chicago more than a decade before she even set foot on European shores—a time when being queer in America could have fatal consequences. “I…led the way for all of you,” she reminds the audience. Chase Joynt, emcee for the night, ran the night accordingly, reminding observers that the event wasn’t only about getting a glimpse into the “magic of Berlin’s past” but also into the “incredible life and legacy” of Marlow La Fantastique herself.
Although Joynt had met La Fantastique before, he shared a similar sense of excitement with the crowd. “Working with Marlow, no story lands the same way twice. And it’s further elaborated the more we talk. So it’s kind of this incredible moment for me too,” Joynt confided in the audience. The gift of dynamic and varied storytelling is a charming quality that I also noticed in La Fantastique when we spoke one-on-one. One thing stayed constant, however: how positively she spoke of Bronzeville—both the Bronzeville of her childhood and the Bronzeville that she has returned to many years later.
“[Bronzeville] was a jumping neighborhood,” she told Joynt. She listed off a handful of joints that she frequented as an adolescent, many of which have risen to historic significance since. “We had beautiful cabarets, we had the Club DeLisa, and the one called Rhumboogie. In fact, people came from the suburbs and the North Side just to enjoy a night out in Bronzeville.”
That was in the 1950s. At the time, Chicago was heavily segregated and few African-Americans living on the South Side dared to venture north. Police presence made that a dangerous gambit. “I was one of the few that strayed from north to south,” La Fantastique told me. With or without police, life wasn’t always the safest for her in Bronzeville either. “We had trouble with gangs. Because we walked the streets, and being queer, you were definitely going to get chased, and of course, you’d get beaten. And therefore, we just started hanging up north.”
She and a couple of her girlfriends—a girl named Freddy, and another girl named Sheila—would head up to the Gold Coast around Clark and Division. “That was the hangout spot, near Oak Street Beach…It was jumping up there. So we thought it was a difference to go there and have more fun and to meet different people.” However, the North Side was more of the same; to the gangs from the white neighborhoods, La Fantastique and her friends seemed like “pie and ice cream all together,” as she put it. They were not only queer but errant Black folk as well. And being Black attracted attention from the authorities. “The harassment from the police was unbearable,” she recalls tersely. “Every time we saw the police, we hid behind the columns of the building so they wouldn’t arrest us.”
There weren’t many spaces for “travesti”—a term La Fantastique uses to describe herself—in 1950s Chicago. So she moved east to the glitzy, alluring, and nascent New York ballroom scene. To a degree, things were different there, If “Chicago was kind of like a hicktown,” then New York had “that Big City flare,” La Fantastique told me. And while queer liberation was by no means at hand, she felt that “it was friendlier.” It was there that she made a name for herself, performing at the likes of the Apollo Theater, the 82 Club, and the Manhattan Center. It was at the latter that she first showed New York her infamous mirror dress—a design she created in 1965 for a show at the Coliseum in Chicago but redesigned for the eastern stage. “I looked like a ballroom,” she told Joynt. “All the girls complimented me.” To the audience, she added, “It’s in excellent condition, and I have it for sale.”
A number of ephemera from her time in New York had been unearthed in time for An Evening at the Chez Nous. Among them was a clip of her performing in her iconic mirror dress and a clip taken from The Queen, a 1968 documentary about the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant—a daring film that featured drag performers at a time when female impersonation laws had yet to be abolished. La Fantastique and her friend and fellow drag legend Crystal LaBeija won fourth and third in the contest, respectively. The pageant was the first—and not the last—instance that La Fantastique’s beauty was likened to that of a young Josephine Baker. The Queen offered not only a glimpse into New York’s queer subculture but also, unfortunately, the racism that haunted it. In a clip from the documentary (not shown at the Logan event), LaBeija contends that she received third place—as opposed to first or second—because she didn’t do anything to lighten her “color.”
Although New York was a more progressive city than Chicago, the atmosphere was still confining for La Fantastique. It was here that she joined the legendary Jewel Box Revue, a traveling performance troupe that was constituted mostly of drag queens, and as La Fantastique put it, “the first organized gay community” in America. Still, work was hard to come by in New York and otherwise. “Who wanted to hire a show with twenty-five men and a girl—a female impersonator show? Normal clubs and theaters all around America didn’t want to hire them,” La Fantastique said. In the middle of a cross country tour, she and several others were cut from the act because attendance was too low to pay all of its members. Upon her return to New York, people began to suggest that she try her hand in Europe.
That seemed like the best idea given the scarcity of work and the police harassment that queer folks experienced in New York at the time. The latter would reach a head with the Stonewall Riots of 1969. But La Fantastique had already departed by then, arriving in Berlin in August 1968. Within hours of landing, she had already secured a job at the Cabaret Chez Nous, whose repute had reached her during her stint in New York. “I drove up in a taxi, told him to take me to the Cabaret Chez Nous. He took me right there, the taxi driver. And there was the boss. I introduced myself, and he looked at me, and then just in a few minutes…he told the owner Michelle I looked like Josephine Baker, and he told me to come back the next night.” And just like that, she became a member of one of the world’s most iconic queer clubs of the twentieth century.
In Berlin, La Fantastique found her element. “When we got to Germany, everything was allowed…And they loved travestis. They would come out and ask: ‘You’re travesti’ and they liked it.” La Fantastique actually found work at queer and straight clubs alike. She would book the latter as a cisgender woman. “But if they found out,” she told me, “it didn’t matter. As long as you made money for the club.” And that she did. “Always when I’d work in clubs, they’d put it in the newspaper because it attracted a lot of people.” Most of all, people came for her famous fan dance, an act that is unfailingly mentioned in any of the literature one can find on La Fantastique.
Audience members at An Evening at the Chez Nous got to experience her signature fan dance in person, this time reenacted by Chicago native, dancer, and artist Darling Shear. What began as a video clip of La Fantastique herself, decked out in a bodacious outfit of red dyed (and as La Fantistique told the audience, expensive) ostrich feathers, transitioned into a live version of the dance performed by Shear. It culminated in an amazing move that Shear would later compare to the opening of “a clam.” Apparently, Shear and La Fantastique worked together closely prior to the Logan event to help Shear perfect the move.
The strength of the event was the explicit connection it made between La Fantastique’s role in the queer movements of the mid-century and its legacy in the drag culture we see proliferating in the world today. Shear, then, was perhaps the perfect person to perform La Fantastique’s most famous act—much of her artistic practice involves the repositioning of choreography ranging from the twenties to the seventies into a contemporary context. In conversation with Joynt and La Fantastique, Shear employs a musical metaphor to explain her method: “In a lot of urban music, they’re often sampling songs from yesteryear…and so I was like, ‘how can I make this into a career?’ ”
The crowd—like the programming of the event itself—was diverse in age. There were those who probably remembered hearing about La Fantastique in her heyday (and maybe even saw her perform) and there were those who had come to learn about a figure who took center-stage in some of the movements that made their own liberation possible today. “I feel incredibly warmed and inspired by the kind of intergenerational connection and conversation that we’ve continued to have in the making of this event, and also in the context of this work,” Joynt said nearing the end of the evening. “I just think it’s so incredibly dynamic.”
Although La Fantastique is no longer performing, one could feel the immensity of her presence—both in the room in Logan that night and beyond, amongst the pantheon of important queer figures of the latter century. She and her husband, German actor Gunter Willim (who she refers affectionately to as “Curly”), have returned to Bronzeville in their retirement. I met them in their apartment, which was covered from wall to wall with memorabilia and photographs from all corners of the globe.
Still, the fight for queer and Black rights in Chicago is by no means at an end; according to the Illinois Human Rights Commission, she and her husband filed a complaint with the State of Illinois Department of Human Rights in 2008 about an instance of housing discrimination that they faced as a result of La Fantastique’s sexual orientation and race. But without a doubt, much of the ill-will she faced in the fifties and sixties because of her race and sexual identity has waned since her return. Despite her worldliness, her Chicago pride remains undiminished and she still speaks of Bronzeville glowingly. “This is a heaven now,” she tells me with the elegant smile of a queen. I wasn’t the only one attuned to her regality; at her event’s end, she received an ovation fit for queen. And for “The Queen Bee,” the “Duchess Monique from Germany” herself, nothing less was deserved.