The St. Louis community lost a treasure this week with the passing of Chuck Atteberry, 69. He was the longtime owner of Heads Ultd. in Clayton, lone survivor of the famed comedy drag trio, "Sex, Inc." - and celebrated former co-owner of Miss Gay Missouri America. In 2010, I had the honor to interview Chuck and his protégé and friend Daniel Flier to talk "sex", drag and more. This is republished with permission from Vital VOICE:
When Chuck Atteberry and the late Dean Dingler and Michael Lavin formed the comedy drag trio "Sex, Inc." in 1972, they couldn't have imagined the 13-year run that lay ahead of them. They were big men with even bigger hearts who took the LGBT community by storm, and rode a wave of popularity that stretched from the heady days of disco to the early years of AIDS.
As the original “hot mess,” Sex, Inc.’s impact on our community can be measured by the fact that eyes still light up and smiles broaden at the mere mention of their name. What’s more, they were among the leaders of a generation of female impersonators who poured themselves into service through outreach, education and fundraising when our community needed it most.
Recently my friend Daniel Flier, better known as Vanessa Vincent, Miss Gay Missouri 1982 and co-founder of St. Louis Effort for AIDS, helped arrange an interview with Atteberry. Needless to say I jumped at the chance to talk Sex—(and Flier):
“I’m the most talented, the prettiest and the sole survivor of Sex, Inc.,” Atteberry begins.
“He tells everyone that,” quips Flier. “The others aren’t here to say any different.”
With that—I knew this was going to be a fun interview!
Atteberry got his start in female impersonation in 1968 as a member of the famed Smokettes at Smokey’s Den in Springfield, Ill. Opening in 1966, Smokey’s was one of the state’s first gay bars and was owned and operated by Mary Lou "Smokey” Schneider until 2003.
“Smokey got away with a lot in Springfield,” Atteberry explains. “People of the same sex could dance at her bar when they couldn’t at bars in Chicago. The reason was the legislators used to bring their girlfriends in there—it was a safe place for them to go because nobody ratted on them.”
With "no drag to speak of" in St. Louis, Bob Martin’s Bar would bus patrons up to Springfield to see the Smokettes perform. The troupe proved popular and toured throughout the Midwest and South before settling in St. Louis in 1970. Here they began performing at Peyton Place in Gaslight Square and in doing so, became St. Louis' first drag troupe—predating The Peytonettes and The River Queens.
“I remember when we had shows there they had people in the alley watching for the cops because it was illegal,” Atteberry recalls.
In 1969, The Mandrake Society was founded in St. Louis. The group was our city’s first LGBTQ rights organization and held the popular Mandrake Ball each Halloween to raise money.
“That’s how Sex, Inc. came about,” Atteberry says. “Dean and I were doing fundraising for Mandrake and we thought we should do a comedy act of ‘fat girls.’ And Dean said we really need three—who can we get? Wait—there’s a bartender at the Onyx Room. ‘She’ thinks ‘she’s’ pretty—let’s ask ‘her’! And Michael had only been out about a month.”
Indeed, Lavin was drafted and rehearsals began in late 1972. At first it was thought that the big men looked too pretty—so out sprang the big white hair and outrageous outfits. As for music, they started off with anything that was a trio, like The Supremes—but added their own comedic twist.
The name Sex, Inc. was a takeoff on Barry White’s “Love Unlimited” and the threesome stole their names from the biggest sex symbols of the time: Dingler was Ursula (Andress), Atteberry was Raquel (Welch) and Lavin was Elke (Sommer).
“I have to say back in those days so many of the drag queens took themselves so seriously,” explains Atteberry. “When we came out and were just berserk and drug guys up on stage and did all sorts of stuff—people just ate it up.”
“I remember very clearly the first time I saw Sex, Inc.,” recalls Flier. “I was like—I don’t know what they are—but I love them.”
While their numbers were cleverly choreographed and rehearsed, audiences never saw the same act twice given the trio’s slapstick comedy, zany antics and penchant for audience participation. For Sex, Inc. was a crossover hit—appealing to everyone from queer and straight audiences alike to their unlikely camaraderie with the leather community. Yes Sex (Inc.) was big at club runs country-wide.
“The one thing that I think is so fascinating about them is how they would go to these leather events where you would have these insane, rough leather-crowds and they would be so well received,” offers Flier.
“They loved us,” adds Atteberry.
Asked if he has a favorite number that Sex, Inc. performed over the years and Atteberry doesn’t hesitate:
“We started out with the music from “Chariots of Fire” and the stage is black,” he excitedly explains. “Dean has this huge turkey leg and he sticks his hand through the drapes and then he comes out and the strobe light is going. The “Chariots” music is playing and it’s in slow motion and its Michael and I chasing Dean for the turkey leg. And then it goes into “Let’s Get Physical” mixed with Diana Ross’s “I Want Muscles,” because we’ve got on running gear. I loved that!”
Raquel, Elke and Ursula were larger than life and in-demand throughout the country. The trio traveled to Detroit, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas and even Black Water, Mo. They performed at bars ranging from the hottest discos to the cruisiest dives.
“We did a show at a leather bar in Dallas and they had a dressing room that neither of us could fit into—but they had their own chicken coop out back,” laughs Atteberry. “So we dressed out back in the coop with the chickens roaming around and it was 100-degrees. So we constantly made jokes about the chickens and the eggs and wiping our feet when we got on stage.”
In 1979 Sex, Inc. bought the Miss Gay Missouri America pageant which exploded in popularity and participation under their 8-year stewardship. Icons including Genevieve Ryder, Georgia Brown, Vanessa Vincent, Vicki Vincent (later Miss Gay America 1989), Melinda Ryder, Dan Curry, Zsa Zsa Principle, Mona Desmond, and Charity Case (later Miss Gay America 2001) were each crowned during this era.
“One of the things that Sex, Inc. did was they took drag to a whole other level,” says Flier. “They were the ones who said, no—if they aren’t going to pay you $75—you’re not performing. Because of them we learned to stand up for ourselves and not work for $25—unless it’s a benefit, and that’s an entirely different thing. I am Miss Gay Missouri and you will pay me what I’m worth.”
Sex, Inc. disbanded in 1985 but would reunite for the rare benefit performance—their last for Gateway MC’s 20-anniversary. The legendary trio had enjoyed a 13-year run unprecedented and to date, unduplicated in the Gateway City.
Dingler passed away in 1997 and Lavin, a little over a year later.
“Drag is constantly evolving,” concludes Atteberry. “We came along to do what we did just at the right time when people were ready for that kind of silliness. And then it got really serious again. It seems very serious to me now.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: JACK BEAL