Mile High Comics all-ages drag show thriving after controversy

The weather report from Denver’s nationally unique Drag for All Ages, nearly a year into its turbulent run at Mile High Comics, is promising: The biggest storms seem to have passed. The rainbows linger.

The monthly event, which drew regular protests and media attention after its March 2019 debut, has settled into something of a groove for its hundreds of loyal attendees, performers and volunteers — mostly families with children — who use it as a safe space for unconventional modes of creative, artistic expression.

“One of the biggest things we’ve learned is the size of need for this,” said 26-year-old co-producer, host and Denver drag queen Jessica L’Whor — or Miss Jessica, as most here affectionately call her. “This show is not about drag and queer kids, necessarily, but we focus on them because they need it. It’s about discovering who you are and what you’re passionate about.”

Behind an elevated stage inside Mile High Comics hangs an array of colorful pride flags depicting symbols for different LGBTQ communities, flanked by a massive Lego figure and various superhero statues. Dozens of round tables and folding chairs are set up before it, populated with friends chatting over slices of donated pizza, cans of soda and cookies.

In the back, Pasha Eve sits at a table for the nonprofit Parasol Patrol, the volunteer group she co-founded to shield participants from the hateful noise and imagery they endured at most shows in 2019 while trying to enter 4600 Jason St. It was an odd scene to witness at this otherwise out-of-the-way industrial corner just off Interstate 70 at Pecos Street: cops, LGBTQ supporters and screaming protesters, all gathered under two-story tall banners emblazoned with Spider-Man and other comic-book heroes.

“We bought ear protection and umbrellas out of our own pockets,” Eve said of the early days of the Parasol Patrol. “Eli, my partner, is a former Marine so he’s really good at organizing people. And we needed it, because the signs (the protesters) were bringing out were borderline pornographic, and the things they were saying were just vile and vicious.”

From a peak of about 100 monthly protesters — a collection of religious extremists, Proud Boys, white supremacists and others — and nearly as many police officers, the protesters have dwindled to a half-dozen or so. Meanwhile, the Parasol Patrol has gone national, organizing ad-hoc and online chapters to support drag-queen readings at libraries and LGBTQ student clubs across the country.

An estimated 450 Parasol Patrol volunteers showed up to Guilford County high school in North Carolina on Nov. 18, where Westboro Baptist Church had planned to protest school clubs it deemed immoral. Westboro was thoroughly outmatched, or “rained on,” as one local TV news outlet put it.

That support was echoed on Jan. 4 at the Lafayette Public Library, where 200 or so Parasol Patrol volunteers showed up at the city-sponsored Drag Queen Story Hour, according to the Longmont Times-Call, amid a much smaller number of protesters.

At the most recent Drag for All Ages show on Feb. 16, only about a half-dozen protesters stood across the street from Mile High Comics, silently praying as dozens of twirling umbrellas provided escort for the families entering the building. The protesters lacked the masks, goggles and Plexiglas shields some of the more aggressive ones toted last summer.

Bespectacled, soft-spoken 64-year-old Chuck Rozanski, who owns and operates the 45,000-square-foot Mile High Comics (the nation’s largest comic shop, he proudly adds), performs at each show as Bettie Pages, his drag queen persona. Rozanski’s financial and logistical support make the event possible, given that venues for all-ages drag events are difficult to come by.

“This is the only one that’s monthly in the country,” Miss Jessica said, “or anywhere else, that we know of.”

As the lights went down and the music rose, Miss Jessica took the stage to introduce Bettie Pages as the night’s opening act. The two-hour event, which usually occurs on Sundays after the store has closed, features a mix of professional and budding drag queens, drag kings and other performers. Everyone gets paid, and most of them donate some or all of their money to the cause, Miss Jessica said.

“We needed you when the Nazis came out, and you were there for us,” Pages told the crowd, just after performing a routine to the 2008 song “Mercy,” by Welsh singer Duffy. “You stood up.”

More than a dozen people also stood throughout Pages’ set, handing her dollar bills as she carefully descended stairs and navigated the audience. The $1 tips are collected in a donation basket that has helped raise $25,000 for the White Rose Scholarship Foundation, Miss Jessica told the crowd, to cheers.

Rozanski has been active in the Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire, the state’s oldest LGBTQ organization, for the last eight years, and represents Colorado at national conferences in San Francisco. Many longtime Mile High Comics customers first learned of his drag queen persona in February 2019 when Rozanski announced the Drag for All Ages shows.

“I am an advocate for folks’ transgender rights and also for kids’ rights,” he told The Denver Post last year. “And so I’m working all the time to try to make sure young people get the opportunities that are currently being denied to them.”

RELATED: Denver’s Yvie Oddly — “the future of drag” — on the art and politics of poking at society

Most parents at the Feb. 16 event declined to be interviewed for this article, having seen the attacks from protesters who believe it’s wrong for children to dress as any sex other than the one they were born as. They’re proud of their kids for wanting to do this and love that they have this outlet. But the tension inherent in the show’s existence never seems far from anyone’s mind.

Some marveled aloud at how such a progressive, boundary-pushing show can exist — thrive, even — in an age of resurgent, proudly public racism and homophobia. That’s a heartening sign of societal progress, however hard-won, said one mother who declined to give her name.

“Emotionally, it’s a huge thing to watch kids get up on stage and be cheered for this,” said a father who identified himself as Papa Sass, after his child’s drag-queen persona, Sassalina Blue Childe. (She performed that night, too.) “Her first time on stage was at age 9 in the Dragutante (an annual, all-ages drag event in Denver) and now she performs about twice a month.”

For now, Mile High Comics’ Drag for All Ages remains the biggest and most visible of its kind, despite more under-the-radar events popping up in its wake.

Its legacy is not necessarily an explosion of competitors; there still are only a handful of such shows in which kids can perform across the state, maybe seven or eight per month, Miss Jessica said. Despite being perfectly legal, and often with a city’s explicit support, these events seldom advertise for fear of drawing the same protests that came to a head last summer with physical clashes and pepper spray outside Mile High Comics.

The show’s true legacy is the Parasol Patrol, which has gone national, and its message of support and resilience, attendees said. Of destigmatizing and enduring amid a particularly unsettled moment in America. Of letting kids explore who they are without being judged or bullied for it.

Drag for All Ages may take the main stage at Denver’s annual PrideFest this summer, if Miss Jessica’s plans come through. Dragutante may well see increased attendance. And the support flowing to organizations like The Center (the region’s biggest LGBTQ nonprofit, based in Denver) and its Rainbow Alley all-ages program will likely continue to increase, officials there said.

“Places that typically support these things are bars that are 18-and-up, or 21-and-up, due to their liquor licenses,” said Keith Garcia, artistic director of Denver Film’s Sie FilmCenter and a documentary filmmaker who has long followed Denver’s drag scene. “An all-ages show is a whole other ball of wax.”

Whether or not all-ages drag brunches and story hours continue to proliferate, Mile High Comics’ show looks bright heading into its March anniversary. The hope is that, eventually, it’ll be just another thing to do amid dozens of other options in the city — an appreciated but otherwise unremarkable outlet that its hosts and professional performers never enjoyed growing up.

“This is about teaching kids how to do things like makeup and design and costumes,” Miss Jessica said. “It’s about encouraging kids to live authentically earlier on, and letting them be themselves. Some of these kids get up there and dance and sing with their own voices. Some of them don’t feel comfortable doing it anywhere else.

“The dwindling of the protesters proves the point that we’re not leaving, and that love is going to conquer the hate,” she said. “Other cities have the ability to do this with that same mindset.”

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