From Park Slope to Key West: Everett Quinton’s Incredible Journey
guest post by Tim Cusack
Everett Quinton, former lead actor and artistic director of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, is famous for his cross-dressing performances, and he’s currently starring in one of the juiciest of his career with Drop Dead Perfect at the Theatre of St. Clements in Hell’s Kitchen. As Idris Seabright, a 1950s Key West housewife with artistic aspirations, Quinton’s assured hand at the wheel drives this vehicle like a classic Ford Thunderbird hurtling down the Eisenhower interstate system.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that he never had a “drag mother” to teach him the skills of gender illusionism. “That’s why my makeup is so lousy. I don’t paint up pretty,” he wisecracks. We’re having lunch at Krolewskie Jadlo, which is Polish for “The King’s Feast” and the kind of place that fits so perfectly into its Manhattan Avenue block in Greenpoint. But then he grows serious: “I was such a fucking mess when I was kid that even if I knew such a thing as a drag mother existed, I would not have been able to access it.”
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Quinton is not only a powerhouse of New York theatre, he’s also a native New Yorker, born and raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn (Garfield and Seventh Avenue to be exact). And the story of how that “fucking mess” became one of the legends of the American theatre is worthy of a biopic. He’s been on quite the streak in 2015, after nearly 40 years as an actor, including appearing with my company Theatre Askew in its production of Horseplay at La MaMa ETC. One of his myriad characters in that show was the King of Poland, so interviewing him underneath one of the royal portraits that adorn the restaurant walls feels appropriately meta.
After settling in and ordering some borscht and meat-stuffed potato dumplings, we start by talking about his Brooklyn childhood and some of the changes he’s witnessed over the decades. First up is the line that services Greenpoint. “When I was a kid, we used to sneak on the subway. That was our pastime, but the G train was always a mystery train to us because we never knew where it went.” We both marvel over its unforeseeable transformation into the “hip train” serving many of the trendiest Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods.
Everett Quinton and Tim Cusack
I ask him about some other changes from the old days, and he mentions the recent addition to the Brooklyn Museum and how much he dislikes it. Then he shares a childhood story: “I used to play hooky in the Brooklyn Museum.” I ask him if there was a particular exhibit that he gravitated to. “It used to be on the fourth floor, and they would have these furnished rooms. I grew up in a shit house. There were too many of us. And I would go there and look at these rooms and imagine I lived in them. They were furnished with period stuff. That was my favorite thing. The museum was free in those days, otherwise I would never have been able to get in.”
When I bring up the gentrification of Park Slope, he points out that, even when he was a kid, that area had a significant bougie element: “I grew up on the poor side of Seventh Avenue. Working-class Brooklyn poor. But on the other side of Seventh Avenue you had middle class, and on Prospect Park West, all the ritzy people lived up there. Montgomery Place, about a block from where we were, had all these gorgeous row mansions. So in that sense it hasn’t changed. But what I have noticed about Park Slope is that there are more trees. There were no trees on my block when I was a kid except for the two across the street from my house.”
After leaving Brooklyn, Quinton served a stint in the military and then, like many LGBT people at the time, ended up in Greenwich Village, where he would eventually meet his partner Charles Ludlam and become a member of Ludlam’s theatre company. Queer people of my generation are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being part of a community, but Quinton reminds me that this idea simply didn’t exist when he was a young man.
Ironically, among the few spaces that did offer a sense of that were the sexual cruising areas in the old piers along the Westside Highway. Quinton himself rarely visited them because, as he points out, they were very dangerous due to their state of disrepair. However, they also provided a moment of epiphany for him: “The Tenth Street Pier (aka Dick Dock) was so decrepit that there were big holes in the ground. But it was there that for the first time I ever had a sense of gay community. One day I saw these men bringing in giant planks of plywood to cover up the holes to keep each other safe. It still moves me to this day.”
He also was a bit of loner in those days but adds “Although late, late nights, after the bars closed, I would hang out with this bunch of people on the steps of St. Veronica’s, before they put the fence up. We’d sit there and often watch the sun come up. And then I met Charles Ludlam, and he would always talk about the theatre folk and Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis. So one day, we were walking down Christopher Street, me and Charles, and he says ‘There’s Jackie Curtis. Let me introduce you to her.’ And it turns out he was one of the guys I used to hang out with.”
We finish our meal, and Quinton insists I take home the huge potato dumpling he wasn’t able to eat, because that’s the kind of person he is. His journey from hard-scrabble Brooklynite to solitary Christopher Street kid to revered theatre eminence has been a remarkable one. But it’s those qualities of generosity and kindness that’s created a community of people around him who love him. One of the things I’m personally most grateful to New York City for is having him in my life. Long may (s)he reign.
Tim Cusack is the artistic director of Theatre Askew. You can find him at the Clyde Fitch Report.
Buy tickets for "Drop Dead Perfect" here. The show is playing now through October 11 at Theater at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street.