The Cincinnati cabaret at Below Zero ended with one last great show


As the clock ticked to 10 p.m. Saturday night, the air was laden with hairspray. There was the last minute application of glitter painted nails and a pink glitter bra was glued in place.

“What time is it, Jayda?” Penny asked in the naked dressing room nearby.

Once filled with dozens of wigs, piles of make-up and feathered costumes so fluffy you had to pull them apart to find who you were looking for, the Cabaret dressing room was reduced to just the costumes needed for the show that was about to take place. begin.

Jayda announced the time, but she knew the issue was really more than pre-show nervousness. What Penny and everyone in the room wanted to know – really wanted to feel – was when their final walk on the track would begin.

“There’s a time and a place for everything and I think we’ve seen the time and seen the place,” said Penny, who first walked the runway in 2009 and catapulted herself to stardom in the season 5 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. “It’s time to let someone else have this moment.”

Saturday evening in early Sunday morning marked the last walk on the runway for Cabaret – the drag show lounge on the second floor of Below Zero. Club owner Nigel Cotterill, 65, is retiring. Below, the last official day of Zero is Monday.

Customers can still find Cotterill at his bar Tillie’s Lounge in Northside. But nothing beats Cabaret, a place that gave Cincinnati drag queens a forever home and treated them like royalty. And it was a place that offered its patrons a safe space to be queer.

Cotterill opened the Below Zero gay bar 15 years ago. He was part of the partnership that owned the popular Hamburger Mary’s that once stood in downtown Vine Street.

Below Zero in Over-the-Rhine opened following Cincinnati’s 2004 repeal of the only remaining nationwide ban on gay rights legislation and amid several waves of gay-friendly reforms by the municipal Council.

It would take another seven years, in 2014, before Cincinnati earned a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Municipal Equality Index, which announced that Cincinnati was LGBTQ-inclusive.

The following year, Jim Obergefell of Cincinnati convinced the United States Supreme Court to strike down same-sex marriage bans and order states to recognize same-sex marriages.

Gay bars as havens

Over-the-Rhine was in the midst of a transformation when Cotterill opened the doors to Below Zero at 12th Street and Walnut in April 2007. His motto: Everyone is welcome. It didn’t take long before he was catapulted into one of the best gay bars in the country.

Drag shows frequented Under Zero and other gay bars, but there was no permanent home for Cincinnati drag queens, nothing like the Lipps Drag Queen Show Palace in Atlanta or the Kit Kat Lounge in Chicago. .

“Why can’t we try something like this in Cincinnati?” thought Cotterill.

So with the third floor of the historic building that housed Under Zero empty, Cotterill opened the curtain on Cabaret.

“I think people don’t realize how hard it is for gay people, gay people, to find spaces where they’re in the majority,” said Cincinnati Councilman Reggie Harris, the first openly black council member. gay from Cincinnati.

“It’s very human to go to spaces aligned by identity. If you’re Catholic, you go to a Catholic church because that means something. If you like sports, you can go to a sports bar For yoga, there are yoga classes,” Harris said. “It’s very rare that a queer person can go into a space where they can be with other queer people and feel safe. Those are the roles that gay bars have played.”

As we move forward with LGBTQ equality, these spaces are becoming less and less frequent,” Harris said. “I’m not convinced they’re still not needed. Although we have made a lot of progress in the big cities, these bars are places of respite for people who live in small towns.”

Below Zero and the Cabaret offered that to Cincinnatians and people who go there from all over the country.

Cabaret was an instant hit and grew in popularity. In 2021, it was named one of the top 100 LGBTQ bars in the country according to Yelp. It was named the best LGBTQ bar in Ohio, beating bars in Columbus and Cleveland.

There were regularly six drag queens in the cast.

“Before Cabaret, they had to travel from bar to bar with a suitcase, sequins and feathers falling as they went,” Cotterill said. “Here they could fluff up their wigs and put their shoes away.”

The walkout for the cabaret

Saturday night was a poignant moment for Tom Wible, 40, and John Watts, 43, of East Walnut Hills. The couple met on Cabaret’s opening night in 2011. They married in 2019.

“For us, it’s a special place,” Wible said. “It’s where we met and a place where we’ve met most of our family. We’ve made lifelong friendships within those walls. It’s truly a special place that we will miss.”

The Saturday night show kicked off at 10:20 p.m. to a sold-out crowd gathered around small tables filled with one-dollar bills.

Cotterill and his partner, Juan-Carlos Diaz, were dressed for the occasion in tuxedos.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Randy Womble, 49, of Alexandria, Kentucky, who came to the final Cabaret performance with husband Tony Phillips, 55.

Then came the “showgirls” – Brooklyn Steele-Tate, Quasi, Chasity Marie, Jayda Mack and Kora Sline – with so many costume changes it was impossible to keep up. There were pink jumpsuits, white dresses, a yellow feathered cape and myriad bodysuits – almost all sprinkled with sequins.

They sashayed to music from Britney Spears and Dolly Parton and Katy Perry and Whitney Houston. It was a review of the series’ greatest hits from years past.

As the show ended just after 1 a.m. on Sunday, Penny passionately performed Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing of All,” with people singing along.

The tears came when Jayda danced to the track for Boys to II Men’s “End of the Road.”

At the end of the show, the drag queens flanked Cotterill, as Diaz said thank you and goodbye.

“It’s been a pleasure and an honor to work with all of you. We grew up together. We laughed and we cried… We insulted each other. We did everything together.

“What we’ve done is create a family.”

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