Far from here, where the earth meets the sea, there's a colorful land that belongs to neither but is alternately claimed by both. It was founded by woodsmen, soldiers, convicts, and whores, and at various times has been inhabited by pirates, traders, and zealots. The people of this land knew that their pretty pink houses would one day sink into the silt upon which they were erected, and so for one week every year they diverted their worries with an extravagant, lawless street party.
But as merry as it was for the townspeople (and the tourists, who came in hordes) to dress up in fine fabrics, gorge themselves on fruity liquors, and engage in unmentionable sexual vices, after about 150 years there came a day when they began to fret. Whatever shall we do? they cried. We have reached the pinnacle of amusement!
A tall, dapper scamp stepped up and introduced himself. "I am Mr. Quintron," he said, "and I have a musical instrument so fantastic, so wonderful, you will never again wonder how any party could measure up to the last. For you see, this instrument celebrates along with you. As long as you're lively, the sound it produces will be too."
"Let us see this miracle!" the people demanded.
So the slender inventor invited the people to a gigantic party, and when they were properly assembled he stepped onstage wearing a baby blue suit encrusted with white rhinestones. A small table cloaked in a matching blue cape stood to his right. The people drew in one collective breath, straining forward to see what he would unveil. "Behold--the Drum Buddy!" Quintron exclaimed. He yanked off the cover to reveal a punctured tin can mounted over a lightbulb.
"Why, it's just a piece of junk!" exclaimed one gentleman. A murmur of agreement ran through the crowd; a few people threw up their hands and took their leave.
But then Quintron turned on the contraption and worked himself into a fervor, twiddling knobs and throwing switches. A low rumbling came from the Drum Buddy. He gradually sped up the music, adding layers of squeals and thumps to the beat. The sound filled the people's souls with joy, and they began to dance. A petite blond woman dressed as a cat locked the doors, and many say the party continues to this day.
OK, maybe that's not exactly how the story goes, but it's pretty close. The former Chicagoan formerly known as Robert Rolston appeared in New Orleans unbidden, invented a mysterious instrument--technically a "five-oscillator, light-activated, mechanically rotating drum machine"--and sucked a bunch of people into a world of his own creation. Still don't believe it? Perhaps you'll be persuaded by the infomercial: an actual hour-long, late-night-TV-style production extolling the virtues of the Drum Buddy and, by extension, the life Quintron has carved out for himself in the impoverished but culturally rich Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Quintron screened the infomercial on his last visit to Chicago, at the Hideout on April 1, and undoubtedly some viewers thought it was an elaborate April Fool's joke. Bob Global, a New Orleans-based commercial actor, and Rebecca Simms, a musician and allegedly a TV weatherwoman from Tucson, host The Drum Buddy Show wearing tacky taxicab yellow outfits--his a cheap car salesman sport coat and tie, hers a blousy 80s travel agent dress--shit-eating grins, and too much rouge. Quintron dashes onto the set from a Hummer and starts up his invention with the turn of a key. The camera pans the audience--a mix of hipsters, local shopkeepers, frat boys, geriatrics, and eccentrics, all watching in exaggerated amazement.
The segments come in rapid succession, each more surreal than the last: White indie-rap artist MC Trachiotomy, wearing an Afro wig and a Fu Manchu mustache, takes 30 seconds' worth of samples from the Drum Buddy, then returns moments later with a song. A junior high school teacher earnestly explains that the Drum Buddy is an excellent learning tool because it provides a hands-on physics lesson. The Drum Buddy is featured in a puppet show; Ernie K-Doe, the guy who sang "Mother-in-Law," dons a red suit and feathered headdress to sing "Fever" over Drum Buddy beats. Quintron tests the Drum Buddy's heat resistance by lighting it on fire. The staged action is broken up by "commercials" shot at a rave, where kids in tiny T-shirts and huge pants twirl glow sticks and blow whistles as the Drum Buddy whirls.
Throughout the video, Quintron, Bob, and Rebecca allude to a "target date," when Drum Buddy production will cease and all the proud owners will flock to New Orleans for a how-to seminar. Though the actual date is never revealed--stay posted to the Web site, www.drumbuddy.com, advises Quintron--they do say that only 100 Drum Buddies will be made. At $999.99 a pop, selling even a few may seem like a pretty lofty goal, but Quintron insists it's a steal. Each electronic component is hand selected, and just the parts cost more than $300. Plus Quintron guarantees it for 99 years. Currently there are 20 on back order.
For folks who knew Robert Rolston--or just knew of him--when he lived in Chicago, the show was the return of a prodigal son. He'd moved to town in 1989 from suburban Saint Louis, where he'd been a little strange, performing in cover bands and high school plays and occasionally wearing black eyeliner. Though he wasn't too familiar with Chicago, he had heard of Theater Oobleck, a surrealistic, anarchistic theater group from Ann Arbor that had also migrated here, and the friendly gay nightclub Berlin, and that was enough for him. He enrolled in the drama department at DePaul, but dropped out after three semesters. By the time he left town, six years later, he'd cultivated a rep as a grade-A freak, shaving his eyebrows, mutilating dolls in the name of art, hoarding baby shoes, playing the autoharp in the el tunnels at 4 AM, and banging on a junk contraption in the art-rock band Math. In 1990 he and a friend began running a ramshackle performance space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building--first on the ground floor, then in the basement. Milk of Burgundy, as it was dubbed, served as a hub for the neo-no-wave subset of the local music scene. And though you wouldn't have known it from looking around at a show, it also served as Rolston's home.
In 1994 Math broke up, and Rolston went solo, performing on his homemade instrument from Math and a drum. He began calling himself Quintron, after an electronics company where his father had worked. When he toured, he sought out offbeat venues similar to Milk of Burgundy, and in New Orleans he booked a show at Pussycat Caverns, run by a young woman who called herself Miss Pussycat. He showed up way too early for the show there, and no one was around, so he set out on foot to look for a restaurant. A loud convertible full of girls passed him, then stopped and backed up. One of the girls--an impish blond with large vintage sunglasses perched on her head--asked if he was Mr. Quintron, and when Quintron looked into her eyes he swooned. Miss Pussycat told him to get in the car.
Miss Pussycat, who legally changed her "real" name to Panacea Theriac last year, grew up in Antlers, Oklahoma, a town so small it didn't warrant a traffic light. When she was 11 her older sister introduced her to new-wave music, and she decided she wanted to go to London. Her parents told her she could go if she earned the money. They didn't think she'd actually do it, but she says she mowed lawns for three consecutive summers and sold her horse, and by age 14 had the cash to spend the summer in London. She perused record shops by day and crashed in youth hostels at night, frittering away her money in pubs and punk-rock clubs. Once her pockets were empty, she returned to Antlers, where she joined the youth puppet ministry at the First Baptist Church. The troupe toured other churches in southeastern Oklahoma, and Miss Pussycat took it very seriously. Puppetry, she says, combined all her favorite things: music, storytelling, and costume design. But her rebellious nature got the best of her, and a year later she was kicked out for smoking pot in the church basement.
In 1990 she went to college on the west coast. She graduated in two and a half years, and shortly thereafter decided she needed to see Guardian Angels, a painting by American surrealist Dorothea Tanning housed at the New Orleans Museum of Art. She traveled to New Orleans by train--only to find the museum closed for renovations. She decided to wait. It would be a month before it reopened, and by then she'd decided to stay.
She and two friends founded Pussycat Caverns in an old theater in the Ninth Ward; it was outfitted with velvet curtains, ornate antique seats, expensive lighting, and a trapeze. Inspired by the theatrical nature of the oddball bands that performed there, she picked up puppetry again. This time her creations fronted a fantastical rock band called Flossie & the Unicorns. The puppets have even recorded several albums, two of them on the Chicago avant-rock label Skin Graft.
Three months after Quintron's show at the Caverns, Miss Pussycat used some frequent flier miles to visit him in Chicago. The two came upstairs from Milk of Burgundy for a bite at the Friar's Grill, a greasy spoon in the Flat Iron Building, and while Quintron was over at the cigarette machine, landlord Bob Berger walked over to their table and handed Miss Pussycat an eviction notice. The closing ceremony for Milk of Burgundy, held about a month later, culminated in the torching of a Christmas tree in the intersection of Damen, Milwaukee, and North by a hundred or so angry artists, musicians, and friends.
Quintron had lined up some gigs in the southwest, and he asked Miss Pussycat to go with him. Two of the shows were in Las Vegas, and immediately after the first, he summoned up the corniest romantic scenario he could think of, and then acted it out: he carried Miss Pussycat outside, got down on one knee, and proposed on the sidewalk. Neither knew the other's real name, but she accepted anyway. They got married in a Vegas chapel in front of God and Miss Exotic World 1991, Catherine D'Lish.
In late 1995, after Milk of Burgundy closed, Quintron moved to New Orleans. Miss Pussycat made a living as a seamstress, and Quintron worked as a science teacher at an after-school program for elementary school students. Physics and electronics had always interested him, and he got a kick out of having to create new projects every day. He also took up the organ, cultivating a sort of rapscallion gospel routine, releasing full-length records on Skin Graft, Bulb, and Miss Pussycat's Rhinestone label and recording with Memphis garage rockers the Oblivians. In his stage show, Miss Pussycat sings backup, plays maracas, and of course operates the puppets. "You don't get me without her," he explains in his bio on the Skin Graft Web page.
In subsequent years, Quintron and Miss Pussycat have become celebrities in their adopted hometown. There's even a picture of them painted on the side of the Mother-in-Law Lounge, the bar run by Ernie K-Doe's wife, Antoinette. Ernie K-Doe died on July 5; his last recording, "White Boy, Black Boy," features Quintron on organ. He was best known for his flamboyant costumes and his elaborate hairpieces, which looked like fancy cakes left out in the rain. The Mother-in-Law would host "hair extension nights" just to celebrate Ernie's dos; in fact, the interior of the bar is usually decorated according to some kind of conceit. During Mardi Gras this year, ironically, it was "Party in Heaven," and cardboard stars hung from the ceiling, bearing names of dead musicians like Hank Williams, Otis Redding, and Frank Zappa, with whom Ernie hoped to party after he passed on. Reportedly, newlyweds Quintron and Miss Pussycat were the Mother-in-Law's first customers. They hit it off with the owners immediately because, as Antoinette told Offbeat magazine, "They are character people and so are Ernie and I. They are theme people and we are theme people."
This past winter Antoinette had a dream in which God told her Quintron and Miss Pussycat had broken the racial barrier and therefore should be added to the Mother-in-Law's mural--a glittery art nouveau representation of the K-Does smiling and dancing. Quintron sports a bejeweled blue suit and a halo and is playing the Drum Buddy; Miss Pussycat is wearing a similar getup, with tiny angel wings on her back and a puppet on her hand.
Walking through the French Quarter in matching puffy-paint Drum Buddy sweatshirts during Mardi Gras this year, the two of them couldn't move 100 feet without being stopped by an admiring fan. "Oh! It's the real Mr. Quintron!" stage-whispered a couple sitting on a stoop--apparently they'd seen the numerous impostors who dress like him for Halloween. "I saw you on Louisiana Jukebox!" exclaimed a woman dressed as a wizard. She was referring to Quintron's appearance with DJ Jubilee--the best-known artist on the New Orleans-based Take Fo' label, which specializes in "bounce" hip-hop--on a cable-access show about local musicians. Before the show an excited Jubilee allegedly told Quintron, "It's like when Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith got together!"
Mardi Gras is a pretty big deal to anyone who lives in New Orleans, but it's taken on special significance in Quintron's world. Pussycat Caverns closed during Mardi Gras in 1996 because the neighbors had been constantly complaining about the noise. Only a few people knew that night's show would be the last production, until about 5 AM, when, after a puppet show, a naked ballerina, and a midget magician, Miss Pussycat made the announcement. The shocked and distraught crowd ran out into the street and marched nearly a mile to the French Quarter in mourning.
A few weeks later, Miss Pussycat and Quintron bought a house in a not-so-pretty section of the Ninth Ward and started a new semisecret club in their basement called the Spellcaster Lodge. They also started an ad hoc Mardi Gras krewe: the Pussycat Caverns funeral march had whetted Quintron's appetite. Joining or organizing a legitimate parade costs big bucks, but Quintron figured he and his friends could easily form their own Ninth Ward procession for free. Every year since, he and Miss Pussycat have hosted a costume ball at the Spellcaster, after which they and their friends dress up in matching red, silver, and white uniforms (designed by MC Trachiotomy's girlfriend, Heather Sher) and crash through the French Quarter at dawn.
I made the pilgrimage this year, and the Spellcaster Lodge was every bit as magical as I'd heard. Outside Quintron and Miss Pussycat's red-and-white house, a rickety path made of cinder blocks and plywood wound through knots of wild foliage and past a grinning larger-than-life powder blue fiberglass pony wearing a porkpie hat. A sign above the door warned absolutely no video recording devices or working reporters: Quintron and Miss Pussycat believe that video cheapens the experience, that reporters add too many filters, that every moment at the Spellcaster should be special to each guest--and they're probably right. Inside, velveteen red-and-white-striped wallpaper and a glittery turquoise ceiling enveloped white plastic plants, tables, and chairs. Miss Pussycat's red felt mock-brick puppet schoolhouse stood in one corner, across from a vinyl-upholstered DJ booth with lit-up portholes. Mirrors and little lights made the small dance floor seem much bigger, but pretty much everything was dwarfed by Quintron's organ, draped in a regal satin-and-felt cover made by Miss Pussycat. An adjacent room housed the bar--an old fishing boat packed with pirate-themed tchotchkes--and inside the tiny, wood-paneled women's bathroom a deteriorating treasure chest overflowed with Mardi Gras beads.
The theme for this year's Spellcaster Ball was "Underwater Dance Club," a longtime obsession of Miss Pussycat's: "If I were the Dole pineapple heiress," she says, "I would build a huge club that was submerged in two feet of water." Everyone would splash around in their finest finery and not care a whit about getting wet. Many of her puppet shows have incorporated some variation on this theme, and she persuaded some friends to form a band called Wet Daddy Empire to provide the sound track for her performances. For the ball, she and her friend Liv Wildz, another costume designer and seamstress, made cute powder blue dresses decorated with underwater creatures made of felt, then covered them with a layer of transparent plastic.
Among the few hundred guests were the 17 members of the Sweet Girls, a social club/girl gang founded by obsessive do-it-yourselfer Caroline Rankin. Caroline sent all her girlfriends, including Miss Pussycat, invitations to a party, where she presented them with an extravagant cake and explained that this was the initiation into a secret society designed to help individual members with projects and schemes. They hold car washes to fund their escapades. It seems to work: when Liv Wildz needed three pairs of shoes for a renegade fashion show she was plotting, for example, Caroline made them from scratch using vintage denim and wood from the levee of the Mississippi. Liv and her models, wearing sexy-creepy handmade jumpers, stepped into Caroline's "shark kickers" and boarded a school bus that stopped at seven predetermined locations, ranging from a Home Depot to a wedding reception at an upscale hotel to a casino, and displayed the couture to unsuspecting audiences.
Quintron and Miss Pussycat also used the ball as an opportunity to introduce a new pal to their crowd: Katey Red, a six-foot-two 22-year-old gay transvestite from the Melpomene projects. They met her through DJ Jubilee, who "discovered" her sitting on a stoop, rapping with a group of friends she calls Dem Hoes. She's had a few local hits since joining the Take Fo' roster in 1999, sending some minor ripples through the generally homophobic world of gangsta rap. And live she's awesome, the James Brown of cross-dressing project hos.
Quintron and Miss Pussycat knew their friends would worship Katey if they saw her perform. She showed up wearing no makeup, a tight leopard-print dress, sheer pantyhose, flat woolen mules resembling bedroom slippers, and light-up devil horns. She was also carrying a flat black handbag, which she clutched anxiously throughout her set. Quintron guessed it was her first time in a room with so many white people, and she told him she was worried no one would like her. Her fear was understandable: her message is basically that she's a nasty "daquiri drinkin' ghetto ho" who takes it "in the booty hole." But after five minutes on the Spellcaster stage, Katey began to relax a little, and the audience did love her. In fact, the people up front knew all the words, and one well-endowed woman nearly knocked Katey over with her interpretation of the "tiddy bop," a violently gesticulating dance move popularized by the Take Fo' posse.
A local stoner metal band called Wicked Finger, fronted by a guy named Medicine Wolf who wore feather clips in his fluffy hair, also performed. Later, the drummer's girlfriend, who had drawn a pentagram on her chest and had fake blood dripping from her mouth, got in a screaming match with a sweet stripper in a fur coat and leg warmers. Then, at 5 AM, it was time for the parade. Quintron and his friends take their responsibilities as seriously as any legit krewe. They even publish a newsletter called the "Marching Band Times," which lays down the rules: No fire. No clown gear. Uniformity above individuality. No jamming. Practice until you are bored. Only at Mardi Gras. And pay attention to security, even when it's fake security: every year MC Trachiotomy and Bob Global dress as cops and direct the band, stopping traffic and keeping the parade in formation. This trick has so far prevented the 50-piece ensemble from getting busted by real cops.
The Ninth Ward krewe doesn't replace its royalty every year like other krewes: there's one princess forever: Michelle "Louisiana" Maher, a sweet, punkish veterinarian from a New Orleans suburb. This year, however, there was for the first time a king: self-proclaimed Black Godfather Andre Williams, the revived R & B legend, who in recent years has hired Quintron to play backup organ. And the last rule is that the band plays only classic rock songs, because "familiarity expedites the creation of musical arrangements" and because "the marching band is not ART--whatever crutch we need to get 50 people to do anything all at one time is greatly welcome."
The best part of the parade this year was the gaggle of cheerleaders, flag and gun girls, and baton twirlers that marched alongside the band. Baton director Elizabeth Macy designed leather-and-wool outfits reminiscent of Michael Jackson's Bad period, using nearly a thousand grommets and a few hundred separate pieces of fabric for only three costumes. The cheerleaders wore matching red pleated skirts and white sweaters with the Ninth Ward zip code, 70117, running down one sleeve. The gun girls, including Miss Pussycat, wore sleek red-and-white pinstriped suits with matching scarves and carried toy guns that shot out tiny flags that said bang. And the flag girls shook their booties in skimpy silver lame jumpsuits and sequined leg warmers.
As the first ray of sunlight stretched across the sky, the band struck up Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida," this year's featured song, and began their mile-long procession into the French Quarter. Some people were still out and about when they arrived--mostly college kids stumbling around and puking in gutters, but they greeted the renegade parade by cheering and throwing dirty doubloons. The entourage grew by the second, and after marching at warp speed for about an hour, it poured into El Matador, a club where Quintron's latest CD, Unmasked Organ Light-Year of Infinity Man, played on the jukebox. The musicians set down their instruments and shed a layer or two of clothing, and everyone drank and danced until 10 AM. Most wondrous of all, after a few hours' sleep, they woke up with clear skin and bright eyes, ready to start all over again.
Shtick is hard work. First you've got to invent a character with distinct style and hidden depth. Then you have to hone your acting skills, 'cause people can see right through paper-thin posers like Pauly Shore. A few mainstream kooks, like Paul Reubens, have raised the bar for shtick: Pee-wee Herman walked like a prissy penguin right out of his playhouse and into the real world, or at least other parts of Hollywood. But at the end of the day, even he went home and became Paul Reubens again.
The world Quintron and Miss Pussycat have created isn't just a well-constructed web of shtick--it's a genuine life, dedicated to the pursuit of fun and self-invention. Their world is The Wizard of Oz without the wicked witch, Alice in Wonderland without the Red Queen. It's a peaceable kingdom where a grown man plays a tin can at a dance party with thousands of teenagers cheering him on and a grown woman treats her puppets to high tea, where blacks get along with whites and smart, pretty girls are quick to give credit to other smart, pretty girls. It's a world where adults party till dawn out of a sense of communal duty. It's terribly inspiring: most people give up the quest to be "different" once they realize that what they thought was rebellion was just conformity in a different guise. Anyone can get a tattoo or a shocking haircut or wear crazy clothes. Very few of us actually figure out how to live in our playhouses.
Quintron and Miss Pussycat perform Thursday, July 19, at the Empty Bottle and Friday, July 20, at the Fireside Bowl.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry/Liz Armstrong.