Zippers owner is also known as Edna Jean, fundraising queen
Someone recently recognized Richard Curtin outside of the hospital because they recognized his drag persona, Edna Jean. In a snap, Edna Jean bellowed out hello in her sassiest Southern draw.
She suuuuurrrreeee was Edna Jean — the fundraising drag queen who’s been a fixture in Dallas since 1989.
Outrageous, outlandish and dramatic, Edna Jean pushes the limits of her duty. She’s not just there to entertain, or to just fundraise, but to inspire. Curtin thinks she’s a junkyard beauty, “the queen of outrage.”
But Edna Jean was born during a more tragic time, out of Curtin’s involvement with the Turtle Creek Chorale and Dallas Theater Alliance. She defined what it meant to be a “charity queen.”
Edna Jean and others “brought the community together to raise money for the abandoned and forgotten, money for the living and the dead,” Curtin said. And she was born as much out of spectacle as compassion. During the AIDS crisis, there was no other way but to be compassionate.
“We were taught compassion, empathy and love during that time because we were forced to. So many of us were dying and the government didn’t care,” Curtin said. “We had to teach ourselves to live out loud and demand our rights. The ones who were standing had to fight. It was a war zone.”
The AIDS crisis was a time of crisis and tragedy, yes. But it also laid a foundation for the many victories to come.
“Everything that’s happening today is because of the 1990s. We saw what happened when we weren’t granted hospital visitations or when our deceased partner’s parents would come in and decimate their lives. The laws would allow that. It was perfectly legal.”
Curtin was reminded of the discrimination when his partner, Jack D. Bliss, passed away in 2010. Because same-sex couples were not recognized then, his partner of 26 years became in death just his “friend.”
While he’s still outraged, he’s still a fighter too. Curtin said he couldn’t afford to be down for long. He had to fight.
Curtin credits his drag sisters for getting him back up. “My Rose Room [at S4] girls helped me get up and back to work. I had to get up and keep moving.”
And he got that opportunity soon enough.
Bliss was sick, and his business partner knew it. So two years before Bliss’s death, co-owner and business partner Robert “Big Bob” Pollack, bought Bliss’ share of in the nightclub Zippers. But what Curtin didn’t realize was that he’d inherit Zippers when Pollack died in October 2013.
Fortunately Curtin was a bar veteran. Earlier this year, after 21 years, Curtin left his role as S4’s show director and general manager to revitalize his own nightclub.
“I’d been in the business such a long time that it made sense,” he said of the move.
But to maintain the community institution Zippers had become required some investment.
“It had been overlooked. Sort of like our community, it became neglected. But it’s a part of Dallas history,” Curtin said of the bar.
“As the world evolves, our bars and communities will too,” Curtin said. He said the changes at Zippers reflect larger shifts he has seen in the community overall.
“We have a little less community today than 20 years ago. I miss the days of going to gay bars and just seeing gay men. But I say that with some restraint. Where would we be without our straight allies? We wouldn’t be here without them,” he added.
“The younger generation,” Curtin continued, “has forgotten its history.”
The historic changes made in the LGBT community, born out of outrage and a commitment to equality, shouldn’t be taken for granted either.
“You need to demand your rights, not expect it. Be passionate,” Curtin said. “I don’t want [this] generation or any other after that to go through the AIDS crisis again. I don’t want to see another ward of sweet 20-year-olds dying.”
Neither Curtin nor Edna Jean is doing as many AIDS fundraisers as they used to. Now they have time to raise money for other causes, even some outside the LGBT community — like Sam Houston Elementary School’s Reading is Fundamental program.
And while the future is never certain, Curtin said he’s definitely optimistic: “I’m liking 2015. The future looks fantastic! And when marriage equality comes, I can’t wait to rub it all in Rick Perry’s and Ted Cruz’s noses.”
It may sound outrageous, but Curtin said that’s what Edna Jean is about. “I’m proud of the crazy stuff I’ve done. I wear it as a badge of honor.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 12, 2015.