Vicki Marlane exhibit opens
by Matthew S. Bajko
A series of weathered photos, from a black and white snapshot of a young boy to that of a woman wrapped in a feather boa, are part of the personal trove on view in the new exhibit Vicki Marlane: I'm Your Lady.
The memorabilia, which includes a gold lame sequined dress, a silver high-heeled pump, jewelry, and other effects, retrace Marlane's childhood on a farm in Eldred, Minnesota, her career as a carnie performer and her eventual transformation into a beloved trans performer in San Francisco.
"We have a lot of photographs from all different parts of Vicki's life," said Don Romesburg, who co-curated the new show installed in the Corner Gallery of the GLBT History Museum in the Castro.
The items selected are meant to showcase Marlane's private and public personas.
"She was a trans woman who also performed as a drag queen," said Romesburg, adding, "She had a full private life" when she was not performing at Tenderloin bar Aunt Charlie's.
"When she was offstage she wasn't made up as a drag queen," he said. "She looked like the woman she was."
Born Donald Sterger, Marlane escaped her small-town Midwest life by running off at age 17 to work as a "sideshow hoochie-coochie dancer," an Alligator woman, and part of a six-legged woman in a traveling carnival, according to the exhibit.
She settled in San Francisco in 1966 and underwent sex reassignment surgery in the 1980s. Following a decade-long retirement in San Diego, Marlane returned to the city by the bay.
In 1998, her show "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" debuted at Aunt Charlie's. It evolved into popular weekly Friday and Saturday shows called "The Hot Boxxx Girls."
Known as "the lady with the liquid spine" due to her performance moves, Marlane was featured in the 2009 independent film Forever's Gonna Start Tonight. The movie will screen on a continuous loop as part of the museum show.
Several items depict her struggles late in life aging with AIDS, such as a pair of her glasses and her medical marijuana ID card. Marlane died in 2011 at the age of 76 due to AIDS-related complications.
"Being able to perform and find her late career persona at Aunt Charlie's in some ways sustained her and saved her life during those last two decades," said Romesburg.
Friend Felicia "Flames" Elizondo, who maintains Marlane's estate and personal effects, worked with Romesburg on selecting the items for the show. She hopes it illustrates the role transgender people have played in the fight for LGBT equality.
"There a lot of unsung heroes out there, Vicki is one of thousands of untold stories," she said.
The show runs through February 28 with an opening reception set for 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, November 15. Admission is $5 (general), $3 (California students); the museum is located at 4127 18th Street, San Francisco.