When I was young I wanted to be famous. Not athlete or astronaut famous, I wanted to be movie star famous. I wanted to be someone with a spotlight trained on my every move, someone who dressed in colorful outfits and got paid to make people laugh and clap and cry.
It didn’t happen.
But for some their talent is so great and their determination so focused that realizing the dream of becoming a working performer is simply inevitable. That is the case with Randy Roberts, who along with Christopher Peterson is one of the long-standing and much celebrated ambassadors of La Te Da’s, Crystal Room Cabaret.
Perhaps you’ve seen The Randy Roberts Show show. If so, you are not alone. Roberts has been mesmerizing Crystal Room audiences with his uncanny impersonations of larger than life ladies since 2002. Many tourists return again and again confident they will have a guaranteed good time. For newcomers to town, an evening with Roberts (or Peterson) is a must on their holiday agenda, simply because of both performers’ word-of-mouth reputation.
I experienced The Randy Roberts Show for the first time just a few weeks ago. The event from start to finish is an orchestrated production. It feels very grown up and the Crystal Room’s ambience is ideal for the intimate cabaret that Roberts has produced. The space seats around 120 and a line forms in the hotel’s lobby an hour before show time. Each party is greeted individually by a hostess and ushered to their seat where they chat and sip fancy cocktails in anticipation (there is a two-drink minimum on top of the show’s ticket price). This pre-show chatter is upbeat and expectant and clearly part of the evening’s experience.
I scanned the audience and the crowd looked largely middle-aged and middle-class. To my surprise it also looked mostly heterosexual, not gay or even mixed, as is often the case with shows like this. As it turns out the couples and groups laughing and applauding and loving this gay drag performer hail form Ohio and Virginia and Louisiana. Oh, how things have changed!
Randy Roberts started performing when he was a child back in Norfolk, Virginia and he has been entertaining audiences ever since. Like many singers and dancers and actors his career has had its ups and downs and it has taken him all over the country culminating, for the most part, here in Key West, where he has a home and a quiet-ish life. He spends time outside, has the occasional night out with friends and performs at other venues and fundraisers.
According to the promotional material The Randy Roberts Show is a live, multi-media tribute to some of the world’s most loved female performers. While this is true it is also more than just that. Roberts’ show is a rich and enjoyable night of entertainment and a tour-de-force one-man-show that ends with a surprising twist of tradition. The audience is in the palm of this consummate performers palm every step of the way.
I met Roberts a few days later.
Even though we were chatting midday at La Te Da’s downstairs bar, the experience felt very surreal, quite theatrical. Judy Garland in a “Star is Born” came to mind. So too did the backstage stripper scene in “Gypsy.” I felt that I was rubbing up against that world of stardom that I imagined as a child, but never fully realized.
One thing struck me more than anything: I wasn’t surprised to see Roberts out of a dress and make-up because he incorporates the deconstruction of this illusion into his show in multiple ways. But in person Randy Roberts, the man, is very different from Randy Roberts, the performer, and I felt myself negotiating a different kind of deconstruction.
Not only had layers of mascara and sequins been removed, so too had much of the stage persona’s larger than life razzle-dazzle. On stage Roberts is laser focused, he insists that the spotlight and all eyes are on him. But in real life his attention is restless, jumping from me to a bit of banter with one hotel employee after another and ultimately a piece of chicken.
Key West is known for its plethora of drag entertainment, from Aqua to 801 to Roberts and Peterson at La Te Day. Roberts distinguishes himself from the crowd locally and beyond in a number of ways, but in one way in particular. Roberts doesn’t lip-synch, he sings Cher and Bette Midler classics in their style (and whoever else he impersonates) with his own incredible voice.
“Is what you do still called drag?” I ask him before returning to my ordinary, non-celebrity life.
Roberts can’t help but answer with a heavy dollop of what he might call Borscht Belt humor, a snappy quip that deflects the question and sums up the life of a performer.
“I don’t care what they call it,” he answers. “As long as they call!”