EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2020, Richard L. Eldredge interviewed iconic Atlanta drag performer Charlie Brown for Atlanta magazine’s Pride at 50 issue. During the height of the pandemic, Charlie donned drag for the first time in two years to reconnect with fans for a Backstreet Reunion Party hosted on Zoom by Atlanta magazine. The next morning, Charlie texted Eldredge, asking if he might be interested in co-authoring his memoir. During Covid lockdown over the next eight months, the two, along with Brown’s husband, Fred Wise, met up each Monday morning on the phone to discuss Charlie’s illustrious career. ¶ The performer is perhaps best known for emceeing his namesake Charlie Brown’s Cabaret from 1990 to 2004 atop Backstreet, the city’s 24-hour gay disco. In 1978, Charlie had moved to Atlanta from Tennessee and first became a star at the Sweet Gum Head drag bar. The result of those weekly conversations, tentatively titled Mr. Charlie Brown: My Fabulous 50-Year Career In and Out of Drag, is currently being shopped to prospective publishers. Below is an
excerpt from the book’s opening chapter.
that the people who only know me from running my mouth as Charlie Brown, the out and proud Atlanta drag entertainer and self-described “Bitch of the South,” will probably be shocked (or at least amused) to learn I come from a good Christian family. When I made my debut on the world stage on December 29, 1949, I did not pop out of my mama wearing a wig, sequins, and three pounds of Max Factor foundation. Turns out, I landed in a crib owned by a missionary Baptist family in Westmoreland, Tennessee. And believe it or not, the first time I ever stepped on stage, I wasn’t wearing stiletto hooker heels. I was a little boy decked out in his Sunday best, singing in a gospel trio. I learned at an early age, you don’t get to choose your roads in life. God does. And he chose me to be a gay man from a small Southern town whose greatest joy is making people laugh.
Westmoreland was so tiny, we were envious of the small towns that actually had a traffic light. In the summertime, if you were old enough, kids like me picked strawberries and blackberries or shucked walnuts. If you helped a neighbor pick the strawberries in his fields, you might earn yourself a nickel per gallon. I used to pick blackberries in the woods and Daddy used to take them into the Fruit of the Loom shirt factory where he worked and sell them. If you had a farm like we did, you’d haul or bale hay. I also helped to take care of the Angus and Hereford cattle we raised on the property. Now, to be clear, the only pay you’d receive from working on your family’s farm was called supper.
You know that mischievous streak of mine you’ve seen on stage? It developed early on. In the summer, I’d steal watermelons right out of our neighbor’s yard and put them in the creek. This made them ice cold. Eating that chilled melon was a way to cool off in the scorching Southern summer sun. As a result of that mischievousness, I got a lot of handprints on my ass.
You could say my sexual awareness happened early on, when I six or seven. As a kid, I used to love going swimming because most of the boys in the neighborhood were four or five years older than me. And we’d go swimming in the nude. . . . And I became very, very interested in them.
I knew I was different, even at that young age. I never felt like one of the boys. I played with the girls in the neighborhood because they were closer to my age. So, I had these tendencies, but I didn’t know what they were or what to call them. I always made one thing clear to my parents—the day after I graduated high school, I was out of there. Milking cows, raising tobacco, hauling hay, and playing daddy to a bunch of runny-nosed little kids? That was not going to be my future.
Early on, I had discovered I had a great personality and a sense of humor. When we would watch Leave It to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show at night, I could make Mama and Daddy laugh during the commercials. I was the class clown in school. My Aunt Mary inspired me a lot. She was Daddy’s Catholic sister who lived in Nashville. She was the funniest woman who ever walked the face of this earth. There wasn’t nothing she couldn’t make funny.
When there was a death in the family, the men would gather in the kitchen, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes, and the women would sit in the parlor with the casket. But Aunt Mary would be in the kitchen with the men, holding court and telling dirty jokes. And there was little Charlie Howard in the corner, soaking up every word. But let me tell you what—if that kitchen door swung open, Aunt Mary could go straight into reciting Bible scripture! And as soon as whoever it was exited the kitchen with their coffee or whatever, she’d nail that punchline and have everyone rolling on the floor laughing.
In 1968, I graduated from Macon County High School, and true to my word, I moved straight to Nashville to attend Draughon’s Business College and study computers. In so many ways, it felt like my life was all laid out for me and I was just following the steps.
For instance, the college just so happened to be right across the street from Commerce Street, which was Nashville’s “gay” street. Over the next year, my eyes were opened to a lot. I met other gay guys for the first time. It was completely unreal to discover there were actually other people like me.
I was too young to get into bars. But one of the two gay bars right across from campus was also a restaurant. Us underage queens could be in there until 10 p.m., when they stopped serving food. So we would position ourselves way in the back of the house and put our dinner order in at 9:58 p.m. It would take us two hours to slowly make our way to the front door after they told us to leave. Right outside was a parking lot where the gays cruised at night.
There was a bunch of us young boys out there, 18, 19 years old, in what you might call the street circuit. We not only wanted to meet other guys, we wanted to do things with them, too. There was more than one or two closeted country western stars out there in that street, too, looking for a late-night same-sex “friend.” I ended up getting in cars with a lot of people.
The guys I ran with were more experienced and taught me what to do and how to do it safely. For example, out there on those Nashville streets late at night, you never got into a raggedy-looking pick-up truck. Why? Because most likely, those boys were rednecks, out there to beat up some faggots. I always looked for the guys idling in a Cadillac. Why? Because they were looking for fun, not to beat your ass and put you in the hospital.
My business school studies in Nashville were quickly becoming an excuse to run wild with the city’s other gay boys. Since colleges didn’t offer an undergraduate degree in Queer Studies in 1969, I ended up quitting school. Elsewhere in the world, Woodstock was happening, Stonewall was happening, but you’d never know it living in the South (I didn’t even hear about Stonewall until years later). In Nashville, gay life had to be kept secret. The trouble was, I wasn’t great at keeping secrets. As much as I hated it, in those days, you had to stay within those carefully constructed lines straight society had drawn for you. Otherwise, a rough life awaited you.
Eventually, Mama and Daddy drove down to Nashville and dragged my ass home. Now back under their roof, it wasn’t long until they confirmed I was gay. They never used the words “gay” or “homosexual.” But my missionary Baptist parents let me know how the way I was living my life was “wrong” and how I needed to “straighten myself out.” With the Vietnam War in full swing, I also had another pressing problem: I was about to be drafted. So, with no ideal options in front of me, I decided to sign up for the United States Air Force.
I figured I’d rather fly over Saigon than march through it.
Let me tell you, if you wanted a crash course on homosexuality in 1969, all you had to do was join the U.S. Air Force and go to basic training camp. I was assigned to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. As soon as I got there, my homosexual tendencies started coming out stronger than ever. Each night right after “lights out,” the guy in the bunk next to me and the guy in the bunk above me immediately began, well, let’s just say, relieving the stresses of the day.
With all this stimulation swirling around me, I began having gay sex dreams. Surrounded by all of those other men, I became terrified about what I might say in my sleep. I decided to turn myself in so I could get a dishonorable discharge under honorable conditions. I went into the chapel, confessed my queerness, and then the chaplain went with me to tell the commanding officer. Of course, this was decades before “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” They had made it perfectly clear to us on day one, if you were a homosexual and tried to hide it and subsequently got caught, you could go to prison. So I decided to admit it to them. But since this was during the Vietnam War, the Air Force’s solution to my admission was not to send me home. Instead, they moved me into an all-gay barracks.
I shit you not. Both floors were full of gays who had turned themselves in. Like the others in the barracks, I had to tell the names of the bars and the streets in Nashville where I had hung out and my superiors investigated my story. All this time, I was learning more and more about gay life from the other guys in our special all-queer living quarters. When they marched us into breakfast in the morning, our entire barracks would prance our way into the mess hall and all of the other guys would wolf whistle and yell, “Hey faggots!”
Believe it or not, I even won my first gay beauty pageant while I was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base. One night, out of sheer boredom while hanging out in our gay barracks, we took our bath towels and wrapped them around our heads to make makeshift wigs. We didn’t have makeup or hair or outfits or anything. But we pranced around like we were doing a fashion model runway show. It was just a camp thing to see who was the biggest sissy and the most nelly. And they crowned me Miss Lackland Air Force Base 1969.
Eventually, word trickled down from my superior officers that my entire platoon was to be assigned to cooking school and soon after, would be shipped off to Vietnam. As for me? I was being shipped home to Tennessee. I was processed out of the military for homosexuality—“conduct unbecoming of a soldier.”
Now, living back in Nashville and working as a desk clerk at the Holiday Inn downtown, something happened one night that would alter the rest of my life. I was on the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, and right at 11:00 when the night auditor was coming on, I managed to screw up the check-in register real bad. The night auditor took one look at the mess I had made and instead of using my given name, she yelled, “Goddamn you, Charlie Brown!” And from then on, everyone just started calling me Charlie Brown.
Little did I know that just two years later when I made my drag debut at Nashville’s Watch Your Hat and Coat Saloon, my stage name had already been selected for me. A stage name that would end up serving me well for the next half century.