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Drag performance has exploded into the mainstream over the past 15 years. The formerly niche community (which was in some ways intensely, purposely niche) is now something Vanity Fair recently called America’s “new national pastime.”
Among the players, Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret continues to shine.
Before the pandemic gave travel the hook, there was extremely high demand for the Philly-based troupe, which is celebrating 15 years of performing. Though it’s not a full-time job for any of the members, they had a regular gig at one of New York City’s hottest nightclubs, were doing residencies in Las Vegas, and have been booked as far away as Poland. The act is so sought-after that they can pretty much name their price.
The good money, far from a given in drag performance, is thanks to the combined skills of the cabaret’s two founders.
Martha (aka Pig Iron Theater cofounder Dito Van Reigersberg) has a gorgeous voice and sings live instead of lip-syncing, while Victor Fiorillo (who you might know from his viral Philly Mag stories) has a knack for negotiation. That’s not the extent of the duo’s talents, who’ve surrounded themselves with a wide cast of supporting characters and created memorable experiences that touched many lives.
In honor of the troupe’s anniversary, we present here 15 fascinating facts you might not know about the Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret.
1) They met at Silk City
Fiorillo, who played keyboard in a band called Brothers Sugarillo, first met with Van Reigersberg at Silk City, when the latter was just starting to experiment with drag and guest-starred in a few of the band’s shows.
2) Martha had an evil sister
During that time, Van Reigersberg developed the Martha Graham Cracker character as the sweetheart sister to the evil Polly Vanna Cracker, a German seductress, who also appeared on stage.
3) They exist because of L’Etage
The cabaret was solidified when the owners of Beau Monde in Bella Vista decided to expand with an upstairs nightclub called L’Etage. They knew Van Reigersberg from his involvement in Pig Iron Theater, and asked if the duo would want to do a monthly gig.
4) They had no idea what they were doing
The first appearance at L’Etage in August 2005 was “trial by fire,” Van Reigersberg said. But he had that stellar voice and Fiorillo was good at promotion, and the show took off.
5) Their pianist is better at marketing
Other band members were then added, in part because, “I’m 10x better at marketing than piano playing,” Fiorillo said. The troupe now includes Ned Sonstein (drums and jokes), Rich Hill (guitar), Andrew Nelson (bass) and Max Brown (stylist and costume designer).
6) The stylist is a key troupe member
Martha Graham Cracker’s famous look — which Van Reigersberg calls “monster drag,” with silky gowns atop an unabashedly hair chest — owes a lot to Brown, who did the makeup and sewed custom clothing that would fit the performer’s tall frame.
7) ‘Monster drag’ as something out of mythology
Van Reigersberg views the term “monster drag” as a positive: “I’m kind of unbelievable — like a hybrid mythological creature” in the vein of a centaur or mermaid.
8) Luck got them into NYC
Luck had a lot to do with the troupe getting a residency at Joe’s Pub, an East Village venue where stars like Adele and Sting play when they’re looking for a more intimate crowd: the owner happened to be answering emails on a day Fiorillo sent a request. “It’s your lucky day,” they said. “My girlfriend lives in Philly and is your No. 1 fan.”
9) They get standing Os in Iowa
The cabaret has sold out Philly venues like the TLA and the Trocadero, and played all over the country, from California to Texas to Colorado. Shows in places like Iowa, that don’t have as much drag, are the most fun, Van Reigersberg said. “We get standing ovations. People are just like, OMG.”
10) Performing in Poland was…interesting
Their farthest-flung performance was probably in Lublin, Poland, where a Black member of the troupe drew gaping stares and they didn’t really understand “how much homophobia there would be.”
11) A schoolteacher fled the ‘gaydar’
During a Poland show, when Martha Graham Cracker did the act where she goes around the audience with “gaydar,” one man abruptly got up and left. Turns out he was a schoolteacher, and if he’d been even tainted for one moment by the idea he might be gay, there would have been outrage, Fiorillo said.
12) Songs? Think Bill Withers + Black Sabbath
Aside from original pieces, the cabaret’s songs are mostly mashup covers that get developed via group effort. For example, Fiorillo had a shower brainstorm to do Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine” in the style of Black Sabbath. Van Reigersberg got hold of it and changed the lyrics to “Anal sunshine when she’s gone…”
13) They make buck
The pandemic has been rough on all the group members, because while none counts on the cabaret for full-time income, they can end up splitting a nice $10,000 for one night’s work. (Thank Fiorillo for that, he doesn’t let Van Reigersberg negotiate anymore, he said.)
14) The pandemic has inspired new creativity
While COVID has caused a “lot of grief” in the drag performance community, Van Reigersberg said, It has also sparked “a desire to outwit the situation” with virtual shows.
15) Will they be around 10 years from now?
Neither of the cofounders would comment on where the group might be 10 years from now, but “when Martha stops performing I probably wouldn’t perform again,” Fiorillo said. “Finding somebody that special doesn’t happen twice.”