PITTSBURGH (AP) — The bingo hall at the Penn Hills Volunteer Fire Department is basic, boring and drab, with wood paneling, beige wallpaper and linoleum floors.
So comparatively, it’s a veritable supernova of color and sound when a man the size of an NFL lineman enters in heels, full makeup, sparkly jewelry, dangling earrings, a blue sequined dress and foot-high wig, dancing to Cher and cursing a blue streak.
It’s a Friday night and Jason Zubovic is in his glory as Miss Thea Trix, mastress of ceremonies for Miss Thea’s Drag Queen Bingo. The fundraiser for the fire department is a near sellout.
“Has anyone ever been to drag queen bingo before? Because we’re gonna have f- – – in’ fun!” he shouts as he warms up the crowd. “I’m not here to be pretty, I’m here to be a drag queen! So the more you drink, the better I look!”
Mr. Zubovic is a 43-year-old Fayette County native who manages a pizza shop there during the day. The son and brother of Pennsylvania State Police officers, he started exploring drag while in college. “I went to Duquesne for pharmacy, then Pitt, Penn State and WVU. I joke that it took me 7½ years to become a drag queen.”
He saw his first drag show at the bygone Pegasus Lounge on Liberty Avenue while a student at Duquesne.
“I grew up in the country, pretty sheltered,” he said. “I was so damn naive. So after the show, my friend said, ‘What did you think?’ And I said, ‘The ladies were beautiful.’ He said, ‘Those aren’t ladies.’
“I’m just a plain old country Bubba and I went, ‘What?!’ So for the next six months I went and found every hair and makeup book and I taught myself how to do this.”
He’s marveled at how drag has come in from the fringes to be mainstream entertainment, citing the TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” as an example.
Mr. Zubovic started the six-man troupe less than four years ago. Easily found on Facebook, they are booked solid, mostly for fundraisers for volunteer fire departments, cancer charities, performing arts organizations and animal rescues. They also opened for Taylor Dayne at Pittsburgh Pride Week in June.
“Whatever needs our help,” Mr. Zubovic said. “It’s our hobby, it’s our passion, but we’re helping tons of people.”
He said that the group raised $176,000 for charities in 2017 and is on pace to more than double that amount this year. The next bingo is at 5 p.m. Nov. 30 at New Stanton Volunteer Fire Co., 108 S. Main St., 15672. Tickets are $25.
“We do this because we love to entertain. We all have a nice camaraderie. We have a wonderful assortment of talent. The majority of what we wear we make, too.”
Members of the troupe perform between bingo games. It’s a bawdy night of dancing and lip-syncing, with humor that is definitely R-rated. This is one of the few spaces where blue-haired drag queens hold court with blue-haired ladies.
“They love it the most!” Andrew Mehler, aka Boston Michaels, said of their older fans.
At 24, Mr. Mehler is the young guy of the group. The Wheeling, W.Va., native and student at West Liberty State University is an absolute ringer for Amy Winehouse as he dances to a medley of the late singer’s music.
John Moore, 54, is a home health worker who attended military school and has been friends for 25 years with Mr. Zubovic, who pulled him into drag. He stands 6 foot 2 and weighs more than 300 pounds but is nothing short of a whirling dervish as he dances around the room to Kelly Clarkson’s “Heartbeat Song” as his alter ego, Mya Schlonghurts.
While performing, Mr. Zubovic goes straight for the toughest-looking guys in the room to give faux lap dances. On this night, a guy in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt who looks like the Marlboro Man and a muscled gentleman with sleeves of tattoos and a square jaw reminiscent of UFC fighter Chuck Liddell were among his targets. Both of the men’s faces turned red as a cherry pepper, and the crowd roared in laughter and approval.
Tammy Gemas of Penn Hills had been caring for her husband, who was in the hospital with colon cancer, when her friends persuaded her to come along for a much-needed night out.
“This was their way of bringing me cheer,” she said. “But my girlfriends are the best, and this is the best.”
Some audience members got in on the act. Jarrett Phillips and a few other Penn Hills volunteer firemen danced shirtless while wearing their turnout trousers and suspenders. This poor man’s version of “Magic Mike” collected tips in his boots.
He said when the fire department booked the event, he had no idea what to expect.
“I never seen anything like this before, but I love it. The crowd’s into it. It’s a beautiful, fun time. The music is great, the dancing is great. We want to do this again, definitely.”