WANT TO GO?
WHERE: Upstairs Lounge at Little India, 1604 Washington St. E.
WHEN: 10 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Thursdays
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Don't call the Upstairs Lounge at Little India a gay bar, even if it has a drag show on Thursday nights.
Female impersonator Bobby May, who headlines the show as Ms. Joanie LeRei, said adamantly, "It's not. It reflects the eclectic culture of the Upstairs Lounge and the diversity of Charleston's East End."
His partner, bar manager James Gross, agreed. "It's about diversity. We also have jazz on Fridays and, coming soon, karaoke."
But the couple can understand where having a cabaret show featuring entertainers like Lexi Starr, Tammy Why-Nott and Rylee VanDerbelt, plus Mr. Pride 2012, Ronnie Lawson, might throw a few people off.
It also doesn't hurt that the Upstairs Lounge at Little India is located on the very edge of what is occasionally referred to as Charleston's "Gayborhood," a residential section that's home to a portion of the gay community.
"We're a neighborhood bar," Gross added. "You can walk over, get something to eat, come upstairs and see a show, and you don't have to worry about the drinking and driving."
Gross said he and May got the idea for doing the drag shows a few months back. The couple has been friends of Little India's owners, Harish and Meena Anada, for some time. They met through the International Grocery store in Kanawha City, which the Anadas' also own and where Gross and May occasionally shop.
Gross said, "They're really great people, very friendly and welcoming. We were in the grocery store one time, and they showed us the layout plans for the restaurant."
The layout they'd seen was for a different location, not the one the restaurant eventually settled into on Washington Street East. "I think it's better," May said of the actual location. "It's a great place, and they serve the best Indian food in town."
But it was larger, so the Anadas decided to include a lounge upstairs. Gross was brought in as a bartender a few months ago.
Gross, who works for Frontier Communications during the day, said he wasn't really looking for a night job, but it sounded like fun. The Pinch native had bar experience in the mid-1990s while attending the University of South Carolina, which was where he first discovered a passion for drag shows.
"I was just fascinated by them," he said. "I would just go as often as I could."
This also was where he met the nearly legendary drag performer, The Lady Chablis. (Chablis was featured extensively in John Berendt's true-crime book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and played herself in the film of the same name.)
Gross and Chablis became friends, Gross said, but eventually he left the area and found his way back to West Virginia.
He took the bartending job. After several weeks, tending bar turned to bar managing. Gross brought the idea of having a drag show to the lounge's owners, who were willing to give it a try.
"They're really fantastic people," Gross said.
The show was initially built primarily around May, who is from Greenbrier County, but it has since grown to include several other female impersonators, including Iona Trailer and Katrina Foxx.
"We've had a couple of others who've just stopped by," May said.
They've also attracted some of the crowd at Roane County's Long Fork Campground for gay men, which has developed through their friendship with Tammy Why-Nott and the other performers at the Campground's Male Pouch Saloon.
"There's a lot of back and forth between us and the Male Pouch," Gross said. "The Long Fork Campground crowd really helped launch us."
Gross explained, "Out West, like in California, you have drag shows that are really campy. The performers will go on with a five o'clock shadow. Down South, it's very much about perfection. The shows are like beauty pageants and can get just as cutthroat.
"We have a very light-hearted show. Some of our performers are more camp, but it's just a lot of fun."
"We've got a really nice atmosphere," May added.
And everybody, straight or gay, is welcome.
Reach Bill Lynch at ly...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.