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Ginger Spice, born as Richard J. Wyatt but known to friends and thousands of fans as simply 'Ginger', was a pioneering and popular member of Milwaukee's 'drag' scene. In 2022, LGBT historian Michail Takach wrote the following biography:
Richard Wyatt grew up in northern Illinois, where he worked at his family's business before moving to Milwaukee in 1978. While working as a waiter at the Factory bar (158 N. Broadway,) he was discovered by Tiger Rose (aka Eddie Schicker.) Soon, "Ginger Spice" was appearing in the Factory's drag show. Tiger became his drag mother and taught him the ways of female illusion. Richard returned to Illinois and worked in the family business by day, while building out a massive Milwaukee drag following as Ginger Spice by night.
"It wasn't unusual to find Ginger in the garage, under the hood, half in drag, to fix an engine problem for his dad," remembered a History Project contributor. "She would sometimes forget to take off her nail polish while pumping gas or cleaning windshields."
His family convinced him to move back home, but the performance bug had bitten, and Ginger soon landed a new job at 'Final Approach' in Chicago.
Ginger became friends with Jim Flint of the 'Baton Show Lounge', who nominated Ginger to run the Miss Continental Wisconsin pageant. Over the years, Ginger would claim the titles of Miss Gay Wisconsin and Miss Chicago Continental. She performed with some of the biggest names in Chicago drag, including her idol Chili Pepper.
And then she returned to Milwaukee at exactly the right moment.
In spring 1981, Club 219 had opened with grand plans to elevate the art of drag to new heights in Milwaukee. Under a 20-foot ceiling, the new stage soared ten feet over the bar floor and four feet above the dance floor. Performers had to earn their right to walk onstage. Club 219 paid a salary-- the first venue in Milwaukee to do so-- and this encouraged artists to upgrade their wardrobe and their act. Lip-synching was strictly not allowed.
The lure of the great stage at Club 219 brought many performers from Greater Chicagoland, including Mimi Marks, Alexandra Billings, and Candi Stratton, who went on to become enormously famous. Each represented Wisconsin as their Queen following pageant victories in Milwaukee.
With a new cabaret in town, there was a tremendous need for fresh talent. Samantha Stevens, showrunner at Club 219, knew exactly where to find it.
"Ginger Spice was living about a block away from me," said Sam. "We were all neighbors, and we got to be good friends, and eventually started talking business. And that's how the Who's No Lady Revue got started."
"The Who's No Lady Revue was a powerhouse cast," said Sam. "We always had a cast of 4-5 girls, and we traveled all over doing shows."
Who's No Lady was a superstar drag factory that launched some of the biggest names of the 1980s: Abby Rhodes, Coco Lopez, Josie Blake, Gloria P. Hole, Miss B.J. Daniels, and now, Ginger Spice.
"There was nothing tacky or cheap about our shows," said B.J. Daniels. "That was Sam's claim to fame: she started a new trend for a new era, with a new cast of fresh faces, steeped in feminine glamour. She raised expectations and elevated the art of drag to new levels. People were so taken in by our performances, they would be surprised we weren't women."
Three years later, Samantha left Club 219 for La Cage, and Ginger became the showrunner.
"She produced beautiful, enchanting, heart-stopping shows with B.J and the Club 219 Girls," said Sam. "I would still go to the shows and visit her upstairs afterwards. But I was just done."
During an American tour, Holly Brown and Ginger Spice met in Chicago. They were briefly roommates in Libertyville, Illinois before Holly moved to Milwaukee in May 1986.
Holly joined the Club 219 Girls, where Ginger was both the showrunner and an original cast member. In January 1988, she moved to La Cage with "Claim to Fame" talent shows on Wednesday and "Holly & Company" variety shows on Sundays, following an afternoon tea dance and evening buffet that made La Cage an all-day destination.
Soon, the Holly Brown shows expanded to Saturday and filled seats three nights a week. The increasingly elaborate show featured male, female and drag performers, delivering a full range of entertainment: dance, comedy, theatrical renditions, solo vocals, and more.
Soon, La Cage and Club 219 were deadlocked in competition to produce the fiercest drag shows Milwaukee had ever seen. A Golden Age of Drag was in full effect. Competition raged so hard that employees and customers had to choose their loyalties to one venue over another. Performers were so highly regarded that they became Milwaukee royalty. Under such intense friction, production standards sky-rocketed as Vegas-level productions attracted crossover crowds several nights a week at both bars.
Sadly, Ginger Spice passed away only 10 days later on November 26, 1991. She was only 31. She was survived by her lover of six years, Chris Gorski. Soon, the Golden Age of Drag would come to a slow and quiet end.
"Ginger had bounced back from so many infections over the past four years that friends thought of him as invincible," wrote Ron Geiman, InStep publisher. "His unexpected death sent shock waves through Milwaukee and Chicago."
Ginger was remembered as a kind, loving, and generous performer. Over the years, she had become quite skilled at sewing and dress design. Many Milwaukee performers of that era still own a Ginger Spice original outfit.
In January 1992, Club 219 hosted 'I Remember You,' a 15-star memorial show to benefit the Ginger Spice Trust, a special fund of the Milwaukee AIDS Project.
"Several people commented, 'we'll never see another show like this!' The emotional level was at a crescendo before the show even started. People clapped and stomped their feet like they always did while Ginger was onstage, but it was just memories," wrote InStep Magazine. "The show was the largest bar fundraiser in Milwaukee AIDS Project history-- and more shows are in the works. I hear her voice from above, saying thank you."
The obituary for Ginger Spice printed in 'In Step' magazine in vol. 8-24 (December 1991) summarizes her life and career at the time of her death:
Well known Midwestern entertainer Richard J. Wyatt, best known by his stage name, Ginger Spice, died November 26, 1991 at Milwaukee's St. Joseph's Hospital of complications associated with AIDS. He had bounced back from so many previous AIDS related infections during the past four years that friends had come to think of him as invincible. His unexpected death sent shock waves through the Milwaukee and Chicago Gay communities.
Ginger, as he preferred being called by friends, was born January 11, 1960 in northern Illinois where he was raised. He worked in his family owned businesses prior to moving to Milwaukee in 1978. In '78, while working as a waiter at Milwaukee's infamous Factory night club, Ginger was approached by the late Eddie (Tiger Rose) Schicker to perform in female impersonation shows. Tiger soon became Ginger's "drag mother" and taught him "the ropes" in the art of female illusion. Shortly after, Ginger's family convinced him to move back home, where he again worked for the family business. But the performance bug had bitten and Ginger was soon appearing at Chicago's Final Approach. It didn't take long for Ginger to gain a following both in Chicago, and then Milwaukee.
Over the years, Ginger made friends with many people, and one of those was The Baton's Jim Flynt. Out of Flint's respect for Spice, Ginger became curator of the Miss Continental Wisconsin pageant, and also the Miss Continental Chubby Wisconsin Pageant. Ginger's 1991 Miss Continental Wisconsin contest won Best Preliminary Pageant Award at this years Continental pageant. Ginger was one of the original members of Milwaukee's Club 219 Girls, and soon became that groups show director and headliner.
Ginger held the prestigious titles of Miss Gay Wisconsin and Miss Chicago Continental over the years. Chicago's Ginger Grant recently accepted the traveling Friend of The Pageant award in Spice's place during the Mr. and Miss Gay Wisconsin Pageant.
Ginger will be remembered by all as a terrific entertainer who wasn't afraid to share a showbiz tip — and a kind, loving and generous friend.
Over the years Ginger also had become quite adept at sewing and dress design. More than one present-day Milwaukee area entertainer has a Spice original hanging in their closet.
He is survived by his lover of six years, Chris Gorski; numerous family members, and many fans and friends... Private services were held Friday, November 29 in Illinois.
Credits: major content from Michail Takach
with assistance and photos compliments of fellow performer B.J. Daniels;
Excerpts from LGBT periodicals researched by Don Schwamb;
Web site concept, design and layout by Don Schwamb;
Last updated: December-2022.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.