Bacon, Opera, and Naked Men: A Farewell to Seattle’s Palace Theater & Art Bar - By Matt Baume
The Palace was a place for up-and-coming queer producers to try something new.
This story is part of a series at them. memorializing LGBTQ+ spaces that have shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while also highlighting other businesses that are struggling to survive. Read more from the Queer Spaces Project here.
The Palace started as an art space. Then known as The Conservatory, art classes grew into a coffee shop, the coffee shop became a bar, and the bar became one of Seattle’s most daring queer performance spaces before it closed in June as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Formally known as the Palace Theater & Art Bar, it was home to countless drag shows, burlesque nights, naked talent shows, jazz nights and operas. A long narrow bare-brick-walled structure, the bar had a quirky shape; seats were assembled around a tiny stage halfway along the high-ceilinged room, with crowds pressed tight between the stage and a compact bar. It was a place to experiment and try something new, for new talent to be nurtured, and where the audience never knew what adventure they’d step into from one night to the next.
“I said, ‘I’ll fill this up with as much interesting stuff as I can,’” Sylvia O’Stayformore, the former owner, told them. “I had a great time.” She took over the establishment about a year before the pandemic hit and spent most of 2019 building it up into a success. The business was reaching what she calls a “sink or swim” moment, when it needed to turn a profit or shut down, and it had a run of several successful weeks when the pandemic hit.
That success was driven by a string of popular local shows, in particular Bacon Strip, a rowdy drag and burlesque night notorious for scantily clad men who serve trays of bacon to the audience between drag acts. Then there was Mister Nude Cascadia, a no-clothing talent night that crowned a winner from among contestants who, among other things, sang “I Dreamed a Dream,” danced the with audience members, and even demonstrated their prowess with a sewing machine, turning a t-shirt into a pair of briefs in less than 5 minutes.
Local star Donatella Howe hosted the house drag show, Art Attack, while Kira Sutra brought in an all-vintage drag troupe called Paper Moon. And O’Stayformore loved to open her doors to unlikely performances that couldn’t be found anywhere else in town, like the Seattle Playwrights Guild’s regular readings of new plays. The local library hosted reading nights, and the Seattle Opera arranged regular Opera on Tap shows, featuring local opera stars providing sneak-peek performances of works in progress.
Tickets were usually around $5, so shows could be open to the widest possible audience. O’Stayformore saw her role as providing opportunities to up-and-coming queer producers. “Drag queens who hadn’t done shows before and were like, ‘I wanna try this,’” she said. “We were a collaborative team of different artists and we were using the theater as a performance space.”
But then quarantine hit in March and the doors had to close for weeks at a time. Seattle venues had to shutter entirely for long stretches in 2020, and even when they were allowed to briefly open, they soon found themselves ordered closed again.
“There was just no way to keep it going,” O’Stayformore said, “with no money coming in or commitment on when people could come back.” Looking at the financial books, she saw that she needed to build up at least $100,000 to survive the closures. “I just don’t have the kind of money lying around.”
But the good news is that O’Stayformore is planning to revive Bacon Strip as an online show, with subscribers getting ticket discounts once in-person performances can resume. “I’d love to call girls from all around the nation and see if they want to come do a guest spot for a few months,” she said. For now, the owner is remaining optimistic — hoping to be open for Pride when they will “naked boys all over!” — and keeps herself busy envisioning what shows might look like once the pandemic dust settles.
“I’d love to get a nonprofit going,” she said. “A corporation of some sort. A drag corporation!”
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Sylvia O‘Stayformore is the effervescent hostess in Seattle. Sylvia is a local celebrity in countless drag shows, brunches, fundraisers, benefits, cabarets, radio shows, movies, weddings, premiers, openings and plays. Currently the producer of Seattle’s Best Drag Show (Voted via Seattle Weekly) Bacon Strip. Now in Georgetown at The Conservatory. Every First Saturday. She can also be seen at Senior Centers in West Seattle, Ballard, South East Seattle, Sno Valley, Vashon Island, South Park, Camano Island, Whidbey Island, and DesMoines for her Rainbow Bingos. Out magazine voted Sylvia as the hottest drag queen in America of the moment 2003. Sylvia loves Dionne Warwick, bad boys with big hair, long rides on her Vespa, Thrift store road trips to the coast, late night poetry shows, social networking, & Tab and Seven.