Atlanta has long been known as “the gay capital” of the South. It has served as a mecca of sorts to the thousands of men and women who grew up in, moved to or visited the city in which they could “be themselves”… be gay.
Atlanta can also lay claim to another distinctive title, as a birthplace of “Camp Drag”, the fine blend of female impersonation, comedy and outrageous fashion, all set to music.
1979 – Margaret Thatcher becomes the first woman Prime Minister; Mother Teresa is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; Sony introduces the Walkman; Camp Drag is never the same…
Greg Troia, manager at the Armory, was looking for a way to keep bar patrons entertained on Sundays during halftime of televised Atlanta Falcon games. To do so, he approached some of the bar staff and regulars to put on dresses and cheerleader outfits as a way of providing cheap entertainment. This ragtag group quickly became the highlight of the Falcon games at the bar. Patrons would anxiously await halftime (some just showing up for halftime) to see what the group would come up with next. The group, under the direction of Greg (aka Thelma Natalie Troia) affectionately became known as the Armorettes. From the beginning, Greg’s idea was to present drag in a form we now call “camp”, with the performers lip sync-ing and providing comedic interpretations of standards as well as popular music of that time.
1981 – Sandra Day O’Connor takes her seat as the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; MTV is launched; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 5 homosexual men in Los Angeles, California have a rare form of pneumonia seen only in patients with weakened immune systems. This new “plague” is named
Gay-related Immune Deficiency (GRID).
The Armorettes have a diehard fan base who come every Sunday to catch the show featuring the now “Infamous Camp Drag Queens of the South.” The shows grow in popularity and the cast members become bar royalty. However, strange things are happening in the gay community. People are becoming ill and deteriorating rapidly.
1982 – Michael Jackson releases “Thriller”; CDC stops using the term GRID and starts using Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS); AID Atlanta is founded, becoming one of the first Community Based Organizations to focus on HIV/AIDS.
AIDS starts its horrible path of destruction through the gay community. Those who become ill or perceived as being ill lose their jobs. Many are denied services. Some churches turn their backs on those afflicted. In the midst of all this confusion and fear, the Armorettes quickly identify a way they can directly help those in need. A bucket is placed in the front of the “stage” area where patrons can make donations. This money is distributed to people with AIDS to help cover necessities such as housing, utilities, medications and food.
1985 – “New Coke” hits the market; The Normal Heart (by Larry Kramer) is the first major play about the early AIDS epidemic; FDA approves the ELISA test kit for the detection of HIV; Rock Hudson announces he has AIDS.
As the AIDS epidemic continues to grow, the Armorettes grow in number and increase their fundraising efforts. The Armorettes are now conducting annual tryouts for new performers, including interviews with current members and auditions in front of bar patrons. Events like Homecoming and Easter Drag Races become important fundraising events. At the end of each show, the entire cast assembles on stage to the song “United We Stand” which becomes the group’s unofficial motto.
By the end of the 80’s AZT is available for treatment use, Project Open Hand is providing food for people with HIV/AIDS, December 1st is declared World AIDS Day, and Randy Shilts writes “And the Band Played On”, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
1990 – The World Wide Web is created; The Ryan White CARE act in enacted; Nelson Mandela is freed from prison; Greg Troia, founder of the Armorettes dies of complications due to AIDS.
Through the years, the Armorettes have brought many hours of fun, laughter, and support to the gay community. From the first shows which took place in the Armory’s front room on bar stools and tables to the dedicated ‘Thelma’s Pump Room”, the dreams of Greg Troia and the original Armorettes have stood the test of time.
Capitalizing on their unique ability to raise money, the Armorettes branch out and start doing shows and events outside the bar. The group performs at Hollywood Hots, a major fundraiser in Atlanta featuring the Who’s Who of the drag world. They travel annually to Athens, GA to participate in the Boybutante Ball. Some of the Armorettes, in conjunction with the softball team, travel around the US and Canada performing and raising money.
1996 – Atlanta hosts the Summer Olympics; Dr. David Ho is named Man of the Year by Time Magazine; Mad Cow Disease hits Britain; The Unabomber mystery is solved; Rent opens on Broadway.
By the mid 90’s, the Armorettes are at the top of their game. Crowds wait in line to get a good seat. Shows in the Pump Room are standing room only. The money keeps coming in enabling the group to help many organizations.
Each member of the group, from the original cast of seven to the various casts over the years, has dedicated a part of his life to serving causes in the gay and lesbian community. Raising money, awareness of issues, and providing a good time to anyone who would spend a Sunday night with them has always been their aim.
2004 – Janet Jackson suffers a wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime show; Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream is stolen; The Armorettes turn 25.
When the Armory closed in the early 2000s the group moved to Backstreet and then onto their current home at Burkhart’s Pub (with a brief stint at Blake’s on the Park). The changes in venue had an impact on the Armorettes. Some cast members chose this time to retire from the group. Some others found it difficult to adapt to the new surroundings and opted to leave. As a result, 2004 marked the smallest cast in Armorette history. But that didn’t stop them from forging ahead. No matter where they call home, the group has remained dedicated to the cause.
Countless shoes and wigs have been donned, and equally countless hours have been committed to make the community better for gays and lesbians. Several important factors remain consistent as the baton passes on to new generations of outstanding entertainers. The Armorettes always volunteer their time, always raise money for their community, and always end their shows with a soul-stirring version of “United We Stand.”
2012 – The Armorettes are named the best drag show in Atlanta for the second year in a row; The Armorettes are named Grand Marshals for the Pride Parade.
The Armorettes no longer end their Sunday Shows with “United We Stand”, opting instead to use “Seasons of Love” from RENT. The change was made to reach out to a younger demographic. However, “United We Stand” is still the battle cry for the group. The group is a diverse mix of styles, personalities and entertainment united in the battle against HIV/AIDS and will continue to raise money and awareness. We will endure until there is a cure!
For the past 33 years, this group of extraordinary men has raised funds to donate to local AIDS-related organizations. As the group closes in on celebrating raising $2 million, they continue to grow, now having their largest cast ever. Each new member adds their own unique style and stories to the Armorette legacy. A legacy that spans 33 years, a composite cast of 90 men, performances in 28 cities and 2 countries, over 1,700 shows, and assistance to 27 different HIV/AIDS organizations.
The Armorettes, forever and always, “The Infamous Camp Drag Queens of The South.”
We owe so much to those who came before us:
For stepping up when others turned away,
For not accepting the status quo,
For creating something that makes us very proud.
To the Former Armorettes that are still around, you know where we are each week and would love to see you again.
To those who have passed on, we love you and miss you so much, especially on Sunday nights.