Credit: The Empress of Canada Foundation
She arrives in all her splendour every night at nine o’clock
And her chariot is a cross-town bus that stops right down the block
The ol’ piano minstrel plays a song as she walks in
And the queen of the Silver Dollar, she’s home again
She’s the queen of the Silver Dollar, and she rules this smokey kingdom
And her sceptre is a wine glass and a bar-stool is her throne
And the jesters flock around her and fight to win her favours
And see which one will take the queen of the Silver Dollar home.
It was a typical 1970s night at the August Club on Richards Street when I arrived early for the evening’s drag show, probably looking forward to reigning drag diva and co-owner ted northe delivering his signature number, Dr Hook’s “Queen of the Silver Dollar.”
I was early enough that ted wasn’t yet in the dressing room, and so we sat at the bar together and bought each other a drink.
“QQ,” ted announced, “I’ve got exciting news for your column next week. I was in Portland last weekend for the Queen of Hearts Ball and we’re going to do the same thing here, only bigger and better and bitchier! We’re going to get the drag queens to run for Empress of Vancouver and have a big party at the Commodore, and everyone will go crazy for this. All the queens will want to be Empress!
There was a new buzz-phrase making the rounds that year, and decades later ted and I both remembered me trying it on, patting his arm and saying, “Oh ted, this is going to end badly!”
According to friends who were with ted in the days before his passing, early in the morning of March 30 at age 74, ted recalled that conversation and concluded, “The bitch really got that one wrong, didn’t she?”
Yup, I sure got that one wrong! And by the way, “bitch” was always a term of endearment from ted.
Four decades later, gay communities from Victoria to Halifax elect an annual Emperor and Empress to preside over celebratory and charity fundraising activities. That election of the first Empress of Vancouver in 1971 was the beginning of an institution that would spread to a dozen Canadian cities, while ted retained his title as Empress of Canada until his stepping down from the role earlier this year.
While ted is best remembered as the founder of the Canadian court system, he was a gay-rights activist long before they coined the word “activist.”
Born in small-town Alberta and raised in the Fraser Valley, ted began his activism in 1958, when he and a handful of friends took to the steps of the then-Vancouver Courthouse to demand full rights for homosexuals, who at the time were legally defined as “deviants.” His public debut in drag was recorded for posterity in a snide note by Vancouver Sun columnist Jack Wasserman, who referred to ted and his friends as “The Lavender Hill Mob.”
A decade later, ted was in the forefront of a national campaign in support of the first attempt at a bill legalizing homosexuality in Canada. This brought him to the attention of soon-to-be prime minister Pierre Trudeau, with whom he worked closely on pushing to get the final version of celebrated “omnibus” Bill C-150 passed on May 14, 1969.
Through the years, the Dogwood Monarchist Society, as Vancouver’s Empress court is known, has been a vital hub of gay community activity. The society and its Empresses and Emperors, under ted’s guidance and mentorship, played an important role in community solidarity during the AIDS crisis and continue to raise funds for numerous important causes. The traditions begun by ted and his early “courtiers” continue today, with the coronation earlier this month of Empress XLIII Kiki Lawhore and Emperor JJ Nation.
The Empress Ball, set for June 14 at the Vancouver Art Gallery and intended to pay tribute to ted and to crown his successor as Empress of Canada, will take place as planned. I have to feel a bit sorry for Avaughna Sanoir, Empress of Regina and Empress Elect of Canada. Her coronation celebration will undoubtedly be overwhelmingly a celebration of the life of ted northe — who will steal the show one more time!
For information and tickets, visit empressball.org.
I was privileged to spend a wonderful half-hour with ted about a week before he died, and his good spirits and wicked sense of humour prevailed to the end. He was surrounded by loved ones and family and a constant stream of devoted friends and fans who, for a couple of weeks in March, turned the 10th floor of St Paul’s into the Silver Dollar, where the Empress of our Hearts reigned.
Thank you, dear friend.
Kevin Dale McKeown was Vancouver’s first out gay columnist, penning QQ Writes . . . Page 69 for the Georgia Straight through the early 1970s. Contact him at [email protected].