Gloucester's Lester Wass American Legion Hall may have seen better days in its 90-odd years, but it's never seen a night quite like this past Saturday night.
"It was incredible, like a big love-in," says Lynn Blaisdell, of AMVET Post 32's cancer fundraiser, an unabashedly outrageous drag extravaganza that was loosely based on "La Cage aux Folles" and played to a tightly packed house of some 200 hooting and hollering friends.
"I was crying just to see all these big, tough AMVETS guys all dolled up like women," says Blaisdell, whose boyfriend, 59-year-old Bob Anderson — diagnosed with colon cancer last February — will be one of the recipients of the evening's proceeds.
Like Bob Andersen, the other recipient, 54-year-old Keith Rose, was diagnosed with cancer last February; his, a case of advanced stage lung cancer complicated by diabetes.
Both men have been longtime members of AMVETS, and Keith Rose is the Commander-elect of the Prospect Street-based organization. So when word went out about their diagnoses, their fellow AMVETS members "were there for them in spades," says Blaisdell.
Blaisdell is also a member of AMVETS Women's Auxiliary, and credits fellow auxiliary members — particularly Vincie Burgess — with "pulling together" Saturday's night's fundraiser.
But it was the cast of unlikely "drag queens" who pulled out all the stops, said Burgess, prancing and dancing through the crowd from 7 to 10 p.m. while catching $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills.
Vincie Burgess, whose husband Kevin, is outgoing Commander of AMVETS, recently lost her 41-year-year old sister to cancer.
"So when we heard about Bob and Keith," she says, "we just had to do something about it."
Last year, Kevin Burgess had dressed up in drag for a "La Cage" benefit at Cruiseport. The event, says Vincie Burgess, organized by Cape Ann Women of the Moose, raised $12,000 for Reese Matthew Allen, the 2-year-old grandson of Moose member Barbara Trioli. "Why not throw a "La Cage" for Bob and Keith?" we thought, And "La Cage II" was launched.
"The AMVET guys were all scared to death, of course," said Vincie Burgess. "They looked like a bunch of deer in the headlights. But, you know, they're all brothers, so they got in the spirit of the thing."
So did plenty of other people.
"We had members of the Moose join the drag show," says Burgess, "and the Legion gave us the hall, which was fantastic. Scottie Mack dee-jayed for free. Everyone just kicked in and gave their all."
Show-stoppers came in the form of "Sister Acts," followed by "It's Raining Men" and some major star-turns, with Victor Anido impersonating Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, Mike Brown doing Pat Benatar and Gretchen Wilson, and a man identified only as "Lucky" playing Shania Twain. He also ended the evening with an unrehearsed "Locks of Love" moment wherein he produced a pair of scissors and offered his "Fabio-ish" mane of flowing hair to audience members "for tips," raising $900 in a Gloucester minute.
"When it comes to giving, this town is fantastic," says Lynn Blaisdell.
All together, Vincie Burgess estimates the evening raised between $5,000 and $7,000 for Bob Andersen and Keith Rose, some of it in proceeds from the sales of T-shirts, bracelets and pins bearing the message, "Friends don't let friends fight cancer alone."
Both Andersen and Rose can use all the friends, and all the money, they can get.
If it were not for City Councilor Safatia Romeo Theken, Bob Andersen, whose run of bad luck began three years ago when he was laid off by Gloucester Engineering, would have no medical coverage, Blaisdell says. Romeo Theken, who helped facilitate his insurance coverage and counseling through for S.H.I.N.E (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders) has saved the day for many financially challenged Gloucester residents, Blaisdell says.
"Thank God for Safatia," says Blaisdell. "Just getting Bob back and forth to Leahy clinic for his chemo treatments cost $25 a day in gas."
While Bob Andersen is responding well to his chemo treatments, the same cannot be said for Keith Rose, who was not well enough to attend Saturday night's fundraiser.
Rose's wife, Laura, who was able to attend, is no stranger to cancer herself, having had part of her lung removed. "Everyone there," says Vincie Burgess, "had either suffered from cancer themselves, or lost a loved one to it."
"Money isn't everything, but it sure helps," says Burgess, noting that Reese Matthew Allen, the 2-year-old beneficiary of the first "La Cage" cancer fundraiser, "is doing just fine."
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3457, or at email@example.com.