When you see a strange open-air bus rolling through the streets of Midtown and Montrose on the weekends this month, playing music and causing a scene, it won’t be a gang of boozed-up revelers hell-bent on disrupting the neighborhood. Instead, it will be the Houston History Bus filled with engaged sightseers retracing Montrose’s colorful days of yore.
The tour bus is made possible thanks to community-outreach grant money awarded to Catastrophic Theatre co-founder Tamarie Cooper. The theater company is collaborating with Mister McKinney’s Historic Houston and gay actor Walt Zipprian, who has deep connections with Montrose and has appeared in several Catastrophic Theatre productions.
Titled Uncle Walt’s X-rated Montrose Ramble and Historical Bus Tour: A Musical, the edgy tour for mature audiences will feature Zipprian’s personal stories about various locations on the route that are all a part of Houston’s LGBTQ history.
“I was one of those old-school gay guys who would hang out at Mary’s, Venture-N, and Ripcord. I’d tell these incredibly raunchy stories of my experiences at these bars to freak everyone out, but they were true stories. Tamarie thought my stories were really interesting, which was the inspiration for this production,” he explains. “Here’s an older gay guy, and the younger gays don’t know what it was like growing up during his era. Let’s have Walt do these performances.”
Of course, the key to this idea was having an open-air vehicle to take audiences to the many locations while minimizing the COVID-19 risk. That’s where Mister McKinney and his Houston History Bus fits in by providing a performance-art-on-wheels experience.
Mister McKinney is a Houston historian who has turned his passion for uncovering the city’s past into engaging bus tours that detail the unique character of Houston’s historic neighborhoods—and sometimes getting granular with stories particular to each neighborhood or block.
Mister McKinney notes that his funky Houston History Bus has been used for several offbeat tours over the years. “We’ve had flamenco dancers and mariachis. We’ve partnered with individual artists before, but this is the first time Mister McKinney’s Historic Houston and my Houston History Bus have partnered with a theatrical company. We’re hoping more will come from this.”
The tour will combine Zipprian’s storytelling with live music written by Anthony Barilla, another Catastrophic Theatre regular. Zipprian’s personal anecdotes will take priority on the tour, with historical details being presented as sidenotes.
“It’s not a traditional bus tour where we drive by historical landmarks and talk about significant events that happened there. Instead, I talk about my personal stories that happened at these places. It’s presented in a weird way—we may sing, or there may be people on the side of the road who interact with us. It will definitely be a different theater experience,” Zipprian explains.
Mister McKinney adds, “I’ve gone on a dress rehearsal, and we ran the route. It’s a lot of fun, and a gift to the LGBTQ community. Walt is bringing to light a fun part of Houston’s history from his perspective, from 1986 onward when he first came to Houston. People will learn a lot about Houston’s past and LGBTQ history that isn’t often talked about.”
Zipprian, after all, represents a segment of the LGBTQ community that has seen the area evolve through the decades. And with the theater being his “home away from home” for the past 30 years, combining art and history is not a stretch for him. “I was a little gay kid who always acted things out. Theater is a good way to express yourself when you can’t express yourself in your private life. You can do so much as a character. I’ve always been attracted to being someone else, and I’m very dramatic,” he says.
Zipprian mentions a few details about the tour locations, including the site of the old Venture-N on Main Street and the Midtown Spa, just past the site of Clark Gable’s former house. “I used to live near that house, where a bunch of dildos ended up in the gutter.” he adds. The tour also includes more somber notes, like surviving the wave of AIDS cases in the ’80s and ’90s. “I’m almost 60. There’s a huge gap [in my group of friends], because most of us died.” Zipprian adds, emphasizing the importance of sharing his experiences.
“I really enjoy telling these stories. It’s a good opportunity for me to get them out to the public and remind people that we old gays are still around. It’s good to be working with my friends again and have those creative juices flowing [after being] so restricted by COVID-19. It means a lot to get out and to be doing something again,” he says.
“Uncle Walt’s X-rated Montrose Ramble and Historical Bus Tour: A Musical is a nice little perverted piece of Montrose history,” Zipprian concludes. “Find out what Montrose was like before it was gentrified. It used to have a lot more freaks, and it was a lot of fun.”
Uncle Walt’s Bus Tour Preview:
“I came here in the late ’80s on a whim, and because it was on my bus route. I ended up coming to terms with coming out of the closet here. The men I met here taught me that being gay isn’t something to ‘come to terms with,’ or to ‘accept.’ It’s something to celebrate, and to take pride in, because it made me special, beautiful, and unique. It made me one of them. This place has a special place in my heart.”
“For me, the sadness was palpable—the desperation, the loneliness. It smelled like poppers and jockstraps. But where the other bathhouses felt like ‘the joy of sex,’ this one felt like the disappointment of a furtive grasping for a connection. Even the orgasms were a letdown.”
“As I was doing my laundry across the street, I thought to myself, ‘That looks like a bar that sells Schlitz beer. If they sell Schlitz, I’m gonna hang out there. They sold Schlitz. They also had drag shows for queens over 50. I saw Wendy Chicago for the first time at this bar.”
“Sometimes this was like a county fair to me. When [it was packed] on some nights and all the drag queens and leather queens and drunken queens mingled, it felt like a carnival midway—and all the men were potential rides.”
“They did not like women. Did not like drag queens. Did not like effeminate men. Smelled like pee-pee.”
“The heart and soul of the post-Stonewall era ‘rough trade’ in Houston. Being in Mary’s was an act of societal rebellion—in-your-face, unapologetic queerness. Aggressive queerness. Queers who so frightened the populace that the more gentle breed that followed us could be out more safely than we could. Mary’s paved the way. It was a fortress, a shrink’s couch, and a mother’s lap. We were family when we had no other family. I miss it.”
What: Uncle Walt’s X-rated Montrose Ramble and Historical Bus Tour: A Musical
When: October 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 6:00 and 8:00 p.m.
Where: Departs from Sabine Street Bridge, 105 Sabine Street.
This article appears in the October 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.