When television star Mary Tyler Moore died in January, New Hope drag legend Miss Pumpkin — known without beads and bangles as Michael Gardner — began knitting a hat to replicate Moore’s famous show opening hat toss as part of his third annual Mardi Gras Drag Spectacular at Bucks County Playhouse on Tuesday, February 28.
Making costumes is nothing new to Gardner. When he first began performing, his mother, Lynn, “excellent at all crafts,” sewed most of his costumes. Now, though mom is alive and well in upper Bucks County, Miss Pumpkin stitches her own.
“If I had all of the money I spent of fabric and accessories, I’d have a condo in Fort Lauderdale,” Gardner quips with his hair-trigger knack for getting in a joke. “And I’m not talking about cheap material thrown together in a hurry. My gowns, wigs, and all are of Broadway quality. I can do wonders with a needle and a glue gun.”
Miss Pumpkin is the well-known persona that has been part of the New Hope entertainment scene for 27 years.
“Everyone knows Pumpkin’s voice,” he says. “I love it when I’m in the supermarket talking to the cashier, and someone further back in the line hears my voice, and says, ‘Oh my God, that’s Miss Pumpkin as a man.’ I do try to keep Miss Pumpkin and Michael separate, and I do manage to make it work, but sometimes it’s hard, and one blurs into the other.”
Mardi Gras is special to Miss Pumpkin. It was on this auspicious day on the ecclesiastical, and New Orleans, calendar that Gardner took a deep breath and stepped on stage for the first time in his female persona. That was in 1990 when, enjoying the antics of his mentors, Tinsel Garland and Mother “Joey” Cavalucci, he decided to take the plunge and see what performing was all about.
Mardi Gras remains special to Gardner. It marks the anniversary of a gutsy move that has made him loved and famous in his adopted hometown.
Three years ago, Trisha Dasch of the Bucks County Playhouse mentioned to then-incoming producing director Alex Fraser that Miss Pumpkin was about to celebrate 25 years on New Hope stages. She suggested a show at the Playhouse to commemorate the occasion. Fraser, looking for ways to program the Playhouse year-round, build new audiences, and serve the various groups that give New Hope its character, approached Gardner, and the show not only went on, but a tradition was born.
This year’s Mardi Gras Drag Spectacular continues Miss Pumpkin’s series and will be a tribute to TV divas and their theme songs.
“I look for something we can build a show around,” Gardner says, “and this year, we are doing ‘Miss Pumpkin TV!’ Everything from ‘The Golden Girls’ to ‘Green Acres’ will find its way to the Playhouse stage, and we’re doing every theme song performed by a woman. Thank goodness Joan Jett covered (Moore’s TV theme song). It’s why I’m knitting Mary’s hat.”
Gardner says he wants the characters in the Drag Spectacular, and the performers playing them, to be a surprise. “The audience likes having things sprung on them. That’s why I’ll tell you which of the ‘Golden Girls’ I’m doing, but I don’t want you to print it. Part of the fun is revealing the characters we’re playing as we go.”
Among performers joining Miss Pumpkin this Mardi Gras are Phoebe Mantrap, Mary D-Knight, and the Contessa. One of Pumpkin’s inspirations, Tinsel Garland, will also appear.
“Tinsel encouraged me from the beginning. So did Monica Rae, who lent me her wig on that first Mardi Gras in 1990. My goddesses are Dolly Parton and Cyndi Lauper. Dolly summed it all up when she said, ‘It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.’”
Yet even while dressing up in childhood, Gardner never went for the tacky or makeshift.
Growing in Kintnerville, he was attracted to costumes, props, and other theater paraphernalia. “My grandparents, in Carversville, lived next to a couple that built sets and props and costume for New York shows. They had a country home in Bucks County, as many New Yorkers and theater people did, and the barn where they kept their inventory and pieces that weren’t being used any more was in walking distance and open to me.
“I had a great time playing among some amazing sets and props that had been used in Broadway shows. The couple was Dorothy and Jerry Cargill, and they gave me free rein. And then my mother could make anything. Not just costumes or clothing. She could upholster chairs and do all kinds of things. When I saw a character I wanted to be on Halloween, we didn’t go to Woolworth’s and buy a costume. My mother made it from scratch. I won every Halloween contest.
“I also liked performing. I may not have the greatest voice, but I know how to be funny. Comedy is my aim. At Palisades High School and Durham Elementary, I was in plays.
“When I was older, I gravitated toward New Hope, which has been my home for the last 30 years. There were three gay clubs in New Hope in 1990: the Raven, the Cartwheel, and the Prelude. I was out every night. Monday night was drag night at the Cartwheel, and I was a regular visitor.
“Then I decided I wanted to develop an act and entertain. I loved watching Tinsel, Monica, and Mother Cavalucci. I wanted to join them, and one day I got the nerve to do it. That day has never ended. Twenty-seven years later, I’m still making people laugh, which is all I wanted to do, and which I love doing.
Gardner says the name Miss Pumpkin came from an incident that bloomed into legend. “I went out in Philadelphia one night and got drunk. When I got back to Bucks County, I ran into a pumpkin field, took some pumpkins, and sold them. Drunk or not, the story spread and people began calling me ‘Pumpkin.’ It was only natural that my drag persona should be called Miss Pumpkin.
“Remember I was in my 20s then. Now I’m more of a leader. I helped to organize and lead the first Gay Pride Parade in New Hope. After years of being the first person people saw, I changed position and began appearing on the last float. At first people were confused by that. They wanted to know why I wasn’t at the front. Now people are used to seeing me at the end of the parade, like Santa Claus about to usher in Christmas season in a Thanksgiving parade.
“It’s made me a local celebrity, as have my jobs. I was a waiter and bartender at the Raven for 25 years, and now I tend bar at John and Peter’s,” another New Hope spot.
Talking about his persona, Gardener says people like Miss Pumpkin. “They think of a loud red-headed floozy doing all she can to give people some laughs. These days, one of my more popular bits is turning my wig on its side because it looks just like Donald Trump’s combover.
“Every performer has an image, and mine is of one who goes out all the time and is always on, making jokes. I think it would surprise people to know I’m really a homebody who likes to work in my garden and make dinner parties for friends. I’m quieter than people think. And I like cooking. I make a big pot of soup, I eat one bowl, and I give the rest to friends.”
The Mardi Gras Drag Spectacular is one of a wide variety of programs Alex Fraser and his staff have booked at Bucks County Playhouse this winter. It, along with shows like “Menopause: The Musical,” “Triple Expresso,” and concerts by musicians from all genres, is part of Fraser’s plan to keep the Playhouse running year-round and develop a reputation for never being dark.
“I want to have a first-class staff, and that is hard to build if you offer only seasonal employment,” Fraser says. “In addition to shows we produce during the summer, we want to present a full roster of entertainment that will attract different audiences to the Playhouse.
“And new audiences. I asked a sold out house of ‘Menopause’ how many were at the Playhouse for the first time, and 400 hands went up. That was gratifying. We also want to co-produce or host shows that reflect the diverse population of New Hope. We are into community service and community involvement. Miss Pumpkin’s shows draw an enthusiastic audience and associates us with one of New Hope’s most popular and long-standing performers.”
Mardi Gras Drag Spectacular: Miss Pumpkin TV, A Nostalgic Celebration of Stage and Screen, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Tuesday, February 28, 7:30 p.m. $20 to $25. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.