There’s nothing quite like a birthday for forcing you to consider the brevity of life, especially when there’s a big zero involved. So it was simultaneously sad and satisfying to celebrate a certain uncomfortably round number last week at the anniversary screening of Paul Wegman: A Tribute at the Venue. Sad, because it was stunning to realize that it’s been a full decade since the Central Florida stage star-slash-drag icon passed away. Satisfying, not only for the preshow repast at the brand-new neighboring Elliott’s Public House (the head-on shrimp are heavenly) but the reunion of Orlando theater veterans that resulted from the remembrance.
For a quarter-century, Paul M. Wegman was the undisputed master of Orlando stages both burlesque and mainstream – like an acting Clark Kent and Superman, except both his personas were heroic. As Paul, he portrayed Prospero, the Elephant Man, Ebenezer Scrooge and countless others at Orlando Shakes, Seminole, Valencia, Theatre Downtown and Icehouse. And as Miss P, she perfected the art of improvisational put-downs as the longtime emcee of the Parliament House’s Footlight Theatre, inspiring a generation of area drag queens.
Paul’s too-soon death on Aug. 24, 2004, at age 60 of AIDS-induced complications unleashed an outpouring of emotion in the arts community, which Michael Wanzie captured in a documentary created in the weeks after Wegman’s death. Along with Jason Piekarski of Lantern Light Studios, Wanzie placed newspaper ads inviting Wegman’s friends to the Parliament House and Orlando Shakes to share their memories on camera. Footage was edited together over three weeks and premiered at a series of memorials held in September and October 2004 at Shakes, Parliament House and Joy Metropolitan Community Church. The film went on to win awards at Aida’s Big Phat Florida Film Festival, the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Fire Island Film and Video Festival.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Wegman’s passing, Wanzie (with help from Watermark, Ivanhoe Village and the Bungalower) organized an evening at the Venue that included a screening and silent auction. Items up for bid included theater tickets, CDs, and DVDs of My Fair Liddy, a recent drag-themed feature starring Leigh Shannon, Tom Nowicki, Rus Blackwell and a host of other area actors. (The majority of the prizes were actually won by Paul’s brother, David Wegman, who purchased an armload of tickets.) All proceeds were split between the Paul M. Wegman Memorial Scholarship Fund at Valencia Community College and Ivanhoe Village Main Street.
In addition to his sibling, the anniversary screening attracted dozens of others whose lives were touched by Paul, several of whom (including Jim Helsinger, Christine Robison, Doug Bowser and Scottie Campbell) appeared in the film; the evening had a “This Is Your Life” quality, with audience members watching decade-old echoes of their current selves. Emotions were obviously elevated among attendees, especially the director. Wanzie told me afterwards that he hadn’t seen the film in four or five years, but that he cried several times watching it again, because “I’d forgotten a lot of what wonderful things people had to say.”
The film itself is less a biography than a collection of warm anecdotes about Wegman’s stage career, with little about his life outside the theater aside from a Rich Charron-scored montage of childhood photos provided by David Wegman. It would almost be a hagiography, if it weren’t for Bowser injecting a much-needed acidic note by speaking of Paul’s less saintly side. I never had the pleasure of seeing Miss P perform, though my wife was called a lesbian by her once. But I was Paul’s assistant director in 2001’s The Ride Down Mount Morgan at Theatre Downtown and found him to be smart, kind and gentle … but also opinionated, stubborn and occasionally infuriating to work with. Wegman could enjoy toying with those less clever than he (which was pretty much everyone) and had a way of sticking his tongue in your ear at just the wrong moment.
Looking at it today, Wanzie’s documentary is a loving tribute to a lost talent, but he told me it was quite controversial upon its premiere – there were some complaints about voices and stories that weren’t recorded or lost in the editing process. Hopefully with the passage of time it can be appreciated for what it is, because we can all only hope that our own passings produce a fraction of the impact Paul Wegman’s did.