After attending Make Me Gorgeous at Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s, I made the highest recommendation to a considerable number of people. I was late to the run. Many had seen and praised the production. Others followed my advice, inevitably expressing gratitude afterwards. One friend, I gather, burst into tears at the end of the show. Playwright/Director Donnie came out to greet the audience, found him sobbing, and took my friend in his arms.
Who is this compassionate Renaissance man with one name and why did he write this play? We sit in the Green Room of Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s. Donnie wears shorts and flip-flops. Only for television interviews will he don pants and shoes. Tan legs curled neatly under him, the artist exudes warmth and openness.
Donald Horn aka Donnie had a rotten childhood spent in the northwest. A self avowed fat kid overshadowed by his beautiful brother, he was ignored or berated by both the woman who became his stepmother and a disciplinarian father. The boy defensively “sat at the back of the bus” and rarely spoke up. At 17, he fled home and with no religious background matriculated at Bible College because of an aunt who deeply believed and thought that faith might offer sanctuary. (Today, he describes a beautiful Oregon home as making him feel safe.) Where was solemnity, piety, tranquility? Disillusioned, the teenager quit, going on to earn a BA and MBA in business. Employment in his academic field followed.
Thirty-four years ago, Donnie established triangle productions! in Portland, Oregon, one of the oldest LGBTQ identified theatres in the United States with well over 250 productions under its belt. The playwright describes himself additionally as historian, LGBTQ leader, author, director, activist, set designer and producer. He’s proudly a father (2 ex-wives), step-father, grandfather and step-grandfather and has been partnered 38 years.
Donnie has authored 24 books and over 20 plays and musicals. Many involve LGBTQ subjects. He’s written about the AIDS Crisis (those who were left behind) as well as drag performers including Divine and Darcelle, who at 92 was the oldest living practitioner of the art. (The artist received Oregon’s Heritage Excellence Award for his multi-faceted Darcelle Project.) The Umbrella Project finds him currently documenting Oregon’s vast LGBTQ history. At the same time he’s researching Florence Ballard, founding member of the girl group that became The Supremes, turning Make Me Gorgeous into a miniseries script, and continuing a trilogy entitled How Do You Say Murder in Greek?
Histories of underdogs and trailblazers becoming their authentic selves fascinates the writer. In Sex on the River, Donnie wrote about Nancy Boggs Mullery, “The Madame of the Willamette River” whose floating bordello barge offered waterside services in the late 1800s. Curious about male madams, he unearthed two, the infamous Hollywood hustler/pimp, Scotty Bowers and Kenneth/Kate Marlowe. Bowers’ story had been told in a book, documentary, and film, while Marlowe’s was ripe for discovery.
Donnie read Marlowe’s eight books, beginning with the autobiographical Mr. Madam and everything available written about him. When he discovered that in 1944 as female impersonator (then, gender illusionist), Keni Marlo had stripped revealing a male body, he knew this was a unique story. There are few reports of male strippers until the 1970s.
The playwright talked to Gypsy Rose Lee’s son, Eric Preminger, and went through the burlesque star’s archives at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. He perused address books: Marlowe was entered with his mom, Mabel, a heretofore unknown connection. Calendars noted “with Kenneth,” “borrowed Kenneth’s earrings,” “wigs,” and “Diller over,” referring to Phyllis Diller. Multiple checks to the hairdresser were in the amount of $25.00 ($224.84 today). Every new piece of information elicits tinkering with the script.
More About Kenneth/Kate Marlowe, some not in the play.
Kenneth/Kate Marlowe started “messing around” followed by sexual activity at a very young age. It was fun, he was desired. At that point boys couldn’t get any further than kissing with the opposite sex. Many of his regular partners were straight. Marlowe later wrote that he thought of himself as “a candy store.” Dressed in drag one Halloween, the adolescent won a contest. He started performing on weekends. Consequences ensued at home.
The teenager was packed off to an aunt in Los Angeles (ironically the first city in the US to legalize gay bars) because of “sex problems.” In Pershing Square, he was shocked to learn one could charge for sex. When the market dipped, Marlowe acquired a sugar daddy named Charley for security. They negotiated terms. Charley sent nineteen year-old Kenneth to hairdressing school, a skill that served Marlowe his entire life. Later clients would include Rose Lee, Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball, and Sally Rand whose hair he styled in exchange for lessons in fan dancing. The play follows his adventures from city to city, from salon to stage to salon to stage. There’s nothing in his writing about beatings. Arrests were minor and infrequent.
Back on the west coast, the young man left a high pressured job as an answering service operator only to be told by an actor he encountered that male prostitutes had been successfully using the service to connect to tricks. The hustler volunteered to help set him up as a madam, a vocation that lasted several lucrative years. “Yes, he’s young, blonde and blue-eyed,” I said on the phone, waving the maid to hurry the coffee to five young men in the living room. And I know he’ll take good care of you.” (Kenneth from his 1964 bestselling book Mr. Marlowe – Confessions of a Male Madam)
In 1950, Harry Hay founded The Mattachine Society focusing on acceptance of homosexuals. The same year, congress issued the report “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government.” Marlowe, an anomaly, never hid.
Two years later, he was drafted into the army. Why an openly gay man didn’t declare is a puzzlement. “Queenie,” as he was called, couldn’t load a gun, was relegated to cutting hair, and forced twice to endure basic training before he went AWOL to New Orleans. Nine months later, he was caught, imprisoned, and the victim of a brutal gang rape. Marlowe was discharged for mental instability. His mom took him in. The decision to transition was made during lengthy recovery.
At 50, Marlowe had had her Adam’s apple, breasts and face done. She was the inspiration for Armistead Maupin’s Anna Madrigal (an anagram for a man and a girl) in Tales of the City and recognized as a healthy example of transitioning. Asked to lecture at colleges and prisons, Kate did so as the woman she was becoming. During this particularly vulnerable time in her life, Kate fell for a lifer at San Quentin. He used her for money and merchandise, then broke it off. A second man, convicted of murder, professed love. As covered by The San Francisco Chronicle, Kate was the first transexual married in prison.
When she appeared for a conjugal visit, however, it was discovered she was “incomplete.” Kate had the requisite surgery, moved close to the prison, and fraternized with other wives. Her husband didn’t like what he saw. She was again summarily rejected. Heartbroken, she stopped lecturing and gradually faded from sight. Kate Marlowe passed in 1990 at the age of 64 from unknown causes. Donnie discovered she had miraculously managed to change not only her death certificate, but her 1926 state of Iowa birth certificate to Katherine Ann Marlowe Bies, female.
Make Me Gorgeous is entertaining, illuminating, and moving; Marlowe herself eminently appealing. Direction is masterful. The play was produced in Portland Oregon for a short run in 2022 before landing Off Broadway. Its reputation is such that Donnie is getting inquiries from all over the country. He’s in talks with a licensing company. Make Me Gorgeous is stated to be be filmed with the brilliant originator of the Marlowe character, Wade McCollum. With hopes the piece finds a New York home after the end of this run.
Darius Rose aka Jackie Cox (left) takes over for Ward McCollum (right)
Photos of Kenneth Marlowe Courtesy of Triangle Productions
Opening: Left – Kenneth Marlowe, Right – Donnie
Make Me Gorgeous by Donnie
Based on the life and work of Kenneth/Kate Marlowe
Playhouse46 at St. Luke’s
Make Me Gorgeous NYC