Invitation to the ball

A behind-the-scenes look at Reno’s Silver Dollar Court

Victoria V. Weston, Empress IX of the Imperial Court of New York, performs during the coronation ball.

Victoria V. Weston, Empress IX of the Imperial Court of New York, performs during the coronation ball.

Photo by David Robert

One reign comes to end and another begins at the Silver Dollar Court Coronation.

Shortly after the presentation of the flags by the Reno Police Department Honor Guard, a man wearing a headdress—decorated with pheasant tail feathers—reverently ascends the steps of a Mayan pyramid.

At the top of the pyramid stands a large sun disk that this “priest” appears to be worshipping. A primal drumbeat ushers in bare-chested male dancers wearing feathered headdresses. The men take their places at the foot of the pyramid, leaping and spinning along with the music. The dance ends, the drum music dies down and is replaced with some other Meso-American-flavored music. The priest slowly descends the stairs and kneels on the ground.

Thunderclaps interrupt this solemn scene, and the stairway opens to reveal the Silver Sapphire Celestial Moonlit Emperor Stephen Sadler. In his golden cape, elaborate headdress and scepter in hand, he emerges from the pyramid in a cloud of dry ice and makes his royal entrance. A techno beat gets the audience in a party mood. The sun rises to reveal the Golden Celestial Sunburst Empress Bianca del Sol. Wearing an ornate, cylindrical headdress and a red and black sequined outfit with beaded fringe, she steps down the golden stairs, shaking her hips to the rhythm.

This party just got started, the song declares. Let the Silver Dollar Court Coronation Ball begin.

For the next seven hours, the audience of 600-plus is bombarded with an extravaganza of big hair, magnificent costumes and lip-synched productions—mostly by men in drag—at the Reno Hilton. Although the theme of the June 2 ball was “Mayan Myths: A Celestial Journey Through the Sun, the Moon and the Stars,” the entertainment included disco tunes, gospel music, and even a Dolly Parton number featuring a chorus line of well-toned men in their G-strings.

In between dance numbers, the members of the current royal court, past Silver Dollar Court “monarchs” and 31 out-of-town courts strolled down the catwalk. With titles ranging from the noble “Imperial Crown Prince Royale” to the sassy “The Jewish American Princess of Hope, Promise and Roadside Distress,” this was no ordinary royal gathering. These “courts” are members of a non-profit, philanthropic organization, International Imperial Court System, which was created in 1965 to bring people together and raise money for good causes.

As campy as the show might seem, Reno’s Silver Dollar Court is a non-profit organization that’s serious about raising money for charity. Coronation is a night for the local gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community to shine and a chance for the SDC to thank their volunteers, visiting courts and community supporters.

Creativity by everyone was on display that night—which had officially been declared “Silver Dollar Court Day” by both Reno and Sparks mayors Jeff Griffin and Tony Armstrong—whether people were part of a court or just there for a good time. Among the array of colorful attire, one could see someone squeezed into a black bondage outfit or decked out in an extravagant ballgown. One person even fashioned together a dress from a Twister board game mat.

Empress XXV Bianca del Sol descends the pyramid steps during the opening act of the Silver Dollar Court Coronation Ball.

Photo by David Robert

Paul Anthony and Trixxxy, candidates for this year’s Silver Dollar Court emperor and empress, performed the self-titled duet from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Trixxxy then stripped out of her gown and revealed a tight-fitting outfit, strutting on the pyramid steps in her thigh-high platform boots.

But the evening’s highlight may have been the last walk of the Emperor Stephen and Empress Bianca, who serenaded the audience with the Sarah Brightman song “Time to Say Goodbye.” Finally, at 2 a.m., Paul Anthony and Trixxxy were crowned the new emperor and empress of the 26th reign of the Silver Dollar Court. The old reign has ended. A new one has begun.

The ball is in their court
Three days before the Silver Dollar Court Coronation, Stephen and Bianca (whose real name is Leonard Juarez) were feverishly racing against the clock. Their one-story home, located in a quiet, northwest Reno neighborhood, housed a flurry of activity inside its walls. After hastily setting up an interview two hours earlier, I arrived at their doorstep in the early evening. I knocked on the front screen door, but no one answered. Voices came from the back yard, and another voice seemed to be engaged in a phone conversation. I knocked again.

“Come in,” a female voice replied.

“You must be the reporter,” said Hanna Rodgers, a volunteer, as I entered the foyer. Hanna was in the process of sewing a purple taffeta gown. Stephen was on the phone.

Behind her was a large table, which occupied the north end of the living room. Part of what was to become Leonard’s—or rather Bianca’s—red headdress sat on the table. To the left of the table was a rolling rack filled with colorful costumes. To the right of the table was a dressmaker’s mannequin. The sounds of hammers pounding and drills buzzing added to the frenzied atmosphere. An electric fan barely ventilated the living room on this hot spring evening.

Stephen finished his conversation and greeted me, apologizing for the disarray. Leonard later emerged from the kitchen and introduced himself. In between answering the phone and greeting friends and volunteers who were stopping by to help out, Stephen and Leonard accommodated me the best they could, responding to my questions as they added feathers to a headdress, inspected an outfit or answered phone calls.

“For us, the coronation is the culmination of a wonderful journey,” Stephen explained as he put the finishing touches on one of the headdresses that would be worn during the event.

During their 12-month journey, Stephen and Leonard attended 21 coronation balls, traveling across the country from Alaska to Hawaii, from New York to California. Monarchs must represent their court at out-of-town functions. Not only does participation in other courts’ coronations promote the Silver Dollar Court, Stephen said, but it also provides opportunities to make new friends.

Sometimes, courts will offer to help an out-of-town court’s emperor and empress with their coronation ball. There were people from the courts of Hawaii, New York and Colorado assisting Stephen and Leonard that evening. Ken Barker, the 16th emperor of the Rocky Mountain Empire, based in Denver, built the sun disk that was used during their coronation ball, along with other props.

Emperor XXV Stephen Sadler emerges from a Mayan pyramid during the opening act.

Photo by David Robert

The court’s main responsibility is to raise money for charity, Stephen said. In accordance with the Silver Dollar Court bylaws, monarchs must host an in-town event once a month. These events include barbecues, movie parties, dinner parties and drag shows. All the money raised during these events, except for seed money set aside for each year’s coronation ball, goes to charity.

The monarchs allocate money to the charities of their choice. Stephen said he would donate some to the Ronald McDonald House’s Adopt a Night program. Leonard, who is of Mexican descent, said he would donate to the Tijuana AIDS Project and Feed the Children. Both will give the remaining funds to the Nevada AIDS Foundation Residency Program.

None of the money will be for personal use, Stephen said.

“In the last 25 years, [the Silver Dollar Court] has raised about a million dollars, one dollar at a time,” he said.

Rules of the court
The Silver Dollar Court, the Mother Court of All of Nevada, the Court of Northern Nevada and the Tahoe Basin—that’s the official name—was founded in Reno in 1975 as the Comstock Empire Silver Dollar Court. It is a member of the International Imperial Court System, which was founded by Jose Sarria (known by several titles, including Queen Mother of the ICP, the Widow Norton, Empress I Jose, Mother Jose) in San Francisco in 1965. Mother Jose wanted to bring the different elements of the San Francisco community together and help raise money for local charities—and have a little “camp” fun while doing it. Members were given titles such as Emperor and Empress, Prince and Princess and Duke and Duchess, and a “court” system evolved.

The ICP comprises 80 courts from around the world, including 68 courts in the United States and Canada. The first SDC coronation ball was held at the Centennial Coliseum in 1976, where the first monarchs, Emperor I Phil Ragsdale and Empress Keith Ann, were crowned. Past coronations were also held at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, but for the last four years, coronations have been held at the Reno Hilton, according to Rodney Sumpter, Imperial Crown Czar to the Royal Family and coordinator of this year’s coronation ball.

The SDC raises or assists other groups in raising about $35,000 to $50,000 per year, according to the group’s Web site. The SDC has raised money for the Nevada AIDS Foundation, the NAF Residence Program, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Sierra Safari Zoo, the Committee to Aid Abused Women, the Special Olympics and many other local charitable organizations. Its mission is “to raise money and have a good time doing it,” said Paco Poli, the board secretary of the SDC and the Effervescent and Sparkling High Herald Prince to the Royal Family.

Emperor Stephen and Empress Bianca are the 25th monarchs of the Silver Dollar Court. Unlike bona fide monarchs, they were elected to their positions by popular vote.

Stephen said that candidates present the SDC board of directors with a letter of intent during what is called Inquisition. The board may question candidates to determine if they meet the position’s requirements. Once they are approved as candidates, their names will announced at a kick-off party at a local bar, such as the 1099 Club, a month before coronation. Candidates can then campaign for the position by holding parties or meet and greets and asking friends and associates to vote for them. Elections, which are open to the public, are held the Tuesday before coronation. The elections for the positions of duke and duchess are held in January.

Sumpter said that those seeking these positions must be Nevada residents, must have participated in the court for two years and must be able to commit to traveling out of town to at least five different functions.

Empress Trixxxy, the newly crowned empress of the Silver Dollar Court, performs a number.

Photo by David Robert

“You’re looking for people who are going to be committed, who are honest and … are able to fulfill all of the duties that are required throughout the year,” he said. “It takes a lot. All that traveling and stuff is not inexpensive.”

Sumpter said monarchs are given a $1,500 travel budget and $3,000 to put into their coronation ball. An out-of-town court will usually host a fund-raiser for the newly elected monarchs the day after coronation. Whatever money is made at the event will be donated to the new monarchs to help them travel to other coronations. But realistically, Sumpter said, monarchs will often have to spend their own money to cover travel expenses and to create the coronation ball that they have in mind.

Although gays and lesbians make up the majority of the Silver Dollar Court, the organization is open to everyone. Drag queens—or female impersonators, depending on your preferred term—have traditionally held the title of empress. But in 1999, Empress XXIV Cherie Lee Boxx, a woman, was elected to the position.

A royal couple
Stephen, 56, and Leonard, 54, are a couple, but Stephen said it’s rare when couples run together for emperor and empress.

“In some cases, it’s very difficult [to reign as a couple],” he said. “Leonard and I have such a strong 28-year relationship that we didn’t have any problems. But we divided the responsibilities. I took care of this area, he took care of that area, and that worked very well for us.”

The couple usually attended coronation balls together, except in one instance when only Leonard could make it to the Fresno, Calif., court coronation. Although Stephen doesn’t often dress in drag, Leonard said he’s been performing in drag since his early adulthood.

“I do drag to raise money, and I like doing it. I like wearing all the costumes,” Leonard said.

Although he has used other names in the past, Stephen said Leonard has gone by the name Bianca for about seven years. But when he’s not on stage, Leonard puts away his gowns and wigs and wears conventional, masculine attire.

Stephen said that once a year, the tables are turned, and emperors are required by the SDC to don women’s attire in public. Most emperors choose to do so during the Turn About, or Closet Ball, held in February. Stephen was transformed into “a vision of white, silver and hot pink” named Ofeelya—he didn’t want to repeat her last name so as not to offend anyone—for this year’s Closet Ball.

Stephen said some people think drag performers go around in that attire all the time.

Empress XXV Bianca del Sol in a regal pose.

Photo by David Robert

“I think that 99 percent of the drag is done for entertainment purposes,” he said. [Some people] think they just throw on a dress and go sit down at the casino and gamble. That’s not what [drag performers] do. They dress, they go out and entertain, they go home and take it off and cook dinner and pack [the clothes] away. …

“When you see those entertainers up there on the coronation stage or the out-of-town shows, all of them do the same thing—they go up there and they pour their heart and their own money into it, because they use their own money to travel or buy the costumes. … There’s nobody sponsoring them as a rule, and so consequently, they do it because they like to do it.”

Stephen and Leonard have been involved with the Silver Dollar Court for 10 years. Stephen said they began to consider running for emperor and empress about three years ago—they even formulated ideas about the theme and look of their coronation and starting purchasing materials for that day—but they didn’t decide to run until last year, when friends and acquaintances encouraged them to go for it. They were crowned June 3, 2000. They christened their reign with the fanciful title of “The 25th Celestial Reign, The Court of Golden Aspirations & Moonlit Dreams.”

Stephen said a lot of hard work goes into creating these productions and raising the money for charity. During the year, establishments such as The Patio, Visions and The Quest provided them with the space to hold their monthly fund-raising dinners or events. The set design of the Mayan pyramid had been devised 11 months prior to the coronation and took eight weeks to construct. A lot of the material for the costumes and some of the props had been collected two years prior to the coronation, he said. He credited his Imperial Court Prince and Princess, members of the 25th Celestial Court, the Reno Hilton and many other volunteers with making it a successful year for Leonard and him.

“I just want you to portray a positive image of us, the court, of the gay community, how we work together as a group or a unit to raise money,” he said. “We have virtually miniscule overhead. … Nobody receives a salary, nobody is driving around in a fat car, you know, none of that exists. Virtually every penny goes to charities of one form or another.”

Sumpter estimated that about $31,000 was raised at this year’s coronation, which came from ticket sales, ad revenue from the coronation’s program, money raised at the out-of-town show and other proceeds.

A new reign
About a week following the coronation, I visited a weary-looking Stephen at home. The living room had been cleared, although he said there was still some cleaning up to do in the back yard. Gifts that were given to the former reigning couple during the coronation were gathered on a table. He said they haven’t had a chance to open them all.

Soon, he will be giving Emperor XXVI Paul Anthony and Empress XXVI Trixxxy a list of the last 260 court members. The new monarchs will then choose who they want as part of their court, “The Court of Fire and Ice, Community, Charity and Commitment,” during an event called Investitures, which will take place June 30 at the 1099 Club. During Investitures, new monarchs can add people to their court, raise or lower people’s titles or retain people’s titles. Titles often reflect the theme of the court. For instance, Stephen and Leonard’s courtly titles referred to the sun, moon and stars, or anything pertaining to celestial qualities.

When asked if he’s feeling any sadness about the end of his reign, the new “wassie” (a term for a past monarch) said he’s relieved the whirlwind week of coronation is over.

“When you talk about the anxiety of [feeling] let down, no, I am not experiencing that,” he said. “We have projects in the works, and I think that keeps us from feeling the letdown that other [monarchs] might have experienced, because they had nothing else going on or to go to.”

Stephen will head down to San Antonio for a few weeks to help the court there prepare for its coronation ball—and to permanently move to the Texas city. After 20 years of living in Reno, Leonard and Stephen were drawn by new friends and San Antonio’s affordable housing and warm climate. They have lived in other cities before, including San Francisco, where they met in 1973 while working on a rehearsal of an awards program.

Leonard and Stephen, who graduated from Fresno State University with a degree in theater production, were involved in the gay theater scene there, and marginally involved in the San Francisco court system. They came to Reno after the company Stephen was working for at the time transferred him here.

“I think that moving is very cleansing. It’s very cathartic,” he said. “It helps clean the head, soul and spirit. How exciting it is, at our age, to go out and meet new people, new places, new shopping, new restaurants and new everything. We’ve been [to San Antonio] many times now—five, six, seven times—and just had a great time every time we’ve gone.”

Stephen said their friends have often dubbed him and Leonard “the bus and truck tour,” because they would often pull out the stops to entertain and give people a show. But no matter what the monarchs’ personal style is, whether low-key or over-the-top, Stephen said it’s important that monarchs do what makes them happy during their reign.

“The thing that was really important to me is that I wanted to enjoy the year and I wanted the people who participated to enjoy the year," he said. "And, hopefully, most did."