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Atlanta drag legend Charlie Brown dies at 74

The entertainer and LGBTQ rights champion was a tireless fundraiser and one of the gay community’s most beloved figures.

By Shane Harrison and Rodney Ho

Charlie Brown, one of Atlanta’s best known and most notable drag performers, has died

His death on March 21 followed heart valve replacement surgery in February, which was complicated by post-procedure infection, said Richard Eldredge, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and co-writer of Brown’s upcoming memoir.

“Charlie Brown led a remarkable life,” Eldredge said. “His impact on drag in Atlanta was massive. He was a trailblazer.”

His Charlie Brown’s Cabaret at the once renowned Midtown 24-hour gay club Backstreet became a raucous late night must-see show from 1990 to 2004 and he kept on performing in Atlanta until he couldn’t do it anymore.

Born Charles Dillard in 1949, Brown grew up in Westmoreland, Tennessee, on a country farm in a missionary Baptist family. After a brief stint in the Air Force, and residing in various places in both North Carolina and Tennessee, he made his way to Atlanta in 1978 with longtime partner and husband Fred Wise. The two met in a bar in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1976, and remained together until Brown’s death.

“He saw stuff in me that I didn’t,” Brown told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Nedra Rhone in 2019. “That is the secret of my career. I always had him there working to support me. We have always been a tag team and the absolute best of friends.”

His drag persona evolved from Las Vegas showgirl to a sassy Southern woman with a bawdy sense of humor.

By 1979, Brown was the host at the Sweet Gum Head, known as the birthplace of Atlanta drag. In his narrative history of drag in Atlanta called “A Night at Sweet Gum Head,” Martin Padgett writes, “Charlie was a talented emcee, a versatile moneymaker and the club’s most politically active host yet. The fundraisers for causes and benefits became a regular part of the Gum Head’s weekly schedule, and Charlie worked many, if not most of them.”

That fundraising and community activism was a hallmark of Brown’s work for the rest of his life.

In the early 1980s, the Atlanta Gay Pride parade organizers discouraged drag queens and men in leather. Their presence was thought to diminish the importance of the event, Brown said in 2019. But he didn’t care, becoming the first drag queen to participate, riding down the street with the Texas Drilling Company (a former Atlanta bar) and leathermen wearing chaps.

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By 1990, Mr. Charlie Brown, as he was often billed, had become an Atlanta icon. That year, Vicki Vara, whose family owned the popular Backstreet club, was looking for fresh entertainment. “When people came in, it was a big empty room and people left,” she said, referring to the top floor of the club. “I remember thinking we needed a crowd starter.”

By hiring Brown, Backstreet got that and more. His late-night show, which began at 11 p.m. and would sometimes go all night long, drew people from all walks of life and even the occasional celebrity like Elton John, Jermaine Dupri and Janet Jackson.

“He was doing crowd work long before TikTok came along,” Eldredge said. “He was off the cuff. He was lacerating. He was hilariously funny. But he was able to make fun of people in the crowd while also welcoming you in his space. You could be gay, straight, bi. It didn’t matter.”

Following the closing of Backstreet in 2004, Brown toured, playing shows nationally and even internationally. Back home in Atlanta, he’d do residencies at Blake’s on the Park, Lips, and, most recently, the Atlanta Eagle, where he was still performing earlier this year.

In 2019, he told the AJC at Lips Atlanta that “the best thing about my career is I am entertaining. I am making people laugh. If you can’t laugh at a 69-year-old fat, baldheaded man in a dress, you don’t have any business here after dark.”

This article is republished from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


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