Charlie Brown and Rich Eldridge at TEN in Midtown when Charlie returned to the stage in 2022 after four years away from performing. / Photo courtesy of Rich Eldridge

The Life and Laughter of Mr. Charlie Brown

In his fifth decade of performing, there is no drag queen quite as prolific as the “Bitch of the South,” the iconic Mr. Charlie Brown. A pillar of Atlanta’s LGBTQ history, Charlie is exploring the entirety of his life — from his childhood in rural Tennessee to Mr. Charlie Brown’s Cabaret at Backstreet — in his upcoming memoir with the help of LGBTQ journalist Rich Eldredge.

Amid shopping the manuscript, Rich and Charlie sat down with Georgia Voice to talk about the interviewing and writing process, Atlanta’s LGBTQ history, and the very essence of Charlie Brown: laughter.

 

Quotes have been edited for clarity.

 

To start at the beginning, tell me how this partnership came about.

Charlie: Rich reached out to me and Fred, my partner who was a DJ at Charlie Brown’s cabaret at Backstreet … We was talking, and Rich said, ‘When you gonna write your book?’ I think my partner Fred said, ‘Why don’t you do it? Why don’t you be his ghost writer?’

 

Rich: I had known Charlie since the 1990s, when I was writing a column for the Atlanta Journal Constitution called Peach Buzz. And Charlie Brown’s Cabaret at Backstreet was one of the focal points for us, because Backstreet was a 24-hour club, it was massive, and they were attracting all kinds of celebrities. In our business of journalism, there are certain people that you meet and you interview and you walk away and us reporter types, call them quote machines. Charlie Brown is a quote machine.

 

Charlie: So, Rich said he would [write my book]. He said, ‘I’ll call you next Monday at 11 o’clock.’ And we would talk for an hour, an hour and a half, and he would tape it. And he’d say, ‘Okay, next week, we’re [going to talk about this period of time], and it would give Fred and me time to sit and talk about that period. We’d write down notes about the best things that happened and how the movement was growing in Atlanta. I looked forward to Monday every week with nothing else [to do but] talk with Rich. Our personalities really clicked.

 

What was the writing process like?

Rich: We did weekly interviews for seven months. Instead of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’ it was Mondays with Mr. Charlie Brown. It was the same level of reflection and insights and life lessons but with one of the leading drag performers in America. Every week served as a queer history lesson for me. We had so many laughs [in 2020], at a really perilous time of American life when we were scared to go outside and scared to go to the grocery store. Fred and Charlie and I would get on the phone every week and we would laugh. Some weeks we would cry, just reflecting on decades and decades and decades of gay history — some of it really quite painful to go back through, especially since Charlie was such a formidable force in HIV/AIDS fundraising. But I don’t care what we were talking about, we would always find there would be intervals for laughter.

Charlie: That’s my whole life. My father told me laughing your way through life would be so much easier, and you go to the pier and wave goodbye to those not laughing.

 

What can readers expect from the book?

Rich: We open the book about 20 minutes before Janet Jackson is due to arrive at Backstreet and Charlie has just gotten word backstage that he’s got to clear out the front tables on a Saturday night in a jam-packed Charlie Brown’s Cabaret. We take the reader through what that felt like that night and what that scene was like, and then we go back to December 29, 1949, in Westmoreland, Tennessee, and Charlie’s literal birth. As somebody who has covered Charlie for decades and knows the Mr. Charlie Brown drag persona, I was really fascinated to dig into Charlie’s first years in rural Tennessee and how he became a proud, out guy in that time period, in that part of the world. Charlie has never been closeted and took his licks when they came. But he has lived unabashedly out and proud his entire life.

 

This is really three books rolled into one. It’s an LGBTQ history. It’s a history of a trailblazing drag performer who first stepped on stage in the early 1970s and continues to entertain in 2023. It’s also this really beautiful, touching, very funny love story between these two men.

 

As someone who has both lived it and now read it, what is the central conceit of the life of Mr. Charlie Brown?

Charlie: If you cannot laugh at a fat, 73-year-old, bald-headed man, you don’t need to be around me. Like Rich said, I’m open. I’ve been openly gay, I’ve been in love most in my life. I love life. I love making people laugh. Charlie Brown’s a fat, jolly old man, and in drag she’s a bitch!