Kansas City's Drag Matriarch Turns 60 This Weekend
When Bruce Winter moved to Kansas City in the late 1970s, he didn’t understand why the gay clubs here didn’t have drag performances.
“The gay clubs kind of shunned it and felt like it was an insult to their masculinity or something, I don’t know,” he told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.
Winter, who performs as his drag persona Melinda Ryder, wanted to bring back the performances, which had been prevalent in the 1960s, but had disappeared by the time he arrived in town.
He had to work hard in those pre-social media days to convince people to come to drag shows, sticking fliers on cars at clubs.
“I had to change people’s minds before they came out to the first show,” he said.
He recalls that around 100 people showed up to that first show, which he said was a big production. It featured multiple performers and dancing to disco-type songs. And the audience loved it, once they saw that it was just “fun and entertaining” with no huge message, he said.
“And it just grew from there,” he added.
Winter turns 60-years-old in style this Saturday with Melinda Ryder’s 100% Fabulous Birthday Celebration, a benefit for four local charities.
The celebration is also in honor of his 40 years in Kansas City. Winter grew up in St. Louis, where he had a happy childhood with supportive parents.
“My dad was a football coach … poor man,” he joked.
“My dad was terrific. People would say, ‘Are you going to play ball for your dad?’ He would away say, even from the time I was very little, ‘No, I think he has other interests.’”
“I never felt like I disappointed him or let him down in any way," Winter said. "My dad was not that kind of man."
Winter’s interest in female impersonation stemmed, in part, from an embarrassing childhood incident. At a young age, an ice cream man asked Winter if he was a boy or girl.
“It really freaked me out when you’re that young because you don’t understand that,” he recalled.
“But I think that’s one of the paths that me led to (female impersonation) — ‘Well people have been calling me a girl all this time’ — and the first time I saw a female impersonator, I thought, ‘I could probably do that.”
That’s when Melinda Ryder was born. Winter describes her as “Kansas City’s original redhead.”
“Melinda’s a little more outgoing, Melinda sparkles a little more than Bruce,” he said.
“It’s just a magnification of my own personality, really. But it’s like wearing a mask — like at Halloween when people wear a mask and they feel more free. That’s how female impersonation is to me.”
He does classic female impersonation, which some consider old-school, he said.
“I don’t know if anyone watches RuPaul — that kind of make up and over-the-top is not what I do. I try to look more like a real woman as much as possible. Mine's a little more toned down than that kind of drag,” he said.
He came up through the ranks by learning from other female impersonators, and from competing in the female impersonation pageants. He was Miss Gay Missouri in 1984, which led to second-runner up in the Miss Gay America pageant.
He’s also given advice to other local performers — such as local performer Ron Megee, who says that Winter “taught him the basic art of being female.”
“It’s not really worth anything unless you pass it on to others,” Winter said.
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.