In 1986, the Austin chapter of the Texas Gay Rodeo Association hosted the group’s state meeting. Member Garry Holley was asked to arrange something to amuse the visitors.
“We put on dresses and gray wigs to lip-sync the gospel song ‘Looking for a City,’” Holley, now 65, recalls. “The crowd loved it and asked us to do more. That was the only song we knew, so we did it again.”
Other gay rodeo chapters requested encores. Holley and his three buddies learned more songs. By 1987, they had staged their first full show. All those years — and a total of 22 or 23 performers — later and the intentionally misspelled Austin Babtist Women are still in demand at charity events.
In fact, the comedy troupe has helped raise an astounding $7 million, mostly for HIV-AIDS charities but also for breast cancer, senior, youth and other causes. (For a long time, Holley tracked the dollars on a flip calendar.) Much of that was collected directly by the nonprofits for whom the Babtist Women performed, but they’ve also produced their own benefit shows at bars and parties.
“Every dollar that’s put in the bucket, every dollar at the door, or if somebody sells Jell-o shots, 100 percent of the money goes to the charity,” says Robert J. Cross, 50, whose longtime character is named OFeelYa Faith. “We cover expenses. Sometimes a bar helps. Once we uncrumple all the money, Garry will write a check right away to the charity.”
Most of the six current members grew up in small towns in the South, Midwest or Southwest. Three were raised Church of Christ. Three others can claim some Southern Baptist upbringing or education.
Not surprisingly, their lives parallel somewhat the creators and performers associated with “Greater Tuna” and subsequent gentle parodies of small-town Texas. “Tuna” stars Joe Sears and Jaston Williams once sent an approving bouquet of flowers to the Babtist Women before a show. While the “Tuna” producers took their act to Broadway, Kennedy Center and big theaters around the country, the Babtist Women went on with their regular lives, taking frequent breaks for charity gigs.
The six tended to be shy and reserved as boys, but they picked up performance skills in choirs, college classes and community theater.
Holley, aka Modine Murphey, worked for the federal government and the postal service. Since 1978, he has tended bar at more than a dozen Austin gay bars and serves as a living record of changes in the gay community.
Daniel Davis (Betty Bea Blessing) is the group’s youngest member at 39. He teaches music at an area elementary school.
David Pearson, 61, plays the second longest-running character, Deacon Dave, and the emcee. He’s also Holley’s life partner of 22 years.
“He was acting strange one day,” Pearson says of early life with Holley. “He said: ‘I need to tell you something. I’m in a group that dresses up like old ladies, sings songs and raises money.’ I didn’t know what to think. At the show, the guys came out of a trailer, jumped in the pool and started doing water ballet. I almost fell over.”
Ken Johnson (Ima Spinster), 59, auditioned for the Women because he had volunteered for an HIV-AIDS group that absolutely needed entertainment when the group was down a few performers. Writer and fundraiser Rob Faubion (Ethyl Mae Studebaker) also got involved as part of his widespread nonprofit activities.
The emphasis on HIV-AIDS charities was underscored by the illness of one of the original members.
“That made us realize the needs of people with HIV,” Holley says. “Many lost their jobs. Lost their housing. Needed medicine.”
“We were fighting to keep our friends alive,” Cross says. “Of everybody I knew in the drag world of the 1970s and ’80s, only four of us are left.”
“I’d already buried two partners,” Johnson says. “There’s so much bigotry and hatred in the world and yet there are so many people who need help.”
Pearson learned about the AIDS crisis from Holley.
“It was time to open up my mind and be educated,” he says. “If there is something to be done and society isn’t taking care of it, I want to be a part of the solution.”
Davis, who grew up in Pflugerville, came from a different generational perspective.
“I was sheltered from the AIDS crisis,” he says. “I wasn’t even aware of it until I was a senior in high school. I was a (Babtist Women) groupie, though. It was so much fun, so entertaining and so needed.”
The Babtist Women performed often for pioneer service groups such as AIDS Services of Austin, Christopher House and Project Transitions. They’ve appeared across the country and, along the way, won awards and honors, including a congratulatory 2001 resolution from the Texas House of Representatives and a 2002 award as philanthropic organization of the year from a group of local charity leaders.
Cross remembers performing in Abilene when a friend he had known in the early ’80s approached the stage.
“As I was doing the last number, he slowly came out on the stage,” Cross says. “Walking with a cane and assistance — to tip me. He passed away from AIDS a few months later. Those friends are why I do this.”
Early on, the always informal Babtist Women almost fell apart.
“The community said: ‘We are not going to let you do that,’” Holley remembers. “At that point, I realized how vital we were in the fight to keep people alive. I made a commitment that I would not quit until there was a cure for AIDS.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.