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2014 Online New England Film Festival

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Local Film Tweets

Burlington Beauties

Members of The House of LeMay drag performance troupe have become part of the fabric of Burlington, VT. First-time filmmaker Russell Dreher discusses the importance of documenting their story.

By Kellie Speed

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Members of The House of LeMay apply high gloss before a performance.

When Russell Dreher set out to make his first full length film in 2006, he had no idea the roller coaster ride to completion would include unemployment, cancer, and drag queens. As the director of Slingbacks and Syrup, Dreher focused the story on the adventures of the documentary’s subjects, a “family” of comedic drag queens living in the rural state of Vermont.

“I lived in Burlington, Vermont starting in 1991 and was there for eight years,” said Dreher, who directed the independent film Slingbacks and Syrup. “I moved there for graduate school where I was studying neurobiology at the time. There have been big career changes over the course of my life. I was acting on the side, which is when I met Bob Bolyard, who is featured in the film. The Burlington acting community is a small group where everyone knows who everyone else is. I have known the group since they got their start doing The House of LeMay [a performance troupe] and thought it would be interested to do something on them.”

Slingbacks and Syrup is about The House of LeMay and its five men who have regular jobs by day but by night sing songs and crack jokes as female characters in the fictional Vermont town of Beaver Pond. They started as unknowns and have now grown to the point where everyone in town knows them. “There is a Drag Ball in Burlington every Valentine’s Day and they have really become the toast of the town,” he said. Through their performances and activism, the group has helped educate and raise awareness about gay and lesbian issues through humor. “I think it is a positive way that they have made changes to their environment. Their story needed to get out there. There are other stories like this out there like Boys Don’t Cry or The Laramie Project, which are well told stories but this is a story about people giving something positive back to the town. I think it’s a positive change of the times as well. These guys just fit in there. It’s an interesting shift in paradigms.”

How did he come up with the idea for the movie? “It seemed like an interesting story to put together so I started collecting footage and sat down with all of them, started conducting interviews and archival materials,” he said. “It took about a year and one-half of assembly. At the time, I had a full-time job so I had to do it all on the side.”

As a first-time filmmaker, Dreher knew he would run into some obstacles along the way. “One of my biggest challenges was finding the old material and tracking it down,” Dreher said. “Some of the stuff was very hard to get. It was a low-budget project so obviously I didn’t have a studio to back me. I had to use my own cash and figure out a way to serve the story but not break the bank. This is certainly a niche market and not a mainstream film with a multi-million dollar budget so I figured I could do this on a low budget. I had a camera and everything was done on a shoestring. Keeping costs down was a big challenge.”

Making the right connections along the way proved a success for Dreher. “I have a connection in New York who does sound cleaning for a major company,” he said. “On weekends he can work on his own projects but use the studio’s equipment. I realized that was well worth the cost.”

The movie was an official selection of the Vermont International Film Festival in October. “It’s a fantastic honor to be selected and to get into any festival is always a challenge,” he said. “Obviously, this is a niche film for Vermont and we were happy to have been included. We have worked hard to promote the film and people came out of the woodwork to see it. It got a lot of laughs in all the right spots.”

Dreher moved to New York in 2000 because he wanted to do more acting, which morphed into filmmaking. “It got to the point where I learned what I needed to in Burlington and realized it was time to move on and learn more from a different group,” he said. “I had a friend who was a playwright, who was going through a divorce at the time. He said he was moving to New York so we both went, which was a nice, soft landing with support. I started things out with a good thing.”

Unfortunately, during the height of the recognition he was receiving for Slingbacks and Syrup, Dreher received some bad news. “In May [2008] I was laid off of the job I had for eight years and in July, I was diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “I had surgery in late July and in September had three weeks of radiation. I just had my three month checkup and so far so good. In the middle of all that, we had the film festival going on so there have been some wild ups and downs over the past few months. I am still looking for a job to replace my full-time one but have a lot of freelance gigs in the works. I just received a freelance corporate gig for hospitals in New Jersey to provide new hire training materials and create inspirational videos.”

Entering 2009, he is back on track and determined to produce yet another successful documentary. “A couple of years ago I went to a haunted convention where there were professional haunted houses with special effects like you wouldn’t believe,” Dreher said. “I met a woman there who films haunts and in our discussions, I decided to turn it into a documentary, which is what I am working on now.”

“I am also working on how to market a small business inexpensively,” he said. “We are active in Vermont marketing Slingbacks and Syrup and the members of The House of LeMay go into the stores and leave information." And a new way of thinking about community.

Slingbacks and Syrup is available on Amazon.com and you can watch the video online and create your own video at www.slingbacksandsyrup.com.