With a hundred ticket holders lined up outside, Sasha Cassadine had a sparkle in her eye that matched the dressing room mirror lights and the spangles on the Whitney Houston-inspired dress she was about to don.
"It feels great just to be out of the house again, period, and more so to be doing this," said the co-star of last month's Tina + Whitney Drag Brunch at Crave restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.
She wasn't surprised by the big post-COVID turnout: "I think we're entering a new era of openness. And craziness."
Anyone wondering if folks are ready to party again should check out the schedule of Flip Phone Events, the production company behind this brunch.
Flip Phone owner Chad Kampe — wearing a floral shirt and shorts that would fit the "Golden Girls" Caribbean cruise he'll host next winter — hovered over his phone by the DJ booth, listing all the events keeping him and his roster of entertainers busy this summer.
Three parties at Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing. A second night of fun at the Macy's Walnut Room in Chicago. Dozens more brunches at Crave and Union restaurants. And most significant, a two-night stand Friday and Saturday at First Avenue for Twin Cities Pride weekend.
The club essentially entrusted Kampe — a former schoolteacher who's become a star of the Twin Cities LGBTQ nightlife scene — to plan its first full-capacity events since March 2020. Recent "RuPaul's Drag Race" winner Symone headlines Saturday.
"And to think this all started with a dance party at Honey for 75 people," Kampe, 39, deadpanned in a style reminiscent of his old drag persona, a Catskills-worthy Jewish comedian named Joy Veh.
'Strategic and compassionate'
Sad circumstances first pushed Kampe into event planning in 2012. He paid homage to a friend who died in an accident with a dance party at the now-closed Northeast Minneapolis bar Honey, a night loaded with Mariah Carey songs and other '90s and '00s R&B and pop hits he and his friend both adored.
Hence the event's name: Flip phones were as in vogue as En Vogue in that pre-iPhone era.
As his parties grew in popularity, Kampe began incorporating drag queens more and more. He fell in love with drag shows at age 14, when his grandmother Mildred in the Miami area convinced the whole family to attend a South Beach drag show.
"I had so much fun, but also was struck by how accepting an environment it was," he recounted.
Hundreds of events later, Kampe has established himself as both a reliable organizer and shrewd businessman. A prime example: When the pandemic continued to stymie his normal events last fall, he pivoted to planning the hugely successful Deadly Drive-In Halloween tours in the Rosedale mall parking lot.
Those gory shows gave some of his regular performers much-needed work, albeit in very different costumes.
"Some of them got way into it," he noted with glee.
One regular, Tygra, said Kampe has become a caretaker of sorts for Twin Cities drag entertainers. They pointed to online events Flip Phone hosted during quarantine that earned them decent wages.
"He's strategic, adaptable and compassionate," Tygra said. "He loves being in the entertainment business, and he loves moving the [LGBTQ] community more into the mainstream and making everyone feel welcome."
Finding new avenues
Kampe said he feels a "deep affection" for the Twin Cities LGBTQ scene because it made him feel loved and comforted when he came out at age 20, after moving here to attend Macalester College following a childhood mostly spent in small-town Massachusetts.
From that first party at Honey, though, a lot of his focus has been on organizing LGBTQ events in venues not strictly seen as LGBTQ spaces.
Not that he has anything against gay bars. "There's a whole other kind of wonderful energy when we do a night at the Saloon," he said. He just likes pushing the boundaries of where such events can be held and who might go.
"A lot of younger people have much more mixed groups of friends these days, gay and straight, so it's nice to be in places everyone can feel welcome. And, thankfully, there are also a lot more places that are welcoming to LGBTQ crowds."
The latest and maybe most surprising example came in May when Treasure Island Casino hosted its first Flip Phone drag show.
While TV's enduring "RuPaul's Drag Race" has made drag events a hot commodity in Las Vegas, the casino is — shall we say — a long way from Vegas. Treasure Island's team specifically sought out Kampe's shows to attract younger and more diverse demographics.
"It's a great way to reach out to new audiences and add to the entertainment factor here," said Aaron Seehusen, public relations manager at Treasure Island, which will host its third Flip Phone party Aug. 15.
First Avenue is another relatively surprising haven. Primarily a rock venue — albeit one long supportive of the LGBTQ community — the club was noticeably understaffed for the big crowd that came to his first party there in 2016.
"Chad has worked for years to build Flip Phone from a passion project side gig to what it is now," cheered First Ave owner Dayna Frank. "He has a reputation of being creative, passionate, inclusive and supportive of the community — and he throws the best damn parties in town.
"We can't imagine a better way to blow open the doors at First Avenue."
Dollars and Dolly
By the looks of last month's Tina + Whitney show, the Flip Phone queens were royally pleased to be performing again.
They worked the Crave dining room like unabashed pros, shoveling in $1 tips by the bucketful with each song — from longtime Gay 90s star Cee Cee Russell's performance of "We Don't Need Another Hero" (in a silvery "Beyond Thunderdome"-style minidress) to Sasha's weepy delivery of "I Will Always Love You" (in a peach sequined ballgown).
The brunch shows are often held on the Crave or Union rooftop patios overlooking Hennepin Avenue. They typically sell out, too, at $16 per person and with three shows/seatings per day (10 a.m.-3 p.m.).
Seated near the stage at a primo window table (they lined up early), Nicole Schladt and Sharon Salonek had invited out-of-town friends after bringing Schladt's mom and sister to a previous show.
"It was the first LGBTQ event they had been to, and they had a blast," said Schladt, who became a fan of Flip Phone via their mutual support of OutFront Minnesota, a frequent beneficiary of these parties.
"They make everyone feel comfortable, whether you're straight, younger, older, from Minneapolis or from outstate. The diversity at the shows is really inspiring."
Kampe was inspired by the success of his recent Chicago event to expand that diverse vibe to other cities. As if he doesn't have enough going on locally.
He's still mostly a one-man operation. Some performers and DJs pitch in with behind-the-scenes tasks. So does Kampe's husband, Matt, who also works in education.
The couple live in a uniquely designed house along East River Parkway along with their small terrier Dolly Barkin', a quarantine adoption.
Kampe said the COVID lockdown gave him a renewed appreciation for trading his good job at a Jewish school for work that gives him even more personal satisfaction.
"My main goal really is to spread joy and make people feel good about themselves, which is what drag entertainment is all about, too," he said. "I can't think of a time in my lifetime that's ever felt more important than now."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
Flip Phone upcoming events
XXL Pride: 9 p.m. Fri. & Sat. (both sold out), First Avenue, Mpls., $16.
'90s Drag Brunch: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., Union rooftop, Mpls., $16.
Treasure Island Casino: Aug. 15, $50.
Flip Phone XXL: Short Shorts: Aug. 28 featuring Denali, $16-$20.
Golden Fans at Sea cruise: Jan. 3-8, Princess Cruises, $1,380 and up.