I met Ernie Rhoads in 1991 when we were both working with the same actress. (Ernie designed the set for a play she was in, and I had recenly directed her in the "Curse" episode of my TV series Heart Attack Theatre.)
The actress brought Ernie to the "Curse" viewing party at the house of her "Curse" co-star Betty Marshall. In spite of the zero-budget grindhouse quality of it, Ernie seemed to dig my work, and confided that he'd like to try acting. As we parted ways that evening, he gave me his card and said: "If you ever want to cast a 300 lb drag queen, give me a call."
I eventually did cast Ernie (and his alter ego Hellen Bedd) in a few choice roles for both stage and screen: as a paraplegic stewardess in La Cage aux Zombies, a sadistic drug-dealing lady pimp in Twin Cheeks: Who Killed The Homecoming King, and as an emotionally stunted serial killer in my women-in-prison stage play Fever.
I also attempted to turn Ernie/Hellen into an internationally celebrated recording artist with a song I wrote and produced for him called "Please Don't Hate Me (Because I'm Beautiful)". It didn't make any radio playlists or chart on Billboard, but the limited edition cassette single is something of a collector's item today.
Twenty-eight years after first meeting, Ernie and I continue working on creative projects together. But things seemed to come full-circle when I recently cast Ernie as a menacing nurse in a music video I directed for Italian post-metal band Postvorta. In the video, Ernie/Hellen is indeed beautiful in a white vinyl mini dress and green wig. But this time around, despite the severe beauty, you have full permission to hate his menacing nurse character.
The music video ("We're Nothing") will also bring Ernie back to his roots when it screens just outside his hometown of Bremerton, WA at the Port Orchard Film Festival on May 3. So I decided to talk to Ernie about his Kitsap County roots and the thrill of returning home on the big screen.
Where were you born?
ERNEST RHOADS: Harrison Hospital in Bremerton. My sister was born there too. Later, it became a mental hospital, and then the Department of Social & Health Services. My boss works there now.
What was it like growing up in Bremerton in the 1960s and '70s?
Much like Leave it to Beaver. We lived near downtown on Pacific Avenue off of 9th Street. When it snowed, it was a great sledding hill. My maternal grandmother lived five blocks away. Every spring we'd watch the Armed Forces Day Parade in front of our house.
What was downtown Bremerton like back then?
We had a bustling retail core. Woolworth’s on Pacific & 2nd Avenue, Kress, and Bremer's which was the favorite department store of a local kleptomaniac everyone knew about. Two identical twin sisters worked downtown. One worked at Kress, one at Woolworth’s. They both ended up at the retirement home my dad was in.
Wasn't there a wig store downtown?
Yes. You see, my mom worked at the National Bank of Commerce as a teller, and she liked to maintain a professional appearance. So she would go to the wig shop to get her wig styled. One time when she was there, they had an FBI lockdown. They thought D. B. Cooper had bought a toupee and fake moustache there.
Did that make an impression on you?
Well, when I started doing drag years later, I actually wore my mom's old wiglet.
Did you ever go shopping with your dad?
I begged him to take me to this head shop downtown. It was called Positively 4th Street. It must have been late 60s. I was ten. And this place was the definition of groovy. They sold blacklight posters, bongs, incense...that sort of stuff. My dad was a conservative Navy shipyard worker, so this really wasn't his scene. But I begged him: “You gotta see this shop, Dad.” So he took me there. And, to my surprise, he bought a poster of the girls from the Peanuts comics. Except they were all pregnant. And the caption read: “Dam you, Charlie Brown.” And after that, my dad really got into blacklights.
Do you remember going to the movies as a kid?
We'd go to the Admiral Theater every Saturday. We'd buy a book of movie tickets. I think it cost only ten cents a movie. So it was basically the town babysitting service. Every kid in town would be there. We'd stuff our jackets with candy and sneak pop and popcorn in. I saw Sound of Music there when it first came out. Beneath the Planet of the Apes. All the big movies from that era.
The first theater I got kicked out of was The Roxy. I made a bunch of noise by blowing through a Mike & Ike box like a kazoo. They didn't appreciate that. But I got my revenge when I saw 2001: A Space Oddyssey there and peed in the seats during the finale.
How did you express yourself artistically as a child in Kitsap County?
I took music lessons. Piano and organ. My instructor used to play in the middle of the Value Giant on Wheaton Way.
In grade school, I wrote and produced plays. I even entered a talent show when I was at Coontz Jr. High. I organized all these kids to do a musical number to Melanie’s Brand New Key. A dozen or so kids. Even cheerleaders. Popular kids. I was the producer and choreographer. We rehearsed in the cafeteria. But we didn't get to perform in the show because the kids vandalized the cafeteria.
Later, I produced a play called Red. It was aboiut a mean Little Red Riding Hood who was cruel to the wolf and others.
But when I started West Bremerton High School, I shut down. Wore the same outfit every day. No participation. I went from engaged to suppressed. Like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. Fortunately, by the time I was in my early 20s, with my aunt encouraging me, I wanted to learn more about the arts.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Phoenix Institute of Technology for one year and studied Architectural Drafting. Then I moved to Bellevue and Seattle and worked for architectural firms. Then I got an AA degree in Architectural Drafting at Seattle Central Community College. Then I entered Cornish College of the Arts as a third-year student. I got my BFA in Interior Design. And met lifelong friends at Cornish.
A few years ago, after decades of working in design, I went back to school and got an MBA in Business Admin and an MS in IT Management at Seattle Pacific University. I then started on my PhD at Capella University. I made it to the dissertation point, but this was around the time my dad was dying, so I took a break. If I decide to finish it, I'll have to fork out $25,000 of my own money, so we'll see.
You've also done some teaching at the college level.
Yes. I taught classes at Renton Voc Tech, Seattle School of Interior Design, Art Institute of Seattle, and even as a substitute teacher at Cornish, which was an Advanced Design Studio class.
After college, how did you first make your mark artistically as a young man?
Even though I freelanced as a designer at one point, my professional life has been pretty corporate working at brand name companies: Safeco, Boeing, MultiCare, DSHS. I was once a staff designer for a restaurant supply company. I also landed a dream job at a prestigious interior design firm in Bellevue, WA. But I soon discovered I couldn't work with men who were bitchier than me.
I remember your Boeing years.
My department dealt with military contracts. It was a pretty macho atmosphere. I had a hand in designing where nut plates went inside airplane engines.
You had your hand on the nuts?
Yes. I had my hands on the nuts.
What are the artistic groups and associations you've been involved with over the years?
The Cornish Alumni Associaion, WA State American Society of Interior Designers, National Council for Interior Design Qualification in D.C.--I was on the Board of Directors and head of the finance committee. And I won the 2011 Volunteer of the Year Award after a decade of voluntering for ArtsFund in Seattle.
What motivates you to stay so active in these groups?
I am an avid believer in pivotal people. One or two people at each job or group you maintain contact with who affects you. People who prompt me. My entire adult life there's always been a chain of people who inspire and encourage me.
Performing in the new music video brought you back to your old stomping grounds. What was it like shooting a video as avant-garde as We're Nothing in Kitsap County?
It was nice that after the shoot I could visit my mom at her retirement home in Bremerton which was just a few minutes away. But I was a little nervous returning to my performance art alter-ego Hellen Bedd.
I threw away most of my drag stuff years ago. Wigs, dresses, makeup. I thought I had retired Hellen for good. But then you found that white vinyl nurse outfit for me.
And you brought a green wig.
I looked like a cross between The Joker and Nurse Ratched.
What was it like performing outdoors in fetish nurse drag? Especially when strangers saw you.
We were on private property and my junk wasn’t showing, so who cares if they got a free show. I'm not shy about stuff like that anymore. The hard part was the weather. It was in the low 30s. I had to warm up with my car heater in between takes. I was freezing my ass off.
It started snowing near the end of the shoot. But then you wanted to take advantage of the snow, so then you had me dancing on the street in front of a cemetery.
Did it make you nervous when cars drove by and saw you twirling around in the snow like a crazed go-go dancer?
I'm 61. I'm too old to worry about shit like that. In fact, I want you to get me some of that footage so I can use it on the cover of this year's Christmas card.
This wasn't the first time we did a shoot with you in a green wig.
Right. Back in the late 90s, we did that photo shoot up in Stanwood.
For one of your postcards.
You wanted me to look like a Martian. And we had an alien abduction theme. We put together that space suit using a spandex bodysuit and aluminum foil. It was about 85 degrees, and the spandex bodysuit was about four sizes too small. I thought I was going to pass out. Jeez, Kelly. You always have me on the verge of heatstroke or hypothermia.
Postcards were an artistic outlet for you back in the '90s. I'd photograph you, and we'd have postcards printed, and then you would get them out into the world in creative ways.
I remember we used them to promote projects. And when I traveled, I always brought pre-printed address labels with me so I could mail these out to friends.
One time I was in Berlin to help promote one of your projects at a film festival. And my host took me to a post office there. He couldn't believe how many stamps I bought. And they weren't cheap. We had such a high dollar amount of stamps that we were afraid we would be robbed. So we stayed at the post office and licked each stamp and put them on all the postcards. I nearly glued my mouth shut. But family and friends were thrilled to get one of my cards with a postmark from Germany.
You also created a few guerilla art installations with them.
When I'd be at events, I would leave rows of them on window sills, or, at art shows, I would just tack them up on the wall as if they were part of the exhibit. I got busted a few times, but it was worth it. I even snuck some into an exhibit at the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. I think one may have even slipped down a rhinestone-encrusted piano and got caught in some wire.
We're Nothing, in addition to resurrecting Hellen Bedd, also marks your return to music videos.
Yes. Back in the late '90s we shot a music video for a song you wrote for me called Please Don't Hate Me (Because I'm Beautiful).
We shot that on Super-8 film in Seattle.
I was living in Belltown. I remember we shot in my apartment. Then we shot outside in Pioneer Square, at Pike Place Market, and even on a sleazier stretch of 1st Avenue at night.
Didn't you ride on the back of a motorcycle for that part?
Some of those locations don't even exist anymore.
The '90s were a special time in Seattle. But a lot of that died with Kurt Cobain. It's really not the same town anymore. But, back then, I think we preserved a special part of it with our film projects. I think we embraced the grungy zeitgeist.
We just showed up and shot wherever we wanted to.
Now, we'd probably get arrested.
We worked on a lot of projects together back then, but you also branched out and did some on you own.
I did my first project with you at the old Oddfellows Hall. It was a play you wrote and directed. I designed the costumes and the set.
Didn't our lighting grid fall and crash on opening night?
And the audience sat on bleachers that pulled out from the wall.
Then I wrote a part for you in my play Fever which we entered into the Playwright's Festival at New City Theater.
Yes. I played Toy, an inmate in a women's prison. I dyed my hair red and had a buzz cut. And played a young woman who had murdered her parents. To give the set a realistic touch, we had a real toilet onstage.
You also hosted a show at the Patty Summers Cabaret at Pike Place Market.
You coached me for my audition.
And then the day of your debut, the main star dropped out of the show, and you got bumped up to headliner...
And you filled in as emcee.
I remember singing a Bee Gees medley for the opening. But I only got to rehearse with the piano player for about five minutes before the show because you hogged most of his time. I still haven't forgiven you for that.
Well, I suppose I have.
Around that time you also got to open for Pussy Tourette at the Velvet Elvis.
And also at the Backstage in Ballard. That's when I started signing my name on the dressing room walls of all the venues I performed at.
You also studied film acting with Richard Breshtoff.
And I got an agent, Thomas Bliss. He sent me out on quite a few auditions. I got to read for a York Peppermint Pattie commercial. And one where I was making waffles while driving a car. I actually got hired for a commercial to promote the four-digit zip code extention, but they cancelled the shoot at the last minute. That's show biz for you.
During this time, you continued doing more stage work.
I auditioned for and got cast in the Stranger talent show which was at the Bagley Wright Theater during Bumbershoot. I dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and sang Get Happy by Judy Garland. I got a great reaction from the audience. Which made it even more special because this was the only performance of mine my parents ever attended. They loved it.
Didn't Dina Martina perform at that?
Yes, but they had us at opposite ends of the show because they didn't want two drag acts to perform back-to-back.
Then you performed in a play called Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.
It was written by a woman who used to work at The Lusty Lady.
And then you performed at a singing contest at the Broadway Market.
It was an Ethel Merman singing contest. I came out dressed like Little Orphan Annie with cardboard circles taped over my eyes. I even brought a dog onstage. The true crime writer Ann Rule was one of the judges. She gave me a ten, bless her heart.
Didn't Ann Rule pass away a few years back?
Yes. And now the Broadway Market is a QFC.
So tell me about your character in the We're Nothing music video.
The nurse...I consider her to be a mystical midwife. And I think she seems menacing because throughout most of history, childbirth could be fatal. So it ties in with not only Postvorta's music, but also with the name of the band itself. I mean, wasn't Postvorta a Roman goddess associated with childbirth?
The video definitely has a childbirth theme to it. A gritty circle of life theme. Birth, death, and procreation. All facilitated by this intense nurse.
And she's a snappy dresser.
But in the video, Stan is in a sort of purgatory. And you are tormenting him. You're almost like a devil at times.
Stan is so vulnerable in that hospital gown. Which is how many of us feel when we seek medical treatment and put our trust in the hands of doctors and insurance companies. So I think, and maybe you did this subconsciously, I think with this music video, you've actually created an indictment of our modern healthcare industry.
When did you feel most vulnerable during our shoot?
Probably when this guy on a motorcycle stopped and harrassed us while we were shooting. He wore one of those motorcycle helmets that covers your entire head, and he never took it off. We couldn't even see his eyes. I'm convinced he was a drug dealer and probably had a meth lab up the road from where we were shooting. So here I am in full makeup and a vinyl mini dress. And Stan is practically naked in that hospital gown. And it's starting to snow. And we're both shivering. And we don't know if this biker is going to pull out a knife, or worse. But hey, we were in Gorst. Shit happens there.
What does it mean to you, as a Kitsap native, to return to your roots to be on the big screen at the upcoming Port Orchard Film Festival?
I actually went to it two years ago. They had Steve de Jarnet as a guest, and I enjoy his work. And it was fun seeing Alison Arngrim perform her one-woman show there. I know Alison through my best friend Jason Stuart. And got to work with her on one of your projects. And even hosted her during one of her visits.
But I'm really excited to be in the festival this time around. As a kid, I yearned for more arts and culture. I used to think I had to go to Seattle or beyond to have access to things like this. So it's very exciting to know that this is all happening in this area.
Do you still have family around here?
My mother and her sister are in the same retirement home in Bremerton. And my sister still lives in the area.
Why do you keep performing into your 60s?
Why do I keep doing it? Because you keep asking me to, Kelly.
Has your approach changed?
Not really. Maybe In the physicality. It hurts to move sometimes.
We're Nothing will screen with a collection of Experimental films at the Port Orchard Film Festival on Friday, May 3 at 7:20PM at the Dragonfly Cinema. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: www.portorchardfilmfest.com/
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