OK, so we’re a little more than halfway through 2021 and the biggest story in Livingston County this year has nothing to do with the pandemic, the economy or corrupt judges. The biggest story in Livingston County this year is Drag Queen Bingo in Howell.
So, if you had “Drag Queen Bingo in Howell” on your own 2021 bingo card, congratulations! You’re a winner! And evidently, a drag queen will be presenting you with your winnings.
In any case, if you’ve tuned into social media for at least two seconds in the last week, you know that a whole lot of people in Livingston County are upset that Drag Queen Bingo is coming to Howell for the Melon Festival, and whole lot of other people are happy that Drag Queen Bingo is coming to Howell for the Melon Festival, and they’re all on social media making their feelings known.
Because if there’s one thing that we’re REALLY GOOD AT here in Livingston County, it’s getting upset about things. Yes, sir. Nobody does this better than us. There’s no place in the country that’s better at getting upset than Livingston County, Michigan. We have turned this into an art form.
If you doubt me, look no further than the Mill Pond in Brighton, where there’s a little statue of an ugly naked guy that you might have heard about. Or take a drive just south of there to the double roundabouts at Lee Road and U.S. 23.
Or head on over to Howell and drive through some of the neighborhoods and take a look at THE STUPIDEST LITTLE ROUNDABOUTS THAT MAKE NO DAMN SENSE WHATSOEVER.
You see what I mean. We’re aces when it comes to getting upset about things.
So when the fine people at the Howell Area Parks and Recreation Authority decided that the best way to bring some much-needed diversity to Livingston County was to have a drag queen bingo show at the Howell Melon Festival, well, the clock was ticking. It was only a matter of time before the outrage began.
Sure enough, some people got upset. And then some other people got upset that those people were upset. And then the original group got upset that people were upset that they were upset. They started calling each other names and whatnot, and yes, Facebook has been a joy ever since.
Which brings me to the real topic of this post. As we all sit back and enjoy the Great Drag Queen Bingo Controversy of 2021, it’s probably a good time to look back at some of the wonderful Livingston County controversies of the past.
Yes, Drag Queen Bingo is not the first time that people have gotten all up in arms about a performance or event. I’ve been here since 1983 – I was a newspaper editor for most of that time – and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some doozies.
So in that spirit, here’s a Brief History of Controversial Events in Livingston County.
The Uber’s Drugs Porn Magazine Display, 1985-1986
OK, this first event isn’t an event at all, but I still wanted to include it on the list, because it was pretty darn fascinating.
Uber’s Drugs was a store located at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Main Street in downtown Brighton, and in the 1980s, it was owned by a guy named Bob Herbst, a pharmacist who was (and still is) pretty much the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. If you called Central Casting and asked them to send down an aw-shucks, gee-whiz, small-town pharmacist, they’d send you Bob Herbst.
And those who were around back then will tell you that his store, Uber’s Drugs, was just about the best store ever. In addition to all the pharmacy stuff, they had gifts and office supplies and all sorts of cool things.
They also had the biggest display of porn magazines you’ve ever seen in your life. The entire magazine display at Uber’s was huge, and the porn collection took up most of it.
And we aren’t talking just Playboy and Penthouse, either. No, we’re talking nasty, filthy, hard-core stuff. The worst porn you could imagine. Right there at the corner of Grand River and Main Street in Brighton.
Again, if you had met Bob Herbst, you never would have guessed that this sweet, smiling, good-natured guy had the biggest porn collection in the world at his store.
Well, in 1985, the Brighton Ministerial Association decided that the porno magazines at Uber’s had to go. They organized themselves and wrote letters to the editor and put all the pressure they could on Bob Herbst, demanding that he remove the smut from his store.
He responded by saying no, he would not be removing the smut from his store. He didn’t feel that he was in any position to be a moral arbiter of what people should be allowed to read, so he decided to keep on selling it.
The controversy kind of died down a little in late 1985, but in the middle of 1986, it flared up again. The Brighton Ministerial Association sprung back into action and renewed its demands that Uber’s remove the porn.
And this is the part of the story where I come in.
In the summer of 1986, I became the editor of the Brighton Argus. I was all of 25 years old, and didn’t know much about anything, but as the editor, I was charged with writing a weekly column about the goings-on in town. So naturally, I decided that I needed to offer up some opinions about the dirty magazines at Uber’s Drugs.
In one of the first columns I ever wrote as editor, I decided to offer up the opinion that while porn was not my personal magazine preference – I was more of a Sports Illustrated guy – Bob Herbst had every right to sell whatever kind of magazines he wanted. So I told the Brighton Ministerial Association to back off.
The only thing this accomplished was that instead of making Bob Herbst their Public Enemy No. 1, they now declared that Buddy Moorehouse would be their Public Enemy No. 1. (Bob Herbst never thanked me for that, by the way.)
I remember the pastors coming into my office back then — all of them — pretty much wanting to know who the heck this 25-year-old punk kid editor thought he was. They had a good point.
There were also a fair number of letters to the editor on the topic, as you’d imagine, and several of them took shots at me. My all-time favorite one ended like this:
Me? Look at a girlie magazine? NEVER!
In any case, what happened is that Bob decided to compromise by moving his porn magazines to a higher shelf and covering them up better, and as I recall, he eventually got rid of them a little while later.
As for me, I learned a lesson that taking on the Brighton Ministerial Association is a really, really bad idea.
The Seduction 88 Dancers in Howell, 1988
Most of us know them because of this epic skit on “Saturday Night Live,” but in the 1980s, the Chippendales dancers were all the rage in these United States. Shirtless male dancers bumping and grinding. Loads of fun.
Well, the Chippendales craze came to Livingston County in 1988 in the form of a show called “Seduction 88” at the Howell Holiday Inn. It featured a bunch of former Chippendales dancers and this is how it was advertised in the Livingston County Press at the time:
This ad did not go over well. Some folks in Livingston County thought that it was every bit as awful as the dirty magazines at Uber’s Drugs, and they responded with letters like this:
As you see, they weren’t so much upset about the show as they were about the newspaper advertising the show. These people had no problem with the cigarette ads we were running back in 1988, but an ad of five men with their shirts off … well, that crossed the line.
In any case, the “Seduction 88” show went off as scheduled (I was not in the audience, nor was I asked to participate), and Livingston County survived just fine.
Caesar the Wrestling Bear at the Barnstormer, 1993
It’s been sitting empty for years, but the Barnstormer Entertainment Complex in Green Oak Township was a hotbed of excitement in the 1990s. It was owned by a guy named Rob Cortis, who now spends his time driving around the country with the Trump Unity Bridge.
Cortis was always looking to bring in different things, so when he heard that Caesar the Wrestling Bear was available in the summer of 1992, he jumped at the chance to bring him in.
There were actually three Caesar the Wrestling Bears, and they split up and covered the country starting in the 1970s, wrestling hundreds of times each year.
The idea was that the bear would show up at a bar or other venue, and he would wrestle any guy who wanted to take him on. If you pinned Caesar, which almost nobody ever did, you’d win something.
This is the ad we ran in the newspaper in 1992, and as you’ll see, Cortis decided to try and pull off the Controversy Perfecta – a dancing bear AND some scantily clad male dancers! It was “Seduction 88” all over again!
Well, we apparently got all of our outrage about exotic male dancers out of our system back in 1988, because nobody seemed too upset about the Foxy Frenchmen. And in 1992, nobody was upset about Caesar the Wrestling Bear, either.
In 1993, though, when Caesar the Wrestling Bear was booked for a return engagement at the Barnstormer, it turned into a brouhaha. Some animal-rights groups from Ann Arbor got involved, and demanded that the police and prosecutor shut it down.
They cited a law that was on the books that apparently banned animal fighting (who knew?), and Livingston County Prosecutor David Morse decided to take action. He threatened legal action against Cortis if he went ahead with the bear wrestling, so Cortis canceled the show.
And when we did the story on it, David Morse gave us one of the all-time greatest quotes in Livingston County newspaper history:
“I am not protecting some big inalienable right of some drunk guy to wrestle a bear in a bar.”
EasyRiders Rodeo in Fowlerville, 1993
The EasyRiders Rodeo has been around for 28 years now and it’s become such an accepted part of the community, but back when it all started in 1993, the event at the Fowlerville Fairgrounds was actually a bit controversial.
And it was mostly due to one man: Howell Police Chief Mike Oyler.
Oyler, who passed away in 2012, was a beloved figure in Howell’s history. He came from England and had the thickest English accent you’ve ever heard, so it was sort of like we had an English Bobby as our police chief.
He also liked to keep order in his town, so when he heard that there were going to be thousands of Harley-riding bikers coming to nearby Fowlerville in the summer of 1993, Oyler freaked out. It’s all spelled out in this article:
As you see, by Oyler’s estimation, there were going to be about 7,000 bikers coming to Livingston County. He told us (and he didn’t tell us HOW he knew this) that 1 percent of these bikers were going to be outlaws. He described this group thusly:
“These outlaw motorcycle clubs are made up of psychotics and general social misfits, and their main cause is to terrorize and cause trouble.”
Wow! Well, Mike Oyler could do the math just as well as anyone, so if there were 7,000 bikers coming to Livingston County, and 1 percent of those were going to be psychotics and social misfits, that meant that in the summer of 1993, we were going to have about 70 psychotic bikers coming to Livingston County, whose only goal would be to “terrorize and cause trouble.” Nobody wanted that.
Because the Howell Melon Festival would be taking place at the same time, Oyler’s fear was that the 70 psychotic bikers would leave the Fowlerville Fairgrounds and drive to Howell to be psychotic at the Melon Festival.
“It’s the culture shock I’m concerned about, that people will be intimidated by them or decide to take them on,” Oyler said. “If they come to town, I think it’s very, very likely that there will be a disruption at the Melon Festival.”
(If only he had known that 28 years later, the main disruption at the Melon Festival would not be Harley-riding bikers, but drag queens.)
Well, we got a bunch of letters to the editor back then about the EasyRiders Rodeo, and it might surprise you to learn that almost all of these letters voiced the opinion that Mike Oyler was full of it. This letter compared him to a well-known TV lawman:
So I know what you’re wondering at this point. What happened? Was it mass chaos? Did the 70 psychotic bikers escape the Fairgrounds and come rampaging through Howell?
Sorry, no. Despite Mike Oyler’s assurance that it was “very, very likely” there would be a disturbance, there was nothing. The Howell Melon Festival went on just as planned, with no bikers or drag queens or anything else mucking up the works.
There was, however, one incident that took place not in Howell, but at the Fairgrounds, and it gave us this memorable headline:
Yes, the only bad thing that happened at the 1993 EasyRiders event is that two incredibly bright guys were playing a version of mumbly-peg where they threw knives at each other’s feet, and one Einstein ended up stabbing the other Einstein in the groin. Who could have predicted THAT? It seemed like such a great idea at the time!
This year’s EasyRiders Rodeo is taking place Aug. 20-22 in Fowlerville, and as long as we keep the knives away, everything should be fine.
The Pinckney High School play, 1994
The Pinckney High School drama teacher at the time, Jeff Brown, had developed a reputation for pushing the envelope with his play selections, but in 1994, he ripped the envelope wide open when he decided that the students would perform a show called “Dark of the Moon.”
It was set in the 1930s, and it was the story of a warlock who falls in love with a human woman. In addition to witchcraft, the play featured promiscuity, extra-marital affairs and an implied rape scene. Real wholesome stuff.
When word about the play got out, the outrage kicked in. On the one side were the people who thought this was a terrible thing. This group included Superintendent Rob Roy, who said, “That was a bad choice for a play. I could not see a lot of good coming out of it.”
On the other side were drama teacher Brown and a lot of other folks who thought it was outrageous that people were getting outraged over a play, and that you shouldn’t censor what high school kids perform on stage.
Among the people in this camp – no kidding – was Hollywood actor Jeff Daniels. They held a community meeting about the play, and about 150 people showed up, including a lot of parents, administrators and students.
Also in attendance was Daniels, a resident of nearby Chelsea who had a movie coming out later that year called “Dumb and Dumber.” Daniels weighed in and said that he agreed with those who said that you shouldn’t censor high school plays.
So when the play finally opened, naturally, this happened:
They evacuated the theater and did a quick check, and found out that there was nothing to worry about, so everybody came back inside and watched the play. Pinckney adopted a policy that said all play selections need to be reviewed in the future, and that was that.
Topless waitresses at the Pinckney Bowl, 1995
If you’ve been around a while, you might know that the Pinckney area has a long and distinguished history when it comes to topless dancing. Back in the 1970s, there was a bar down on McGregor Road called the Anchor Inn that had rock bars on one side of the bar and topless “Go Go Girls” on the other side. Here’s an ad from 1976:
Well, the Anchor Inn ended up closing following a horrible incident in which some minors were served alcohol and then got into a fatal crash, and a few years after that, the building burned down.
The Pinckney area remained topless-free until 1995, when the owners of the Pinckney Bowl that it was time to bring those glorious days back again. So in July of 1995, they put this ad in the newspaper:
And, of course, all hell broke loose. We did a story on it, and the floodgates of outrage began to open. The letters poured in and people showed up at Pinckney Village Council meetings, demanding they put a stop to this.
There were a few people who spoke out in support of half-naked women at the Pinckney Bowl, but the vast majority of folks in town thought this was an awful idea. This letter was signed by most of the pastors in town:
And then the owners of the Pinckney Bowl did something remarkable. They started saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! We aren’t bringing topless waitresses to Pinckney? Whatever gave you that idea?”
What made us think you were looking for topless waitresses? Well, how about the fact that you placed THIS AD in the newspaper!
So the owners showed up at the Pinckney Village Council meeting and this is what they said, verbatim (we printed it in the paper):
In other words, “Well, yes, we advertised for topless waitresses, but how dare you think that we were looking for topless waitresses!”
So instead of having topless waitresses, they hired some waitresses who wore see-through mesh tops. Much more wholesome.
A few years later (tell me if you’re spotting a trend here), the Pinckney Bowl burned down. And Pinckney has been topless-free ever since.
Alice Cooper at the Fowlerville Fair, 2003
As you’ll see in this story, which lists all the famous acts that ever performed at the Fowlerville Fair, there have been a lot of big-name acts through the years. Most of them have been country stars and oldies groups.
In 2003, though, the Fair Board decided to go WAY out on a limb with this musical choice:
The music world’s most famous shock rocker was coming to Fowlerville. Oh, no!
Most of the locals responded by either not caring or buying tickets, but there were a significant number of folks who called the Fair office, demanding they call off the show. We don’t need the likes of Alice Cooper coming to our family-friendly Fowlerville Fair. Which prompted this letter to the editor:
The show went off as scheduled and it was all wonderful. And unlike the incident at the Fairgrounds 10 years earlier, nobody got stabbed in the groin.
The window display at Victoria’s Secret, 2006
When the new Green Oak Village Place mall opened in 2006, one of the first tenants was Victoria’s Secret, a store that sells underwear.
So naturally, some people in the community were outraged when this store that sold underwear put together a window display that featured – are you ready? – underwear!
Most of Livingston County didn’t have a clue about this, because in order to make it to the Victoria’s Secret, you had to make it through the new double roundabouts alive, but a couple people who DID make it to the new mall were absolutely OUTRAGED that this new underwear store was advertising underwear. So they launched a crusade to get the store to REPENT.
There were only a couple people who were upset, but man, did they make a lot of noise. The leader was a woman from Hamburg Township named Robin Blaszak, who spelled it all out in this letter to the editor:
As you see, she wrote: “I am asking for letters stating our concerns and a boycott of Victoria’s Secret until these indecent displays are removed and proper ones befitting of a family mall are displayed.”
Well, this will shock you, but Victoria’s Secret somehow managed to survive. The store is still standing at Green Oak Village Place, and – I’m assuming – they’re still selling underwear.
The German Choir in Howell, 2006
In the long, long history of Livingston County, I don’t think we’ve ever had a school superintendent who was quite as disastrous in every way as Chuck Breiner, who served as the head of Howell Public Schools in the late 1990s and 2000s.
Among other things, Breiner is the one who convinced the community to pay millions of dollars to build a school it didn’t need (Parker High School) and then adopted a policy that said that political debates could not take place anywhere on school property.
But nothing could really top what he did in 2006, when a German choir called “Voices of Heaven” came to Howell High School to perform as part of an exchange program with the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.
Earlier in 2006, Breiner had enacted a ridiculously stupid school policy that said that school concerts could not contain more than 30 percent religious or sacred music.
So, if the high school choir was performing a holiday concert, only 30 percent of the content could have anything to do with Christmas or angels or anything else spiritual or religious.
He just pulled that 30 percent number out of a hat, and who the hell knows how to determine whether an 18th-century Italian aria would be violating the policy or not. It was just a dumb, stupid, idiotic policy.
And it’s not enough that Breiner was going to enforce this with the choirs, bands and other performing groups in the Howell Public Schools district. He was also going to enforce this with groups coming in from the outside!
Including a youth choir that was coming all the way from Germany to perform in Howell.
When Breiner heard that Voices of Heaven was coming to Howell, he – no kidding – called the German choir director and told him that they had to cut all the religious music out of their show. Never mind that they would singing it IN GERMAN … Breiner wanted the religious music out of the show.
The community – particularly the parents of choir students in Howell – were embarrassed and outraged. The German students were staying in their homes, and when the Howell parents found out what Breiner had done, they were irate.
“I’m appalled, I’m embarrassed and I’m ashamed,” one parent told the paper.
One person spelled it out like this in a letter to the editor:
Breiner left the district a couple years later and has not been missed.
Ann Coulter at Cleary University, 2007
If you’ve come to this post looking for a little irony, you’re about to get it.
Because this is the story of when conservative pundit Ann Coulter came to Howell in 2007. All the same people who are now in favor of Drag Queen Bingo were opposed to Ann Coulter being allowed to speak. DIVERSITY? WE DON’T NEED DIVERSITY!
And all the same people who are opposing Drag Queen Bingo were in favor of Ann Coulter being allowed to speak. WHO CARES IF SOME PEOPLE ARE OFFENDED? WHAT MATTERS IS MY OPINION!
The Livingston Diversity Council and the Livingston County Democratic Party were vocally opposed to letting Coulter speak in Howell. These are the folks that are vocally in favor of bringing Drag Queen Bingo to Howell.
The Livingston County Republican Party was vocally in favor of bringing Coulter to Howell in 2007. These are the folks that are vocally opposed to Drag Queen Bingo at the Melon Festival now.
Oh, the irony! Oh, the hypocrisy! So this whole notion of “We need to be open to diversity in Livingston County” certainly depends on what side of the aisle you’re sitting on.
In any case, here’s the story. Back in 2006 and 2007, the Livingston Economic Club brought a series of high-profile speakers to Cleary University. Among these were former Clinton advisor Dick Morris and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (say, whatever happened to him?).
In any case, apparently deciding that Livingston County needed a good dose of controversy, the Livingston Economic Club also decided in 2007 to invite Ann Coulter to town. They were going to pay her $30,000 to deliver a speech at Cleary University.
Who is Ann Coulter? She’s a very well-known TV pundit and writer, and depending on your point of view, she’s either a brilliantly funny conservative thinker or a hate-mongering racist. So bringing her to Howell was certainly going to stir things up.
And now that you’ve come to the end of this list, I have to say that in the long history of Livingston County Controversies, this one ranks right at the top. Maybe the Drag Queens will knock her out of the top spot in a few weeks, but as of now, Ann Coulter’s 2007 speech at Cleary University ranks as the single most controversial event in Livingston County history.
People on the left were MAD. REALLY, REALLY MAD! And yes, it’s kind of funny that the same people who are preaching tolerance and acceptance now when it comes to Drag Queens were not preaching tolerance and acceptance when it came to Ann Coulter.
Oh, no. They did not tolerate her, they did not accept her, and they did not think she had any right to speak in Livingston County. And they were loudly demanding that Cleary cancel her speech.
Over at the newspaper, the letters started flooding in. They were either in favor of her, like this:
Or opposed to her, like this:
Well, the speech went on as scheduled (I was there), and as I wrote at the time, it was more of a Fox News Comedy Night than it was a political speech. It was a very friendly conservative-leaning crowd, and Coulter slayed them with her jokes about liberals and the left.
A bunch of protestors showed up outside the venue, but the main protest came in the form of a counter-speech held at the same time at the Howell Opera House, sponsored by the Livingston County Democratic Party. They invited a guy to talk about universal health care, and it drew a really big crowd.
So there you have it! As the Drag Queens join the likes of the Seduction 88 dancers, the topless waitresses in Pinckney and Alice Cooper, those are your kings and queens of controversy. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.