NEW YORK — Neil Patrick Harris and his husband, chef and actor David Burtka, fired up what they call New York's "last summer blowout" — a six-hour, 50-act drag-queen spectacle staged Saturday on a glitzy Manhattan pier.
It was the revival of a 1980s festival called Wigstock — an impromptu creation of unruly patrons in drag who stumbled out of an East Village club at about 2 a.m. to improvise for homeless people in garbage-strewn, rat-infested Tompkins Square Park. It was, of course, free of charge.
Saturday's lower Manhattan show featured drag stars Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio and Latrice Royale. There were food, drinks and dancing on Pier 17 by the Brooklyn Bridge, with the audience wearing over-the-top attire for a shindig that kicked off with a cannon shooting out blue, orange and red wigs. Members of the crowd swarmed like bridesmaids angling for a bouquet.
Backstage, performers powdered their noses and ran through costume changes.
Tickets started at $95 and topped at $1,000 for the well-heeled at a VIP after-party with performers. A limited number of passes sold for $18.95.
The last time Robert Nieves was at Wigstock was in 1995, when he was 18. On Saturday, at 41, he came with his husband, Ramon Nieves, whom he dubbed a "Wigstock virgin."
"I wanted him to be able to experience it because this is such a monumental event for the community," said Robert Nieves, wearing a short red wig. "You know, last time I was here I didn't wear a wig."
With Tony, Emmy and Oscar award winners involved in the production, the drag culture has gone mainstream. And Wigstock has come a long way from the wee hours one night in 1984 when Lady Bunny led the inebriated charge into the park.
"In those days, drag used to be very gritty and dirty, with real shock value and people saying, 'I can't believe I'm laughing at this sick club comedy,'" says Burtka. "The first Wigstock ended up being a party — the last summer blowout."
The annual celebration eventually moved to a pier on Manhattan's West Side until it was rained out two years in a row, dampening ticket revenue and bankrupting the event by 2001. A much smaller Wigstock popped up sporadically in the park and on New York Harbor cruises but, short of money, it pretty much vanished until now.
"David and I are rabid fans of any kind of live spectacle, and we go to drag shows," says Harris. "So one day, I said to David, 'Why don't we revive Wigstock?'"
Though he didn't know her well, says Burtka, "I ended up calling Bunny and saying, 'Hey, would you be into doing this?'"
The Wigstock founder sure was, starting Saturday at 3 p.m., rain or shine, on the rooftop of Manhattan's freshly renovated Pier 17.
Working on the revival with her as executive producer were Harris, Burtka, Jack Turner, Jason Weinberg and Oscar award-winner Bruce Cohen, along with production company Matador Content and Pride Media, which publishes Out and Advocate magazines. Broadway's Tony Award-winner Michael Mayer was director.
The main creative credit goes to Lady Bunny, whose legal name is Jon Ingle, a 56-year-old DJ and promoter with a Tennessee drawl in a foot-high wig. "Everything runs through her. Bunny's the backbone, she's the driving force, she's our almanac," says Burtka.
Performers included Harris, who won a Tony for the 2014 Broadway revival of the cult musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," about a transgender, East European rock singer. He re-created part of that glam-rock performance on Saturday.
Harris and Burtka noted that drag culture has gone from an underground fringe phenomenon to front-and-center pop culture, with RuPaul hosting the Emmy award-winning "RuPaul's Drag Race" competition featuring musical challengers in wigs and heels.
Turning drag into performance art wasn't the main aim of the new Wigstock.
"You know, some people ask me, has it become commercialized now that it's here?" Lady Bunny told the crowd. "Well, I say, look at me, hear my foul mouth; do I look like I'm ever going to go mainstream or commercial?"