Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Key West: What a Drag, the Ingham and Mallory Square

Wednesday December 2, 2015                                               Most Recent Post:
Curry Hammock State Park                                                   
On the Water; On the Shore
Marathon, Florida



David is out this morning hanging a rope and close pining black plastic bags over the windows to deter the catbird.  He has a reptilian audience.  This little frog was on the bin door David opened to get the rope and he just stayed on it after it was opened.   I hope he’s not the lookout for Mr. Catbird.












While I am outside taking these pictures of David and the frog, I glance across the street and see this.  Not your everyday State Park campground neighbor. I go over to introduce myself of course.



Turns out it is Joanne and her African Red parrot Nancy.  Nancy is 14 and likes to go for walks but she keeps her eyes on the skies and stays close to Joanne.



She’s just a stunning parrot.  She’s 14 and has lived with Joanne and Don all her life.




Once David is finished with our defenses and I’ve said goodbye to Nancy and Joanne, we leave for Key West.  David drops me off at the Visitor Center on North Roosevelt Blvd and goes back to the Cancer Center.  I have him drop me here because I think I’ll find some more useful information about things to do in Key West.  But this center doesn’t really have a lot of free information.  Mostly they sell tickets and reservations.  They do provide me with a guide for an historic walking tour of the old town so that’s good.  This doesn’t take 14 minutes so I’ve got nearly another 2 hours to kill.   I take my map and start walking. 

I walk around the neighborhoods of Key West between the VC and Front street where I am able to snag another 1/2 off coupon to Haagan Daze.  Never know when you’ll need that. Along the way I see the Key West version of a baby stroller.  Looks like a Gardenway cart fixed up bicycle style with her two children being carted around.  Must be fun for the kids.



I walk along Duval Street and up to Mallory Square.  There is a huge ocean liner blocking the entire view from the square.  I check my schedule and it is the only cruise ship here today and will be leaving at 4:00.  That means no barrier to seeing sunset.

I’m tired of the tourist shops which all sell exactly the same thing but there are some nice individual specialty shops like the hat shop and the cigar shop.  In its past Key West was a huge Cuban Cigar manufacturer and there are still several shops which sell hand rolled cigars.


All of the sidewalk cafes seem to have people in them no matter what time you come by.  I think one of the things people love about Key West, including me, is the brightness of its colors.  It looks cheery with all the primary colors on the buildings, the clothing, the umbrellas and even the cars and bicycles.



When David is finished at the clinic, it’s lunch time.  We’ve decided to stay for the sunset at Mallory Square today so we’ve brought our food to eat there and we’ll eat lunch in here at El Meson De Pepe which is right off Mallory Square and specializes in “Cuban and Island Cuisine”.   We sit at the outdoor patio just across from the Key West Historic Sculpture Garden I talked about in my last Key West Post.




David chooses the Completa de Cabello Grande which is a sample of their three most popular Cuban dishes.  Since it’s Grande, he thinks we can split it.  I think he could definitely eat the entire plate but we do split.  The plate comes Lechon Asado ( traditional Cuban roasted pork marinated in cumin-mojo sauce), Ropa Veja (traditional Cuban shredded beef stewed with fresh tomatoes, onions and red wine), Picadillo Habanero (savory ground beef cooked with tomatoes, onions, garlic, bell peppers, oregano, olives, capers and raisins).  These are served with  yellow rice, black beans, plantains and yucca.   They bring Cuban bread with two dipping sauces as well. 

I turns out to be a wonderful spot and the food is delicious.







We leave the restaurant and go our separate ways.  David wants to take the Coast Guard Cutter tour and I want to see the exhibits in the Art Museum.






The museum is actually the Key West Museum of Art AND History at the Custom House.  I showed the beautiful building from the outside in my last Wednesday’s Key West post where I saw the information board advertising the exhibit on Key West’s drag queens which closes today. 

Admission is $10.  The museum has two rotating exhibits on the ground floor as well as 6 or 7 historical exhibits which also look very interesting on the second floor.

The inside of the former custom house built in 1891 has beautiful arched windows over many of its beautiful wooden doors.  They appear to be mahogany but could, I suppose be Gumbo Limbo.  There was no information on the woods used there or for the beautiful staircase and newel post which I see inside the door as I enter. 

But more on that later.  The two temporary exhibits on the ground floor are “What a Drag” and “Bars, Brews and Blues”.  They both have to do with the history and current personality of Key West.

Let me say up front that I know nothing about Drag Queens, as they are known, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here to learn what is this and who does it and why.  The exhibit is only one room but is amazingly well arranged and documented.  I’m actually surprised by how much I learn and how interesting it is.

Men dressing up in women’s clothing has occurred for several centuries.  As early as the 1600 men played women’s parts in Shakespearian plays.  By 1910, Julian Eltinge, the most famous female impersonator of the era, was one of the highest paid actors on the American stage.  The term “drag queen” first appeared in print in 1941.





The exhibit describes in detail the steps in “the transformation” and the amount of time it takes to create the persona of the queen.   Costumes are usually ultra feminine and extravagant with high spike heels, sparkles, spangles and often head dresses.










On the walls, along with pictures and information are quotes printed on enlarged lips.  This one by Dolly Parton is my favorite.  I laugh out loud. 




Some dresses are made by designers like this purple one and others are made by the wearer.










A local very popular club performer named Sushi creates her own gowns like this one below made from two vintage Japanese Kimonos.  Sushi is also the center of Key West’s New Years Eve Tradition. 

If you watch CNN’s New Years Eve coverage you may have seen her sitting in a large red sequined red shoe as she is lowered at the stroke of midnight to throngs of waiting people just as the ball drops in Time’s Square.  What a hoot that must be.  I’d definitely come if I were in Key West on New Year’s eve.  Too bad we leave the Keys on December 27th.  Her giant red slipper is here in the exhibit with a life sized manikin in it.



Made by Sushi



Not all consumes are elaborate, feminine and beautiful.  Boa who grew up as a “club kid” in Chicago does wild interpretations of Dr. Seuss characters and this one of Oscar the Grouch in his famous trash can.  Not sure what Oscar would think about the eyelashes or the boa.










This all seems like really fun stuff especially for those of us who loved dress up as a kid and still love costumes.  But for many Drag Queens it is a serious occupation as they perform at Clubs, Bars and Cabarets in Key West and other cities. 

They serve the dual role of entertainment and advocate for LGBT battles of equality.   What is most interesting to learn is of all was their amazing charitable endeavors.  They are described as “vital to fund raising efforts in Key West”.  They have contributed countless hours raising money and awareness on part of numerous charitable organizations.  Initially they raised money to assist people with AIDS.  Now their efforts, pageants, bingo and karaoke benefit the Visiting Nurse Association, Hospice of the Florida Keys, the One Human Family campaign, SmartRide, Wounded Warriors and others.  They raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.  Now that’s marvelous.   I really enjoy the exhibit and  have a totally different picture of “drag queens”.  They make a living providing fun entertainment and also do such wonderful volunteer community service.



Right across the hall from What a Drag is the Bars, Brews and Blues exhibit.  I won’t go into detail about it as I did What a Drag since I have the whole 2nd floor to gloss over too but this is a story of Key West’s history with alcohol primarily in the 20’s and 30’s before, during and after the depression. 





Prohibition was the law in Key West but never strictly enforced.  Drinking and gambling establishments were there but advertised very subtly as in the banister around the porch of this one.  Pretty clever. Another interesting tidbit was that President Calvin Coolidge’s nephew was a rum runner between Key West while Coolidge was president when prohibition was enacted.  Coolidge visited the nephew in Key West.   Did he know?  Who knows?  The press was not such paparazzi as they are now

Image result for prohibition porch railings in key west




All the way up the lovely staircase are 59 of Guy Harvey’s original sketches for Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea.  Both men were Key West residents and  popular historical figures here.  You may have to click to enlarge these sketches to really appreciate their amazing detail.




Up Stairs are six more exhibits all on the history of Key West.  I don’t have time to do them all justice but it would be worth returning to spend more time in each room.  There is a room about Key West in the Civil War, one on WPA Art in Key West, one on Tennessee Williams’ life here, one on the Sinking of the USS Maine.  The two I do spend time in are the Hurricane of 1935 on the Keys and Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway.  In the hallway are exhibits on Hemmingway’s life in Key West, on Early Key West as well as the one I look more at carefully  on the art of Mario Sanchez.  I would have loved to spend the entire rest of the day here but I am anxious to get back outside in the beautiful weather.


Photographs of the photographs of the devastating 1935 hurricane won’t show up well here but they tell a tale of tragic loss of life most heavily in the Middle Keys.  Winds of over 200 mph and waves of 20’ washing over the land and drowning everyone and everything.   Some families lost everything and nearly everyone.


The Flagler room is the largest one upstairs and includes a lot of information about turn of the century and early 20’s Key West.  I love the women’s clothing. Mostly they were very practical with mix and match skirts and blouses rather than one piece dresses.  such beautiful handwork on them, laces and embroidery.









A part of this room was cordoned off for the showing of what is the best of the films I’ve seen on Henry Flagler and his work while I’ve been in the Keys  Flagler is everywhere in the Keys.  He is, after all, the reason we are all here.  He made the first trips by non vessel possible.  I love this very creative rail car set up for the film.  Hats off to the curator.



Henry superimposed over his rails.



My last stop is in the hallway at the head of the stairs on my way down.  Here I look at the wonderful folk artwork of Mario Sanchez (1908-2005) with whose work I was unfamiliar.  He is a Key West native and apparently among this country’s finest and most recognized folks artists.  He did hundreds of intricately painted wood carvings which the information says provide a better history of Key West in the first part of the 20th century than any annals or academic texts. 

His works really do come alive and bring alive the sights, smells and sounds of Gato’s Village, the Cuban section of Key West where he grew up.  The details are remarkable and the raised carving nature of the wood cuts so intricately painted is a feast for the eyes.   It’s very hard not to reach out and touch them.






While I’m in the museum, David is touring the Ingham.  He graciously wrote up this report for the blog.  Thanks David!



I decided to tour this Coast Guard cutter for a couple of reasons but mostly to see Paul Dahl’s retired hat on display. That got me thinking of other reasons, like how did they do this life at sea, and what must it have been like for those aboard.

First off I check out the colorful decorations on the side which I could not see well but assumed had significance – which of course they do.

Note the things that look like marijuana leaves on the left are actually a tally of enemy bombers either hit or destroyed by the guns of Ingham in WWII. On the right is another graphic in German heralding the sinking of a German submarine on Dec 17, 1942, perhaps the proudest day for the men of this ship at that time. The one in the middle requires officer training to interpret I assume as I haven’t a clue what all that means, but isn’t it pretty & impressive!









So I anteed up $10 with my good credit and was given the most complete introduction by a well informed volunteer veteran I assume who knew everything so well & spoke so quickly of so many details it made my head spin. But then he graciously left me pointed in the right direction for the self-guided tour.

First stop is the tiny medical bay which had an X-ray machine, apparently a novelty at sea in that time. Also featured in this display area is I believe Paul’s Chief Petty Officer Coast Guard hat donated when he was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer. Cool!



You can’t see Paul’s hat very well on the shelf to the left of the coat but it’s very clear in the picture below.





It turns out the Ingham was built in a Philadelphia shipyard and commissioned in 1936, still in the depression but not yet at war. I was told that the Coast Guard predates the Navy and that one thing the Coast Guard does NOT do is guard the coast. Ships such as the Ingham were therefore used as needed at the time which meant she was retooled, repainted (gray) and fitted with guns during WWII deployments. And I assume populated with Navy sailors but I did not read that anywhere. The ship was decommissioned on 1988 making her one of the longest serving and most decorated vessels in our fleet. Among the MANY notable historical feats were:

1) Did 31 convoys across the Atlantic 1941-43 sinking German Sub U-636
2) Only American Vessel afloat today to have sunk a German Submarine
3) Performed 12 Mediterranean Convoys
4) Transferred to Pacific in 1944 and participated in 13 landings
5) Served as Flagship for 6 landings including General MacArthur’s return to Corregidor
6) Served in Viet-Nam in 1968-69 earning two Presidential Citations from President Nixon
7) Participated in 1980 Mariel Boat Lift when over 100,000 Cubans escaped to U.S.
8) In 1985 was Americas oldest and most decorated Naval Vessel receiving letter from President Reagan, 218 Ribbons, 27 Medals and 14 Battle Stars!
9) Retired in 1988 after 52 years of service.  Everything left on Board except classified records
10) The ship is a time capsule from 1988..records, silver, dishes, x-rays, cigarette packs
11)  The ship is a National Historic Landmark




That under my belt, I proceed down below deck to see how they lived. They had everything, except of course women at that time. Laundry somehow used fresh water & included ironing. The sewing room had an oversized industrial machine that could have sewn heavy stuff but in tight quarters. Lots of safety doors and low overhead clearance. No space wasted, everything had its place and was in it unless in use. Quarters differed as might be expected based on rank and duties. Captain and executive (2nd in command) had the best accommodations and rightly so, they had the most responsibility and training/experience save for those political favors. The grunts had lots more fun no doubt in their more Spartan accommodations – a bed and a locker.









Important things like the command center and the mail box are here too.





Lots of guys in one room in the enlisted quarters.  Looks like they’ll be right back any moment.







The Ingham in heavy seas is from a film clip of the vessel from the movie “Victory at Sea”. Looks pretty rough to me.

I must say the organization is impressive and shows what can be done with a focused attention from everyone from the beginning to the end. How those ship builders in 1936 knew how to engineer this for a ‘state of the art’ that was still in the making is beyond me, but they did it a and it obviously worked and worked well for 52 years at sea! Amazing!



After our respective and very different tours, we meet up at the statue in front of the art museum and proceed to the important ice cream stop at Haagen Dazs again.  I managed to scoreanother two for the price of one ticket!   This could get to be a habit when in Key West.






Since Haagen Dazs is right off of Mallory Square we stroll up there to see what’s going on, if anything, in preparation for the sunset event.  What we find is the big cruise ship backing out of its place and heading back to sea just in time for all the venders to move their tables and set ups into place.  




That’s one BIG ship and it is LOADED with people.



We wander around the shops at Mallory Square having our picture taken with our choice of icons.  I choose the neat metal rooster while David picks sponge man.  Lots of natural sponges are for sale in Key West which used to have a huge sponge business.  Not sure if these come from here any more or not.











By the time we return the horizon is turning pink and everyone has grabbed a seat for the show.  We’re relegated to the far end but that’s OK.  We’re nearer the wonderful music played by the only musicians here tonight.  I think my friend Karen is right when she said that it gets fairly quiet when the snowbirds aren’t around. 







I would love to have this t-shirt and live up to it!



I misspoke when I said there was only one set of musicians here.  There was also a mermaid playing a ukulele.  She gets the prize for the best costume for sure.



The only entertainment this evening is three different fire jugglers.  They definitely put on a show and engage the audience.  This guy sets himself apart by balancing one of his lighted juggling sticks on his head while juggling.



But the big show put on by the sun which looks like it is going to do great things as this masted schooner filled with sunset cruise goers sails by.



But then of course the dark clouds mount their attack and the sun drops behind them.  Lots of folks leave but we’re here to the end and luckily the sun peaks out when it reaches the horizon so that we can actually see when it sets and the man running the conch fritters wagon can blow the conch.






Once the sun has set, the jugglers get more attention.  The young man on the left sets himself apart by juggling on his unicycle.  Now that’s pretty amazing.








There are two tarot readers with tables to do readings.



Next time we come, we may bring our own lunches and for dinner sample the foods from the 4 vendors set up.  The guacamole was being prepared fresh and put into one half of the avocado skin with chips on the side.  Looked really good.



Delicious looking French crepes can be had here.  $8 each.



Various types of tacos are available under the umbrella, fixed while you wait for 5 and 6 dollars..



Eight dollars will buy you a plate of 6 conch fritters which looked to me like very large deep fat fried hushpuppies.



Sunset at Mallory Square was a bit quiet compared with what I was expecting but we definitely enjoyed our sunset ourselves and will return another day for another sunset.




  1. Another great day in paradise:) My two favorite parts of Key West is the sunset and sailing, both at once is the ideal:)

  2. Lunch sounds interesting and I'll bet David could have eaten it all. He must have a hollow leg. The What a Drag display seems informative. I went to a Gay Pride parade in Portland many years ago and was impressed by the beauty of some of the guys in drag. Besides, I like to dress up in costumes and would love to add some of those old lacy tops and skirts to my wardrobe even if I don't know where I'd wear them. Those Sanchez pieces just jump out of the frame. The ship's list of accomplishments is probably longer than some of the men who served on her. Those guys lived in tighter quarters than we do in RVs. I can't imagine either juggling or riding a unicycle let alone together. What a show. OMWow! That shot of the schooner at sunset is Spectacular!

  3. Nice to hear your take on Key West on a beautiful Sunny day.

  4. Very interesting day, but I think my favorite had to be the Cuban lunch. WOW! What an interesting array of food.

  5. We ate at that same restaurant and I had the same sampler as David!! We had dinner the next day with all the leftovers:) Yummy place! I would have enjoyed both the museum and the ship tour. The Drag Queen section sounds so interesting. I really liked the sun setting behind the tall ship:)

  6. Fascinating to hear about the drag queens! Great reporting from the both of you! :-)

  7. WOW...you two sure pack a lot into one day. Love the tag team reporting;o)) Your sunset photo with the tall ship is AMAZING...could be a postcard!!!

  8. It looks like you had a very long and busy day in Key West. We haven't been to any of the places you visited today. Just goes to show, there is a lot to see and do in KW. We tried to go to find time to go to a drag queen show last year, but never quite made it. We have seen quite a few "Queens" around town. They certainly are interesting and colorful. We were in the Keys one year for New Years, but didn't make it down to KW. Now that we are closer to KW, one of these years, we'll probably fight the crowds and spend New Years Eve in Key West. Glad to hear you will be in the Keys through Christmas. Will Carrie and Matthew be coming for a visit? I would think they'd love to spend Christmas in the Keys. Love the sunset pictures. It made me remember how special Mallory Square is at sunset. Enjoy it, without all the crowds.

  9. Only in Key West would there be a museum display about drag queens. How interesting. I liked the looks of David's tour, also. We had fun at Mallory Square.Great place for people watching along with the sunset!

  10. It's hard to decide who picked the better place to visit. I think Sherry's visit was something I would have liked because it's so different. I like to visit a museum that a few years from now, will remember what they had that was different from any others.

  11. I had no idea Paul Dahl had such a famous hat!

  12. Coasties still manned the ship, the Coast Guard was attached to the Navy during the war. The crossed off pot leaves were maritime drug busts.
    Something more to take a look at when I get there!

  13. The frog and Nancy are both very photogenic!

    I think the exhibit on bars would draw me in... the history of Prohibition is one of those subjects that interests me.

    1. Wow, what an awesome day you both had! KW is so much fun to visit, we've been there so many times and can't wait to go back again. David, nice write up on the Ingham, glad you enjoyed the tour. It's a well done museum. Nice picture of the hat, too! I feel like a celebrity now! :cD

      PS: Did the mermaid say how she keeps her ukulele in tune when she swims with it?

  14. Excellent blog all around. Nice to hear Dad's story of his part of the afternoon. The art museum had lot to offer-What a Drag sounds like a great exhibit! The sunset at Key West is fun. I realized if Key West day is Wednesday, 2 weeks from today I'll be there too :)

  15. Another very fun and interesting day in Key West! You'll be able to write the definitive guide to Key West with all of the time you're spending there and the cool things you're discovering. I'm so sorry that we missed the Drag Queen exhibit -- but we're still planning to go to the museum for the other offerings. I'm especially interested in the folk art, and even more so after seeing your photos. Your photo of the schooner at sunset is gorgeous!

  16. A full day in KW ... I love that sunset photo with the schooner ... makes it so much more interesting.

  17. Interesting the diversity of exhibits that can be found on the road....by staying open to seeing and learning new things I have found much more interesting things than if I stayed with a travel plan. My favorite Mark Twain quote, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." I like to think it true for me at least. Again, David should write a blog.....Eating my way around America!! I loved the last sailing ship at sunset picture. Beautiful!

  18. Beautiful sunset shot through the schooner. I could be mistaken but I think there used to be a Ben & Jerry's where the Haagen Dasz is. We've enjoyed a few sunsets at Mallory Square...usually some great entertainers and people watching. What an interesting museum you toured, always something to learn.

  19. We had lunch too at that same restaurant.
    Wow, you caught the setting sun with the schooner, beautiful!

  20. Wow, what a day! Exhausted just reading about it now almost a month later, but all fond memories. Thanks for putting it all together with pictures and text. I too could have spent the entire day in the museum - just not enough hours in the day.


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