Rubi Wednesday: Rubi, a.k.a. 'Miss Venezuela,' applies mascara backstage. Club Lido has quietly prospered downtown for two decades by serving the valley's subcultures.
Live at Lido
Photographs by Felipe Buitrago and Greg Roden
Text by Dan Pulcrano
To the eye, San Jose embodies a bastion of suburban banality, with a low profile downtown of '80s highrises surrounded by '70s subdivisions and '90s condos. Looks deceive.
Beneath its tan skin, an urban area's nuances thrive. Club owner Lily Pham has catered to Silicon Valley's subcultures for two decades. Upstairs at Club Lido, Vietnamese touring performers entertain weekend crowds, while the downstairs crowd dances to Mexican banda music. During some of its incarnations, Lido hosted an energetic punk rock scene, and for the past 10 years, it has become the epicenter of a growing Latin transgendered community. First started to liven up Monday night business, the gay nights later expanded to Wednesdays and Thursdays. Last Wednesday, crowds packed Lido to watch the finals of "Nuestra Belleza Latina," undoubtedly the valley's most outrageous beauty pageant. Contestants arrived in entourages of two, four, six, dragging wheeled suitcases, carrying props and floor length gowns in their arms or in black trash bags.
"Hola Mamasita!" exclaims Perla, the chubby-cheeked tranny who collects the $12 cover at the door and exchanges cheek kisses with one patron after another. They climb a flight of steps with their long legs, pass a condom giveaway and sashay across the dance floor to a curtained area past the bar, where the transformation occurs.
First they emerge for a pink dress lineup, then in their individual creations, which range from a Carmen Miranda-style tropical fruit hat to a Beach Blanket Babylon skyline, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Aztec royalty with a blue agave plant lashed to a scepter like a thorny crown.
For this newspaper's team, on hand to record the night, the high point was, of course, a floor length bell-shaped dress constructed completely out of multiple copies of a recent issue of Metro, complete with matching bow and purse.
Club Lido has dressed for the occasion as well. Aluminum trays of melon, tortilla chips, chicken wings, cubed cheese and rolled ham slices sit on a table beneath one of many mirrored walls. Tables are adorned with orange plastic tablecloths, jar candles and balloons. A rhinestone crown waits patiently behind the bar.
In the corner, on two Melamine shelves, four red holiday lights illuminate a shrine of burning incense and plates of fruit balanced atop cans of lychees in heavy syrup. In the middle, behind a glass of white wine, a laughing Buddha chomps on a burned-down cigarette. "We try to get Buddha drunk," manager Suzanne Lai says.
While performers primp and prep backstage, some other tall girls, their pressurized chests exploding out of knotted tops, lean against the bar, beneath rows of hanging cognac snifters bathing in an electric green glow. Beneath metal palm fronds outlined in pink neon, jeaned lesbians and boys with spiky hair dance with each other to South American diva pop, alongside straight couples and some that could pass for straight from a distance. Enrique the bartender shakes to the beat as he chills a drink. The music changes and a procession of exaggerated femininity parades under the lights. "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," Marilyn lip-syncs as an industrial fan blows her dress over her face. A heavy set spiderwoman catches a web's spoke on a photographer's leg. Willowy Miss Venezuela, sprouting pastel plumes of yellow, baby blue and purple, spins with arms outstretched, glittering, sparkling, shining under the rotating light ball. The crowd cheers, laughs, whistles, yells, applauds.
It is a show like no other, in all its fabulosity. Onstage, the impersonators become the person they want to be, not the one they were born to look like. They soak up attention and return coquettish glances like no man ever can as a man.
The theatrical show ends and the unglamourous post-production human drama begins. The feathers return to the trash bags. The wigs, dresses, padded bras and false eyelashes come off.
It's another Wednesday night at Club Lido, though not just any one. This Wednesday, one of them will wear the crown.
The Queenmaker: Promoter Marisela shows the jeweled crown the winner will wear May 2.
The Muscle: Alfredo Garcia and Murph Atutoa work the security detail.
The Gatekeeper: Perla, right, collects money and greets customers at the door.
All hat no cattle: The conformity craze has bypassed Lido, where styles range from cowboy hats to camouflage.
Toast masters: Bartender Enrique Sanchez and manager Suzanne Loi (rear).
On deck: Backstage contestants prepare to make grand entrances.
Ready to go: Backstage preparations at the Nuestro Bellea Latina pageant finals.
Free as a bird: Contestant Andrea sported feathers for the competition.
Her name is Rio: Diana of Salinas represented 'Miss Brazil' in the pageant.
Recycle this newspaper: Scissors, paste and a stack of Metros were all it took for Alfredo Hernandez and a friend to fabricate this stunning outfit.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.