Casa de San Jose

ray aguilar crown

In the early days of Casa de San Jose’s informal association of drag queens, they would travel to San Francisco for the city’s world-famous drag shows. Ray Aguilar, a San Jose drag queen, requested permission to form an IICS chapter in San Jose, which formed as Casa de San Jose of Santa Clara County Inc in the early 1970s. In 1990, the organization was reincorporated as The Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy, Inc. of San Jose.

Casa de San Jose elected a full royal court every year: an emperor and empress, crown princes and princesses, czar and czarina, and grand dukes and duchesses. Every March, the Grand Coronation Ball served as large fundraising events and the election of the new emperor, empress, and court. Title rules were as follows: anyone was eligible, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, but they must reside in Santa Clara County and demonstrate successful sponsorship of community fundraising events.

Unlike many other courts, the Imperial Court in San Jose was open to people of all genders and sexual orientations to participate, including running for emperor and empress. Anyone in attendance could vote (with proof of residence) by placing their ballots at a table in the front of the hall to be counted later. Winners were then escorted on stage to be crowned by the host emperor and empress.

Kevin Roche remembers during his time as an Emperor: “My empress is actually transgender and she had strong connections into that community. We actually got a bunch of members of Carla Salon, which is a transgender social club, to come out and join us. Carla’s was a place where they could go and they could dress up and no one would see them, but they could do that at a court event because no one was surprised to see masculine looking people in dresses. A number of them actually joined and were some of our most effective members. That was really fun to see them being in public where that part of themselves could come out.”

Various balls raised money for different causes. The money raised was donated to charitable organizations, including the American Heart Association and American Cancer Research. As the AIDS crisis grew, they began donating to the Visiting Nurses Association and local AIDS charities.

In the early days, almost every drag performer in San Jose was involved in the Imperial Court. To join the Imperial Court, one had to come out during the Closet Ball. The Closet Ball was a way for amateurs new to performing to debut their drag personas and find mentors to help develop their performance. The performers had to be sponsored by an established queen and they were given an hour to transform into their drag persona.

Kevin Roche’s experience at the Closet Ball was showbusiness disappointment. “San Jose has had both drag queens and drag kings. So Lucy [Manhattan] talked me into entering the Closet Ball one year. It was awful. I worked really hard on it and the person who won had actually been performing weekly, but Lucy said, ‘If you’ll forgive me for getting you into this, there’s a charity show I’m doing in a month and I’d like to work with you and help you actually put together an act.’”

In recent years, pageants overtook the Imperial Court in popularity in San Jose. Pageants run outside the Imperial Court system, and many have opted to participate in those instead. The Imperial Court of San Jose dissolved in 2018. Those who wanted to continue participating in court traditions joined the San Francisco Imperial Court, which also permitted them to keep any titles earned in San Jose.


An Insight Into the Bar Scene With Darlene

darlene lutz profile

Known throughout the gay community for her signature “beehive” hairdo and fundraising skills, Darlene Lutz Montalbano became a member of the San Jose area LGBTQ community in 1969. She began working as a bartender for Mom and Pop, the original owners of The Savoy  (women’s bar) in 1972. Over the years she worked as a bartender at Toyon Bar, continued working for Toyon when it moved from Cupertino to The Alameda in San Jose, and then went back to Savoy for a short time in 1984. Darlene then found an opportunity to open her own bar, Dar’s Hideaway in the old Silver Fox bar in Cupertino.

Darlene was also one of the first women to be accepted into Casa de San Jose, San Jose’s gay court/fundraising organization.  Darlene was the first woman Empress of CASA. She raised a great deal of money, organized many successful picnics and other events, and brought the men and women of the gay community together.

She assisted in some capacity with CASA for years after her reign, and then worked with the IRLM (Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy, another gay court), to continue organizing events and raising money for various causes.

During the AIDS crisis in Santa Clara County, she rallied the women of the community to support individuals diagnosed with AIDS with many fundraising events, hosting spaghetti dinners, gay cruises on the San Francisco Bay, and lending any support needed.

She feels the younger LGBTQ generation doesn’t have the same opportunities these days to connect:

“The younger community doesn’t have guidance from somebody who is my age or someone who is willing to get out there and get people connected. I miss that myself. It was a joy to be able to do stuff for other people.”