Drag brunch prevails at The Walnut Room, where history and radical acceptance collide

Host Lucy Stoole interacts with guests on June 10 during '90s Pride Drag Brunch in the Walnut Room at Macy's in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Kenzie Coulee performs on the fountain during Pride! Totally '90s Drag Brunch in The Walnut Room at Macy's. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — Every other weekend or so, if you head up seven floors to The Walnut Room, in the store once known as Marshall Field’s on State Street in Chicago, you’ll feel the music before you see the spotlights beaming from the show.

If you planned ahead, you’ll end up seated somewhere around the fountain, where the holiday tree usually hangs. The tree is literally hung from the ceiling, to keep some seasonal weight off the floor, with the priceless Tiffany domed ceiling below.


That floor has carried the weight of generations. Families come not just for the winter holidays, but new traditions too — notably drag brunches nearly every weekend throughout the year.

Macy’s, which bought Field’s in 2006, announced the first drag brunch at the restaurant to kick off LGBTQ+ Pride Month back in June 2021.

They seemed, for the most part, to have escaped the hate campaigns that escalated in 2022. UpRising Bakery and Cafe in Lake in the Hills, a suburb about an hour’s drive northwest of the city, canceled a sold-out family-friendly drag event after a vandal smashed windows last July.

Despite the pushback, the shows went on elsewhere and at The Walnut Room, except during the busy holiday season.

Just before Thanksgiving, a report by the world’s largest LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization found drag events in Illinois were among the most targeted in this country.

Yet they resumed on the seventh floor above State Street in January, with a Mariah Carey-themed “All I Want for Christmas Is You” event.

In April, a hate campaign targeted a “Mario Party” video game-themed brunch scheduled for May at The Walnut Room.

I happened to attend that event, unaware of the controversy.

At the finale, through the booming music and beaming lights, the host made a moving statement.

“I never could have imagined, being a Black nonbinary bearded drag queen, that I would ever have a show in this kind of space,” Lucy Stoole said.

When we spoke later to discuss what I believe is perhaps the most important space to do drag in the city, Lucy Stoole — who uses she/her pronouns in drag, and they/them pronouns out of drag as Ty Huey — revealed the show had nearly been canceled.

“We started to see some flak online about the Mario-themed brunch,” Huey said about their fellow performers. A hate campaign followed, leading Macy’s to consider canceling the brunch that day.

“We were like, that’s the absolute worst thing we could do, especially right now,” Huey said.

Huey speaks from extensive experience, doing drag full time as Lucy Stoole, while also working as a program manager at the legendary Berlin nightclub in Lakeview, and producing shows at other venues.

“When drag queens are being accused of being predators, by people online who’ve never seen a drag show, the worst thing to do is give in,” Huey said. “We just said, ‘We want to do this.’”

It was an easy choice, yet still difficult.

“That was a dark moment for me,” Huey said. “Because I had been so celebrated, and had been taken care of so well there. To be told the show was going to be canceled was tough for me at first. But we ended up being able to have conversations.”

The performers talked with a number of Macy’s executives.

“They told us it was the first time that they had ever encountered anything like this,” Huey said. “So they really didn’t know the best way to react. Their only thought was, ‘We want to protect the performers.’ After talking to us, and going over how we felt, and what we thought about the future of the brunch if we canceled, they came to agree.”

Macy’s took safety measures, and performers Trisha Can, Eva Styles, Trashly and Lucy Stoole transformed the event into a “Totally ’80s” theme.

“I was very thankful that people a lot higher up, who didn’t really have to step in, did take the time to meet with us and talk,” Huey said. “It’s really easy for a lot of companies these days to say that they support LGBTQ rights issues, maybe for a little money, or (putting) a Pride flag on something.

“But to actually see them put us in positions of power, and standing in spaces, and giving us a platform — that doesn’t happen that often,” they said. “And it especially rarely happens, let’s just be honest, to a lot of Black gender-nonconforming people.”

That day in May, fueled by chicken pot pie, I sang along by heart and at the top of my lungs to Madonna, Whitney, Cyndi and more. As a child of the ’80s, and a connoisseur of the music of that decade, I was surprised by a Mario number, but it later made sense. (When the costumes are already made and the songs rehearsed, I think it’s fair to fudge the numbers.)

I hadn’t noticed any Mario costumes in the enthusiastic audience, nor had I seen the plainclothes security.

“Macy’s had done even more than I had known,” Huey said. “I didn’t find out until after that day.”

It was the first time The Walnut Room had a security presence at drag brunch.

“It’s never been a necessity in any way,” Huey said.

In retrospect, Huey’s moving statement at that finale as their “beautiful, glamorous, very well-paid alter ego” was even more poignant.

“It’s vital for me to say in those audiences,” Huey said. “Maybe they’ve never seen drag, but they found a cool place they’re connected to.”

Those welcoming spaces are increasingly under siege; UpRising, the vandalized yet valiant bakery and cafe in the suburbs, after enduring nearly a year of hate, closed permanently May 31.

For the most part, the online haters don’t show up at events in the city, Huey said.

“If they did, the Chicagoans there for it would not have it,” they added, laughing. “I definitely rely on the community more than anything in these situations.”

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