Director Mark Saxenmeyer

Mark Saxenmeyer knows cameras.

The Minnesota native and former on-camera reporter spent the better part of three decades in the news business, working as a local reporter for network affiliates in Chicago and Minneapolis. A career downturn actually led him to find new purpose as a filmmaker, prompting him to step behind the camera as a documentarian. Nearly 10 years in the making, his first film has finally arrived for streaming On-Demand: The Queens.

The Queens targets the historic Chicago cabaret The Baton, a world-famous venue noted for its outstanding female impersonators. For more than half a century, the club has drawn straight and queer audiences alike under the watchful eye of proprietor Jim Flint. The popularity of the club also prompted Flint–a sometime female impersonator himself–to start the Miss Continental pageant, a nationwide Miss America-type beauty contest to find the year’s most talented female impersonator. Over the years, the pageant has seen a number of before-they-were-stars contestants, including Alyssa Edwards, Jasmine Masters, Alexandra Billings, Candis Cayne and Dominique Jackson.

Saxenmeyer weaves the history of The Baton and Miss Continental together as a backdrop to the 2011 Miss Continental pageant. Saxenmeyer and his camera detail the lives of the contestants and the backstage drama of the show as the queens compete for the title.

Queerty caught up with Saxenmeyer to chat about the film just before a special live Q&A presentation. The Queens will host a Zoom watch party followed by a Q&A on August 12 at 7pm CST. It’s also available to stream at any time on Vimeo.

So this film has been a long time coming for you. Why so long?

I was a TV reporter for 25 years. I started Reporters, Inc. in 2005. I knew TV news would be petering out for me, as it does for most people at some point. When I ended my career, we were in the recession. That’s when we started shooting The Queens. But we couldn’t raise any money to finish it. Literally, for three years after we shot it, it just sat. We didn’t do anything. Then we previewed it at Pride of the Ocean, with a bunch of LGBTQ filmmakers. We had two fundraising premieres to raise money for post-production and tweaked it a little more.

A Miss Continental pageant contestant reacts to being named a finalist

Wow.

When you’re an independent filmmaker, you’re really dependent on fundraising to get something done. So it was really incremental. We did get six offers from distributors, and we pursued that. But the thing about film distribution in this day and age—I didn’t think I’d see a return on the investment. The six companies that promised us the stars wanted to take a huge cut, and share the proceeds with the platforms they would put it on. None of them could really guarantee a way to market it, or how they would get it seen. I never could get an answer. So what I really decided, in the end, was that if we released it on Vimeo and On-Demand, we would get 90% of the profits. And [Reporters, Inc.] is a non-profit. All the proceeds we raise from this will go to finish our next one.

This is something I hear from a lot of independent filmmakers, believe it or not. It’s a tricky thing.

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In the film, you focus on Jim Flint, the sometime female impersonator and club impresario who founded The Baton and Miss Continental. As someone who grew up in Chicagoland, The Baton is very famous, particularly among women. Why is it not more known nationally?

I was interested in The Baton because it was one of the first places I went when I moved to Chicago. It was downtown. One of my coworkers said we had to go, and I was never into drag. I thought it would be more like a bar show. But these were transgender female impersonators—that was the difference. It was drag, but a different level. So for years, I would go to The Baton with friends. There was something about The Baton that I had an affinity for, and I loved the history of it. Jim had fought for the space through the 70s with the mob, and fought city hall for years. He was always having to fight off comparisons to strip clubs.

Jim Flint receives a kiss from a former Miss Continental winner

Oh my.

For years, when it started, [The Baton] attracted primarily gay audiences. But because it was in River North, it became a tourist destination for bridal parties and straight people. For most of the years I was there it still drew a huge audience. Now, with the pandemic, I guess they’re doing patio shows.

That’s great.

With RuPaul’s Drag Race, I think there’s been this growth and change in the whole world of entertainment. But for me, it’s different from drag because almost [every performer] is transgender.

Did Jim ever attempt to open other franchises in other cities?

I don’t know. The story he does tell is that before RuPaul’s Drag Race, the producers from World of Wonder approached him to obtain the rights to Miss Continental to turn into a show. He was working with them a bit and thought it would be great, but he’s a very prideful man. He didn’t want to give up his right to run the show. It’s his baby.

Sure.

Jim always likes to do things his way. He’s been successful doing them his way. So, for whatever reason, it didn’t come to fruition. Over the years, they’ve tried to get other people to air Miss Continental. But for years, I think it was too much of a hot potato for that. Now, it seems it would get a huge audience.

One thing that comes up in the film—a notion that intrigued me—was that these performers are not drag queens. They don’t like that label. But then, there are also trans women, who are women; they don’t impersonate them. So what’s the difference between a female impersonator and a drag queen?

I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to that question. I think it depends on the person and the generation and how you interpret the art form. One criticism we’ve gotten—and it is a valid one—is from some transgender people who say if you live your life as a woman, on stage and off, how are you a female impersonator? That’s a question I found fascinating. I, as a cisgender gay man, can’t really answer that. So I asked the performers. One, Mimi Marks, said something along the lines of there will always be people who argue and want to make it political. For me, it’s the way I live my life.

Mimi Marks backstage at the Miss Continental pageant

Ok.

So I think “drag queen,” to some transgender performers, seems to lessen what they do because a drag queen is traditionally a man dressing up as a woman. [The Baton performers] are transgender women or transitioning women or somewhere on the gender spectrum. So it’s different. And even in the time frame between when we shot the film and released it—nine years—the whole culture has changed.

Absolutely.

The whole understanding has changed. People in our film use the word “transgendered” which is not used anymore. Jim still used the world “transsexual.” People were still using “tranny.” There was a lot that changed really rapidly. Even on Drag Race, though they years they’ve had to edit things out that were once considered cute, but now are offensive. I don’t think you can ever please everyone; things are constantly evolving and changing.

Indeed.

When we were promoting this, wee had some transgender activists reach out to us and say this is not what being transgender is. I encourage everyone to see the film before you criticize it. When you see it, you will understand things differently. [The film] is not meant to define transgenderism. This is merely one part of it, just as all gay men aren’t the same.

Sunny Dee-Lite during the Miss Continental pageant opening number

Oh, of course.

I have to clarify that. Some people think we’re claiming all transgender individuals want to dress up and create this stereotypical illusion of female beauty. It’s very complex. As a filmmaker and journalist, I didn’t set out to change minds. We let our cameras roll. Each viewer can come up with their own determination of what they think.

That’s a wise attitude. We also have to—at some point—talk about something Jim says in the film: that trans women don’t compete in Miss Continental. That’s ridiculous considering that Alexandra Billings, Candis Cayne, Dominique Jackson and a number of other transwomen are famous for competing. I also know that Jim has since opened the pageant to everyone.

He had a very not illuminated view on what constitutes transgender. It was too tied to anatomy. That was very, very offensive to a number of transgender filmmakers I previewed the film for. I even re-edited it. Again, in the way being trans has evolved, it has nothing to do with anatomy. It’s a spectrum of how you identify yourself as a human being.

Yes.

That’s what Jim has finally come around to. But he is an older gentleman, and it took him a while to come around. He would always say “I’m not advertising sex changes. I’m advertising female impersonators. If you’ve gone ‘all the way,’ you’re not a man anymore.” So for him it was literally a matter of a surgical procedure, whether or not you could perform. That was just so offensive to so many transgender folks. The last thing I want to do is have the film offend anybody. I just want them to enjoy the art form and understand the history.

A Miss Continental pageant contestant is squeezed into her gown

Well, and it’s funny. I went to college in Orlando, where Danielle Hunter was a fixture of drag life. She even won Miss Continental in 2003 I think. She always referred to herself as a full-time drag queen, and as trans. And nobody minded back then.

Well and even if you look at RuPaul, he got a lot of flack a couple years ago over allowing transgender performers on Drag Race. But yet he’s had several performers who transitioned since, and I believe Peppermint even came out on the show.

Right.

Then, this summer they did a whole episode of cisgender women doing drag. So it seems like the evolution has come that anybody can do drag, regardless of anatomy. It’s all about the art form. And it’s going to keep evolving.

Well said. What’s the state of Jim’s life today?

Still working. He shows up every day. Last I chatted with him was when we released the film and he was going in for some minor procedure. I think he’s out and doing well. We’re going to have a live Q&A for the film August 12. He has two co-owners now, so they’re kind of helping and transitioning. As Jim gets older her can’t do as much, so he needs a younger perspective. As far as I know though, he still makes all the final decisions.

A Miss Continental pageant contestant leaves the stage after the swimsuit competition

What was it about The Baton that spoke to you so much?

The full story: when I left WFLD in Chicago in 2010, I thought I would transition [into filmmaking]. But with the recession, people weren’t giving money to non-profits. People weren’t even giving money to food banks. So I thought about doing a reality show about The Baton. That was my initial pitch: a sizzle reel of The Baton. So we did that, but nobody bought it. So the only way to keep making it was to fund it ourselves.

Sure.

So we refocused it to be a documentary. We shot some more stuff. It was a whole learning process about Hollywood, about how films are made.

What’s next for you?

All the proceeds from The Queens will go toward Guilty Until Proven Innocent. It’s a limited documentary series taking a look at wrongful conviction cases around the country. We’re taking a more analytical look at each case we profile, and explaining what in the criminal justice system caused this wrongful conviction, what’s happening to change that, and if not, what needs to be done. We hope it will be really impactful.

The Queens will host a Zoom watch party followed by a Q&A on August 12 at 7pm CST. The Queens is available for rental and purchase on Vimeo now.

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