Robert Hitchen, better known in Philly and South Jersey as Sandy Beach, got his start as a drag performer — he likes the term “male actress” — performing for straight audiences in Atlantic City.
“Just because I couldn’t get work as an actor at the time,” he says. “It was easy money. You went out, did three shows a night for 45 minutes, and you were done.”
He worked as a dancer on the Steel Pier. Then as a dolphin trainer! “But even when doing the shows,” he says, “I’d be over at the professional theater doing things like ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ So doing a drag act just seemed like part of a scene. I didn’t get picked on as much. I’m 6’3″ and didn’t usually get into fights. But when I did, I won.”
Being ‘human at work’ means something a little different for everyone and usually changes throughout life. It’s about who we are and who we’re made to be, and how the kaleidoscope of our strengths and weaknesses work for us, not against us. And sometimes there are factors that cut across all of these questions — two of the most prominent being gender and sexuality.
The intersections of work, gender and sexuality get headlines and social media buzz on the legal front (such as the recent SCOTUS ruling on marriage and reactions to it) and in the marketplace (women are still underpaid relative to men), and there is a new, heightened awareness of workplace challenges facing the transgender community. I believe that this wider dialogue shows the depth of those intersections.
Hitchen, who’s currently the executive director of Philadelphia Rainbow Awards, and a performer at the Greater Ocean City Theatre Co. and at Venture Inn in Philly, takes that dialogue further simply by dint of the range of talent and time that his career comprises. He’s been at it since the early ’70s, when understanding of the fluidity of gender familiar in wider American culture. But it was familiar to Hitchen: His uncle had been a female impersonator, too.
“He was one of the groundbreakers in the 1960s in Atlantic City,” Hitchen says. “It was a really fun town back then. All kinds of different drag shows. The different straight clubs had female impersonator shows. It was a cheaper form of entertainment, they were packing them in.”
So Hitchen’s work was both practical and familiar, but ultimately, he did it simply because his heart was in it. And I was fascinated to hear how that it works from the inside. “I approach my drag persona as most actors research a role: You study people,” he says. “The walk … tiny steps. Men take large steps. And the arms, hands are relaxed. Most men have clenched fists and stiff arms. Relaxed hips. Men walk rigid.”
Hitchen’s talent was quickly evident in the change-up world of comedy, gender perception and entertainment. “I did it for a couple of years, then got swept up by a casino to work for them. I worked with a straight comedy group called Unorganized Crime. They would bring out a drag character. We used to just kill people during the show. I’d come out as Marie Osmond, or somebody like that, and just be killed.”
Some of the straight venues Hitchen worked at included the Comedy Stop at the Tropicana Hotel, as well as other night shows. But the drag shows were also very popular in gay bars in Atlantic City. “It was before Fire Island got popular,” Hitchen says. “The New Yorkers came to this block in AC. The lines were long.”
That was until about 1982, when the casinos started tearing down the bars on New York Avenue. The smaller hotels were getting torn down, too, and Hitchen saw the city begin to change.
Some of that life moved out onto the street, and other actors shifted to New York. “I had already left to go to Golden Nugget in Atlantic City, and in New York my old show went to the Ice Palace on 57th Street.”
I asked about something else that was hitting that area hard in the early 1980s: AIDS. Hitchen readily agrees that it was a big factor. “We’d say, ‘Where was so-and-so”‘ — and they’d say he had hepatitis. Then he’d be dead two weeks later. It was happening in New York, then happening in Atlantic City. We didn’t know it was AIDS. Remarkably, the bar I worked at, most employees are still alive — maybe because of the bizarre hours we worked. The whole show I was with is still alive, most of the bartenders. Whereas other shows up the street, the whole cast is dead now.”
Hitchen continues to write and choreograph shows to raise money to fight AIDS.
Given that his career had spanned such drastic changes, beginning not long after the Stonewall riots, thriving through the ravages of AIDS, and still going strong today, it was timely that we were talking so recently after SCOTUS affirming marriage as between two people. It was a day that he, like many, hadn’t expected to live to see. So he folded that celebration creatively into his show.
“In my show that Friday night, because SCOTUS passed [that morning], I was ready with ‘Chapel of Love‘ and had a wedding gown,” he says, laughing. “Once I found out about the ruling, I made a quick bouquet and tiara. And then that night, someone shows up and brings me a beautiful bouquet.”
It was a celebratory bouquet — but also a celebration of Hitchen’s work over so many years. “The friend who brought me the flowers said, ‘I watched you for 25 years. I grew up watching you. You were first person I saw do a show. You’re still the funniest person I know.”
Hitchen used the bouquet as a bridal nosegay in his opening number. “I did ‘Chapel of Love,’ but I changed the words to bring the song into the day. People went crazy. They sang along with me. My monologue talked about that happy day, but how so many fought for this but were no longer with us. One of the bartenders I worked with [back in AC] is celebrating 45 years with a partner. Now they can get married.”
As I listened to him, I considered all of the people he had touched for so many years.
“The good things that have come to me in life,” he says, “came from doing good and surrounding myself with good people. I come from a generation of comedians who often played both roles — Monty Python, SNL. It doesn’t matter which gender I play. If I get a good solid laugh, be it in a dress or suit and tie, playing a man or a woman, having a gift to make people laugh is what matters most.”
I asked if Hitchen could express in a single phrase how bringing his humanity to work has affected him. He paused, clearly choked up, and said something that, while simple, means everything: “That I know I did something good with my talent.”