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After Racist Puppet Performance At Touché’s 45th Anniversary Party, Some Leather Community Members Feel ‘Disappointed And Betrayed’

Several people walked out of Touché's celebration after a white ventriloquist came out with a Black puppet named "Sista Girl" and made jokes about loving watermelon, being on welfare and having multiple kids.

Jerry Halliday performs with his puppet Sista Girl at Touché
Provided/Miguel Torres
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ROGERS PARK — Famed leather bar Touché will hold a town hall next week after coming under fire for hiring a ventriloquist who used a racist puppet of a Black woman during the bar’s 45th anniversary party.

The ventriloquist, Jerry Halliday, introduced his puppet as “Sista Girl” and was captured on video speaking with a stereotypical “Blaccent,” or voice that white and non-Black performers use to imitate Black vernacular. Witnesses said he made jokes about loving watermelon, being on welfare and having multiple kids.

Several audience members walked out mid-performance, including a bartender who quit mid-shift. A barrage of social media posts were made Wednesday calling out Touché, 6414 N. Clark St., for allowing the performance to happen. The Black puppet was pictured in posters advertising the 45th anniversary celebration.

Chuck Rodocker, owner of Touché, said he and the bar leaders “apologize profusely and sincerely” for the performance. The bar will host a town hall to collect feedback 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 N. Greenview Ave.

“Hopefully, people will look at the 45-year history of the establishment over a 45-minute tasteless performance,” Rodocker said. “If there’s something we can do to support someone more in the future, we’d be more than happy to because we are one of the oldest gay bars in the city and always had a very diverse crowd that’s welcoming of women, people of color and people with disabilities.”

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
Touché, 6414 N. Clark St.

Cris Bleaux, a bartender at Touché, quit about an hour and a half into his shift and “walked out in disgust” over Halliday’s performance, he said.

Bleaux said he immediately felt uncomfortable when Halliday, a white man, came on stage and pulled out the Black puppet. About five minutes into the set, Bleaux noticed people leaving.

After sitting through a few more acts, which made jokes about sexual assault, Puerto Ricans and transgender people, Bleaux took off his work keys, left them in the office and walked out, he said.

“The longer I was there, I started feeling nauseous,” Bleaux said. “I reached a point where I realized my integrity is more than this job. I had to go.”

Video of the performance shows a confrontation between Halliday and a white audience member, who tells the puppeteer “everyone in the crowd thinks this is a little weird for 2022.”

Halliday, speaking through the puppet, responds, “Everybody who wants this man to shut up, make some noise [and] clap.”

Multiple people can be heard clapping and booing the audience member, who leaves the bar shortly after.

Philip Smith, who recorded the video and provided it to Block Club, said the show closed with Halliday asking manager David Boyer to collect tips for the Black puppet’s five children.

Miguel Torres, a longtime patron of Touché who won the 2014 Mr. Chicago Leather, a contest hosted by the bar, said he left after the audience member was booed.

“It was extremely unsettling and disgusting,” Torres said. “I just looked at my friend and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever felt unsafe in this bar. Let’s just go.'”

A group of people of color were standing outside the bar when Torres left, talking about what they’d seen, he said.

“This bar is a safe space for a lot of us people from disadvantaged and marginalized communities, and this is just outrageous,” Torres said. “I feel extremely disappointed and betrayed by this.”

Video of the performance:

Torres has worked with the bar for decades helping its management make the space more inclusive through things like making sure its posters feature a diverse mix of people and posting signs that say bigotry is not acceptable.

“I poured years of free community work into this bar, so this feels like a big slap on the face. You just ruined all that work in one night,” Torres said.

Halliday’s act wasn’t vetted because he had been hired to perform at previous Touché events where he went over well with the crowd, Rodocker said.

“We thought it would be fun to bring an entertainer from the past to include him with the holiday party, but apparently his material has not changed with the ages,” Rodocker said. “I wasn’t there, but from my understanding … people took offense to one of his Black characters, and they were just not amused.”

Halliday, a national performer who’s headlined shows in Las Vegas, said Sista Girl has been a part of his act for 25 years and he’s never encountered anyone upset by the puppet. He called Tuesday night’s show an “overwhelming success” and denied it was racist.

“The Black people there all loved my show, and they told one person there to ‘shut up’ because he was trying to stop my show,” Halliday said. “I was a student at Hampton University, which is a Black university, and I’ve done fundraising for Black organizations, so this is all bulls—.”

Halliday called Sista Girl “a Valentine to Black women” and said he incorporates a Civil Rights speech in the middle of her show.

“She’s charming. She’s not stereotypical. She’s beautiful,” Halliday said. “The person that started this was told by a Black gentleman to shut up because he loved my show.”

In an email that went out Wednesday to Touché’s clientele, Boyer said the bar will work to be more inclusive of all people.

“We have and will continue to work hard to make this space more welcoming to all people regardless of their racial, ethnic, sexual or gender identities,” Boyer wrote. “Your feedback is noted and appreciated if we are to make that a reality here. We could not have remained in business here for the past 45 years if that were not a core purpose of our business.”

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
Jo MaMa (in blue) leads protesters during the Drag March For Change protest in 2020.

The incident is the latest in a series of high-profile anti-Black incidents within Chicago’s LGBTQ community over the past few years. In 2020, one of the city’s top drag performers was dropped by Berlin Nightclub and Roscoe’s after Black performers came forward with allegations of racism.

In 2019, protests were held against two racist incidents in Boystown. The first happened when Progress attempted to implement a rap music ban. That same weekend, vintage clothing and costume store Beatnix was found selling a Confederate flag vest, prompting former employees to come forward with allegations of racism against the owner.

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