The Past I Heard …
By Buddy Early, September 2019 Issue.
To celebrate Echo’s 30th birthday, this
year I will be catching up with some of Arizona’s LGBT personalities from past
and present to revisit the people, places and events that helped shape our
After a more than two-decade absence, the
Imperial Court of Arizona made a comeback in 2005.
I was somewhat familiar with the Court system, as a few of my elders had told me about it, but in all honesty, I never “got” it. I only knew it was a bunch of do-gooders who like to dress up in regal costumes and give each other long titles. Eventually, I realized: it’s do-gooders! Playing dress-up! And assigning themselves roles!
Obviously, it’s much more than that. But
once I started thinking of it as cosplay (which, admittedly, I don’t really
“get” either) it made a lot more sense. And you’d be hard-pressed to find an
LGBT community group that raises more money for great causes than the Court.
Robert “Robin” Price, known affectionately
by other Court members as Rockin’ Robin, holds the esteemed title of Emperor I
of the Imperial Court de Phoenix. He was coronated along with his Empress,
Adrian Raintree, in 1975. At the time the International Court system had been
thriving for several years, and Robin was good friends with its founder, Jose
Sarria, during the time he lived in the Bay Area and had even worn the title of
Crown Prince. Robin saw a need for a chapter in Phoenix in the early 70s,
particularly as a force to battle law enforcement raids of gays bars that had
become common. The then-Maricopa County
Sheriff Paul Blubaum had a hard-on for busting up social gatherings of our
“He was a complete asshole,” Robin told me.
“He wanted to get all the fairies out of Maricopa County.”
Robin and his partner at the time, who were
both well-known fixtures of the Phoenix gay social scene, had stumbled upon a
raid of a downtown bar one early morning. The duo arrived just as police were
beating the shit out of a visitor from Palm Springs, a twink wearing hot pants
and a t-shirt tied around his neck like an ascot. The young man’s older
partner, an important muckety-muck, promptly called a high-priced attorney who
got a dismissal of all charges and a rebuking of the sheriff by the judge. This
raid and others were a catalyst for the Valley’s gay community to organize.
Part of that effort led to the introduction of the Court.
Robin agreed to sit down with me in July to
tell some stories of the original version of the Court. And then he agreed to
sit down with me again a week later. (In fairness, I was warned he can and does talk a lot.) At 86, he’s slow to get around, aided by a walker
necessitated by Post-Polio Syndrome. But his mind is sharp as a tack, his
memory iron-clad, and his vocabulary impressive. He also appears to have not
lost any of his charm that has made him popular in gay bars since the early
“The only community per se (in Phoenix) was
the bar crowd,” Robin confirmed. Not only did he recognize that notorious
division between gay men and lesbians, but most of the vocal activists “went on
tv demanding things” and he felt that was not the way for the community to
The Imperial Court of Arizona was
officially organized on June 28, 1975. Despite their previous court involvement
in other cities, Robin and Adrian Raintree each had competition from four
aspirants. The ball, which was attended by a packed crowd at the Desert Hills
Resort Hotel, was titled “The Unification of the Community” and culminated in
the crowning of Robin and Adrian and Emperor I and Empress I. According to the
community’s magazine of the time, The Post, the highlight of the night
was the singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by female impersonator Lady Shana.
Robin called it one of the most memorable nights of his life and a turning
point for the community.
“People should be proud of this accomplishment;
it brings us out of the Dark Ages and into a reality. With the new unity of the
bars, the bath, the church, GPA, The Imperial Court, and this magazine we are
joining hands together to show the world we can do it! God bless you all and
work with all. THE BEGINNING?”
In the pre-AIDS days, the Imperial Court existed to raise funds for individuals in all kinds of need. Gays and lesbians were incredibly impacted by the nation’s high unemployment, and while more and more gay people were coming out, many found themselves without familial support. At the time, Robin and Adrian controlled the Court’s accounts and were responsible for dispersing funds to those who needed help. According to Robin, the calls would come at all hours — usually to his phone since Adrian gave out his number to everyone.
“A gay couple had their house burned down
by neighbors who didn’t like the queers,” he recalled.
“We had a fundraiser at one of the bars on
7th Street. It was to start at 8 p.m. and go until midnight. … We raised $1,600 that night for that
couple. (People stayed) after they stopped serving alcohol, and we didn’t get
out of there until 2.”
Most outsiders know the Court for its long
titles bestowed on members, or for the over-the-top royal costumes worn at events.
But Robin confessed that he never had much interest in all that pomp and
circumstance. During the time I met with him, in fact, he referred to the
Investiture — the annual ceremony at which titles are conferred — as The
Inquisition about a half dozen times.
“(Dressing up) is fun,” he said. “But the
reason we are here is to give back to the community.”
Even after the Court dissolved Robin
remained active in community fundraising. And when the Imperial Court of
Arizona returned in 2006, it was only natural that Rockin’ Robin would be asked
to play a role. When he showed up to their inaugural events that year, he had
the red carpet rolled out … literally.
Even talking about it now he seems amazed at how he was treated like
“I’m history for them,” he said.
These days Robin still attends all the meetings and maintains full voting responsibility. He certainly keeps busier than most 86-year-olds. And don’t make the mistake of asking him when he gave up his role in the Valley’s gay social scene. He says he hasn’t yet. He would be out and about more often if it weren’t for one particular Saturday afternoon in the last decade. (He doesn’t remember exactly when.)
Robin had been at a meeting of Los Amigos Del Sol, another social and volunteer group he has been participating in for decades, after which he and a few others took to bar-hopping. Bunkhouse was followed by Kobalt, followed by Apollo’s. While leaving the last bar to get into a cab, Robin tripped and face-planted onto the patio.
say, he had to cut back on the partying after that day. But he refuses to
become a shut-in. Robin’s active role in the gay community’s social scene has
been consistent since those days in 1951 when he would sneak off to Market
Street after school to look at the sailors. As long as the Court is around,
Robin will be a presence. And given the success of the Court, that means Robin
will be around for some time.