Once widely known as “Fabulous Ferndale,” what was one of the few visible gayborhoods in the region has now become, well, kind of straight. That’s not to say Ferndale has become homophobic — plenty of rainbow flags still adorn storefronts — but a downtown that used to be prominently dotted with gay bars, clubs, and bookstores is very much a regular ol’ neighborhood these days.
Chalk it up to the proliferation of hookup apps, eliminating the need for designated bars, or our culture’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality. The Ringwald Theatre, then, is seemingly one of the last vestiges of old Ferndale.
“It seems like with most places, the gays move in and gentrify the place and make it safe and fabulous for everyone else to come on their heels,” says Joe Bailey from the theater’s green room. There are growing pains, however: the artistic director and co-founder says the storefront theater’s windows aren’t soundproof, so they get some noise from the streets on Fridays and Saturdays. The other day, two windows got smashed, apparently the casualty of a drunken brawl.
But the Ringwald isn’t a quiet, snooty place of “high art.” The theater keeps things fun — Bailey scours the Internet for offbeat scripts, like Gilligan’s Fire Island. His personal tip: Catch a play on Monday nights, which tend to be rowdier. The theater doesn’t serve booze, but patrons have been known to run over to nearby Dino’s Lounge for intermission refreshments.
“A lot of times I like it when you sort of can see the wires and you just make things happen,” Bailey says of the low-budget productions. “This is on the campier realm, but we did Mommy Queerest a few years ago. There was a swimming pool scene — you just take two pieces of blue fabric and you just wave them, and stretch them across the stage. Things like that — I like finding creative ways of making theater magic.”
Bailey grew up in Sterling Heights and has lived in Ferndale for the past 12 years. An Oakland University alum, he says he moved to Los Angeles “like a hundred years ago” to act, scoring a part in 10 Naked Men. After going on the road with different shows, he grew tired of living out of a suitcase. “That was when I decided to come back here,” he says. “And I had acquired my partner on the road — he came back here too because he was from Wyoming, and was like, ‘I’m not going back there.’” Bailey co-founded the theater along with a handful of like-minded thespians in 2007, though the only other founding members still onboard are Jamie Warrow and Brandy Joe Plambeck.
It’s not all camp and circumstance — the theater makes a point to show more serious plays as well, like Angels in America and August: Osage County. “A good story is a good story as far as I’m concerned,” Bailey says. (Next season the theater will premiere its first commissioned play.)
“But I still love doing the campy stuff too,” he says. “People seem to like me in a dress.”