Peacock in the Park: A Legacy of Inclusion and Education

Peacock in the Park is one of the city’s most beloved traditions. Photo credit: Byron Beck.
Peacock in the Park is one of the city’s most beloved traditions. Photo credit: Byron Beck.

By Amanda Schurr, PQ Monthly

It is a Portland Pride institution, and a true innovator in a city known for its drag culture. But to speak with Maria Peters Lake, the longtime matriarch of Peacock Productions, Peacock in the Park is also a testament to not only a remarkable local heritage, but the future of the LGBTQ community in more ways than one.

The flagship event of Peacock Productions debuted back in June 1987 as Peacock and the Roses, when entrepreneur and entertainer Lady Elaine Peacock’s dreams of a drag show in Washington Park came to fruition. In the fall of that year, her mother, Audria M. Edwards—a staunch gay rights activist—passed away. “[She] was warm, welcoming, understanding and loving,” Peters Lake says of Edwards, whose family of six children represented the full LGBT spectrum.

Not only had Edwards been the second president of the Portland Chapter of Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Peters Lake notes that she is now credited with being the first African American president of any PFLAG chapter in the country. Edwards was a shining example for Lady Elaine, Rose Empress XXIX of Oregon’s oldest LGBT nonprofit, the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court, and the community at large. And in the spring of 1988, Lady Elaine, along with Misty Waters, Rosey Waters and Ray Southwick, established the Audria M. Edwards Scholarship Fund in tribute to her mother’s commitment to continued education. Peacock and the Roses was rechristened Peacock in the Park and became the main fundraiser for the newly created fund, which awarded its first scholarship in 1989.

The event—a lavish, joyous presentation of drag, dance, and live entertainment—grew in scale and popularity over the years, with crowds numbering in the thousands. Monies raised benefited the post-secondary, undergraduate education of a deserving LGBT student, or a student with an LGBT parent. But in October 1993, days after Peters Lake stepped up as Rose Empress XXXVI, Lady Elaine herself died. In hopes that her legacy, the scholarship fund, and its primary fundraiser would continue, Peters Lake and Kimberlee Van Patten succeeded their friend and have shepherded the event ever since. “It is always our intention to extend that loving, giving, inclusive spirit to our audiences at Peacock in the Park and beyond in hopes that being who we are will someday be enough to unite communities and foster equality,” Peters Lake says.

That mission is bigger than just the audiences who come back year after year, generation after generation for a summer afternoon in the park. With $250,000 raised to date, Peters Lake hopes Lady Elaine and Audria would be proud of what the organization, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has accomplished. “We have people from all over the state and Southwest Washington that have touched us with stories of strength and perseverance,” she shares. “From single parents going back to school with their children to those who were the first in their family to go to college, they have all told us receiving the gift of higher education was life-changing.”

Peacock Productions’ lineup evolved throughout the years to include a Peacock After Dark event, Soul Food & Gospel Show, Medieval Feast, and an All-Ages Show at Darcelle XV Showplace. But the centerpiece of the organization remained Peacock in the Park, which returned in 2014 following a decade-long hiatus. “We did very little in the way of advertising, mostly word of mouth and social media blasts, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Peters Lake explains. “Walking out on the stage and seeing the park full of folks took my breath away. I will never forget it.”

Crowds can expect the same celebratory atmosphere and stellar live and lip-synch performances that have made Peacock in the Park a perennial favorite—Peters Lake says she has heard it described as an “annual family reunion.” It’s also something of a rarity in Pride season—a family friendly drag show whose fundamental inclusiveness appeals to all ages and walks of life. “I am always surprised when folks come in and say, ‘I was here when I was 7 and now I am 27,’ or by the people who brought their children and now their grandchildren. Sometimes I think… Man, I am old!,” says Peters Lake, laughing.

“What keeps it fresh is all the talent in Portland,” she continues. “We are constantly being introduced to more and more people that want to participate.” Not that the deceptively simple premise—a picnic, music, and a show—is without its challenges. Peters Lake stresses that while Peacock in the Park is free to attend, it is critical that the thousands who flock to the event donate to the cause. The Audria M. Edwards Scholarship Fund depends upon it.

“For a long time I thought if we just threw a great party, the money would come,” she says. “That kind of thinking is what caused us to stop the party in 2004. In the 10 years we were off trying to do other things, we never stopped hearing people say how much they missed Peacock in the Park. So we decided to bring it back. Only this time we understand that we have to be more direct and say, ‘Hey, we need your money to continue!’ We also learned how to ask for help. The fun [part] has been all the amazing people I’ve met over the past 20+ years and hearing all the stories about how much Peacock in the Park means to them.”

And what does Peters Lake think it would mean to Lady Elaine Peacock at this, the start of Pride 2015? Could she have imagined how far her namesake event, her mother’s namesake scholarship fund, and the LGBTQ community as a whole would have come? “If I had one wish, it would be to ask Lady Elaine Peacock this exact question,” Peters Lake reflects. “At the time of their deaths, we were just the ‘gay’ community and we were fighting to survive the AIDS pandemic and the Oregon Citizens Alliance. But despite all the fear, oppression and homophobia of that era, Audria and Peacock chose love, leadership, inclusion and education. They were pioneers in the fight for gay rights.”

“I’m sure they would be astounded by the progress we’ve made as a community and doubt they ever dreamed we’d have gay marriage, whole TV shows built on gay characters and trans folks gracing the covers of Time and Vogue just 30 years after the outbreak of HIV/AIDS. We’ve come a long way and it is up to us to keep the memories of those we loved, who paved the way, alive.”

Peacock in the Park 2015 is Sunday, June 28, from noon to 5 p.m., at the Washington Park Amphitheater, 410 SW Kingston Ave., Portland. Bring a picnic or you may purchase food from concession carts onsite. No alcohol will be sold or served; however, you may bring beer or wine (no hard liquor). Admission is free, but donations are requested. For more information, visit peacockinthepark.org.