Choose your illusion

On show nights, the Winter Park residence of Robert Bowles is bedecked with signs that welcome visitors to "Tori's Place." The signs lead the curious away from the road and into the portals of Bowles' immaculately decorated town home, where photographs and other mementos reflect a lifetime of family-centric, socially respectable activity.

As newcomers take in these sights, they are greeted by Bowles' girlfriend, Margery Smith, whose sweater is tied around her neck in a show of casual elegance. She directs their attention toward a side dining table, where wine and cheese are laid out for their enjoyment.

In a far corner stands Bowles, 74, a retired banker/property developer and grandfather of five. He is wearing a simple black cocktail dress, stockings, black ladies' shoes and a tasteful pendant that hangs from a chain around his neck. His head is covered in a man-made silver bob that carries more than a hint of Olympia Dukakis. Light makeup daubs his face. Sometimes, he wears eyeglasses; he owns contact lenses, but dislikes having to wear them.

After briefly introducing himself as one "Tori Lebows," Bowles sets about his business of reciting the words of Robert W. Service (1874-1958), the British-born poet who became a widely admired chronicler of the North American Gold Rush. The verses are rough but rich, deeply evocative tales of the hard-living men who gambled their souls to prospect for gold in the harsh Yukon territory -- and of the shady, potentially lethal ladies who caught their eye.

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.

In between poems, Bowles/Lebows reads letters she has composed to Service. Tori, we "learn," is an old sweetheart of the writer's, and their running correspondence inspired many (if not all) of his greatest works. What follows is a twin-pronged recap of a long-distance love, with Tori's missives prodding the poet on to ever-greater literary triumphs she then recites by heart.

During a break, guests dispose of their emptied wine glasses. That requires a trip to the kitchen, where the refrigerator is festooned with images of President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. Attached messages thank Bowles for his gracious contributions to the Republican National Committee. After a few short minutes, the second act begins, and Tori Lebows resumes her secondhand narration of life, love and death in the frozen north.

They range the field
and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.

Bowles has been staging these happenings for the past month or so, transforming his home into a makeshift theater as often as three times a week. He got the idea while on a recent trip to his native state of New York, where he tumbled to the phenomenon of a married couple who were presenting theatrical events in their house. But as Orlando is not New York just yet, Tori's Place has been slower to find an audience. This Saturday, April 26, Bowles takes the routine into the outside world when he performs at Chapters Bread & Books Cafe and Bookshop in College Park.

"I might get some people to come just to see what Bob Bowles in drag looks like," he theorizes. He's hoping for a healthy turnout of his already-clued-in friends, who he says have been outwardly supportive of his hobby.

"I haven't had anyone say, 'Have you turned queer on us, Bob? What the hell are you doing?'"

What he's doing is refining an act whose poetic and cross-dressing aspects are both inherited traditions in one way or another. Bowles' father, a Long Island urologist, was a lifelong Service fan who at the age of 80 recited the poet's "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" at a family reunion. His son caught the spoken-word bug in 1963, under the auspices of an annual charity follies run by a business associate. One of the event's regular highlights was a drag recital of Hugh Antoine D'Arcy's "The Face on the Barroom Floor," performed by a past member of Harvard University's female-impersonating Hasty Pudding Club. When that contributor moved on, it was Bowles -- who knew the poem by heart -- who was tapped to replace him. He did so for the next 10 years, branching out to give charity performances at "lodges, lounges, halls and private homes." He also added poems by Rudyard Kipling and John Masefield -- and Robert Service, his father's favorite.

The act ended in 1974. By 1993, Bowles was retired and living in Florida. It wasn't until 2001, when his wife passed way from cancer, that he was inspired to belatedly return to drag poetics -- as a creative outlet and a potential supplement to his retirement finances. ("With dividends and interest rates pushing one-and-a-half or two percent, your assets don't produce a whole lot of income combined with Social Security.") Now, his best-case scenario is for his thrice-weekly in-home performances to draw the maximum capacity of 15 guests, at $15 per head. To that end, he's joined the Central Florida Performing Arts Alliance, which lists his shows on its website "right between "La Nouba" and some other deal."

Titled "Tales of the Yukon," Bowles' show isn't Cirque du Soleil just yet. His physical presence is more dignified than feminine, and he requires the occasional prompt from Smith, who sits at the ready with a book of Service's poetry. ("She's been a godsend for me," Bowles says. "When you lose a wife of 44 years, it's lonesome.") The presentation, though, is improving at a rapid rate, thanks to Bowles' admirable ability to instantly assimilate the creative suggestions of show-biz acquaintances like FunnyEola/ Crane's Comedy impresario Vicki Roussman. In a few short weeks, he's honed his stagecraft and taken important strides toward clarifying the crucial back story that is the Lebows/Service relationship. He's enjoying the process.

"It's kind of a kick, the drag routine, because you're a total different personality," Bowles says. "I don't consider myself a very dramatic person, but in that costume, I feel very comfortable dramatizing the poetry."

Almost as comfortable, one guesses, as he does at the Winter Park Pines golf course ("the best golf deal in town"), where he tees off regularly. Or at the All Saints Church, which benefits from his services as an usher and a lay reader. A particular area of involvement: the Tuesday-night healing services, in which 150 congregants per week pray for relief from physical and emotional distress.

"I confess that I'm not exactly sure how many of those folks, when this becomes public knowledge, are going to Ã? you know," Bowles confides. "If anybody's going to have a problem with it, I don't know. But my attitude almost has to be `that` if somebody has a problem with it, that's their problem."

He's a rolling stone,
and it's bred in the bone;
He's a man who won't fit in.

(Tales of the Yukon, 6 p.m. Saturday, April 26, Chapters Bread & Books Cafe and Bookshop; $10, $29.95 with 5 p.m. dinner; 407-246-1546. For reservations to Tori's Place, call 407-310-8084.)


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