What else would you expect from someone who has raised money through drag shows and bingo fundraisers for 40 years than to turn a 60th birthday into a drag anniversary and birthday extravaganza fundraiser?
The beloved performer Melinda Ryder, otherwise known as Bruce Winter, will be joined by several friends for the March 12 celebration – the legendary Ida McBeth, the Heartland Men’s Chorus, and the Grand Marquis band. The event will also feature BJ the DJ. The fundraiser will be from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Studio Dan Meiners, 2500 W. Pennway St., Kansas City, Mo. It will benefit four organizations: Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA), Good Samaritan Project, KC Pet Project and the LIKEME Lighthouse.
Tickets are $50 before March 1 and $60 afterward and can be purchased at MelindasBirthday.Eventbrite.com.
Winter explained how he determined the beneficiaries of the fundraiser. “I’m on the board of the LIKEME Lighthouse. I thought what better way to celebrate my career and my life. I’m lucky every day to be alive. I wanted to bring together four organizations that encompass a lot in Kansas City – the Lighthouse, GLAMA, GSP and KC Pet Project. The older you get, of course, the more you think about your history and all that, which is why I chose GLAMA. And of course the Lighthouse does wonderful work for the community, and Good Samaritan Project has always been very good to me and they are the oldest AIDS support group in Kansas City. I was there at the beginning with that, so that meant something to me. And KC Pet Project, I love their pets. So instead of doing it for one group, I wanted to do it for four.”
Winter said the event will be 100 percent a fundraiser, with no entertainers being paid.
“Ida and I have been friends for over 30 years, and she is donating her time. The Grand Marquis band I met in Lawrence years ago, and I loved their music. They do like ’20s, ’30s New Orleans jazz.” Members of the Heartland Men’s Chorus will also be singing, he said.
“It really does mean a lot to us besides just celebrating my birthday.”
He also credits Studio Dan Meiner for their support in providing the venue. “He’s being very generous to us,” Winter said.
GLAMA has a Melinda Ryder collection of gowns, costumes and photographs taken at shows.
“It was funny too, for a few years, I was thinking I need a place to put my stuff. I don’t want to give it to my nieces – they’ll put it in a box in their basement. Then I was at AIDS Walk and talked to Christopher [Leitch”> and Stuart [Hinds”> of GLAMA and said ‘This is perfect for me to put my stuff.’”
Winter has been legally married for four years to Kirk Nelson, who owns the Kirk~A Salon. The two have been together for 34 years.
“We waited until our 30th anniversary [to get married”>, and it was a special time,” he said.
Together they are a creative tour de force, because Kirk is a great vocalist and performs at many shows in Kansas City, including the Pride festival. He also creates many of Melinda’s gowns, as well as her hair and makeup. They live in Kansas City’s Northland with their poodle, Bree.
The struggles that Winter has faced over the years include twice being diagnosed with lymphoma. He said that both times he battled the lymphoma, he was off work for nine months because he couldn’t be around people with his weakened immune system.
But before his treatment, “I was in denial for six months. My glands were swollen, and I didn’t want to deal with it. And my first diagnosis was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. All those months of denying it, it was better to know. I did chemo for that. It went away for about a year and then it came back. Then I got referred by my oncologist to the stem cell transplant center. They did the auto transplant where they took my cells out, cleaned them up and put them back in.”
They had to find a stem-cell donor because no one in his family was a match. Winter said he was grateful they found a donor in Alaska. He has been in remission for 10 years.
“My doctor said, ‘You know, you really are kind of a miracle.’”
Winter was born in St. Louis and began doing drag shows there before moving to Kansas City in 1976. He first met Kirk at the Cabaret bar in Kansas City.
Melinda Ryder entertained at the recent Miss Gay Kansas City pageant at Missie B’s. She will also be entertaining at the Miss Gay Missouri pageant in Kansas City in April and Gay Pride in June.
Of course, she also continues to host weekly bingo fundraisers at Hamburger Mary’s, a role for which she’s well-known. The restaurant has been hosting bingo fundraisers for local charities ever since they opened in Kansas City, with Ryder and other entertainers taking different evenings of hosting the events.
“It’s good for me because it’s early and over by 9:30 p.m.,” Winter said. “I’ve met so many people I never would have met. It’s become such a magnet for all charities all across the city. Just last year, Kirk and myself and our friend Edith, who helps out every week, have raised over $85,000 on our own, just for our bingos. So that just shows you the amount of money they raise at Mary’s, which is a fantastic thing.”
For any performance, though, Winter said he prefers to get into his drag persona at home, not in the bar’s dressing room.
“I arrive as a star and leave as a star,” he said with a laugh.
“… That way you don’t have to bring so much stuff. I just bring what I need for touch-ups that night.”
One time, he said, he was pulled over while driving in drag.
“My purse was in the trunk,” Winter said. “The cop didn’t bat an eye. He knew I was a drag queen. He was cool.”