Chicago's legendary CircuitMom turns 50, celebrates with Halloween Revolution
Thu. October 16, 2014 10:16 AM by Anthony Morgano
The king of clubs, Matthew Harvat, turns 50 on Nov. 7; celebrates with ‘Halloween Revolution – Haunted Hollywood’ on Saturday, Nov. 1
Fondly, he remembers his 43rd birthday, for which his then-partner Roger convinced 55 of his friends to dress in drag as a surprise gift to Harvat. Initially lead to believe the night would just be a small dinner party (for which Harvat cooked, serving as his distraction), guesting s started showing up in drag in twos and fours, filling the place to capacity and beyond until only Roger and Harvat himself were left un-wigged. Few of these men would ever go out of the house in drag, Harvat stressed, but when Roger implored "all these years he's entertained us in drag, now it's time for us to entertain him" fair only seemed fair.
After all, Harvat and his performances have made a stamp on the contemporary gay world like few others, though he shirks the idea of being a gay idol. Nonetheless he and his alter ego CircuitMOM are known internationally and Circuit-wide for their unique and unforgettable shows.
"People for years were trying to get me in drag and I always said no," Harvat told ChicagoPride.com. "I guess I was kind of scared because growing up in Oklahoma you couldn't really be gay -- that was back in the early 80s... and not only that, but I was never really exposed to any sort of drag other than Billy Crystal's character on "Soap", or the movie "Seven Year Itch" or Milton Berle, or Harvey Korman on the Carol Burnett Show, so you know it was always funny drag... but I didn't really understand what it really meant to be in drag or a drag performer until I came back to Chicago and I started going to Boystown."
Harvat was born in the southwest Chicago suburb of LaGrange, Illinois on Nov. 7, 1964, in the midst of the social change that accompanied the 60s. When his parents divorced in 1971, Harvat lived briefly with his mother in Lockport before moving to Stillwater, Oklahoma, which sits about an hour north of Oklahoma City and an hour west of Tulsa.
In hindsight, Harvat says, it was actually very Pleasantville-esque. School was open campus and everyone drove, so students were free to leave for lunch; there was no drama, no drugs, but at the time it felt like there was no excitement either. With family still in Chicagoland, Harvat returned for summer vacations and holidays, dreading the moment he had to give up the exciting Windy City and return to the stagnancy of Stillwater. Still, Harvat believes that his experiences in school and growing up have greatly contributed to his being so grounded today.
While he describes himself as a pretty quiet kid up until about sophomore year in high school, there's one thing Harvat says has always been in his life, and that's music.
"I spent every ounce of money I could from my allowance on records," Harvat said. "The first 45 I ever bought for 64 cents was Don McLean's 'American Pie.' The first album I ever bought was Lynn Anderson's 'Rose Garden' -- GAY!" he laughed. "Oh, that's so gay."
Growing up with young parents, Harvat was influenced by their taste from early on. This meant Ike and Tina Turner, The 5th Dimension, CCR, America and "tons and tons of country music." His mother was a big fan of Motown, a style gaining resurgence among his peers via the soundtrack to the classic 1973 coming-of-age film "American Graffiti". Hitting adolescence when disco was king also meant that Harvat "completely wore out" "Live and More," Donna Summer's famed 1978 double album, which Harvat deems "one of the greatest ever."
"Plus, I watched Lawrence Welk with my grandmother so I learned all of that music as well... I really knew it all. Even rock -- KISS is probably one of my favorite bands of all time," Harvat said, which is unsurprising given the theatrical nature of the band and their shows. "So I'm all over the board, but I certainly go through phases. I kind of crack up at the gym because I think if anyone just looked at what I was listening to right now, they'd be like 'that is so weird.'"
In addition to his love of records and popular music, Harvat also spent years singing (and a few weeks playing the accordion after winning lessons, probably at the hardware store as he recalls), something he continued into his college years at Oklahoma State University. In fact, in a 2007 interview for Chicago Gay History with Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim, Harvat confessed that music, more specifically a Stevie Nicks video, helped him to realize he was gay. It was while dancing with a girlfriend at the time and watching 1983's "Stand Back" (MTV also had a major impact on him) that Harvat found he couldn't tear his attention from the male dancer with a red bandana tied around his head.
"It hit me like a mirrored ball crashing from the ceiling -- oh my God, I'm gay," he said in the video. "Which then explained why I was obsessed with Wade Tower in high school. Sorry Wade."
While college wasn't completely without activity and Harvat does refer to one guy from his time after college as something like a boyfriend, he being in Oklahoma and it being the 80s, being openly gay wasn't much of an option. He does, however, remember driving to a gay bar called Zippers in Tulsa "under the dark of night" where on Wednesdays patrons received a shot for each time Joan Collins did a costume change on Dynasty ("so you were shitfaced by the time the credits rolled"), but he doesn't consider himself having "come out of the closet" until he moved back to Chicago, which he did in 1989 in order to help his grandmother take care of his ailing grandfather.
A girlfriend Harvat kept since Kindergarten introduced him to his new boyfriend soon after his move, who in turn introduced the 24-year-old Harvat to his gay friends and the wide gay world in Chicago. The first gay bar Harvat went to in Chicago was Bistro Too at 5015 N Clark, where Man's Country stands today. He remembers Bulldog Road, which sat where Avenue Tavern now does on Broadway and Oakdale, and going to Roscoe's for the first time back when they had an indoor cafe and the dancefloor was still an unfinished stretch of mud. While the boyfriend didn't last, Harvat does say that through the world he was introduced to, he believed he found his people, so to speak, and a community to which he could belong.
"My coming out was here definitely," he concludes. "I didn't come out to a lot of my friends from college until after I moved back... but here I dove right in. I don't actually know how or why... I just sort of felt like I'd found my people in a way."
Harvat was deeply involved throughout college: producing parts of homecoming, performing in some musical groups and more, so he needed something to do in Chicago besides having a job. Almost immediately he got involved in Stop AIDS Chicago, spending Tuesday and Wednesday nights sitting in a lifeguard chair in various bars, handing out condoms and giving away pamphlets and information about HIV/AIDS, safe sex and the like.
When he first moved to Chicago, Harvat was working retail for Jeans West in the Palmer House Hotel and later the Gap on State Street, while also acting in a few movies. It was a fateful night in April, however, when the way cleared to a path that would eventually lead Harvat far away from his days doing retail.
"I was walking into Roscoe's on a... Friday night... " Harvat reminisced, trying to recall the day of the week. "Well, we can look, it was April 1, 1993 (a Thursday) and the manager at the time Dave Schwartz was at the front door and he said 'look at this one -- you're cute, can you bartend?' and I said 'I can bartend circles around anyone you have working for you right now' and he says 'fine you start on Sunday.' That was my job interview for Roscoe's."
Harvat worked at Roscoe's from April 1, 1993 until April 1, 1999 in various capacities: he was a bartender, a manager, the production guy, he did promotions and advertising and even acted as DJ. You can thank Harvat for introducing the Long Island Iced Tea pitchers on Sundays (they were originally only $8 a pitcher), which he paired with disco music.
"I started with... there was this new thing and it was called CDs," he joked. "So I went to Coconuts or wherever it was and I went and bought 'Mega Dance Classics', volumes one through ten... and I still had all of my records... and that's how I did this disco music thing -- I would DJ from 3 p.m. until 10 and we would be busy from 3:01 til close and people were just shitfaced drunk on $8 pitchers of Long Islands -- it was crazy."
Roscoe's is also where Harvat appeared for the first time in drag. One bitter Monday night in January of '95 the Roscoe's staff, including Harvat and Steve Milford, who now owns Crew Bar & Grill, was sitting around after closing early. Milford suggested an all-staff required drag benefit of some sort and anyone who was working, be they bartender, manager, security or janitor, had to be in drag and perform a number. Harvat had seen drag performances around Boystown and at the famous Baton Show Lounge, but had until now never thought of it as territory he'd enter himself. If everyone had to do it, however, that was fine -- "but I wasn't going to mess around," he smirked.
Monica Munro from The Baton painted Harvat's face and Terri Michaels, who was his drag mom for many years, did his hair and lent him a gown and a fur. There was some sort of mix-up with the music that night and Harvat ended up going last, singing a song he loved and knew by heart: Natalie Cole's "I've Got Love On My Mind."
"My partner Roger at the time was running the camera standing on the bar, because this was low-rent, we had like flashlights... but the bar was packed and everyone was so rowdy and so into it and he said that when I turned around to start my song and I dropped my fur... " Harvat laughed. "He says there was this collective gasp -- because I have these really great cheekbones -- and he thought 'oh noooo.' And that's when it started."
That first "Boys2Women" show spawned a series of additional parties -- "Boys2Women" Christmas edition, Broadway edition, Rock n Roll and more. Originally known as Lee Ving and later Jean Poole, the actual nomination of "CircuitMOM" wasn't born until a year later when Harvat attended Hotlanta, an annual massive four day circuit party weekend, in '96. The hotel and bars had run out of bottled water, and it being only 2 a.m., there were still four or five hours left to party, so the staff was filling pitchers of water.
Thinking it would be a funny gag, Harvat grabbed something like six pitchers and took to the dancefloor. The crowd split and one of the 4,000 boys dancing shrieked, "oh my god, you've come to save us, you're our circuit angel" and another responded, "no, that's our circuit mom!" The name stuck. Harvat started doing dance CDs, which were named CircuitMOM Red, CircuitMOM Blue, etc. in a style like the party names along the Circuit.
There was a drag benefit show at the time called "Who's That Girl?" that Harvat appeared in in '97, at the request of creator Patrick Russo. Although he was nervous taking his drag persona from standing on a beer box at Roscoe's to a real stage, Harvat calmed himself by thinking of it as "theatre" -- which is how Harvat refers to his drag even now. While drag for some is a lifestyle, for Harvat it's always been about a performance.
His performance that night caught the attention of Victory Adams from Crobar, the club that for 13 years threw the longest-running Sunday night gay and lesbian party. Adams wanted Harvat to appear at his birthday party, where he'd be introduced as a big club diva flown in from New York to hostess Adams' birthday and introduce the DJs and such.
"I thought, 'well, it's Crobar, it's a big dance club, would you mind if I tried to do a show?'" Harvat recalled. "'I'll get a couple dancers and we'll do a number' and he said 'that would be great.' I got two dancers, one of whom was Todd Kiech, who was my choreographer for most of my 11 million shows, and we went in and I did -- on cassette -- my own mix of Ultra Nate's 'Found A Cute'."
Again, Harvat went to The Baton to have his makeup done and borrowed a big white cape and a holographic bikini worn over a flesh colored body suit. After some discussion, he decided Jean Poole wasn't right for the clubby crowd, and took to the stage under the name CircuitMOM -- and the rest, as they say, is history.
"I flipped that cape open and everyone was like 'oh noooo,'" Harvat laughed, imitating the response of his partner Roger to his first drag appearance three years earlier. "'She should do this, she's kind of pretty.' And literally that's when it was -- that's when CircuitMOM started."
Harvat began developing his act, which is to this day billed as "Broadway-style production numbers for dance parties", on the the large stage at Crobar that allowed Harvat to experiment -- hanging from the ceiling one time and bringing Japanese dragons across the dancefloor another. In 1999, after only having appeared in drag in Chicago a handful of times, Harvat found himself performing at Gay Days, one of the must-attend events on the Circuit (and with the exception of 2006, CircuitMOM returned to perform every year up until 2010). His subsequent career reads like a bucket list of all the biggest and best parties in the gay world.
Harvat was still performing in small spaces -- bars like Berlin, or Sidetracks for their annual "Night of 100 Drag Queens" -- but also began working the national and international Circuit scene as well as putting on scores of parties, shows and fundraisers both in Chicago and other cities across the U.S. and Canada. In 2000 he made his debut amongst the mounties at the legendary Black & Blue party in Toronto, a show for which his team won Circuit Party Performance of the Year. He continued to appear in Canada for everything from Pride, to Fashion Cares (CircuitMOM is the only act they'd ever invited back twice) to parties at the recently closed megaclub Fly.
Harvat is full of stories about the many events he's performed at and inescapable in his telling is the sense of grandeur with which they're all imbued -- whether its coming down the staircase of The Old Post Office Pavilion ("a government building," he laughed) at Cherry DC and diving into the audience or seeing the Joffrey ballerinas cry after their performance of "Swan Lake" at a black tie gala evoked the kind of raucous hollering and deeply appreciative applause rarely heard at a professional ballet. From classics like Fireball and Winter Party to helping bring the Queer As Folk tour to the U.S. to raising money for the Center on Halsted and even DJing the closing party for Oprah's 22nd season, Harvat has truly done and seen it all.
"Here's the thing -- I came along at the right time when nobody was doing what I was doing," Harvat said. "I had the four to eight professional dancers, we had a costume change in the middle of the song, I was friends with all these DJs and these producers so they were giving me brand new songs that had just come out and letting me interpret them my own way. So it really was a timing thing. It's not that I'm this uber-talented person, but I have conviction and a really great vision to make my show more than the constraints. I mean if you're confined to a bar, you're confined to a bar -- you can only do so much, but I love the challenge of doing that just as much [as bigger stage shows]."
CircuitMOM saw mainstream attention as well. Metromix TV followed the diva around, putting on makeup and on on the town, for a Pride special in 2003, one year after he appeared on the cover of the Chicago Sun Times' Mother's Day Sunday Magazine supplement.
Trademarked and made into its own company in 1999, CircuitMOM has evolved over the years from a performance into a brand -- and a staple brand at that. In addition to the parties he puts on through CircuitMOM, Harvat also has a second company that deals with all things floral, weddings and other events without the thump thump thump and glitter that usually accompany a CircuitMOM show.
"One day we might be doing a wedding for 400 people and the next day we might be in Miami coming down from the ceiling in white chiffon doing a Mariah Carey song," Harvat laughed.
It's as CircuitMOM, however, that Harvat has really shined -- as a performer, as a charitable and supportive member of the LGBT community and as a purveyor of music. With Crobar's guidance, it was Harvat who began bringing DJs to Chicago for the first time, many for the Sunday Tea Dance he organized. Harvat recalls dragging the now famous Tony Moran kicking and screaming out of the studio, where he'd been producing for years, and back into the DJ booth over one Sunday Tea.
Harvat was entrenched in the rise of house and modern dance music and tells stories of texting Frankie Knuckles for samples during the Queen! party shortly before his death and what a nice guy he was. He speaks even more fondly of Ralphi Rosario, who was not only an idol and a learning tool for Harvat, but also became a friend. Fondly, Harvat reminisced about Shelter, a club he said could be packed with 1500 people on a random Wednesday night, largely because, in that time before Soundcloud and podcasts, Grindr and Scruff, going out is what you did -- how you met new people and heard the new music sweeping dance floors across the country.
"That whole genre is still such a unique and heartfelt section of just... audio ecstasy," Harvat said. "It blows pop music away. Just the umph and the grit behind it. You know what it is? It's blues music with a beat. That's really what it is... same hurt, same angst, same fantastic storytelling."
As the millennium came and wore on, the scene began to change. In addition to watching harder drugs like meth infect the Circuit, Harvat saw the rise of social media and online hooking up and the drop in going out that followed. The scene became less communal, he says, but applies that not just to the gay community, but the world at large, where everyone is seemingly attached at all times to either a phone, computer or tablet. Going out changed too -- mega clubs lacked sustainability ("I think it was easier to get sponsorships back then," he postulated) and went by the wayside. People stopped seeing the purpose in buying a $100 tickets and stopped appreciating the truly extravagant shows and concerts (Donna Summer at Gay Days, Whitney at the Pier Dance in New York) that Harvat still remembers with reverence today.
"To simplify it -- you can order in," Harvat said. "You can order in dick, you can order in food, you can order in music, you know what I mean? So I'm a little crotchety about it because... look, I'm not longing for the old days, but I do want you guys to get to experience the grandeur that we all got to do."
Partially, Harvat says, his generation is to blame for not raising the next one right. "They don't get it," he says, "Once they come they get it -- they're like 'oh my god you have a volcano that's erupting,' but to me that's like second nature. That's how it's supposed to be. The whole thing is supposed to sort of envelop and surround you. But the 30 and under crowd have no idea what we're talking about."
With the rise of RuPaul's Drag Race and other avenues shedding light on what Harvat calls the artistry of drag, and the decline of the megaparty, Harvat evolved also. He crossover DJed as CircuitMOM a few times, but in the end decided to leave that to Nina Flowers and the rest of the girls already doing so and says that, without a desire to produce, he doesn't see a breakaway DJ career in his future.
Recently, Harvat was the opening DJ for the Pet Shop Boys and on another occasion for Erasure, both through a partnership with Live Nation. He continues to throw his amazing "Revolution" parties several times a year that harken back to the heyday of the Circuit and give partygoers a chance at some of the grandeur of his nostalgia. Chicago can thank Harvat for continuing to bring some of the best musical talent to our city and for giving us reasons to dance all night and look at going out with wonder -- something we could all use a little more of.
CircuitMOM still makes appearances at some parties and other times it's Harvat DJing as Matthew, though he says both are really one in the same.
"There's lots of anger out there already and a lot of in your face performers -- it's just not my style," Harvat said. "[My performance] was always glamour and feathers and explosions... I'm a lyric person. So the evolution of CircuitMOM just came from people, I think, really being able to stay connected with me, because I'm really accessible. I don't change. Hand me a microphone now and I'm still the same person."
"I think CircuitMOM is just an extension -- a more sparkly extension of my personality," he laughs.
For his 50th Birthday (and coming here in 1989 also makes this his 25th Anniversary with Gay Chicago as well) Harvat is ready to give Chicago the biggest costume dance party its seen in a long while. The theme -- Haunted Hollywood -- leaves the costume options wide open and Harvat encourages everyone to go all out ("there will be a red carpet and photographers," the Facebook event page says. "so come dressed for the paparazzi.").
"You'll be walking into a working movie set," Harvat teased to ChicagoPride.com. "You'll be stepping back into old Hollywood for sure, we're trying to do this whole old sort of 1940s glamour Hollywood thing -- very big."
The evening will feature Harvat's signature massive set designs and light shows with performances by the incredible Aurora Sexton and fantastically talented Jett Adore as well as CircuitMOM herself. To round it of, one of Harvat's best friends, the previously mentioned (and Grammy nominated) DJ Tony Moran, will be spinning some special beats to get the dancefloor moving.
The show is also guaranteed to be an extra special treat ("and spot on" Harvat laughs) because for the first time EVER, Harvat's mother will be present to see him perform live. $40 Early Bird tickets are available now at Cram Fashion, 3331 N Broadway, or online.
This is certainly not the last we'll hear of Harvat or CircuitMOM though, because even if he decides to step down from the stage, Harvat has vision for the future -- the same vision that helped propel him to the top over the last couple decades.
"I went from this little stage to this big stage very quickly," Harvat told ChicagoPride.com. "Anyone could have done it if they wanted it badly enough I suppose -- I mean, I'm dressing pretty and pretending to sing a song, it's not rocket science. But it all comes from my heart, because I really do mean it. I really do want people to be happy. If I've been blessed with being in charge of six minutes of your life on that stage, I want to make it worth your while. Because then we both get something out of it."
Happy Birthday, Matthew!
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