Melinda Ryder has shared the stage with Jennifer Holliday, Sister Sledge, Chaka Khan and Wanda Sykes. But, if they met her on the street, they wouldn’t recognize her. That’s because by day, Melinda is Bruce Winter, the kitchen/supply associate at the Children’s Learning Center. At night, he’s a glamour drag queen with a passion for raising money for charity.
A drag queen is a man who dresses in women’s clothes for the purpose of entertainment. Bruce has entertained crowds as Melinda for over 42 years with lip syncing, dancing and joke telling. He admits at age 62, “there’s more prancing and less dancing.”
Today, Bruce uses his talent to help others. For the past six years, Bruce, as Melinda, has been a charity bingo caller at a local bar and grille, Hamburger Mary’s. He estimates that this year alone, Melinda has helped raise over $80,000 for animal rescue groups, the American Heart Association, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and other charities.
All in a Night’s Work
At Hamburger Mary’s, charities can easily raise $2,000 in just a few hours by selling bingo cards and raffle tickets for gift baskets and prizes. It’s up to Melinda to make sure everyone is having fun, so they keep playing. “On stage, I begin with dancing and singing, and then add a few jokes while I am calling bingo,” Bruce said. “I have to be quick on my feet to keep up with the crowd and make sure they are entertained.” He calls bingo weekly on Thursdays and monthly on the fourth Friday. “I’ve met so many people and learned about so many charities,” Bruce said about his work with Hamburger Mary’s.
Making the Transformation
It takes over two hours for Bruce to transform into Melinda. Bruce’s husband, Kirk, plays a vital role. Kirk, who is a makeup artist, skillfully applies Melinda’s makeup, which takes 1 ½ hours. “He transforms my face, so I look totally different. It’s like I am wearing a mask, and I feel more confident,” Bruce explained.
After makeup, comes the wig, sequin dress, heels, shape-forming pads, artificial nails and jewelry for even more bling. Over his decades as a performer, Bruce has collected hundreds of outfits, walls of shoes and jewelry galore. He credits Kirk with bringing it all together. Kirk designs the dresses and keeps Bruce’s wardrobe current. They donate outdated dresses to charity.
Donating their time is another way Bruce and Kirk help charitable causes. Bruce has served as a board member for six years on the Kansas City Center for Inclusion, Kansas City’s LGBTQIA center. He and Kirk also are donors to the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, which houses outfits from the Melinda Ryder collection at UMKC.
An Early Start
As a child, Bruce always felt more feminine. When he saw a female impersonator perform, his life changed and he felt a connection. He wanted to do the same thing.
He learned to walk and sit more femininely and worked on hand movements. He started performing as Melinda in St. Louis in 1975. He moved to Kansas City two years later.
Bruce credits television personality RuPaul, a drag queen, with helping the profession gain mainstream popularity. He remembers in the 1970s the difficulty in getting people to come to his shows. He was as much marketer as entertainer, as he distributed promotional fliers. “Performers now take the stage with a ready-made audience,” Bruce explained.
After all these years, Bruce is very protective of his persona. When performing as Melinda, he arrives and leaves in character. “I don’t want to break the illusion for anyone. I arrive as a star and leave as a star,” Bruce laughed.