Charity Fundraising: Dessert in the Desert
I worried that I might be overdressed (we were headed to another party afterward), but the first thing we saw as we stepped up to the ticket booth was a couple of drag queens in high camp strutting toward the entrance, and you’re never overdressed in that company. The second thing we saw was an old friend from our old gym, because this is Tucson, and you never don’t see someone you know. The third thing we saw was a large AIDS ribbon, comprised of hundreds of red balloons, tied down against the wind, which seemed poised to drag it off across the desert.
The Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation Jello Wrestling Fundraiser is a rowdy and increasingly popular event where SAAF organizers can bank on meeting their fundraising goals, as a diverse crowd generates an increasingly cheerful and raucous atmosphere, conducive to the spirit of generosity.
Welcome to the Slaughterhouse
After buying tickets, we met up with more friends inside the gate and wandered about the grounds. There were sponsor booths, free HIV testing, and libations of the liquid and colloidal variety. Indeed, what sort of Jello-themed event would come off without easy access to that most modest of alcoholic concoctions, the Jello shot? At a dollar a piece, sold by attractive people wearing little more than their underwear, with all proceeds going to charity, it’s an easy sell.
This year’s event was held behind the Slaughterhouse, which hosts haunted houses in the autumn and various other events (zombie-hunting, for example) at other times. Today, a warm spring afternoon under cloudless blue skies, no ghouls were in attendance, but as the bleachers ringing the Jello pit (the pit being a square of hay bales covered with a blue tarp) filled up, other costumed characters became evident. There were lovely, bejeweled and bedazzled drag queen beauty pageant winners, and slightly less lovely, highly rouged drag queens who would not be winning any tiaras. There were thoughtfully decorated performers, their wrestling themes evident from their outfits. There were the aforementioned scantily clad Jello shot venders. There were people like me, who just dress funny sometimes.
Setting the Stage for Gelatinous Sport
We found seats with our friends and soon watched various people approach the Jello pit, eyeing it with skepticism. Some Jello wrestling events employ an inedible, sugar-free colored gelatin, but tonight, we learned, volunteers would be wrestling in real Jello. Jello that, by necessity, must be refrigerated. To wit: forty degrees Fahrenheit Jello. Now, spring in the desert can be hot. But it’s not that hot. Getting into the Jello pit was going to be something of an ordeal.
In memory of those who had passed, a ballad of remembrance was sung, while a long red AIDS ribbon processed solemnly around the pit, carried by an assortment of individuals, some in costume and some in street clothes. Then the event began.
Only a little behind schedule, local performer Lucinda Holliday, resplendent in a short, strapless green cocktail dress, chunky yellow jewelry, and a breathtaking bouffant that added a good six or eight inches to her overall height, danced onto the scene to the uplifting melody of Pharrell’s “Happy,” encouraging the crowd to sing and clap along, which we did, with unironic joy. Mildly off-color jokes were made. Random audience members were coaxed into eating whipped cream out of cans held by some of the beauty queens. Soon enough, the first wrestlers took the stage.
Into the Jello Pit
Adorned in handsome gladiator costumes, two tiny women, accompanied by their support team and all carrying long-handled nets, skipped into the arena. While Lucinda Holliday egged us on, announcing the evening’s fundraising goal, the group passed through the stands, collecting donations. Out came the singles, the fives, and the tens, along with paper vouchers some participants purchased in advance. Each volunteer had made it their personal mission to raise the most funds. Some were collected in advance, in the nets and baskets, while others came later, when the opportunity to hose the wrestlers down were auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Goaded on by a posse of drag queens, the diminutive gladiators discalced and stripped down to their underwear, then stepped into the frigid Jello pit, hopping and shivering at the chill. Then, standing back to back, they linked arms and gingerly lowered themselves down. With the wrestler’s legs immersed in cold Jello, the bout began.
Jello wrestling is wrestling at its most theatrical level: choreographed, over-the-top, and hilarious. The two women dragged each other through the goo, grappled and fell and grappled again, pulling hair and thrusting hips. The crowd cheered and laughed as they rolled and parried, pressed and submitted. No victor seemed likely, or even desired. It’s a spectacle on par with the circus, all bright colored clowning and tumbling action, without meaning or consequence. Eventually, Lucinda announced that there was a time limit, a winner was chosen, hugs were exchanged, and the gladiators, along with their supporters, marched off to a tent where a few lucky donors got to hose them off.
With each new battle, the audience’s level of intensity increased. The nets and baskets sailed around the ring, making two and three passes. People threw their dollars down so fast that some of the drag queens had to step up to help catch the money. We all screamed with joy. We watched as a guy dressed like Harry Potter fought a guy who, even without a costume, looked an awful lot like Voldemort; a girl dressed as ‘80s era Madonna in cone bra and high pony tail fought a girl dressed as ‘80s era Prince, in a purple suit and fake mustache; and a couple dressed in cocktail attire came out drinking martinis to a James Bond theme, then stripped down and started grappling. Jokes were made about getting the beauty queens into the Jello, but they all patted their makeup and their hair and their tiaras and demurely declined.
Watch It Wiggle, See It Jiggle
Still, the intensity increased. Jello shots were suddenly two for a dollar. The other queens took turns performing. Lucinda Holliday scoped out my outfit, admired it loudly, and then incorporated jokes about me into her patter. Fresh Jello was added to the pit. A fast auction of framed prints, luxury vacations, and gifts baskets displayed by attractive young people in gold lamé underpants brought us closer and closer to the evening’s financial goal. Long before the last match, Lucinda announced that we had brought the night’s total up over twenty-thousand dollars, and the event was still going strong. More matches, more auctions, more Jello shots.
The crescendo came with the most unlikely match in sports history. The director of SAAF would now wrestle “The Kindness Lady,” the director of another local charity called Ben’s Bell’s, which advocates for a kinder Tucson, and does anti-bullying work in public schools. They both came out wearing ‘70s style stretch jumpsuits with bell bottoms, accompanied by vast, rock-star sized entourages. The sun had set, and they danced through the artificial lights, basking in the cheers and encouraging us to give, and give some more. There was another round of auctions. Jello shots were now five for a dollar. I didn’t think my stomach could handle any more Jello shots, and my husband wanted to leave for the next party.
Would You Ever Wrestle Someone in Cold Jello?
Although my friends suggested that it would be amusing to see my husband and me striving in the Jello pit next year (indeed, it would be amusing for the audience, since he outweighs me by a hundred pounds) the thought of plinking a single toe into that icy concoction is anathema to me. Besides, I think I want to be a drag queen when I grow up.