Final Bow

Final Bow: John Bolton Talks the Nightly Sweats That Come With Hosting a Beauty Pageant

Keeping a musical talent show on its feet isn’t easy, especially with men in heels.

John Bolton has been in a lot of Broadway shows, including Titanic and A Christmas Story, but perhaps none of them has been trickier than his latest off-Broadway gig, Pageant, at the Davenport Theatre. Bolton plays Frankie Cavalier, a beauty pageant host who proclaims one of several contestants — all men in drag — victorious. He'll tell ya it's a lot harder than it looks. As the revival winds up its run, Bolton reflects on the experience and shares the story of the onstage disaster that will haunt him forever.

John Bolton as Frankie Cavalier in Pageant at the Davenport Theatre.
John Bolton as Frankie Cavalier in Pageant at the Davenport Theatre.
(© Tyrone Rasheed)

1. What is your favorite line that you delivered?
If I have to choose a specific line, it would be "Why?" [during the interview with Miss Deep South], because it's just one short word loaded with the cheesy efficiency and false sincerity that embody Frankie Cavalier.

2. Everyone loves inside jokes. So tell us…
a. What is the best one from your show?

There is a running commentary backstage during every single segment. Let's just say nothing is sacred.

b. What's the punch line of your cast's most unprintable inside joke?
"I'm sh*tting my balls." Sorry. You asked.

3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?

The worst was one that will haunt me forever. The score tabulation at the end of the show is done on the spot and varies wildly depending on the judges' scores. The judges hold up their scores and Tawny Jo (last year's winner played by the hilarious Nic Cory) and I total them for each girl and write them down: Tawny Jo [writes them] on the mirrors [that] the girls hold behind them as they face upstage and [I write them] on a small notepad at the podium. One night — only my second performance, to a crowd loaded with press — my pencil point broke so I had no way to record the scores, and once the girls turn back around, I can't see their scores either.

Here I am, about to announce the winners and I have five different scores for five different girls flying around in my head. I announce Bible Belt correctly as second runner-up and the crowd goes wild. It's down to the final two. All I could remember was "Great Plains first, Great Plains first." So I say, "First runner-up is…" [while I'm thinking,] "Great Plains first, Great Plains fir – wait – does "first" mean first runner-op or first first? Oh God, oh God, oh God – Great Plains first, Great Plains first… Well, here goes." [Then I say,] "First runner-up is… Miss Great Plains!"

The audience is strangely quiet. A smattering of applause. I knew instantly something was up. I announced Miss Deep South as the winner. Again — a strangely tepid response. Polite but confused. Of course the girls have no idea how the voting went so they are just living and doing their show. But I knew. From then on, I have been so careful about the voting and always get it right, but that one night will haunt me forever. The night I crowned the wrong damn queen.

4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
Not a present per se but a couple of the guys have received, shall we say, "notes expressing interest."

5. Who is the coolest person who came to see your show? (You can't say your family!)
Original 1991 Pageant cast members Russell Garrett, Dick Scanlan, John Salvatore, Joe Joyce, and David Drake. They couldn't have been kinder. Having seen that production and how truly fabulous they all were in it, it was such an honor.

6. Which contestant won the pageant within Pageant most often?
Miss Bible Belt.

7. What is your pageant talent?
Mixing a proper Manhattan.

8. What is the most surprising thing you learned about beauty pageants from this experience?
How truly invested each audience becomes in the outcome.

9. What is the hardest part of hosting?
Keeping the ball in the air and everyone happy but still being able to give a performance I'm proud of.

10. Who would design your ideal beauty pageant dress, and why?
Stephen Yearick, our Pageant costume designer, really is a renowned pageant costume designer. So I may as well stick with the best. But trust me: No one wants to see me in a dress. Although I do have great legs.