SELMA — Louie Bowen bursts onstage in a pair of spangled purple boots, sporting a pair of overalls that appear to be stuffed with a pillow, wrapped in a zebra-striped blouse she’s tied up with a gingham scarf, looking for all the world like a redneck peacock.
She warms up the crowd with some hayseed humor, lamenting that you just can’t buy a decent girdle at Rose’s anymore. She offers advice for the country-fried lovelorn, suggesting this pick-up line:
“Baby, if you were a booger, I’d pick you first.”
She honks through her act like an air horn playing “Dixie,” channeling “Hee Haw,” June Carter and Foghorn Leghorn. As a last flourish, she bends over to show the huge pink heart stitched on her bottom.
“I’m Lulubelle Laughingwell!” she squeals, using a voice that would cause Minnie Pearl to shove fingers in her ears. “I got my hairdo done-did, my ‘fro frizzed for showbiz. You know why fish swim in salt water? ‘Cause pepper makes them sneeze!”
Here in Selma, at the historic Rudy Theater, Bowen has landed the role as the corny in-house comedienne, opening the variety show American Music Jubilee with her outsized patter.
But in Raleigh, the world knows Bowen as the Halloween Queen, the crown-wearing, scepter-waving, law-breaking owner of Hughie & Louie’s costume shop on Glenwood Avenue – notorious for her disorderly use of child models as streetside advertisement.
In 2006, she ran afoul of City Hall by placing her children on the curb dressed as Mrs. Claus and elf, violating Raleigh’s sign ordinance and garnering a $100 fine. She protested on the roadside wearing a crushed velvet cape and tiara.
“If you’re telling me clothing is a sign, then we should all be walking around naked,” she said at the time. “If I can’t wear what I want to wear, then every McDonald’s employee who goes home wearing a uniform needs to take it off.”
In 2011, the city smacked her with two more violations. She led a costume-clad parade to the halls of government – one protester on stilts.
“It’d be different if (bureaucrats) ever owned a business,” she said. “I call them PIPs: Peons in Power.”
So now, onstage at the Rudy, the gig counts as payback for all her trouble. Butting heads with Raleigh and flapping gums about it helped get her invited as a guest on the morning show at the “Big Dawg,” radio station 98.5 FM in Rocky Mount.
That in turn led to her turn as Lulubelle. The Rudy’s owner and resident guitar player, “Spook” Joyner, advertised with Big Dawg, heard Bowen on the air and asked her to replace his retiring comedian, Homer D. Hogwaller.
So despite a shaky start – she slipped and broke her hand in February during her second performance – Bowen expanded her comedic life.
“I ought to write the city a thank-you note,” said Bowen, 46. “You think you’re in trouble, and then God puts you in the right place.”
A throw-back theater
First a note about the Rudy Theater.
Built in 1948, the red-brick movie house suggests a time of cowboy matinees for 25 cents and popcorn for a nickel. It died the same death that struck thousands of theaters, particularly in Johnston County, where the small-town crowds fled Main Street for the multiplex.
It spent years as an unloved relic, home to pigeons, before Joyner found it with his partner, Tony Davis. A guitar player himself, Joyner tired of bouncing between beach music clubs, putting in the required late-night Myrtle Beach shows, hauling equipment around the state.
The Rudy wasn’t much when they opened in 1999. It had a wall running down the middle of the theater, where a previous owner tried to make one big space into two little ones. But he could see a trace of Grand Ol’ Opry settling into the renovated 576 seats.
Actually, Joyner saw two other towns as his inspiration. “We’re a touch of Myrtle Beach,” he said, “and a touch of Branson.”
The idea took off as Selma, an old railroad town, reinvented itself as an antiques den. Just west of Interstate 95, the town saw 20 shops go up on Raiford Street soon after the theater opened. The town added a blacksmith shop, a soap maker and a quilt store. Glass blowers and potters opened up for the tour buses pulling off the highway.
If you’ve ever seen a show in Branson, you’ll recognize the toothy smiles, the rhinestone jackets, the steel guitar and the pie-plate belt buckles. The songs range through the decades from Bob Wills to Willie Nelson to Allison Moorer.
You know, both kinds of music.
But it’s live, and it changes format three times a year – the Christmas show being the biggest draw.
“I tell you it’s a gem,” Bowen said. “It’s a part of the state we forget about, but we have incredible talent. We don’t have to go anywhere else.”
Bowen’s role is comic relief, before the show and between the acts. She’s taken to it with every exhibitionist bone she has, maybe a little too enthusiastically.
Before a Thursday matinee, with senior citizens’ homes making up much of the crowd, singer Hugh Worley Jr. warns that Lulubelle Laughingwell might say anything. When she appears, she tells the crowd that she bought her flamboyant outfit for $19.95 – encouraged by the devil.
“Why didn’t you tell him to get behind you?” asked Worley, playing straight man.
“I did,” said Bowen as Lulubelle, “but he said, ‘Ooh, girl, that looks good from back here too!’”
Chuckles. Applause. Shout-outs to the senior centers.
“She’s been great,” Joyner said. “Really helped our draw. But she doesn’t need to be the clown. She needs to be the comedian.”
A clown at heart?
Funny he should mention clowns.
That’s how Bowen got her start.
Back in Kinston, Peggy LouAnn Bowen began work in the clowning trade as a 12-year-old girl. Her job consisted of handing out balloons for free, which changed to selling them for 50 cents. When she kept giving them out gratis, she got fired.
But clowning carried her through college at N.C. State, when she played a white-faced character named Cheerilu opposite a pig named Chitlin’. They entertained crowds at King’s Restaurant in Kinston, where their picture remains on the wall.
“Some people get their names on bathroom walls,” said Bowen. “I’m still on the wall in their takeout section.”
Her costume career started in 1998, when she bought the inventory from the closing Magic Corner shop on Hillsborough Street – a tribute to the former owner Hughie Olmstead, who always let her park for free in her clown and singing telegram days. Thus Hughie & Louie’s was born.
Gorilla suits. Elvis outfits. Elf costumes. Bowen sells and rents them from the Glenwood Avenue store, set far back enough from the road that it’s hard to see without a human advertisement. That’s the reason she sent her children – six of them in all – to beckon to passing cars.
It’s rough staying in business as an entertainer five years into a recession, whether you’re renting elf suits or selling tickets to a jubilee.
But Bowen pushes on, protected by Lulubelle and the Halloween Queen, unafraid of zoning violations or tomatoes tossed after a bad joke, disregarding the unfunny world.