Derby celebrities can chill in a special place

Picklesimer returns to decorate celebrity tent

bfortune@herald-leader.comMay 1, 2009 

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    Saturday's 135th Kentucky Derby will begin at 6:24 p.m.

LOUISVILLE — Don't try to crash this party. You're not nearly famous enough to get through the door.

But for celebrities glamorous enough to be on the Derby guest list, their first glimpse inside Churchill Downs will be a stunning tent with giant ottomans piled high with black and white pillows, swagged mirrors and 4,000 roses arrayed in bouquets and adorning obelisks.

"The tent is dramatic, but with a really beautiful, clean, crisp elegance," said Bradley Pickle simer, a West Coast exotic event designer known best here as the flamboyant owner of two former Lexington nightclubs.

"I am tickled to be back, honey," said Picklesimer, laughing as finishing touches were put on the venue Thursday. "I left my heart in Kentucky."

It's been 20 years since Picklesimer moved to Hollywood, finding fame, fortune and clients such as Elton John, actors Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne, singer Barbra Streisand and tennis great Billie Jean King.

The celebrity tent at Churchill Downs makes good use of his special gift of draping tent walls and covering ceilings with pleated fabrics.

The interior is covered with a specially made black and white striped lining. The stripes are 5 feet wide.

The black and white theme, with splashes of red, reminds Picklesimer of My Fair Lady, "but My Fair Lady that meets the modern, fun age." he said. It's not cheap or easy. "You have to have a lot of custom work, honey. That's the difference between extraordinary and mediocre."

Churchill Downs has long hosted celebs from big Derby parties like the Barnstable Barn, the Grand Gala and the Mint Jubilee. Last year was the first time it had a special place for celebrities to gather before heading to their seats. That addition opened up an opportunity for Picklesimer.

"We finally had the right opportunity for Bradley to work his magic with the kind of clientele he's accustomed to," said Julie Koenig Loignon, the track's vice president of communication.

The traditional race track and colorful designer came together through Casey Cook, senior marketing director at Churchill.

A fellow Kentuckian, Cook met Picklesimer in 2005, when Picklesimer decorated the Elton John Oscar party.

The two stayed in touch, having lunch earlier this year with Koenig Loignon at Churchill. "They decided I should do the celebrity room," he said.

That was March.

He worked double time to come up with ideas, get the tent lining sewed and props assembled.

Last Friday, Picklesimer and his assistant Matthew Sawicki, of Pleasureville, Ky., loaded the decorations into a rental truck and drove four days to Louisville.

As they approached Kentucky, "We saw the end of the redbuds and the dogwood. Honey, I haven't seen a spring like this. It made my heart sing," he said.

His Derby gig is definitely a welcomed return to his roots. He grew up in Lexington, where his family owned the Sportsman Motel and cocktail lounge on Winchester Road.

In addition to becoming one of Lexington's most colorful drag queens, he owned ran Club A-Go-Go on Winchester Road and Club LMNOP on East Main Street.

He took a chance in Hollywood, arriving with "$120, no car, no job and nowhere to live," he said. "But in those days, I was so happy. I was in Hollywood. Yippee."

At first, he did catering and charity work with AIDS Project Los Angeles. Eventually, he struck out on his own, forming Picklesimer Productions.

But he has missed the Bluegrass.

Several years ago, Picklesimer bought a relative's farm in Meally, in Johnson County, one holler over from Butcher Holler, home of country singer Loretta Lynn, the only celebrity he'd really like to meet.

(When told Paris Hilton was coming to the Derby he was not enthused. "She'd come to the opening of an envelope," he said.

He now gets home three or four times a year, always staying at least two weeks.

It's his dream to be here from Derby to Halloween.

With luck, the Derby job might be a springboard to doing events and weddings in Kentucky. But, he chuckled, only "if they have money. Fabulous really is expensive, honey."

Picklesimer still does drag occasionally; one of the the last places was Paris (yes, the Paris). It just isn't worth his time anymore, he said.

"You know what, people won't pay any money in L.A. for drag," he said. "And, honey, you know what, I ain't doing it for $100. It takes a lot to get this ol' hilly billy lookin' glamorous, and I ain't gettin' up there for $100," Picklesimer said.

But the fabulous excess of the drag world does influence his design. After finishing the Derby tent, he and his crew turned their attention to draping 6,000 yards of pink fabric across Churchill's front entrance to honor the fillies running in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday.

"We are swagging it within an inch of its life," he said.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859)-231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251

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