Robert Josef Cross’ character, OFeelYa Faith, will be wearing a new outfit at her next performance in Baton Rouge.
The Austin Babtist Women will take the stage not once but twice Saturday at the BR Pride 2015 Festival in the Baton Rouge River Center Exhibition Hall. Their first show is set for 6:30 p.m., followed by the Pride After Hours show at 8 p.m.
“This will be our third year in Baton Rouge,” Cross says. “When we were first invited, we were nervous, because it was a place we’d never been. But we met so many great people there, and they were all so nice.”
And those who weren’t even learned to loosen up at one point.
“When we came the first time, there were no protesters outside, and we thought we were becoming mainstream,” Cross says. “But last year, we had protesters, so we knew we’d arrived.”
After the Austin Babtist Women finished that 2014 performance, they stepped outside to pose for photographs with the protesters.
“Some of them tried to run away, but we said, ‘Oh no, you have to be in the picture with us,’” Cross says. “We stood beside them and held up signs, and everyone smiled for the picture. It was fun.”
The Austin Babtist Women are an all-male, all-volunteer comedy troupe that performs through the nation for the sole purpose of raising money for charitable causes, primarily HIV/AIDS and breast cancer.
“We started out helping to raise money to help those suffering with HIV/AIDS in our own community, then we started branching out,” Cross says. “We started helping to raise money for breast cancer charities, and we’ve since performed for leukemia, heart disease charities and even a charity for literacy.”
“Usually, the people putting on the events where we perform choose the charity,” says Garry Holley, the group’s founder. “We keep up with the numbers, and over the years we’ve helped to raise $7 million for charities.”
The Austin Babtist Women accept no money for their appearances. The group paid its own travel expenses in its earlier years, but those booking the Babtists now help out. Otherwise, the Austin Babtist Women have gained no fortune from their plentiful fame.
The group began in 1986 as a joke performance during the national Gay Rodeo Association meeting in Austin, Texas, where all of the Babtist Women live.
“We were all members of the association, and the meetings were just meetings — they were boring,” Holley says. “So, we thought since this was a national meeting, we needed to do something to liven it up.”
So, the Austin Babtist Women formed, the lip sycing group of church lady-types, who knew only one song at the time.
“Vestal Goodman’s ‘Looking for a City’ was popular in all of the country bars, and that’s what we lip synced to,” Cross says. “It was the only song we really prepared. I think we had the Manhattan Transfer’s ‘Operator’ ready, too. But the crowd liked it so much that we had to do it again.”
That was in 1986, the year Dana Carvey introduced his “Church Lady” character on TV’s “Saturday Night Live.” The Austin Babtist Women may have looked like Carvey’s Church Lady, but their act was totally different.
They were a little more stylish, their movements were in rhythm with the music. And they liked having fun.
Word spread, and the Austin Babtist Women were suddenly in demand not only in their hometown but throughout the nation — even on Broadway, where they performed one night in the Marriott Marquis Theatre. That, too, was a charity event, generating money for Broadway Cares.
Holley is the only active original group member, though those who now make up the Austin Babtist Women have been performing together for more than 20 years.
“We say once you’re a Babtist Woman, you’re always a Babtist Woman,” Cross says. “Those who leave can always revive their characters, and they have at different performances.”
The group stages four signature shows each year in Austin: “GospelFest” on Easter Sunday, “A Salute to Stonewall” in June, “The Anniversary Celebration” in September and “A Very Pink Christmas” in December.
“Those performances are set,” Holley says. “We probably have 30 performances scheduled outside of Austin this year.”
“There have been times when we’ve been on the road for 40 performances during the year,” Cross adds. “It gets really crazy, because we all have jobs, and we have to coordinate the shows with our job schedules. We always make sure we have at least four or five performers for each show. If it drops below that, we don’t do it.”
Note that the Babtist Women spell their name with a “b” in the middle, not a “p.” A reporter once mistakenly spelled it with a “p,” and a lady from a Baptist church called to complain.
“She wasn’t happy,” Cross says. “We’ve always spelled it with a ‘b,’ and we explained it to her.”
But the Austin Babtist Women won’t let that stop them. They’ll be in Baton Rouge on Saturday with a new show that will include a couple of surprises.
“We don’t like to tell what’s in the show ahead of time,” Cross says. “You have to come and see it.”
And, of course, see OFeelYa Faith’s new outfit.