A&E Pick of the Week
Editor’s note: Given rising COVID-19 case counts spurred by the delta variant, COVID-19 protocols and other details for events are subject to change. Please check your event’s website for the latest information, and heed local health authorities’ safety recommendations as they’re updated.
In 1980, the Japanese multinational Namco released Pac-Man, which would become one of the most popular and iconic video games of all time. In 1982, Ms. Pac-Man appeared on the scene — the daughter of a complicated legal relationship between Japanese and U.S. video-game interests. She was also a hit. Then she wasn’t.
Decades passed and, in 2017, Ms. Pak-Man stumbled onto the stage at Re-bar. (RIP: the dearly departed theater/drag/dance club was another cultural casualty of the pandemic.) From a strictly medical point of view, Ms. Pak-Man hadn’t aged well — booze, pills and the other pitfalls of faded stardom had taken their toll — but her unglued theater/drag performance was a hit with audiences. Ms. Pak-Man’s shameless, tell-all stories about the rise and fall (and fall and fall) of her career as an “8-bit diva” had people choking on their cocktails.
The bulbous, golden, eternally vain train wreck of a lounge act burbled on about pills she’d taken and affairs she’d had — “I had more hands on me than the Rubik’s Cube! Probably because I was a lot easier” — and occasionally sang a song. It was a perfectly pleasant, if slightly perverse, way to forget yourself for an evening.
Now she has returned (fingers, toes and eyes crossed against the delta variant) for a one-weekend engagement at the Century Ballroom on Capitol Hill titled “Ms. Pak-Man: Breakout!,” in which she details her run-ins with the law, and how the party lifestyle of the ’80s facilitated such meetings.
In honor of her return, here are five backstory details about Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man and Ms. Pak-Man to augment your viewing pleasure.
1. In interviews, video-game designer Toru Iwatani has said he first created Pac-Man partly in reaction to the hypermasculine environment of video arcades. “Most arcade video games of the time were violent and focused on the male player, so the game centers became places frequented mainly by men,” he told video-game journalist Tristan Donovan in 2010. “We decided to change that demographic by designing games that can appeal to women and thus to couples, therefore making game centers desirable places to go on a date … I myself could not imagine that it would be loved by so many people.”
2. Ms. Pak-Man was created by performer Scott Shoemaker (“Homo for the Holidays,” “Scott Shoemaker’s War on Christmas,” more) and Freddy Molitch (also known as DJ Freddy King of Pants) when the two saw a Ms. Pac-Man machine at a Capitol Hill gay bar. Shoemaker has a thing for late-stage Judy Garland and Molitch is (in Shoemaker’s words) “a video-game nerd” — the idea of anthropomorphizing the old arcade queen as a desperate and gloriously debauched barroom thrush came easily.
3. Ms. Pac-Man’s early U.S. marketing calls her a “femme fatale,” and personifies her as a Clara Bow-style flapper stepping out of a vintage car (while her driver stands nearby at attention!) with a pearl necklace; heavy, dark eyelids; some kind of fur stole; and what looks like a ghostly, sorta-kinda cigarette smoking in her right hand. Was that a design glitch? Subliminal messaging? Who knows — it was the early ’80s. Either way, Shoemaker’s fallen-star vision of Ms. Pak-Man fits the real-life trajectory.
4. Pac-Man’s original Japanese name was Pakkuman, and Namco planned to re-christen him Puck Man for the international release — but some savvy executives realized they were inviting vandalism from arcade hoodlums and went with Pac-Man instead. One wonders what backstage details Ms. Pak-Man knows about that story …
5. Less fun but important: “Ms. Pak-Man: Breakout!” was originally scheduled to run in spring of 2020 but COVID-19 happened. For this performance, all prospective attendees must bring photo ID and proof of vaccination — either the original card or a photo.