KEY WEST, Florida (CNN) — It started in 1996 as a crazy idea to ring in the new year, but police nearly shut it down.
“They said, ‘We have an idea: Let’s do a shoe drop. … We made this shoe for you,'” recalled Gary “Sushi” Marion, the star of a weekly drag queen review in Key West. “‘You’ve got to sit in it for New Year’s Eve,’ and I said ‘OK,’ and that is how it started.”
So, on New Year’s Eve, Marion took center stage inside a massive high-heeled red shoe made out of chicken wire, paper mache and plywood, dangling off the roof of the Bourbon Street Pub along Key West’s main street.
Just like the spectacular ball in New York’s Times Square, the shoe would be lowered with each final minute of the year until the clock struck midnight.
Crowds started to gather, attracting the attention of police, who tried to shut down the event because the pub owner didn’t have a permit.
“(The police) came upstairs to the balcony and told me to get out of the shoe,” Marion said. “The owner called the mayor and the mayor was like, ‘Leave Sushi alone, close down the street.’ “
Today, Key West’s annual “shoe drop” still stars Marion as Sushi — in a better-constructed shoe — and now attracts attention from around the world.
The Bourbon Street Pub festivities were once the place for the gay community to ring in the new year. Today, the crowd is a mixture of tourists and locals from every walk of life.
“You’ll have older gay men next to a family with kids, next to guys in leather, next to a bunch of rowdy bachelorettes,” Marion said. “Everybody’s welcome.”
Each year, Marion makes a special dress for the show, which he wears only once. His outfit is a tightly kept secret until he takes the stage as Sushi on New Year’s Eve.
“They sneak her in the back and it’s a big deal,” said fellow drag queen Richmond Arcie. “No one really sees the dress until she’s right in the shoe.”
Marion said he spends months looking through fashion magazines and watching couture fashion shows, getting inspiration from famous designers.
“I try to make it really elaborate, one of a kind, something you haven’t seen before,” he said.
He said his dress this year will be fluorescent green, “like a palm tree exploded — very tropical.”
After ringing in 2013, Marion will put the dress in storage along with the 15 others from new years past.
“She gives her all to the dress and to the public that night,” Arcie said. “She puts her best face forward and foot forward for this event.”
It takes Marion two hours to transform into Sushi: an hour applying makeup, a half-hour getting into the dress and another half-hour preparing his wig.
“Once you get your face on, your lashes, your lips and your dress, you’re creating somebody different,” Marion said.
The street in front of Bourbon Street Pub is closed to traffic to accommodate the crowds. While they wait for Marion as Sushi, a live musical dance and impersonation show is performed on a stage in front of the bar.
“At 11 o’clock, Sushi arrives, and we lower the shoe and put her in it, then raise her up,” said pub owner Joey Schroeder.
Over the next hour, Marion as Sushi is lowered 20 feet down inside the fire-engine red shoe made of fiberglass and stainless steel. The shoe is a size 8 — feet, that is — with a 4-foot-high heel.
“It is very stable and secure,” Schroeder said.
That hasn’t always been the case.
“It rained the second year, and my foot went through the bottom of it and I was like,’You guys have to make me a new shoe,’ ” Marion recalled. ” ‘(Otherwise) I’m not going to sit in it.’ “
Marion said the months of preparation for the hourlong show, and the potential danger of being dangled in midair, is all worth it because it allows him to represent the gay community and the city of Key West.
“Every year she says, ‘This is my last year,’ ” Schroeder said, “and I say, ‘Oh Sushi, you are going to be the old lady in the shoe.’ “