At Mrs. Roper Romps, the Caftan Is Queen

The 1950s-kitsch dining room at Ogie’s Trailer Park in Providence, R.I., was packed on a Saturday afternoon this month with dozens of loud redheads nursing froufrou cocktails and cha-cha-ing around in platform wedges.

Outside, Kieran Hammond, 22, glanced around the patio looking confused about what he’d wandered into. “My first guess is Annie?” he said.

They were not Annie. They were Helen. More than 75 Helens, actually, for Providence’s first Mrs. Roper Romp, one of many such parties held regularly across North America in celebration of Helen Roper, the effortlessly confident, life-of-the-party landlady played by Audra Lindley on the hit ABC sitcom “Three’s Company” (1977-1984).

Risqué in its day, “Three’s Company” was about three roommates — originally Chrissy (Suzanne Somers), Janet (Joyce DeWitt) and Jack (John Ritter) — who shared a Santa Monica apartment. Their nutty downstairs landlords were the libidinous but sex-starved Helen and her husband, Stanley (Norman Fell), who only agreed to the trio’s living arrangement because he mistakenly thought Jack was gay, or more precisely, a “tinkerbell.” (Episodes are available on Pluto TV.)

By 2023 standards, the show might be considered retrograde in its attitudes toward feminism and homosexuality. But when it aired, its randy suggestiveness pushed broadcast boundaries. Mrs. Roper was its progressive Pole Star: Freethinking and voluptuary, she pooh-poohed her husband’s anti-gay slights and illustrated for Janet and Chrissy how an older woman could have sexual agency.

That attitude has made the character into something of a cult figure today, particularly among gay men and straight women, who make up most of the Mrs. Roper Romp crowds. The gatherings take place in dozens of cities across the United States and Canada, with at least 20 scheduled through the end of October, including one in Manhattan on Sunday.

Matt Baume, the author of the new book “Honey, I’m Homo!: Sitcoms, Specials and the Queering of American Culture,” chalked up Mrs. Roper’s popularity to the character’s “strangely aspirational” combination of glamorous drag queen and mother-protector.

“The way that she is constantly needling Mr. Roper is a takedown of the patriarchy,” Baume said in a phone interview. “Her subtle undermining of masculine power is very fun and pleasurable to women and to gay men.”

The Romp in Providence drew mostly white Gen X and baby boomer women who each paid $10 to peacock about in Mrs. Roper’s signature look (tight red perm, floor-sweeping caftans, chunky costume jewelry) compete in trivia and limbo contests. The ladies got tipsy on the Oh, Stanley, a special cocktail of white rum and grenadine named for one of Mrs. Roper’s frequent hubby-shaming chastisements. Think SantaCon but campy and without the street fights.

Nancy Rafi, a 65-year-old retired event planner who co-organized the Romp, said she wasn’t surprised tickets sold out quickly. (The money raised went to two charities.) For many women of her generation, she said, Mrs. Roper was “a feminist icon.”

“I loved Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt,” said Rafi, who is also a practicing witch. “But they were very vanilla to me.” Mrs. Roper, she said, “was a firecracker.”

Standing tall among the jungle prints was Brandon Ward, a hairstylist who turns 50 this year. He was one of a handful of men who came dressed as a character he likened to “your crazy grandma that maybe had a couple cocktails in the afternoon” and oozed “charm and trauma.” He went on to win the Most Beautiful Mrs. Roper contest, looking regal in a “Butterfield 8”-inspired gold caftan.

The first Mrs. Roper Romp took place 10 years ago when Bud Moore, now 51, enlisted some 50 people to march as Mrs. Ropers in a parade during Southern Decadence, an annual gay party weekend in New Orleans. (The next year, Moore and friends marched as Richard Simmons. They used the same wigs.)

Moore’s Roper Romp Facebook group to date has over 7,100 members, up from around 200 last year, thanks to photos from the San Diego Romp that Moore said “exploded” on social media in June.

Moore sounded happily overwhelmed that his idea had taken on a life of its own.

“I guess I’m an influencer now,” he said.

During the trivia contest, the crowd at Ogie’s quickly scribbled down answers to most of the “Three’s Company”-related questions. (The roommates’ favorite bar? The Regal Beagle.) But when it came time to name the actress who played the character, some people looked stumped. Even for longtime fans of Mrs. Roper, the caftan, not the woman in it, most defines the character.

Lindley was more than Helen’s muumuu. She was born in Los Angeles in 1918 to show-business parents. She became an accomplished actress who appeared on Broadway, and on film worked with the directors Milos Forman and Elaine May and acted opposite Burt Reynolds and Nick Nolte.

It was on television where Lindley made her lasting mark. She got her start in Golden Age shows (“Playhouse 90”) and on soap operas (“Search for Tomorrow”) and continued working through the ’90s, including as Phoebe’s grandmother on “Friends” and, in her final TV appearance, as Cybill Shepherd’s mother on “Cybill.”

But it is “Three’s Company” for which Lindley, a mother of five, is best remembered. In 1997, she died at 79 of complications from leukemia.

The Romps aren’t the only place where Mrs. Roper is alive again. On TikTok, fans prance to the “Three’s Company” theme song in red wigs and floral caftans, and #MrsRoper has garnered over six million views. A video from the Providence Romp has over 1 million views so far. Joss Richard, the 31-year-old host of “Three’s Company, Too: A Rewatch Podcast,” said Lindley would have been thrilled.

“Her character wasn’t considered super iconic when it aired,” Richard said by phone. “But she would want to hang out with gay guys and other women and do limbo contests and have a cocktail.”

At Ogie’s, Lulu Locks — the stage name of the woman who ran the trivia contest — looked elegant in what she called her “psychedelic tropical neon” barkcloth caftan, one of about 30 such garments in her collection. The past few years have been hard on her — “Covid stuff, health stuff, family stuff,” she explained.

The Mrs. Roper Romp was a comfort, she said, because it allowed her and others to hit the pause button on “being caregivers and caretakers who need care ourselves.”

“Please God, give me a frilly cocktail and a laugh with my friends,” she said, “and just let it be easy for a minute.”

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