LGBTQ Atlanta mourns Mary’s ‘institution’ CJ Rouse

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CJ Rouse died in early October, sparking a series of tributes across Atlanta. The longtime LGBTQ karaoke host at Mary’s was known for his Diana Ross numbers.

“Everything that you’ve heard about him is true,” friend and frequent “Mary-oke” performer Corian Ellisor told Project Q Atlanta. “Very sassy, very talented, the best singer, and knew how to control the audience and control the room.”

Rouse hosted Mary-oke for 22 years. He oversaw or took part in more than 130,000 song performances, according to Mary’s owner Bill Overall.

“CJ was the star of the show, and with respect to everyone, we were only opening acts for his own performance,” Overall wrote on Facebook. “His repertoire was wide and deep, but it was his ability to take on Diana Ross that people will always remember.”

John Christopher Rouse was born in Hephzibah, Ga. He graduated from Hephzibah High School in 1980 and attended Georgia Tech, according to his Facebook page.

“Through the journey of his life, he was passionate about meteorology, engineering, playing musical instruments and singing,” according to an online fundraiser launched by his family. The fundraiser hopes to raise $20,000.

Rouse powered through medical issues

Lindsey Merritt met Rouse when she started patronizing Mary’s about 11 years ago.

“My initial reason for coming to Mary’s was CJ and karaoke,” she said. “He was a little firecracker.”

Merritt later became the bar’s manager. She said Rouse suffered from health problems in recent years.

“He was just a very much ‘the show must go on’ kind of person and proved that constantly by his attendance at Mary’s on days that he was not feeling well or had just come back from dialysis or had had something cut open, and he’s there,” she said.

“I’m like, ‘What the hell are you doing, go home and put your feet up’ and he’d say, ‘No baby, give me a shot of Fireball and a chair and I’ll be fine.’ The energy and sparkle and gumption in that little body totally outshined other people,” she added.

Rouse continued to host Mary-oke while enduring medical issues. Watching him push through was “something too exhausting for most of us to comprehend,” according to Overall.

“But until the last year, we could probably count on one hand the nights he wasn’t able to come to work,” he wrote on Facebook. “Hosting karaoke was something that he loved doing and he hated the idea of missing one of his nights.”

Rouse was among Mary’s personalities featured in a Q magazine essay by photographer Jon Dean celebrating Labor Day in 2018.

‘There’s a hole in our hearts’

Ellisor, who called Rouse a Mary’s “institution,” started going to Mary-oke 12 years ago. Rouse would often sing backup when Ellisor would perform.

“I cherished singing ‘Father Figure’ with him and he’d sing all the harmonies,” he said. “We take those moments for granted, those magical moments. I’ll never be able to sing that song and not think of him and listening for him to be harmonizing with me.”

Mary’s closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and reopened in June. But as a safety precaution, Mary-oke has not returned. Ellisor last saw Rouse at a Publix grocery store in April.

“It was kind of like seeing your teacher outside of school,” he said.

Rouse died on Oct. 7, according to his family’s GoFundMe page.

“It is devastating to realize that CJ will not be able to join us when can finally bring back karaoke and begin to live like we once did,” Overall wrote on Facebook.

“I miss him a lot,” Ellisor added. “There’s a hole in our hearts and I don’t know how we’re going to be able to fill it.”

Rouse’s memorial service was Oct. 19 at Historic First Ebenezer Baptist Church in Hephzibah, according to a Facebook post.

A celebration of Rouse’s life took place at Mary’s on Oct. 27. Video tributes by friends and fans played on the bar’s Twitch channel that night.

Mary’s plans a larger celebration of life when it’s safer to do so, according to Merritt.

This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.


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