Sushi climbs over the balcony railing in a gorgeous couture gown. She grips a fat bottle of champagne as she carefully settles herself in the eight-foot-long red high heel dangling some 15 feet above the street. She smiles and waves to thousands of cheering New Year’s Eve revelers below, all eager to start the countdown to ringing out the old and ringing in the new.

Sushi Drag Queen Key West New Year's Eve

Sushi, portrayed by Gary Marion, hangs in a giant replica of a women’s red high heel over Duval Street on New Year’s Eve. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

This year will mark the 18th time that Key West’s most renowned drag queen will make the glorious midnight “descent” from the Bourbon St. Pub complex’s balcony to the sidewalk.

Joey Schroeder, who came up with the “high heel drop” idea, still can’t believe that a local event — meant merely to offer anyone in Key West the chance to usher in the new year in LGBT style — has been televised to millions of people around the globe.

In 1995, Joey opened Bourbon St. Pub on Duval Street near the Petronia Street intersection.

“I was the first business into this block to change it into a gay neighborhood,” he said.

The Copa, the heart of LGBT nightlife at the time, had burned down just a few weeks earlier.

Joey Schroeder Key West

Joey Schroeder, owner of Bourbon St. Pub, dreamed up the offbeat New Year’s Eve celebration.

“I was the only facility able to expand quick enough to provide the space for people to go,” Joey explained. “It was bad timing for The Copa, but good timing for me.”

As the LGBT community was staking its claim to the area, Joey brainstormed a funny idea to push LGBT roots even deeper.

“It started out as just a goof thing,” he said. “I was watching ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ and said: What a great idea! Why don’t we do a big high heel and, instead of putting it on a bus, put it on the side of the building, throw the drag queen in there and just lower her down?”

On New Year’s Eve 1997, Sushi, a beautiful young queen experienced in the art of “geisha drag,” climbed into the super-sized red high heel for the first time.

As revelers began to fill the sidewalks and streets to witness the sensation, the police showed up and insisted the crowds be pushed back up onto the sidewalk.

Joey decided it was time to call in reinforcements.

“All the drag queens came out there, shouting at everyone to get back on the sidewalk,” he recalled. “Of course, the crowd was going crazy as the drag queens were out there and the crowd got bigger and bigger.”

Sushi Key West New Year's Eve

Joey (in yellow vest) prepares to lower Sushi to Duval Street on New Year’s Eve. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Authorities called in then-Key West City Commissioner Merilee McCoy, who gave Joey, Sushi and the crowd the “green light” to proceed.

“She loved the gay community,” Joey said. “She was the one who said, ‘Let them do it!’”

Each year since then, thousands of people have crowded into the 700 block of Duval Street to help Sushi count down to the big moment.

Joey admits he’s amazed at the media attention that the shoe drop has received from television networks — particularly CNN.

He said a Los Angeles production company plans to visit soon to talk about doing a reality TV show featuring the drag queens, go-go boys and bartenders who roam the area between Bourbon St. Pub, 801 Bourbon Bar and Aqua, known as the “pink triangle.”

“There are so many characters,” Joey enthused. “This should have been documented years ago.”

For the past dozen years or so, CNN has highlighted the “high heel drop” in their televised New Year’s Eve coverage — but the spectacle is best seen in person, so make plans now to welcome 2016 in Key West. I’m told that Sushi may have an extra-special surprise for us this year.

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