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Key West's ruby shoe is coming down!

  • Story Highlights
  • New York has a crystal ball, Atlanta has a peach, Key West has a ruby-red shoe
  • Shoe will carry drag queen Sushi when it's lowered from balcony of bar
  • The performer has ridden the shoe since the first trip 11 years ago
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By Rich Phillips
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KEY WEST, Florida (CNN) -- It's one of the few New Year's Eve parties in America where straight guys think twice about kissing a stranger at midnight.

A huge crowd will gather to watch the red shoe drop in Key West, Florida.

The red paint was still wet when Sushi took the first ride on the ruby slipper.

Key West, Florida, the southernmost point in the continental United States, has long been known for its pristine blue ocean, key lime pie, mega bars and margaritas. But it's also known for a female impersonator who rings in the new year in a giant, ruby-red, high-heel shoe live on CNN.

The magnificently gowned, stylishly coiffed Sushi is about to enter his eleventh year in the eight-foot shoe. At the stroke of midnight, he'll be lowered from the second-story balcony at the Bourbon Street Pub to ring in 2009 as only he can.

"I never thought growing up that I'd be on television in a giant red heel", said Sushi, whose real name is Gary Marion.

"That's not something that a young kid aspires to, but I'm so thankful that I live in a country that lets us do what we want to do, as long as we don't hurt anybody else."

This extravaganza has long been a featured part of CNN's Live New Year's Eve coverage, hosted this year by CNN's Anderson Cooper and comedian Kathy Griffin. Show us what happens in your town

"This has got to be one of the most unique drops in the world," said Andy Newman, director of media relations for the Florida Keys tourism council. "The whole thing of a drag queen coming down in a bright red shoe is just wild and could only happen in Key West."

CNN New Year's Eve
Bring in the New Year with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin, live from Times Square!
Coverage begins 11 p.m. ET

Leading up to the stroke of midnight, thousands of partygoers are treated to an elaborate drag queen show in the middle of Duval Street.

Sushi, or Marion, is the leader of an acclaimed troupe of drag performers, called the 801 Girls, who dance the night away at the 801 Bourbon Street Pub.

The owners of the bar, Jimmy Gilleran and Joey Schroeder, dreamed up the event 11 years ago to get more tourists down to Key West. The first event was thrown together in about two weeks, and the shoe was made of papier-mâché and two-by-fours, and painted red.

"The paint was still wet, and I had a white dress on, and I sat in it," Sushi said.

"They didn't have a permit, and the cops kicked me out, and then we had to call the mayor, and he gave us the OK. ... It was just a mess", he said.

CNN correspondent John Zarrella is covering the show. It's been his assignment for several years now.

"The very first year ... standing on the stage with two drag queens, not knowing what to expect, and when they both kissed me on the cheeks at the same time, I thought to myself, I hope my mother and my wife weren't watching -- but they were," he said.

Zarrella says he's seen the event change over the years that CNN has been carrying the show live.

"Every year, it seems to get bigger, and more and more families come every year," he said.

A costume designer by profession, Marion has designed most of the 801 Girls' stage outfits and has created costumes for Keys theatrical productions. But he continues to gain widespread fame as Sushi.

"A lot of feedback from the straight community, who are like, 'that's really cool,' " he said. "I get a lot of people from Montana, and they think the only gay thing is Brokeback Mountain. Now they see me in the shoe."

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