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Local LGBT historian digs heels into Kansas City’s drag history

This mannequin, on display at the Kansas City Museum as part of the Melinda Ryder collection, features a headpiece made from paper towel and toilet paper rolls.
                                                                                                                                 Photo by Roze Brooks

Stuart Hinds, director of Special Collections at Miller-Nichols Library, is in pursuit of uncovering the overlooked history of female impersonation in Kansas City.

Hinds, a founding partner of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA), led a presentation titled “From Blackface to Max Factor: The Evolution of Female Impersonation in Kansas City” on Oct. 23 in Township Hall at Union Station.

“What’s excited me most about the work is that it is really a new area of exploration – the topic has been looked at by one or two other scholars, but in a much more theoretical way, and focusing on one era, not the entire history,” Hinds said.

The Kansas City Museum’s Historic House Director Christopher Leitch accompanied Hinds in the presentation. Leitch oversees maintenance of collections at the museum.

The Melinda Ryder collection was the presentation’s focus. The collection featured a mannequin, which displayed a handmade dress and headpiece constructed from unfurled, spray-painted paper towel and toilet paper tubes.

This partnership was created in 2009.

“The Museum had just published our new Strategic Plan that called on the Museum to be more diverse and inclusive in our collections and public program, but we didn’t have a specific plan for implementing this noble vision,” Leitch said. “Each organization is simply doing what it does normally – collecting, preserving and interpreting historical material. We’re just holding hands on this project.”

Hinds sifted through the collection’s donations, and was surprised and inspired to discover an abundance of material about female impersonation in Kansas City.

“What launched this investigation into the history of female impersonation in KC was the amount of material we were receiving in the GLAMA collections related to the topic,” Hinds said.  “Material like Melinda Ryder costumes from Bruce Winter and Kirk Nelson, Late Night Theater memorabilia and papers from DeeDee DeVille, and a raft of photographs from various donors.”

Hinds started his presentation by showing original language of The Revised Ordinances of the City of Kansas City in 1860.  It stated, “Whoever shall, in this city, be found in any dress not belonging to his or her sex  … shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.”

This ordinance caused arrests and heavy fines, affecting mostly black males found wearing dresses and female identifiable clothing in public. One example was a man in a pink satin dress being fined $25, which would equal nearly $650 today.

Hinds pointed out that the influx of theatre in Kansas City was an unintentional catalyst for female impersonation. This pitted unacceptable public cross-dressing against the acceptable gender-bending featured on stage.

The Kansas City Star, then called The Kansas City Evening Star, even wrote an article profiling drag queens as a novelty form of entertainment, with the headline “Strange Men.”

Theater trends molded many smaller groups of traveling performers in Kansas City.  The Epperson family, whose namesake building resides on UMKC’s campus, was part of the historical trend with Epperson’s Megaphone Minstrel’s.  This act involved Seymour Rice, who took to the stage in blackface and drag.

A premiere social event in Kansas City, the Priests of Pallas, included parades among its weekly festivities.  The most prized float featured someone dressed as the woman Pallas Athena.  However, this role was usually given to a man, because it was considered too much for a female to manage.

Julian Eltinge was among the most popular female impersonators.  A signature trend was live singing versus the common lip-synching in today’s drag shows. Eltinge’s reputation was molded by her believability as a woman, cinching her male, 40-inch waist down to 24 inches.

During Tom Pendergast’s influence in Kansas City, liquor laws and hours of operation were ignored.  This applied to venues that featured female impersonators, which could be found on any given night.

Dante’s Inferno became notorious for drag performers, featuring one act called Mr. Half and Half.  The artist’s costume was a long, white gown on one half, and a tuxedo and bowler hat on the other. He would alter his singing voice to accommodate the side of the costume facing the audience.

Though these instances of female impersonation on stage were acceptable, the ordinance the public ordinance endured.

But the outbreak of World War II drew focus away from leisure and recreation.

Hinds hasn’t found evidence that female impersonation existed overseas during war times, but said lack of proof doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

The war changed societal expectations of gender roles, and women emerged in the work place.  This societal change is reflected in the ordinance’s omission of reference to clothing expectations based on sex since it became more common to see women in pants and suits.

In 1946, the revision read as “indecent or lewd dress.”

As society changed, so did female impersonation.  The Jewel Box opened for business and became the hub of drag performances, originally located at 3219 Troost Road. Many performers began their rapport with the Kansas City community at this venue, including Rae Bourbon and Skip Arnold.

The Stonewall Riots in 1969 society’s view of the gay and lesbian community, and female impersonation saw a slight decline.  This negatively affected the neighborhood surrounding The Jewel Box, which had recruited two similar venues, The Yum-Yum Club and The Cat Balleu Lounge, altogether known as “Mid-America’s Greatest Fun Complex.”

The Jewel Box relocated to 3100 Main St., where Wendy’s currently resides. At the same time, the first Miss Gay America pageant was held in St. Louis in 1973.

Female impersonation was at the forefront of raising awareness of the AIDs epidemic.  Many affected individuals were not receiving help from health services.

Hinds is pleased with the progress female impersonation has made over the past 80 years.

“If my mother knows who RuPaul is, drag has come a long way,” he said.

Hinds said technology and societal changes will influence the art of drag, but suspects drag will continue and never lose its edge.

“What is particularly gratifying from a librarian’s perspective is to see new research like this emanate from a collection that didn’t even exist five years ago,” Hinds said.  “It is the same thrill I get when I see students incorporating material from the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America into their own research.  The commitment on the part of the University Libraries and the University itself to our GLAMA partnership with the Kansas City Museum is clearly reaping scholarly benefits for both students and faculty.”

rbrooks@unews.com

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