"I think now is a high point in the history of drag," says Stuart Hinds, director of special collections at UMKC's Miller Nichols Library. Hence his lecture, titled "From Blackface to Toilet Paper Rolls: The Surprising History of Female Impersonation in Kansas City." Expect him to discuss the rich past of local drag queens, their stamping grounds (past and present) and where the scene is now. Part of the Kansas City Museum's Community Curator Speaker Series, the 6:30 p.m. talk is at Union Station (30 West Pershing Road, 816-460-2020) in the Town Hall meeting room on Level B, and admission is free. Hinds answered a few questions from us last week.
The Pitch: Where were some of the hot spots for female impersonation in KC?
Hinds: This depends on what time period you're talking about. Early 20th-century impersonators typically performed in theatrical productions, and both the Shubert [at the northwest corner of 10th Street and Baltimore] and the Orpheum [1220 Baltimore] were regular venues for these shows. During the Pendergast era, clubs in the 18th and Vine District, as well as on 12th Street, regularly featured drag shows, the most notorious being Dante's Inferno, located at 1104 Independence Avenue. Post–World War II, the Jewel Box, at 3219–23 Troost, was known nationally as the place to see amazing "femme mimics." After the Stonewall uprising, in 1969, gay bars proliferated in Kansas City — clubs like the Arabian Nights, known colloquially as "the Tent," on the west side of Gillham, about a block south of Linwood; Cabaret, also known for a period as Pegasus; and Starz on Broadway. These were the most popular venues for drag shows in the '80s and '90s. After this period is when Missie B's and Sidekicks rose to prominence.
Who were popular performers?
Again, depends on your time period. Early 20th century saw nationally known performers visit the city, and there are references to a jazz-era queen who was known as the "Sepia Mae West." Standouts at the Jewel Box included Skip Arnold, GiGi Allen and the infamous Rae Bourbon, and toward the end of the life of the club, in the early 1970s, Tommy Temple, Ray Rondell and Sandy Kay (who still performs at Missie B's). Melinda Ryder, whose collection is the basis of my lecture and the motivation for my research, has been performing in the Kansas City area for nearly four decades.