What today's Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is for the Kansas City Symphony and the Lyric Opera, the Jewel Box Lounge was for the female impersonators of the 1950s and '60s. The original Jewel Box, at 3223 Troost, was a showplace, the big time not only for local femme mimics such as Mr. Tommy Temple and Mr. Butch Ellis but also for national acts like Ray (Rae) Bourbon.
Bourbon died in 1971 (in a Texas prison, convicted in a murder-for-hire plot), around the same time that the first Jewel Box was on life support. The place closed in 1973, after 25 years of flashy floor shows.
"I knew the days were numbered for the old Jewel Box," Temple once said, "when I'd walk out of the club and there were more queens working the streets as hookers than there were inside, on the stage." (It moved to Main Street but closed in 1984.)
The flashing marquee is long gone, but the brick building on Troost, with its rippled, glass-brick façade, still stands, now split into three apartments. One of those living spaces, a long, narrow space where the original bar used to stand (and where a customer was stabbed to death in the 1960s), still boasts the club's terrazzo floors. But not much else remains to remind visitors of its flamboyant past.
"The place definitely has a strange vibe at night, but it's a good vibe," says actor De De DeVille, best known for his female roles at Late Night Theatre. He stops short of calling the old Jewel Box haunted (though the Late Night space on Grand was, he says), but at least one spirit is temporarily displacing a couple of the building's residents. Bradley Hoffman and his girlfriend, Brittany Lewis, were persuaded to move out of their living quarters at 3227 Troost for a month to make way for the ghost of William Inge.
Staged by New York City director Travis Chamberlain and visual artist Joseph Keehn II, An Otherwise Hopeless Evening of Very Gay and Extremely Grim Short Plays includes two Inge pieces that have never before been produced. And it marks the first time in 18 years that DeVille has played a man onstage.
The production, which has been extended through Sunday, February 24, drew national attention before the first ticket was sold. New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als ended his review of the Broadway revival of Inge's Picnic (The New Yorker, January 21, 2013) with a shout-out to Chamberlain and Keehn's project: "I'd give anything to see it."
The four short plays in this 90-minute show are less grim than they are funny — morbidly, blackly so. Kansas-born Inge, who would have been 100 years old this May, was an unhappy, alcoholic homosexual who killed himself in 1973. The play's themes include murder, suicide, self-loathing, secrets and religion. In the 35-seat venue that Chamberlain and Keehn have installed for this production (also featuring Keehn's artwork), patrons are seated in old church pews set up around the apartment's perimeter.
"I like to call it a charming evening of despair," Chamberlain says.
DeVille and four other local actors (including veteran performer Brad Shaw, who sewed costumes for the Jewel Box queens in the 1970s) take on a variety of parts: a depressed, mother-dominated mortician here, an outrageously nosy landlady there. Even the late Rae Bourbon shows up, channeled by actor Tom Lancaster, who performs one of the late drag queen's comedy numbers prior to intermission. (A 1950s-style drag show, featuring DeVille, Molten Decadence, Melinda Ryder, and Jewel Box veteran Sandy Kay, follows the February 17 performance.)
"Neither Travis nor I knew much about the Jewel Box history before we decided we wanted to produce these plays," Keehn says. "We were turned on to the place by Stuart Hinds of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America. But it's the perfect setting for our production. When William Inge was a young teacher living in Columbia, Missouri, he would drive up to Kansas City on weekends, and we feel pretty confident that he would have had a drink or two at the Jewel Box."
Keehn, who says he has been working on this project for two years, is thrilled with audience response so far. "We've been selling out for almost every show," he says. "Of course, we only have 35 seats."