Rare Photo Collection Documenting 1960’s Drag Culture Unearthed In Kansas City

private-birthday-party-01.nocrop.w1800.h1330-thumb-500x334-18374Artist Robert Heishman says he caught his first glimpse into Kansas City’s 1960’s drag scene while rummaging around a Kansas City salvage yard in 2006.

He tells The Cut he was looking for material for an undergraduate documentary class when he stumbled upon a slide carousel labeled “Jack’s Slides: Chicago and Kansas City.” He purchased the slides for $2.

“The first image I looked at was this picture of a man in a kimono that was incredibly colorful — it was just a stunning image to behold,” he says. “There wet family photos, and then I hit this line of images that were all people dressed in drag, predominantly standing in front of this beautiful mosaic outside a bar.”

Two years later, Heishman coincidentally fell into another half of the drag photo collection, when his longtime friend Michael Boles discovered more slides (presumably from the same photographer) while helping a friend move into a new house, which just so happened to be around the corner from drag clubs that were hot in the ’50s and ’60s.

“When we got them together and paired them up, it was kind of amazing,” Boles said. “Some of them are even from the same parties.”

Along with the help of researcher Emily Henson, Heishman and Boles have released the collection, now titled “Private Birthday Party”, to conserve the rich history of mid-century drag ball culture in middle America, and ultimately, find the original photographer.

“We believe it’s someone named Jack,” Boles said, “but he’s still sort of an elusive figure at this point. We have some leads, but at the time being we’re still trying to figure all that out.”

Below, a selection from “Private Birthday Party”, as published by The Cut:



















h/t omgblog

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  • Cam

    Apparently no matter where you live (or When) Dammit you just can’t keep glamour down! Well done ladies.

  • TerrenM

    Wow. I can’t help but to see my grandmother in many of these pics.

  • gauty

    This is EVERYTHING. That drag king is so fucking adorable. I want to hug all of them. Also, it’s amazing to see some early drafts of the Willams, Latrices and Tammies of today smiling back at us from that photoset.

  • tpabeaux

    they should take all these slides and make a documentary on Gay life in the 1960’s
    Damn I swear I recognize a few of those girls… Love the Guys in Suits n ties to. LOL I think some are still around…

  • Ms Urethra Johnson

    Parker Molloy is prolly having a heart attack, right about now…

  • Stuart

    What was missing from the piece is that most of these fabulous images live in GLAMA, the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Lots more great KC gay history at http://www.glama.us

  • IcarusD

    I love looking at historical stuff like this — and from an time before digital. We now live in the most heavily documented era in human history.

  • JimboinLA

    I see a new John Waters movie.

  • Will L

    Oh, these are priceless.

  • NateOcean

    Second from the last looks like she should have a fishhook hanging from that mouth.

  • Jessie R

    I wish there were a way to learn more about these peoples’ lives. Given the time and place, I suspect that some of these people actually identified with the gender they did drag in, and I’d love to hear what that was like for them.

  • Stache99

    @Jessie R: I agree. They all look so happy and fabulous. Real people living real lives in an era that’s almost alien to us today. That would be interesting.

  • goodogcarl

    as a young queen, I used to accompany one of these ladies on the piano (the one standing at the microphone in the blue dress and silver platinum wig). I worked with her around kansas city and then also traveled with her to los angeles and san Francisco . . . it was lovely “seeing” her again in this photo . . . oh, she didn’t lip sync . . . she actually sang.

  • ddunn1439

    Back in that era, Gays and straights used to park outside of the “Jewel Box” in KC just to watch the beautiful drag queens come and go! Does anyone remember the Jewel Box, or is it still there? David Dunn, Las Vegas

  • goodogcarl

    @ddunn1439: the jewel box hasn’t been in Kansas city for years and years

  • Sauja32

    I love these photos so much. I actually just saw the play Casa Valentina in NY–written by Harvey Fierstein, it’s about a hotel in the Catskills for straight-identifying trans folks in the 60s. Beautiful, wonderful play. And it’s based on the book Casa Susannah (which I ordered after seeing it)–a collection of photos unearthed in a flea market that bear resemblance to these. Worth checking out.

    Also, silver bikini top is giving me life. There’s one in every crowd!

  • ceemego

    As a young and naive airman in the early 60’s while stationed near Kansas City, a small group of us would frequent the Jewel Box Lounge whenever we could. I became fast friends with Jimmy (not sure of her stage name) picture #13 of 19, and was soon helping out with lighting and other menial tasks associated with the show. goodogcarl is correct that the tall platinum blond performed live. She was also the house comedian. I remember another performer, not sure if she is pictured, who would bring the house down with her rendition of Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe (Ella Fitzgerald). Does anyone recall her name? Many, many fun times at the Jewel Box. Still have some of the playbills.

  • carisharis

    @goodogcarl: Are you, or do you know Richard Reece? Richard played the organ (in drag) for Skip Arnold and the other acts at the Colony and later at the Jewel Box. He was a good friend of mine; kind of like my big brother. He offered me a place to live at his house in Raytown, along with other roommates, where he would throw big parties every weekend. I lost track of Richard years ago, but I’d love to reconnect.

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