‘Private Birthday Party’: Rare Photos From Kansas City’s 1960s Drag Scene

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In 2006, artist Robert Heishman was poking around a Kansas City salvage yard, looking for material for an undergraduate documentary class, when he stumbled upon a slide carousel labeled “Jack’s Slides: Chicago and Kansas City.”

“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,” Heishman told the Cut. “There were 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.” Intrigued, Heishman purchased the slides — for $2. “I didn’t really know what I was purchasing, but I wanted to have time to sit with them a little longer,” he explains.

Two years later, Heishman’s longtime friend Michael Boles was helping a friend move into a new house in Kansas City — which, as he describes it, was right around the corner from the drag clubs that were vibrant in the '50s and '60s. He came across a shoebox of slides that turned out to be quite similar to the ones Heishman had found at the scrapyard. “When we got them together and paired them up, it was kind of amazing," Boles reflects. "Some of them are even from the same parties.” The resulting collection — titled “Private Birthday Party,” after the signs that used to appear on club doors when drag balls were taking place — includes over 200 images and provides a vivid glimpse of Kansas City’s early drag-ball culture. Heishman and Boles have since brought on Emily Henson to help with background research; together, the three believe they're close to identifying the photographer.  

The Cut spoke with Heishman, Boles, and Henson about the history of the drag scene in Kansas City and what stood out to them about these photographs.

When you were first comparing the two sets of photographs, was it obvious that they were taken by the same photographer?

Heishman: Yeah — as we started comparing the photographs, it began to strike us as being the same hand.

Boles: Robert’s collection is definitely from an earlier time. Those photos start in 1958; the ones I found start in 1964.

Henson: But throughout both parts of the collection, there are images taken against the mosaic wall, and they’re all shot in the sort of same way, over the years. There are photographs of people dancing together, laughing, posing for the camera, and then a handful that feel a little different — you can tell that the photographer is just photographing events as they’re happening.

What drew you to these photographs?

Henson: Something that really stood out to me when I got started with the project was that, in our research, we found that it would have been unusual that many of the people in the photographs who weren’t in drag had allowed the photographer to photograph them. That made me feel like what we had was especially rare, because it’s coming from a photographer who seemed to know this community well and was able to photograph these events in a way other people wouldn’t have been able to. So far in our research, we haven’t seen other images that really look like this at all from this time period.

What do you know about the photographer?

Boles: Well, we believe it’s someone named Jack, 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.

You found notes written by “Jack” in the second set of photographs, right? What did they say?

Boles: The notes were to his sister, just explaining what he was doing. He was working for a newspaper in Sydney when he wrote the letter, and talking about how he was in a changing point in his life. He didn’t mention Kansas City, but it was just a very personal letter to his sister.

What else have you been able to find out about the images?

Boles: We are still in the process of this, to be honest. We’ve identified some of the performers with help from Stuart Hinds of GLAMA (Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America, UMKC), but we still haven’t met with anyone in any of the photographs. We’re looking to find them, and interview them, and really further that part of the project, but so far we haven’t come across a lot … Because they’re so old, a lot of these people, unfortunately, have passed.

Henson: Some of the people in the images are female impersonators who had known identities and publicity for themselves, like Skip Arnold, so we’ve been able to identify them from older Jewel Box Lounge materials, and from websites we’ve found that highlight performers and clubs of this era. But, it has been difficult for us to identify the attendees of the ball, since they weren’t actively trying to publicize their drag activities. What’s so fun about these images and what’s so special about them is that it’s not just photographs of the impersonators for promotional material, like what we’ve seen in our research. It’s everybody, and everybody seems like they know each other and they’re friends. It’s a snapshot into a very tight-knit and supportive community.

Is very much known about the history of drag culture in Kansas City?

Henson: When we started telling people about these slides, we often heard them say, I didn’t even know that Kansas City had a drag history, but it does, and it was very vibrant — as vibrant as a drag scene in New York or San Francisco would have been at that time.

Boles: The name “Private Birthday Party” comes from back when these photos were taken at The Colony. They used to put a sign on the door that said “Private Birthday Party” on Saturday afternoons so they could have tea parties, which was a dance party, because at the time same-sex dancing was illegal. The police would occasionally break up these events and harass everyone, so they would keep them under wraps most of the time. It’s also interesting to note that the Mafia owned and operated The Jewel Box, which was the main club back then.

Did you have any ethical reservations about the fact that many of the subjects may never have wanted these photographs to be public?

Heishman: Absolutely. I would say that it’s taken us a while to actually bring the photographs forward. We wanted to do it in such a way that would thoughtfully illuminate these images and this history — we’re incredibly sensitive to that.

Boles: From the beginning we all knew treating this project in a respectful way was a top priority. So it didn’t really make us hesitant, but it was a concern that we had for a while — if we should go forth and put these out there or not.

Now that you have them online, what are your goals for the collection going forward?

Henson: We are very centered on research and conservation right now. We have hope that, since the slides were found in two different places, it is possible that we’ll be able to recover more out there. In the future we’re interested in the possibility of publishing a book and having an exhibition of the work. We feel that these images are the work of a photographer with an eye that, if you think about what was going on in photography history at the time, is a very similar yet unique aesthetic.

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