A Secret History
Kansas City’s Ball Culture, Circa 1955
These unique photographic slides were recovered, in separate incidental instances, by artists Robert Chase Heishman and Michael Boles.
Initially researching for an experimental documentary class in 2006, Heishman discovered a slide carousel - labeled “Jack’s Slides: Chicago and Kansas City” - tossed among the heaps of scrap metal and scattered rubble of a salvage yard in Kansas City’s West Bottoms neighborhood. The first slide he pulled featured someone wearing an elaborate kimono costume and full makeup. In the next slide, a family photo of a young girl and her cocker spaniel. Outside of a handful of family photos and a couple of images showing nondescript city buildings, the rest of the slides contained a mix of posed portraits and party scenes from drag balls throughout the 1950s and 60s. In many, men and women in drag are posed outside the famed Kansas City club The Colony, photographed red-carpet style on their way into the night’s event.
In 2008, Michael Boles experienced a similar series of events. While helping a friend move into a new residence in midtown, Kansas City, he discovered dozens of photographic slides scattered freely inside of a shoebox. Dated throughout the 60s, the mix included family photos among over 100 images of drag queens and drag ball attendees. Along with the slides, Boles recovered articles “Jack” had written, including personal letters and short stories sent from Austria and Wales.
It wasn’t until 2012 when the two long-time friends realized the semblance of their discoveries. Both sets of recovered slides had clearly been shot by the same photographer, who seemed to have a familiarity with the crowd at each ball. With over 200 slides between the two discoveries, Heishman and Boles teamed up with writer Emily Kay Henson to form the Private Birthday Party collection. Their research, with the help of the Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the generous support of the Kansas City community, uncovered further details, placing most of the photographs at notorious KC nightclubs such as The Colony and The Jewel Box Lounge.
Billed as “tea dances” or “private birthday parties,” these drag balls were largely underground events. Both local personalities and nationally acclaimed drag performers, including Skip Arnold, G.G. Allen, and Jamie Greeney can be seen in the slides performing their acts and posing with friends. By highlighting these performers in addition to photographing party scenes, outtakes, and portraits of attendees, this collection is a rare and important look into mid-century drag ball culture.
More information on the collection and project here.