private birthday party
PBP_PaperMag_02.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party)

In one image, a curvy, red-headed Joan Holloway-type stares confidently into the camera alongside a smiling companion wearing a shimmering, tight strapless dress. In another, two friends sporting matching blonde bouffants and elegant 60s-era gowns impassively glance at the photographer as if they've been interrupted en route to making a grand entrance at some black-tie dinner dance. And in a third, a svelte figure vamps for the lens in a long, gold gown and black feather boa, a long cigarette holder hanging from gloved fingertips.

Each of these images comes from "Private Birthday Party," a collection of found photographs documenting Kansas City, Missouri's drag ball culture during the '50s and '60s. Named for the coded signs that would hang outside nightclubs hosting the balls, Private Birthday Party includes an array of images showing groups of friends -- male and female, drag queens and drag kings alike -- posing, dancing, and laughing together.

The photos were unearthed in two separate -- and unrelated -- instances by artists and friends, Robert Chase Heishman and Michael Boles, five or six decades after they were shot. In both cases there was a degree of fortuitousness: Heishman found the first trove inside a slide carousel in 2006 while sifting through scrap metal and rubble in a salvage yard while Boles came across his stash two years later while helping a friend move -- the photos were piled inside an unmarked shoebox in the new house. It would take four more years before the friends compared notes and realized they had each made similar discoveries. Not long after, they concluded that it was likely their images were shot by the same photographer -- aside from stylistic and locational similarities, both batches included references to someone named "Jack," who Boles and Heishman think might be the man behind the camera lens.

PBP_PaperMag_08.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_11.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

In 2012, the two teamed up with their close friend, Chicago-based artist/writer Emily Kay Henson, to begin working on a long-term research project centered on the collection, with the hopes that one day the images might appear in a book. "We quickly realized that we had a really strong connection to the material, given that it was [shot] in Kansas City and that it's these incredible photographs depicting this dormant piece of history," Heishman says. He adds, "We felt a true responsibility with the material and wanted to go about [handling] it quite thoughtfully." To that end, the trio is working in conjunction with the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has set up a tips hotline that anyone can call with more information about the photographs. The three say they get calls and emails nearly every other day.

"Things have really taken off," Henson says, "It's so exciting to hear from people who were actually involved in this scene...They couldn't be happier to meet with us." She adds, "We've been showing the photos to friends and more and more people in the [Kansas City] community and everybody has been so excited and enthusiastic...That's why we felt we had to share them and put them out there in the first place."

PBP_PaperMag_19.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party)

PBP_PaperMag_10.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

Over the last few months, they've connected with a Sacramento-based LGBT activist who lived above The Jewel Box, which along with The Colony, was one of the two major nightclubs that hosted many of the drag balls and performances in the photos. "He told us about the balls and how they'd start after the bars closed -- around midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning -- and go until 5 in the morning," Boles says. 

In a time when same-sex dancing was still illegal in Kansas City, these parties were a way for residents gay and straight alike to have a good time in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. Aside from the "Private Birthday Party" signs on the doors, The Colony club also employed a lookout who would open a curtain and peer through a window leading onto the street before admitting patrons inside. (You can even see the lookout peeking through the window in some of these images.) Once inside, guests were able to let their guards down and many, whether dressed in drag or not, were all too happy to pose for the mysterious "Jack" in front of the Colony's mosaic wall or inside the Jewel Box. It was a remarkable act of trust in a time when homosexuality was still taboo and when many people in the photos were at risk of losing their jobs and their families should the images have fallen into the wrong hands. Though they still haven't managed to track down "Jack," it's these details that have led Boles, Henson and Heishman to believe that he must have been someone with strong ties to KC's LGBT community.

PBP_PaperMag_06.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_15.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

"We've [narrowed it down] to three different people but still cannot confirm his identity," Boles says. "Our research keeps taking weird turns but I think we're getting closer and closer. Since setting up the hotline, we've gotten a couple of leads who can't remember his name but remember a photographer who was constantly taking photos at the drag balls."

Henson echoes that "finding the identity of the photographer has always been a primary goal for us and it's something we're actively working on every day."

While they continue hunting down Jack, they've been able to get a better sense of what went on during the balls. Members of the community who have reached out to the trio have told them about watching drag queens sing live (no lip syncing back in the day) and listening to performances by popular local soul/R&B act Kings of Rythm (no relation to Ike Turner's band).

PBP_PaperMag_01.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_03.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party)

Some of these performers, like queens GG Allen and Skip Arnold, were quite well known within the Kansas city scene. There were even a few, like Allen, who "would travel around with a group called the 'Jewel Box Revue' and would travel around the country putting on shows in places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans," Henson says.

Sifting through the photos and tracking down more information has led the trio to also become interested in learning more about the history behind some of the music acts and buildings featured in the images and to also consider what kind of legacy the community leaves. "These photos are an affirmation of the LGBT community and culture [in Kansas City]," Heishman says. "Drag culture is still very, very vibrant here." They also point to the sense of inclusiveness and support that existed within the community and how that family vibe is vital to KC's artistic community today, a community that has counted artists like Jaimie Warren, SSION's Cody Critcheloe and designer/stylist Peggy Noland among its members.

But perhaps the most telling sign of the drag community's lasting legacy on KC's creative scene can be found in the queens' gazes at the camera. Boles says, "One of the big things that carries on from what we see in the photographs to the present day is this sense of confidence. Everyone seems like they're owning who they are."

See more photo from Private Birthday Party -- including some never-before-seen images -- below.

PBP_PaperMag_04.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_05.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_07.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_09.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_12.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_13.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_14.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_16.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_20.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party)

PBP_PaperMag_17.jpg(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party/Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, UMKC)

PBP_PaperMag_18.jpg
(Image courtesy of Private Birthday Party)
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