“I didn’t really know what I was purchasing, but I wanted to have time to sit with them a little longer” – Robert Heishman, who acquired these fabulous photos of the 1960s Kansas City drag scene for $2.
A Private Birthday Party is one of those gems that give us a new look on the past. Robert Chase Heishman and Michael Boles’ collection is a result of their having a keen eye for the unusual and memorable.
On their website, they explain the collection’s roots:
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 and clubs 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 off of Troost 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 show attendees. Along with the slides, Boles recovered articles “Jack” had written, including personal letters and short stories sent from Sydney.
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 event. With over 150 slides between the two discoveries, Heishman and Boles teamed up to form the Private Birthday Party collection. Their research has placed most of the photographs at notorious KC nightclubs such as The Colony and The Jewel Box Lounge.
Billed as “tea dances” or “private parties,” these events were largely underground. Both local personalities and nationally acclaimed drag performers, including Skip Arnold and G.G. Allen 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 culture.
Michael Boles told The Cut:
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.