Queen of Sex and the Dame of Drag
by DAVID W. JACKSON
Female impersonation have been a “thing” in Kansas City since the early 1800s. It was enough of an issue for the City Council in 1859 to publish a law forbidding crossdressing…at least in public. This topic was explored in a trilogy of articles in “The Phoenix Newsletter” earlier this year.
Historically, one reason men and women have dressed in clothing deemed inappropriate for their gender was for entertainment purposes. After all, for centuries men dressed and performed female roles on the Greek and Shakespearean stages.
One hundred years after the city’s crossdressing prohibition, female impersonation in Kansas City reached a zenith. In the early 1960s, a cast of men took to the small intimate stages of Kansas City’s early gay nightclubs. In 1961, three establishments opened that catered to an “alt-straight” clientele: The Colony, owned by Joe Lombardo; Baghdad on Broadway; and Arabian Nights. The Red Head (where the Riot Room operates today in Westport) opened two years later in 1963. The classified advertising for these joints were out there, too—promoting hip, extravagant experiences, one even billed itself as “Kansas City’s GAYEST Club.”
These first-generation gay bars built upon the reputation and success of Kansas City’s Jewel Box Lounge at 3219-3223 Troost. It had opened in 1948 as a posh nightclub for a straight audience. In 1957 or 1958, however, according to long-time owner John N. Tuccillo, the Jewel Box Lounge started showcasing “femme mimics,” or female impersonators, who sang and danced, and told off-color jokes. Some performers were natural comediennes. Others heckled or cajoled the crowd with bawdy quips and double entendres. With three shows nightly, including “Naughty Midnight,” you either blushed red from sheer embarrassment or hysterical laughter.
My new book, “Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s LGBTQIA History,” includes a chapter on the Jewel Box Lounge’s history and its performers.
Perhaps the most notable, or memorable Jewel Box Lounge performer, next to Skip Arnold, was Kansas City’s preeminent female impersonator Rae Bourbon. The February/March issue of “The Phoenix Newsletter” speculated whether or not Bourbon was KC’s first transgendered person.
Bourbon’s story was much more dynamic, and filled with such drama that it would make for an award-winning movie. Local author Patrick C. Byrne just published the biography, “Double Entendre: The Parallel Lives of Mae West and Rae Bourbon.”
Bourbon was lifelong friends with West. Not only did their lives crisscross but their complimentary and outlandish stage personas garnered legendary status. West’s larger-than-life persona is remembered as Hollywood legend and Bourbon deserves a share of the limelight, Byrne argures. Byrne knew Bourbon, so much of “Double Entendre” includes personal recollections that Bourbon imparted to Byrne.
“Double Entendre” follows each performers life from childhood through adolescence to their first taste of the stage. Readers glimpse an era when Vaudeville waned and Burlesque gained in popularity. Bourbon even trained in London’s music halls where he learned the intimate stage-presence of “The Dame.”
Mae and Rae debuted in motion pictures Rae even co-starred with Rudolph Valentino in 1922. As Byrne writes, “At about nine minutes into ‘Blood and Sand’
is a scene of a fatally wounded matador, played by Ray, who expires while being embraced by Rudolph. Ray jokingly remarked decades later that he was probably the only queen who ever died in the arms of Valentino. The touching sequence involved Rudolph playing the aspiring, young matador who cradles the dying matador, and then kisses him. Ray is seen later in the film as a bodyguard to Valentino, who has become the most famous master of the bull ring.”
Mae’s career extended into the golden age of cinema. Rae’s trajectory was less glittery. His life was beset with extreme ups and downs in fortune, fame and love. Even in his lowest moments, though, Bourbon lived spectacularly. At least until 1971, when he died in a Texas prison. t
David W. Jackson is co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (donate at GLAMA.US) and author of “Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s LGBTQIA History” (orderlypackrat.com/s/books.pdf). Visit “KCLGBTQhistory” on Facebook, your portal for sharing information, memories and recollections, events and, anything else relating to Kansas City’s LGBTQIA past…and future.