Lost Photos of Kansas City’s Underground Drag Scene During the 1960s

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When we think of places where drag and ballroom culture has thrived, cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. spring to mind — but many don’t realize that there was a vibrant community in the Midwest during the ‘50s and ‘60s. In 2006, artist Robert Heishman uncovered a group of slides in a Kansas City salvage yard labeled, “Jack’s Slides: Chicago and Kansas City.” Heishman found a stash of images featuring beautiful drag queens, but the photographer remained a mystery.

Several years later, Heishman’s friend Michael Boles found a similar set of slides in a shoebox at a scrapyard. The men quickly compared notes and realized they shared over 200 photos from the same drag parties. They named the collection Private Birthday Party — a title that comes from the sign party hosts would hang on bar doors to keep the drag balls discreet. In those days, same-sex dancing was illegal in Kansas City, and police would frequently raid clubs. According to Dangerous Minds, photographer “Jack” remains a mystery, but the men are working with the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America and writer Emily Henson to research the images and hopefully identify the performers and partygoers. See delightful vintage photos of drag queens decked out in their finest, below.

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party

Photo credit: Private Birthday Party