Drag in the Windy City

The Photographs of James C. Darby

Chicago History Museum

Guests at the Beaux Arts Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

This collection of photographs was donated to the Chicago History Museum by James C. Darby, a former Navy cryptographer and radioman who served during the Korean War between 1952 and 1956. Darby started the first Chicago chapter of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA) in 1991. Darby met with President Clinton several times in 1993 to discuss lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military. When the "Don't Ask/Don’t Tell/Don't Pursue" compromise was announced in July 1993, Darby was arrested at the White House with other veterans protesting the decision.

Guests at the Beaux Arts Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

A Note About Language

Archival research and scholarship are inherently rhetorical. The acts of selecting, organizing, and labeling items for inclusion in any archive influences how a visitor interacts with the information and images collected. Doing queer archival work in the present, particularly related to nonnormative gender performance, comes with the challenge of recognizing contemporary perspectives and being cautious when representing the past through contemporary understandings of identity and temporally specific language. With this in mind, descriptions of the following images only contain location and year.

Performer from the Jewel Box Revue at Robert's Show Lounge (1956) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

The Jewel Box Revue, 1956

The following images were taken in 1956 and feature the Jewel Box Revue, a "travelling drag review" at Robert's Show Lounge, 6622 South Park Way (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) in Chicago’s South Side.

Robert’s Show Lounge was founded in 1954 by Herman Roberts and closed in 1961. Roberts booked acts such as Nat "King" Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson. Though he focused on booking Black performers, he made exceptions for acts that would draw a crowd. The biggest white crowds came for the Jewel Box Revue, a troupe of two dozen drag performers. “Cross-dressing” was illegal in Chicago from 1851 until 1973.

Backstage during the Jewel Box Revue performance at Robert's Show Lounge (1956) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Performers from the Jewel Box Revue at Robert's Show Lounge (1956) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Performer from the Jewel Box Revue at Robert's Show Lounge (1956) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Guest at the Beaux Arts Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

The Beaux Arts Ball, 1958

The following images were taken in 1958 at the Beaux Arts Ball, held at the Ambassador West Hotel, 1300 North State Parkway, in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood on the Near North Side.

Beaux Arts balls originated from an annual costume ball held by students at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris that was known for elaborate costumes, nudity, cross-dressing, and high style.

Guest at the Beaux Arts Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Guests at the Beaux Arts Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Guest at the Beaux Arts Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Guest at the Beaux Arts Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Guest at the Beaux Arts Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Guest at Queen of Finnie's Annual Masquerade Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

The Queen of Finnie’s Annual Masquerade Ball, 1958

The following images were taken in 1958 at the Queen of Finnie's Annual Masquerade Ball at the Trianon Ballroom, 6201 South Cottage Grove Avenue on Chicago’s South Side.

Alfred Finnie, a black gay street hustler, organized these balls from 1935 to 1958 at a variety of locations in Bronzeville. Ebony magazine, Jet magazine, and The Chicago Defender newspaper ran articles and photos of these glamorous events.

Guests at Queen of Finnie's Annual Masquerade Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Guests at Queen of Finnie's Annual Masquerade Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Guest at Queen of Finnie's Annual Masquerade Ball (1958) by James C. DarbyChicago History Museum

Credits: Story

Special thanks to the following individuals and organizations who made this Google Arts & Culture exhibit possible:

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Chicago History Museum
Lake Forest College
Elizabeth Benacka, Ph.D.
Rodney Bethea, Research Assistant, LFC ‘20

This has been adapted from “Drag in the Windy City,” first posted in 2018 as part of Lake Forest College’s Digital Chicago project. See all the projects at digitalchicago.org.

Listen to an oral history the Chicago History Museum did with James Darby as part of its Chicago Cold War Oral History Project here.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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