Tuesday, February 28, 2006

There Were Balls In Chicago, Too

Many of you have probably seen the 1990 Jennie Livingston 'Paris Is Burning' documentary which chronicles a slice of the Harlem drag ball scene.
What many people don't realize is that the balls weren't just a Harlem thang.
Chicago had a drag ball scene also.

There have always been balls in Chitown, but they were limited to New
Year's and Halloween: the few times of the year a man could dress in
women's clothes and not be arrested.

Chicago's ball tradition can be traced back to the late 1800's.
The aldermen team of "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky
Dink" Kenna (known as the "Lords of the Levee District"), threw
the 'First Ward Balls' at the Chicago Coliseum as a was of extracting
money from the brothel owners in the levee district.

Bathhouse John would lead a Grand March procession consisting of
prostitutes, drag queens, pickpockets, pimps, madams and other
colorful characters. The evening almost always ended in some type of
riot. These were held annually through the turn of the century until
they were finally stopped by the mayor of Chicago in 1909.

When African-Americans began the Great Migration out of the rural South, they flocked to northern urban centers such as New York, Detroit and Chicago. GLBT African Americans gravitated to Chicago's South Side, frequenting clubs like the Pleasure Inn and the Plantation Café and hosting drag balls that became fashionable social events for straights and gays alike.

Enter Alfred Finnie, a gay Black man who founded what would become the biggest and best known of the Chicago balls. It started in 1935 and cost 25 cents to get in. Finnie's first ball was held in the basement of a Chicago nightclub on the corner of 38th and Michigan Avenue to a predominately African-American crowd.

From that humble beginning, Finnie's ball grew to be a huge glamorous Halloween event eagerly anticipated by denizens of the South Side. At their peak up to 1000 people, both gay and straight attended the balls.

Unfortunately Alfred Finnie was killed during a 1943 gambling brawl, but the ball he founded lived on into the 60's. The tradition of Chicago drag balls was carried into the 70's and beyond by the late Chicago drag legend Jacques Cristion and Dodi Danials.

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