Remembering Edye and Ray: The First (Documented) Black Drag Queens of Kansas City

Edye Gregory and Ray Rondell are some of Kansas City’s first documented Black Drag Queens and, more broadly, part of the only recorded histories of Black, Queer Kansas Citians at large.

If you walk past the intersection of Midtown’s West 39th and Summit street (right outside of Missie B’s), you’ll find a crosswalk modeled after the Progress Pride flag. The “pride crosswalk” has quickly become a national symbol that expresses inclusion of all queer folks and their intersecting identities—but how does that pan out in Kansas City, specifically?

When I moved to Kansas City about a year ago, my priority was finding how I could immerse myself among Black, Queer community. One of the first things I did was simply google “Black Queer Kansas City” (and its many related phrases), here’s what I found: an organization dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS amongst Black gay men and a Reddit post from 2015 asking Living in KCMO as a black, lgbt person?“—that’s pretty much it. Not only was that disheartening, it was infuriating when I looked deeper into our State’s statistics.

Between 2019 and 2021, five Transgender Missourians were murdered by acts of anti-transgender violence—all five of them were Black women.

And these are only the cases that have gone reported.

Kansas City government officials celebrating the installation of the “Progress Pride” crosswalk. The Progress Pride flag was created in 2018 by Daniel Quasar and adds black, brown, blue, pink and white stripes to symbolize marginalized intracommunities (people of color, transgender people, and those living with HIV/AIDS). (Kansas City, MO, 2021)


It has to come down to this: we can symbolize our pride for Black queer community members at any given moment, but real progress begins when we honor us as people—people deserving of safety and rights. Part of that is recognizing Black Queer people are Black and Queer people: meaning not seeing these identities as “sub-groups” or individuals on the fringes of society, but as part of our collective unity.

The same needs to be said when it comes to our history.

A significant portion of KC’s LGBTQIA+ history resides at the University of Missouri-Kansas City—specifically within the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) as part of their LaBudde Special Collections.

As any archive might tell you, being able to collect accurate histories is hard enough. It becomes even harder when history is actively silenced because it is not white, straight and/or cisgendered—or not shared in fear of these same reasons. Unfortunately, Kansas City does not bypass these truths.

However, some documented history of Black Queer Kansas Citians still exists within the GLAMA, and you might be surprised to find this history begins with Drag Queens.

The Jewel Box Lounge

A grayscale postcard picturing The Jewel Box Lounge’s original Troost location. The Lounge is two stories; and adorned with a neon sign and double door entrance at the center of the building. (Queer Music Heritage, ca. 1945-1972)

Drag Performance in Kansas City goes back as far as the Civil War, but the performance art became much more popular in the 1960s as attitudes towards Drag changed and became more liberalized.

The Jewel Box Lounge was a main congregation for Drag, or what was referred to at the time as “female-impersonation.” Female-impersonation’s roots come from minstrel shows and vaudeville theater—originally starting as a joke and growing to become a legitimate form of gender expression and entertainment.

Jewel Box opened in 1945 on Troost, but did not start showing drag until 1958 or 1959—John Tuccilo, the owner, could not remember exactly when. In 1972, as business began seeing a downtick, the bar moved to 31st and Main.

The lack of business was due largely in part to Kansas City’s Race Riots, and the rapid decline of neighborhoods near the infamous racial dividing line that is Troost. Tuccilo plainly mentioned his feelings towards Troost “as changing” in a March 1976 Edition of Kansas City Town Squire—likely referring to the ensuing white flight and loss of his suburban clientele.

Edye Gregory

Edye Gregory in a signed photograph. Edye smiles head-on–with her eyes directed partially above the camera; the picture cropped at her upper chest. She is donned in a feathered dress. The back of the image contains a handwritten message from Edye expressing her appreciation for a loved one. ([Photograph of Edye Gregory], 1977)

Among the cast of Queens that droves of Kansas Citians lined up for at Jewel Box was Edye Gregory—one of the first and only Black Drag Queens to perform at the location. There is, however, no evidence that Jewel Box officially hired or represented her (a probable cause being because of her race).

The full bio reads: "Mr. Edye Gregory, one of Kansas City's finest female impersonators performed a one night concert at the North Side T Room in Topeka, Sunday Sept. 4th to a standing room only crowd. People drove from KC, Lawrence, Manhattan and Wichita for the Concert, and to spend the Labor Day weekend in Topeka. Edye sang a variety of songs including This is My Life, Mahogany, & many, many more. Edye has been performing at the Avanti-Arts theater at 33rd & Main. He [sic] does a fantastic job as the MC there. At the Coming Out Ball in October he will be the featured performer. He has performed at the Jewel Box. He was Miss Gay Illinois a couple of years ago and 1st runner up for Miss Gay Missouri."
Edye Gregory’s bio in a Sept. 1977 publication of “Kansas City Coming Out.” Edye’s headshot appears at the top followed by the title “Mr. [sic] Edye Gregory in Topeka Concert.” See alt text for full bio. (“Kansas City Coming Out,” 1977)

Edye, whose specialty for creating their “breasts” involved a cut-up Nerf Football, was, however, a well-known performer across several cities—winning Miss Gay Illinois and being 1st Runner-Up for Miss Gay Missouri in the 70s. Her stardom was even recognized on the front cover of the March 1976 edition Kansas City Town Squire magazine, the same edition featuring Tuccilo mentioned earlier.

According to Our Community Roots, Edye passed away in 2014.

Edye Gregory (amongst three other performers from Jewel Box Lounge) pictured on the cover of Kansas City Town Squire. All four women look directly into the camera solemnly as Edye reaches for her left earring. The magazine’s cover is all a light-toned pink with the women cutout in black and white–both the article and magazine title are in bright yellow font. (Leathers, 1976)

Ray Rondell

Ray Rondell in an Ad for The Dover Fox—a gay bar from the 1980’s. Ray Rondell locks eyes with the viewer, her head tilted with her right index finger rested on her cheek. ([Dover Fox Ad], ca. 1980-1990)

In March 1982, The Jewel Box Lounge came to a close as Kansas Citians’ views toward live entertainment faltered. That same year, Kansas City Times released article “Club has last chance to shine,” where we hear from another Black Queen, Ray Rondell, about the overall plight of Kansas City Drag Queens in the 80s.

The article largely revolves around Ray’s grappling with the closure of Jewel Box, and the overarching struggles to find work as a Drag Queen (Jewel Box Lounge was the only “female-impersonation” bar at the time). Ray laments that she would be filing for unemployment and figuring out where to go next, and also touch on the downsides of being a performer at Jewel Box Lounge, a feeling eerily similar to what Black trans women face today: “[Ray] had gotten used to the late hours and abusive audiences, the creeps who paid money to harass the performers” (Brisbane, 1985).

Despite all of that, Ray remained hopeful: “I’m going to use any vehicle I can. But I’m going to keep going.”

Hundreds of Kansas Citians showed up for the Jewel Box Lounge and Ray’s final show—but it would not be the last we see of Ray Rondell. In January 1985, her name once again appeared in the Kansas City Times, just at a new location: Sarah Crankankle’s Cafe.

Sarah Crankankle’s Cafe opened on 33rd Street and Gillham Road as a restaurant with Drag Queens serving as its waitresses—similar to today’s Hamburger Mary’s. Though short-lived, Rondell was one of the Queens working at the location alongside Renee Scott and Tiffany Stone. The Cafe, however, didn’t last long due to the much of the same sentiments around Jewel Box.

“I’m going to use any vehicle I can. But I’m going to keep going.” – Ray Rondell (Brisbane, 1985)

On September 27, 1988, Ray Rondell passed away; though the cause of her death was never confirmed, the community assumed it to be AIDS. Her obituary, under the name “Remus Smith,” mentioned she used the stage name Ray Rondell–but only under the guise of her being a singer and performer at places like Worlds of Fun, and not, namely, a Drag Queen.

The entry reads, "Remus Smith, 40, midtown Kansas City, died Sept. 24. 1988 at Veterans Hospital. He was born in Tulsa, Okla., and lived in Mississippi and Jacksonville, Fla., before moving to this area in 1980. Mr. Smith was a singer at the Windjammer, the Jewel Box, Ebenezer's, Jamie's Lounge, and the Arabian Nights. He also performed using marionettes at Worlds of Fun and acted for Unicorn Theatre. He used the stage name Ray Rondell. He was an army veteran of the Vietnam War. Services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Metropolitan Community Church of Greater Kansas City; burial in the Leavenworth National Cemetery. Friends may call from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Morris and Harvey Chapel."
Ray Rondell’s obituary under the name “Remus Smith.” See alt text for full entry. ([Remus Smith Obituary] 1988)

Honoring Black, Queer History

These are some of the only remnants of Edye and Ray’s legacy in the LGBTQ+ scene in Kansas City—let alone the contributions of Black Queer Kansas Citians, at large. Nonetheless, their impact can still be felt across the City of Fountain’s gay scene today. In a world where being Black and femme is brutalized and punished, their histories stand strong—we should do the same for them.

A very special thank you to UMKC’s Gay-Lesbian Archives of Mid-America and its Director, Stuart Hinds, for helping gather information on Edye and Ray; and serving as a cornerstone for queer Kansas City history.

As mentioned earlier, it can be difficult finding community in Kansas City. To help combat this and provide asylum to those seeking a place where they can be their wholeself, below are just a few resources for Black Queer/Trans Kansas Citians:

No Divide KC: A queer arts organization dedicated to building and sharing the stories of underserved communities.

The Nafasi Center of Kansas City: An organization offering communal healing, wellness, food sovereignty, access to skillsharing and other survival resources for Black Queer, Trans, Intersex and Non-Binary Kansas Citians.

BlaqOut: A community of health advocates looking to dismantle systemic barriers affecting Black gay men in concern with HIV/AIDS awareness.

Sources:

Brisbane, A. S. (1982, March 8). Club has last chance to shine. Kansas City Times

[Dover Fox Ad]. (cal. 1980-1990). Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, LaBudde Special Collections, Miller Nichols Library, Kansas City, MO, United States.

Hinds, S. (n.d.). From Proscenium To Inferno: The Interwar Transformation Of Female Impersonation In Kansas City. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://pendergastkc.org/article/proscenium-inferno-interwar-transformation-female-impersonation-kansas-city. 

“Kansas City Coming Out.” (1977, September). Mr. Edye Gregory in Topeka Concert. Kansas City Coming Out

Kansas City, MO [@KCMO]. (2021, August 13). This afternoon KCMO’s LGBTQ+ Commission celebrated the installation of a brand new Progress Pride crosswalk at 39th & Summit! [Image attached] [Tweet]. Twitter. Retrieved May 16, 2020 from https://twitter.com/kcmo/status/1426303722540388357

KC’s Cabaret/Pegasus Memories (2020, November 9). Home [Facebook page]. Facebook. Retrieved May 16, 2020 from https://www.facebook.com/groups/131490664126092

[Photograph of Edye Gregory]. (1977). Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, LaBudde Special Collections, Miller Nichols Library, Kansas City, MO, United States.

[Remus Smith Obituary]. (1988, September 27). Kansas City Times

Leathers, T. (1976, March). The Boys At The Jewel Box. Kansas City Town Squire

Uhlenhuth, K. (1985, January 22). A cafe with a twist. Kansas City Times

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