Gay Life in 1950's Bronzeville: The Story of Jacques Cristion

Club DeLisa, Interior

Club DeLisa, Interior, Courtesy of the Woodson Regional Library

DOCUMENT: In February 1994, Allen Drexel, then a graduate student in history researching African American Drag Culture on Chicago's South Side, interviewed Jacques Cristion, a famous female impersonator who started his career in the 1950s. The document provides a unique window on the life of young Black gay male living on Chicago's South Side in the 1950s. The most relevant excerpts of this interview are reproduced below. Allen Drexel's research is available in Creating a Place for Ourselves)

Can you tell us about yourself?

I was born March 4th 1936. I was born and raised in Chicago. Both of my parents were born in Alabama and they moved here, and I was born here. My mother was a dress-maker and my father was a construction laborer. I did various odd-jobs, coming and going as a teenager while I was in school, and then I became a dancer. I danced while I was in high school.

My first performance was on a stage which was called DuSable “Hi-Jinks”, that was 1951. And then, of course, my mother died and my father remarried, and then my step-sister began taking me to various club affairs, social club affairs, and eventually I began to perform in various club affairs, then hit the legitimate stage as the years went on.

How did you first become aware of the Finnie’s Balls? How did you get started?

I was introduced to it by a person, the name is Donald Caraway. He always attended the ball and he introduced me to it, and I began to go to it and attend, but I didn’t drag right away. I began just doing to different balls.

Who were the famous gays in the 50s?

Olivia de Havilland! He told me how fabulous the balls were and that you really hadn’t lived until you went to the ball, and you’d see the lights and the speakers, the loudspeaker outside and it was really fabulous with the limousines parking and people getting out of the limousines and what not, it was just beautiful.

You told me also about this salon that employed primarily gay stylists?

Selena’s House of Beauty -- And she was located primarily now on 83rd street between Vernon and Eberhart. But she had one shop in the Pershing Ballroom at that time and all of the operators basically were gay, and after she branched out, each of the members that were traveling with her in the small shop she gave each of them a managerial position in each one of her shops.

What tended to be the kind of work that the other drag queens and performers were doing in addition to their drag performance?

I assume they basically ever since Olivia de Havilland they would have day jobs as possibly beauticians, or various other day jobs, which I didn’t know all of what they did, but, and then those who went out in the evenings or to various club affairs on the weekend or what not and probably in drag or partially or all the way, but not that much because it wasn’t popular then, as it is now. Basically, day jobs.

And evenings they would go out that night because really there weren’t that many clubs to go to either at that particular time, during that era, there weren’t that many clubs to go. There was one particular club on 43rd street and that was it.

What was the level of acceptance of gays?

It wasn’t as hard as it is now, because drugs were not as prevalent as it is now, and therefore the gays were accepted and then they intermingled…there wasn’t as many, I should say also, there wasn’t as many that I knew of because I was much younger I didn’t know a great deal of older people, but there it wasn’t as many gays in the black community in the area that I grew up in. As I said, I was younger.

But it wasn’t as, as far as gay bashing or things like that, that wasn’t as prevalent as it now because the drugs weren’t so strong and so many different types of drugs which causing the people to be violent and whatnot toward gays and things later where they were, because there were clubs that we would go to, the ones that I mentioned, people would go have a good time and even after closing time they would walk down the street and never have a problem. But nowadays it’s not like that.

It seems there was some kind of tension between Blacks and Whites at the Finnie’s Ball?

Not exactly the contestants, but the black contestants were disappointed because everyone had spent so much and whatnot to get prepared for it and it seemed as though the judges or whatever, the staff of the Finnies club at that particular time would lean towards all the whites and that’s why they began to pull out.

A few years ago, there was actually five or six balls going on at the same time, this is why. A lot of straight clubs began to give Halloween balls and would accept the gay ones coming into their affair, because it is masquerade. So at one time it seemed as though everyone wanted to get their fingers into the pie, that’s what I’m saying.

Who was Eddie Phlique? Did he organize the balls?

Well, actually, he had the sound truck…Eddie Phlique was a sports promoter and an MC at various sports events, and outside of that, on the side, he had a sound truck so he could make various announcements for various events and also began to make them for social events also, various social clubs and he was also the MC for practically all the social clubs.

There were other MCs of course, but he was the main one, the most popular at that particular time, and when it was time for the Halloween Ball, he was such a big help to the main people who were giving the ball and he would use the sound truck outside of wherever the main ball was given.