SPEAKEASY GOES OFF TO THE BALLROOM – The Great Drag Balls of the 1920’s/1930’s

HL queens

The centerpiece in Act Two of the new musical “Speakeasy – John and Jane Allison in the Wonderland” is the great drag ball at the Jefferson Lodge Ball.  Chet Cheshire presides over the festivities, attended by a sparkling variety of drag kings and queens, and watched over from the balconies by a who’s who of New York Society.  Duchess Bentley and Jane Allison arrive as a Victorian groom and bride, John Allison and Julian Carnation arrive as Prince Charming and Princess Cendrillon (Cinderella).

HL - funmakers ballThe Jefferson Lodge Ball is closely based on the historical Hamilton Lodge Ball of Harlem.  This annual ball and costume contest started in the late 1860’s and continued through the 1930’s.  Drag balls were held in major cities throughout the United States by the 1920’s, but Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge Ball was the most famous, reportedly attracting up to two thousand costumed men (and women) in drag and up to three thousand spectators watching from the balconies.

Participants of the balls are quoted in history books about queer culture of the time as saying “What we wear at the ball this year, you’ll see hanging in the shops next year” describing the fantastic ball gowns the men created for themselves to exhibit, as well as “Allowing the freaks their one night out makes sense for everybody” in wry reference to the (bribery greased) tolerance the police showed these balls at least until the end on the 1930’s.  I love both these quotes so much they have made it into the script of Speakeasy.

HL hamilton lodge ball pics-article

There are some fantastic images and newspaper articles of the time about these drag balls, which at their height appear to have been the largest of their kind ever pulled off.  I am sharing many of these with this article.  Below also find the demo track and lyrics of “Off to the Ballroom”, the song that describes the flamboyant but dangerous life of men and women who would crossdress on the streets of New York during the1920’s and 1930’s as well as their excitement at going to the big drag ball.

V3 HL Webster+Hall+Drag+Ball,+1920s

Drag Ball in Webster Hall in the 1920’s

According to the history books, Greenwich Village and Riverside Park were particularly popular areas for the unconventionally attired.  Crossdressing openly on the streets, or simply wearing mascara as a man, put one in danger of being beat up by street toughs or roughed up and arrested by cops.  Many were brought in front of a judge and sent to jail or sentenced to hard labor for up to six months.

imagesBut there were less dangerous opportunities for public displaying of queerness.  In addition to the great drag balls, many speakeasies of the Prohibition era catered to homosexuals and/or cross dressers and their admirers.  Since speakeasies were illegal to begin with, as they served alcohol, adding to shades of lawlessness by serving those outside the mainstream might have marginally raised a place’s chance at suffering a police raid, but also helped distinguish it as a night spot to seek out for its novelty.  v6 - HL hamilton lodge ball picThus Prohibition speakeasies helped create many more havens for homosexuals and transgender individuals than had ever existed before or would exist again for decades after the end of Prohibition.  As the photographs clearly attest, above 125th street they also allowed for interracial mixing on a level that was not possible further downtown in those days.

 

 

 

Remember, December 7 is the first public reading of Speakeasy!

V12 -Sp - women in tuxes

AND PLEASE CHECK OUT THE SPEAKEASY KICKSTARTER FUNDRAISING PAGE!

 

OFF TO THE BALLROOM

 

OFF TO THE BALLROOM

 

VARIOUS FAIRIES AND CROSSDRESSERS:

OFF TO THE BALLROOM

OFF TO THE GAY PARADE

OFF TO THE SWEET BLOOM

OF FANTASIES DISPLAYED

 

OFF TO THE BALLROOM

OFF TO THE MASQUERADE

OFF WITH THE GRAY GLOOM

THAT COLD CONVENTION MADE

 

OFF TO THE BALLROOM

FROCKED IN SOME CHOICE ATTIRE

BROAD LIKE A MUSHROOM

THAT FLOATS AND RUSTLES

WITH BOOMING BUSTLES

IN CRIMSON RED LIKE A HOUSE ON FIRE

OR SOMETHING SLEEKER

THAT MAKES KNEES WEAKER

THAT BECKONS ALL LIKE A TALL AND SHARP CATHEDRAL SPIRE

 

THERE AT THE BALLROOM

WHERE HAPPY SONGS ARE PLAYED

THERE I’LL BE DANCING

PRANCING, NANCING

THERE I’M THE GAYEST BLADE

HL drag ball headlines

 

WOMEN:

WOMEN WITH SHORT HAIR

NO MAKE UP ON THEIR EYES

TOUGH DAMES IN MEN’S WEAR

STIFF SUITS AND SNAZZY TIES

 

MEN:

BOYS IN MASCARA

HIGH HEELS UPON THEIR FEET

TEMPTING HIGH DRAMA

HIPS SWAYING IN THE STREET

 

ALL:

MASCULINE WOMEN

LUSH LADY-LILY-LADS

COME OUT AND SWIM IN

THE CITY BYWAYS

THE BROADWAY HIGHWAYS

THE VILLAGE CROSS-STREET AND HARLEM SIDEWALK

COME PAINT THE CITY

SO WILD AND WITTY

INSPIRING HEADTURNS AND SIDE-OF-MOUTH TALK

 

BUT LIFE AIN’T EASY      –        THE WORLD IS QUEASY

NOT ALL IS BREEZY         –        THEY CALL US SLEAZY

WE CAUSE CONFUSION AND CONSTERNATION

–       OUR DEFT ILLUSION CAUSES SOME CONFUSION

BEAT COPS AND STREET TOUGHS    –    SOME FELLAS CRACK UP

ATTACK AND BEAT US      –     AND SOME ATTACK US

WE RISK BLACK EYES AND INCARCERATION

–   FOR WE ARE SCARING THEM WITH WHAT WE’RE WEARING

SCARING THEM BY WEARING  –  DANGEROUS DISPLAY OF DARING

OUR DISPLAYS OF DARING   –   RAPTUROUS BEYOND COMPARING

(DANGEROUS DISPLAY OF DARING)

 

BUT IN THE BALLROOM

ALL LOVE THE GAY PARADE

BORN IN THE SWEET BLOOM

OF FANTASIES DISPLAYED

 

HERE IN THE BALLROOM

ALL JOIN THE MASQUERADE

FAR FROM THE GRAY GLOOM

THAT COLD CONVENTION MADE

 

OFF TO THE BALLROOM

SMART DAMES AND LILY LADS

HERE FIND ELATION

QUEER CONGREGATION

SHEER CELEBRATION

GAY, GLAMOROUS AND GLAD!

 

V6 HL ball-prize

Prizewinners at the Hamilton Lodge drag ball

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 30 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
This entry was posted in LGBTQ Alphabet Soup, Notes in the News, The Speakeasy Chronicles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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