We have to thank a supporter/friend that we’ve yet to meet, Jerry, who sent us kind of a suggestion for this topic. On one of his daily walks, he took a picture of a plaque on the side of the Evergreen Theatre. It was commemorating the 1969 Miss Memphis Review pageant. Having not ever heard of this, we decided we’d investigate and thus it became our Pride Month episode.
The Miss Memphis Review, which later came to be known as the Miss Gay Memphis, began as a protest to the city ordinance that banned crossdressing.
But let’s take a step back in time to talk about the aforementioned theatre location before we get to the pageant. The current Evergreen Theatre has gone through a few owners and name changes over the years. We’ll start at the beginning, in 1927 (or 1928), the Ritz Theatre was built as a 900 seat movie theatre. It showed mainstream films and foreign films. It remained so until around 1955, when there was a fire and it was damaged. When rebuilt, it became known as the Memphis Guild Art Theatre. It was still showing foreign films but by the 60s, when Bill Kendall began running it, the shows became a little edgier.
The Guild Theatre showed what people would consider arthouse films. They were foreign films, LGBTQ films, and other films the city considered illegal “smut”. Kendall was known for bringing eccentric movies to his theatres, he had another theatre on Highland that had midnight showings of the most controversial films, actual gay films. The flamboyant cinephile was even indicted on several indecency charges, luckily they were eventually dropped.
So who was William “Bill” Kendall? Well, we know he was born in Memphis and attended Southwestern College, which is now Rhodes. He was also a WWII veteran.
I can only imagine what it would be like to be a gay soldier during WWII. According to a Memphis Flyer article, he was unafraid to be loud and proud about being gay.
When Kendall managed the Guild, it became, as he called it, a safe space for self expression. Clearly, he was not afraid to show movies that were considered controversial. When he showed “I Spit on Your Grave”, it caused “one of the most hotly contested obscenity cases in Memphis.”
I’ve not ever seen that movie, so I looked up the plot to see what all the hubbub was about. That being said, look up the 1959 film, not the 70s film because that is a waaaay different story.
According to the TMC website this is the synopsis of the film…
Joe Grant is a vengeful light-skinned black man who leaves Memphis (MS) and moves to a small town in New Jersey after his brother is brutally lynched for attempting to marry a white woman. Joe’s skin is so light that he is able to pass himself off as Caucasian and find work in a local bookstore. To get revenge on white society, Joe seduces a rich young white girl and then plots her death. At the same time, Joe discovers that the bookstore where he works is a front for an extortion ring. A short time passes and he finds himself falling in love with the girl. She too loves him until she learns that he is of African descent. Knowing this complicates matters (she is engaged to another man), but loving him just the same, she suggests they run away together to avoid the blackmailers. After Joe is beaten by the blackmailers, he decides this is a good idea and together the lovers flee. Back in town, the girls enraged fiance organizes a posse loudly claiming that Joe has abducted the girl and plans to rape her. Tragedy ensues just as the fugitive lovers are about to cross the Mason-Dixon Line.
It doesn’t seem too scandalous to me, but the 60s were a different time. So in an odd twist of events, the outcome of showing this movie did, however, put an end to Tennessee’s obscenity law that had been in place for 106 years. Guess they didn’t think it too scandalous either.
Ok, so back to the theatre and Mr. Kendall stirring up some “good trouble”. In Memphis during the 60s, it was illegal for men to wear women’s clothing as well as participate in gross, violent, or vulgar behavior (aka same sex dancing) and those caught doing so could be arrested. But there was one night of the year, the crossdressing ordinance was not enforced…Halloween.
So on October 31, 1969, Kendall hosted the very first Miss Memphis Review. He was smart in his planning too. He invited a bunch of “real girls” who were all dolled up for the evening, just in case the place got raided.
During that time period, if you were arrested for crossdressing, the papers would be all over it, printing your name, your employer, and all your business on the front page. Some people wouldn’t risk going to the event because there was a chance, if it was raided, they would get fired and lose their livelihood.
But for those who dared to venture, they would get to make history at the first drag show in Memphis. It was Memphis’ first version of a Pride parade, and as historian Vincent Astor called it “Memphis’ Stonewall”, and it went off without a hitch!
For those who don’t know about Stonewall or the Stonewall Riots, this is what happened. They started June 28, 1969 in the wee hours of the morning. A gay club, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York was raided by the police. The patrons and staff were aggressively removed from the bar, which in turn, sparked a riot among the patrons and neighborhood residents. The gay community was tired of being mistreated and harassed for just being who they where.
Much like in Memphis, NYC had laws against “homosexuality” and “gay behavior”. For the longest time, bars weren’t allowed to sell alcohol to gay people because then the gays would gather and that was disorderly.
I’m not even sure what that means. That’s not really an adjective I would use to describe the gay community but maybe that’s just me.
The next six days saw violent protests against the police. But for all it’s distruction, this act pushed forwarded revolution for the LGBTQ community and led to numerous gay rights organizations, which to this day continue to fight for the right to live openly, without fear.
It really was a defining moment for LGBTQ community. If you had heard people say “well Stonewall was a riot,” it’s basically saying, yes it was destructive, but it led to positive changes for the LGBTQ community.
Back to Memphis. The Memphis Flyer did a great article in 2019 on the 50 year anniversary and commemorative Miss Memphis Review plaque unveiling. One of the people that attended the pageant was John Parrott, he was interviewed by the Flyer and described the details of the night.
“The pageant, it WAS really more of a pageant than a drag show, got started late around 10pm, maybe 12am. There was an emcee, a piano, an organ, a dayglo painted palm tree, and 18 contestants. They came out dressed in evening gowns or whatever attire that particular category required.” At the end of the night, Jimmy “Candace” Cagle was crowned Miss Memphis.
Thankfully there were no raids that night and everyone had a grand time.
The Miss Memphis Review sparked its own revolution in Memphis. This event was considered a major turning point in Memphis when gay and lesbian people were able to gather, celebrate, and connect without fear.
The gay community was becoming more couragous.
By 1975, there were five gay bars in town, Gaiety, the first Memphis LGBTQ newspaper, was published, and the Queen’s Men took over the pageant, renaming it the Miss Gay Memphis Pageant.
In 1976, the Metropolitan Community Church welcomed “gays and straights of faith” to their church. The city held it’s first Pride event called Gay Day at the Park, in Audobon Park. And Memphis State University (now University of Memphis) founded its first Gay Student Association.
Big things were happening in Memphis, history was being made.
So now that we know a bit of how Pride was started in Memphis, we thought we’d take you through some of the milestones of the LGBTQ+ community in Memphis since that time.
Mid South Pride, as well as OUTMemphis (although that part of their website isn’t working right now) have timelines of Pride through the years. We’ll go over some dates that were mentioned that highlighted some of the major events.
We mentioned already about the first Pride event in 1976, Gay Day at the Park. Then in June 1980 there was a gay river cruise on the Memphis Queen II. It was called the Party on the River: A Gay Cruise.
In 1981, the greatest year in my opinion, the first Pride march was organized by the Memphis Gay Coalition. It started in Peabody Park and would head to Overton Park to rally at the Shell. The marches continued about 2 years before they were discontinued.
That same year, the Gay Pride River Ride began and it continued for 20 years.
The first Gay Fest was organized in 1987 by the Gay Coalition and thrived for about 4 years.
In 1990 the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, now OUTMemphis, organized the Gay Expo which continued for several years.
In 1991, the US and Memphis as well, began to see the African American Gay community beginning to become more public. Welmore Cook, Theodore Kirkland and Ernest Hopkins, founders of DC Black and Lesbian Gay Pride Day began to raise funds for the organizations that provided services to black American effected by HIV/AIDS as well as to help provide information to help prevent HIV/AIDS.
Memphis Black Pride was started by Terrell Buckner in the mid to late 90s. Unfortunately, there is currently not a wealth of knowledge about the black LGBTQ community history, but OUT and Mid South Pride are working with historians to provide more information. They are aware of the lack of information being told from black LGBTQ perspective and are trying to rectify that.
Memphis Pride Inc began in 1993 and received its charter in 1994.
1994 saw its first real, planned Pride Parade. The theme of the parade was Together with Pride. The route started at Madison and McNeil and went down to Peabody and Cooper.
1995 was the first year of the Party with a Purpose, a Pride festival.
The first Memphis Pride Flag was designed in 1997.
The parades and festivals continued in various locations in Midtown until 2001, when they moved to Riverside Drive for a year. It did eventually move back to Midtown though.
Memphis Pride disbanded in 2003, which made way for Mid South Pride in 2004.
Mid South Pride held its first Mid South Pride festival in June 2004. The theme was “Show Us Your Pride”.
In 2008, a new Pride flag was unveiled and it has been at the front of every Pride parade since.
In 2011, the Pride parade moved back downtown, to Robert Church park and the attendance doubled to about 8000 people. It was also the first time the organization made any money. The next year they began to transition to a 501c3 (non profit) status.
By 2014, the LGBTQ community began to reach out to the Memphis community and host family centered events at parks, Redbirds games, and the Zoo.
In 2017, the Pride Festival became known as Memphis Pride Fest, which hosted 3 days worth of events.
In 2018, the festival moved again to Tom Lee Park and over 23,000 people were in attendance. The parade ran from Tom Lee Park down Beale Street.
The Mighty Lights, the company that runs the colored lights on the Harahan (or the old bridge as it’s lovingly called) and Hernando Desoto Bridge (or you may know it as the new bridge/the M bridge/the bridge with the giant “crack” in it that is currently shut down), pay tribute to the LGBTQ community with a Pride themed light show every year during the festival.
Over 30,000 people came to the Pride Parade in 2019. This year was the first time the City Mayor (Jim Strickland) attended. It also broke records with over 2,200 participants and 103 units including church groups, high school & college groups, senior groups, performing arts groups, city employees, local non-profits, businesses, and national brands.
October 31, 2019, a marker was placed on the Evergreen Theatre on Poplar, the site of the first Miss Memphis Review.
According to the OutMemphis website, it was said of the event “the public is invited. Costumes are welcome, drag is not mandatory but encouraged, bad drag will be tolerated.”
It was a time to celebrate Bill Kendall for being an early pioneer for the LGBTQ community. It was a time to be proud and tell Memphis’ Pride history, to celebrate Memphis’ Stonewall.
Memphis filmmaker Mark Jones was quoted as saying, “Let’s be honest, there’s been gay folks getting together since 1819 in Memphis, but it’s all been hush-hush and in secret. The Miss Memphis Review was the first time it happened in public. It’s the 50th anniversary. So, we need to honor that.”
The plaque reads “To protest a city ordinance that banned crossdressing, members of the gay community organized a public drag pageant on October 31, 1969. They named the event the Miss Memphis Review. With a wide array of Memphis residents appearing publicly in Halloween costumes, this was the only day of the year when the crossdressing ordinance was not enforced. The first review took place at this site, then known as the Guild Art Theatre. The Guild’s format was primarily foreign and art films. Bill Kendall, its flamboyant longtime manager, fought repeatedly with the Memphis Board of Censors as films shown at the Guild became more daring and controversial. The first pageant was held without incident. Its organizers considered it a turning point in the decrease of harassment of gay men and lesbians in Memphis. The event later became known as the Miss Gay Memphis Pageant.
Sadly, Bill Kendall passed away in April of 2013 in Atlanta. He died of natural causes at age 88.
The Guild Theatre became Circuit Playhouse in the late 70s.
I’m pretty sure I saw The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe there in 2nd grade, so 1988?
And then it became the Evergreen Theater, which currently plays my favorite movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (see it all comes back around) once a month.
It also hosts CazaTeatro, the bilingual theatre group, events. Friends of George’s is also one of their resident theatre companies. It was founded in 2010 to produce a reunion for a historic Memphis drag bar known as George’s Disco. The original George’s Disco opened in 1969 on Madison St. in midtown Memphis. It went through various incarnations before finally closing its doors in the late 1980’s. George’s Reunion, held in 2010, brought over 1200 people together to celebrate this iconic Memphis place. In doing so, its organizers decided to forge ahead to continue creating entertaining events and shows. In the process, they have raised over $60,000 for special causes and organizations including:
The Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center
Friends for Life
Tennessee Equality Project Foundation
The Metamorphosis Project
Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Memphis, Inc.
We actually did a live version of Clue through the Friends For Life organization. It was at Annesdale Mansion. It was a lot of fun! I was Ms. White and Alan was Professor Plum. We were terrible at it, but it was a lot of fun.
Now we’ve come to 2020 in our timeline- Covid happened. Pride became virtual but there were still over 30,000 people participating on various social media platforms.
Now in 2021, Pride is back, with social distancing restrictions in place, of course. They also live streamed these events for people who couldn’t join in in person.
I watched a few of the events and they seemed like a lot of fun!
That is a lot of history packed into a short 50 years… but Memphis is stepping up and stepping out. I’m proud of our city and the support they have for the LGBTQ+ community. There is definitely still work to be done, but it’s getting there.
Organizations such as Mid South Pride and OUTMemphis provide events, education, as well as help for those who are in need. OUTMemphis has a monthly calendar that provides information on their events, which by the looks of it has something happening most days of the month. They also recently opened a youth emergency center for those young people who are in need of emergency housing.
Check out their websites for more information.
We’ll leave this story with a quote from the reigning Mr. Mid-South Pride, Justin Tate Allen, a native Memphian with a passion for theater and inclusion.
“I said to someone else that of course I want to uplift my LGBT+ brothers and sisters, but I also want to make it a thing to where it’s not just about LGBT+ people. I want to make it an all- inclusive thing. Mid-South Pride, it should be about all of us being free to be who we are, holding hands, enjoying each other. There’s no boundaries there, you know, your sexual orientation has nothing to do with who you are. [It’s only a] small piece of who you are”.
And I couldn’t agree more.
Yay Pride month! I love June because I always feel like there is so much love going around. Love is love!
Thanks everyone for listening to our episode!
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Disclaimer: We are not historians, we are simply two people who are interested in memphis history. We have done research and are trying to provide accurate history as best we can. There is a possibility some of these statements are incorrect, but we have tried to verify all the info so that we are not putting out any untrue info. To the best of our knowledge, what we are saying is correct, but let us know if you have any things to add or correct. In the show notes, you will find links to the articles we used and book titles, etc to gather our information.
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