Conformity may have been king in Chicago in the 1960s and '70s, but Jim Flint wasn't afraid to rule as a queen. Using beer crates and plywood as a stage, Flint opened the world-famous Baton Show Lounge more than 40 years ago, at a time when running a gay barespecially one that featured female impersonatorsmeant placating corrupt cops and dealing with shadowy Mafiosi. During his career, Flint also headed a gay motorcycle group, created the now-nationwide Continental Pageant system, and became a founder of the gay sports movement.
For their new book, Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria, authors Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen interviewed more than 150 individuals to chronicle the life story of Flint who is considered by many to be a pioneer of the modern LGBT community.
Earlier this year, Baim and Keehnen published another book on a key figure in the LGBT movement, titled Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow. With Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria, the authors once again reveal the history of an LGBT icon that is equal parts comedy and tragedy with triumphant tales of overcoming adversity.
"When you tell Chuck's story or Jim's story you are also telling the story of the LGBT movements," said Keehnen. "What attracted me about both of them was that they were these huge personalities, and yet their stories were even bigger than themselves. Their stories told more than their story, their stories told a history."
"I think for those who do not know Jim Flint, this book also provides a great deal of information about Chicago history in general," added Baim. "Also, while Jim did own a leather bar, he is most connected to the transgender and female performer sides of the community, the 'lace' so to speak, while Chuck is fully 100% the leather side."
In the following interview, Baimpublisher and executive editor at Windy City Media Group, which produces the Windy City Timesand Keehnen give readers a back stage peek at Flint (also known as "Felicia"), and how this boy from Peoria transformed into a leader of the modern LGBT community.
Windy City Times: You've written that Flint took the "art of female impersonation and made it into a profession worthy of respect both from the audience and the performers." To do this, Flint did so much more than simply opening a drag barhow so?
Owen Keehnen: Jim wasand continues to bevery concerned that it stays classy. That is, he frowns upon profanity on stage, drug use, anatomical jokes, and anything that would undermine making this a professional and respectable field. He is a stickler for things like perfect gowns, hair and makeup. He likes it to be polished and professional. He took something that was often frowned upon and misunderstoodand gave it back to the world as dazzling and consistent entertainment. In the process, he also contributed on another level by creating a huge extended family with the performers at the Baton as well as the Continental [Pageant] family. "Family" is a word you will run into again and again in this book.
Windy City Times: The list of bold-faced names that have attended shows at the Baton over the years is impressive. What are some of Jim's favorite stories regarding VIPs dropping by the Baton?
Owen Keehnen: Oh, cocktails with Joan Crawford; kicking out Chris Farley; eating fried green tomatoes with Janet Jackson; Madonna dropping by during the time she was filming A League of Their Own, and Mimi Marks performing 'Vogue' for her. So many celebrities have walked through the doors of the Baton: Linda Clifford, Queen Latifah, Robert Wagner, Sarah Vaughn, Joan Rivers, Jennifer Hudson, Goldie Hawn and Oprah Winfrey. The list (which is included as an appendix in the book) goes on and on and on!
Windy City Times: The Baton is famous for being a being a popular destination for straight bachelorette parties. Is Flint annoyed by this or does he embrace it?
Owen Keehnen: Jim is a businessman and in that respect he is very much a realist. The demographics of the Baton were the inevitable outcome of doing the talk showsDonahue, Oprah, Springer, etc. As the River North neighborhood changed from being a gay mecca in the 1970s to being more straight in the 1980s and beyond, it was those same tour buses and bachelorette parties that actually saved the business. It would not have survived if it hadn't become a destination spot for tourists. That said, Jim also rules the roost regarding his clientele and suffers no fools. He makes it a rule that while you are there you behave, and if you have any problems with anyonegay, straight, trans, Black, whiteit all stays outside. When you are at the Baton everyone gets along and has a good time.
Windy City Times: Jim was an early supporter of sports for gays and lesbianshelping to put Chicago on the map, particularly in the areas of softball and basketball. Talk a little about Jim's interest in sports, and where this came from, and why having an active gays sports league in Chicago is so important for the LGBT community overall?
Tracy Baim: Jim did twirl the baton in high school, but he was not an athlete. He loved professional sports, but did not get active in gay sports leagues until the 1970s, first as a sponsor of men's and women's softball teams. He then started pitching in the straight leagues on his teams, and when the gay leagues took off, he sponsored teams in softball, bowling, basketball, volleyball and other sports. He was a key early leader of gay sports in Chicago, and that helped provide additional outlets for the growing gay movement. Sports is a safe place for gays to come out and then become part of the larger gay community. Sports teams and athletes have helped raise millions of dollars for various LGBT and AIDS charities over the decades.
Windy City Times: Competition seems to be a running thread through Jim's life, in LGBT sports and in the Miss Continental pageant system he helped promote.
Tracy Baim: Jim is super-competitive, something he very much admits. It may be because he came from a large family and was very poor growing up. He left home young, entered the Navy at 17, and really had to fight to create the life he has today.
Windy City Times: Based on your conversations with him, what do you think Jim Flint is most proud of regarding this career and professional life? And what do you think is his biggest regret thus far?
Owen Keehnen: Jim has a huge legacy in community service, politics, activism, and entertainment. I think he was most excited about the various things he did for the community the service organizations and funding and such. This man has an enormous number of things to be proud of right down to the fact of there being so many people who in many respects have a career because of his trailblazing efforts. His biggest business regret was owning a business out of town. His biggest personal regret you'll have to read the book to discover.
Tracy Baim: I also think Jim did not even remember all of the things he had done, especially during his peak activism from the mid-1970s to late 1980s. He ran for Cook County board and received the endorsement of the Chicago Sun-Times, when it was owned by Rupert Murdoch! He testified against the Mafia. He avoided testifying against the police. He ran a gay motorcycle group. He was one of the people who helped found Chicago House and pushed for AIDS education in the early 1980s. He led a march against Mayor Jane Byrne after gay bar raids. And much more.
Windy City Times: Earlier this year you both published Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow about another Chicago gay icon. You've written that Flint and Renslow are "polar opposites while at the same time being two sides of the same coin." Can you elaborate on this?
Owen Keehnen: They both molded a large part of the gay world in Chicago and both did so by being themselves, so in that way, although they are very different people, they are also very much alike. They never hid who they were and they never tried to fit in. Both Jim and Chuck created these extended families around them, and they did what they thought was best for the community. They were doers. They didn't talk about doing somethingthey did it.
Windy City Times: Talk about the process behind researching and writing the Flint book as compared to the Renslow book. How were you able to research and publish these books so quicklywhat's your secret?
Owen Keehnen: For me, both these stories were very easy to be passionate about and that usually involves a fair amount of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Seriously though, we were capturing these amazing men and their contributions and doing it for future scholars or just people curious about their legacy. It was a compulsion that was very easy for me to justify because it was, and continues to be, so important. We also were very good about dividing the material and researching and sharing our findings. As to the rapid pace, I think in some ways both these stories need to be told with a deadline in mind or else they can just go on indefinitely.
Tracy Baim: My approach to these books was as a journalist. Owen and I interviewed more than 150 people between us. We started the research and work in June and finished in September. That incredible pace was due to the quick response of interview subjects, the full cooperation of Flint (including all the photos he allowed us to scan), and most important, because Owen and I have written about this community for decadeswe know where to look for the source material. We are not academics looking at this from a distancewe actually covered a lot of these events and knew these people. I started reporting in gay media here in 1984, so I have my stories, photos, and research materials going back that far. Chuck Renslow shared the 1970s GayLife archives with us, and Marie Kuda and other scholars shared their materials. Plus, Bill Kelley and Jorjet Harper, who edited both books, are incredibly knowledgeable about the Chicago LGBT community. Our designer, Kirk Williamson, is super-fast and creative as well. So, we have a great system and team. We also wrote it as journalists, with the sources of our findings right in the text, not with footnotes.
Windy City Times: In conducting the interviews and doing the research for this book, what surprised you most, concerning Jim? What was your biggest "ah-ha" moment?
Owen Keehnen: As to understanding the man? I think for me it was seeing this boy who grew up poor learning the value of money at a young age and then after the Navy wanting to be a missionary brother and then quickly moving into the gay bar scene. Combine those things so at this formative stage you have this kind of Horatio Alger drive for success and at the center of this is a guy who wants to help people with a drive to better himself. That young man moves into the gay bar sphere and a place that happens to have a drag show. Boom. It's like harmonic convergence. As a result in many ways the LGBT community became his mission work and he combined that with this business savvy and this influence of female impersonation with this tendency to create a family. It all makes sense, but you could have never predicted it.
Tracy Baim: Even though I had covered him since 1984, I really had no idea how many things Flint had done until we started work on this book. But as to research: Jim had always remembered the early 1980s Mafia trial as something he had avoided. But I went to the National Archives and found the testimony, and it ran more than 70 pages. None of it was very incriminating, but it was extensive. And other gays had also testified, and one bar owner went into witness protection, while the other, Mother Carol, had died of natural causes, that may have been hastened because he was wearing a wire for the FBI. What did Jim do? He basically told the Mafia he couldn't pay off (during that time anyway) because the FBI was snooping around. And even the Mafia guys were recorded saying that Jim "had balls" to stand up to them. He did pay off police and Mafia members at other times, just not this time. All of the Mafia and police stuff was very fascinating to meand then he decided to run for office, countywide, in 1985. It was all so interesting.
Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria, by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen (Prairie Avenue Productions, 528 pages). The book is available now from Amazon.com . The black-and-white version is $29.95 and the deluxe color edition is $89. The book is available locally at Women & Children First Bookstore, Unabridged Bookstore and Baton Show Lounge.
The Chicago book launch party for Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria will be Wednesday, Dec. 7, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. at 3160, one of Flint's clubs, at 3160 N. Clark St. Flint will be joined by authors Baim and Keehnen. There will be a limited number of color copies available at $60 each that evening.