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PASSAGES Jacques Cristion
by Tracy Baim and Sukie de la Croix
2003-07-16

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Jacques Cristion, a Chicago legend who held drag balls on the South Side for more 31 years, has died. Friends held a memorial for Cristion, 67, last Sunday at Blessed Trinity, 8613 S. Stoney Island, with Rev. Betts.

The decades of materials Cristion had from his famous events were lost when his landlord threw all of his possessions away before friends arrived.

'He was an only child. But he left many friends, club members, and socialites in great grief,' said longtime friend Jeanette Peden.

'We are distraut and very upset. And all his things were dumped in the dumpster—30 years of history. And we couldn't reach some of his friends because we could not find the information.'

'We do have him in our hearts,' she said.

Windy City Times/BLACKlines ran an in-depth interview with Cristion in January 2000. Following are excerpts from the interview, conducted by Sukie de la Croix.

------

I boarded the bus and headed south to 79th and Drexel to interview Jacques Cristion; a man whose name crops up a lot in my history interviews. I was on a mission, to interview Jacques Cristion; a man who, although he probably doesn't even know it himself, is a very important person in the history of lesbian and gay Chicago. For the last 29 years, Cristion has held an annual Halloween Ball at various venues, mostly on the South Side. Not only is this the longest-running Ball in Chicago, but Cristion has continued a tradition in the African-American gay and lesbian community that dates back to 1938, and possibly back to the beginning of the century.

Jacques Cristion was born in Chicago in 1936. As a young boy he grew up around 46th and Michigan, an area now known as Bronzeville. 'My father, when he was living, was a construction laborer, and my mother was a dressmaker,' said Cristion. 'I've been around dressmakers all my life because my mother sewed, her two sisters, my aunts, they all sewed. Then when my mother died, my father remarried and his new wife sewed, and her mother sewed. So I've always been around people that sewed.'

I'm sitting across from Cristion in his dressmaking store at 7906 S. Drexel. In an age of mass-produced clothing, it's difficult to imagine how this craftsman and artist survives. He shows me his latest creation, not drag but vestments. 'I'm making this for my pastor,' he said.

Interviewing Cristion is problematic; his active and alert mind is all-over-the-map, as he tells me stories about his life, darting from the '50s to the '70s in the same sentence. 'Jacques, can we stay with the '50s for a minute?' I ask. But Cristion's life isn't like that, because his past, present and future are the same thing. He talks about his plans for next year's Halloween Ball, then zips back the '60s.

Growing up around dressmakers, Cristion eventually struck out on his own, 'I began to worry my stepmother because I started dancing and I wanted different costumes every weekend to make myself popular. She used to say, 'I'm tired, make your own.' So I got into sewing costumes for myself. Then I got into working for other people.'

Cristion attended four elementary schools, because his parents moved around a lot, then he went to DuSable High School. Then to Hirsch, 'But I didn't like the schooling there. It was only about two percent Black at that time, and so it was rather dangerous for me to go there, so I went to the West Side where cousins of mine were attending school.'

He then attended Crane, and after that the Sammy Dyer School of Theatre; under the direction of founder, Sammy Dyer, and also under the tutorship of Shirley Hall Bass. (In my files I have photocopies of ads from the Chicago Defender in 1943, for Sammy Dyer shows at the mixed gay/straight Club DeLisa at 5521 S.State Street.)

Cristion started dancing before he graduated from school in '51 or '52. 'My sister used to sneak me into various affairs, had me dressing older so that I could go, and then eventually I started doing shows. The club life was very popular then. They all hired me as a dancer. I danced alone, and then I danced with a trio, and then I was in a chorus line with this dance company.

'I first started dancing on the stage in DuSable High School. They had a function they called 'High Jinks' that went on every year. Being a dancer, I and a girl did a duet on stage. We were so good we were called back the second year. That was '53.

'Then I started dancing in the clubs right after my graduation in 1955. My sister managed to get me into Joe's Deluxe Club. That was my first legitimate stage. It was a totally gay show at that time, but the entertainers could not remain in drag, they had to go back to their boys' clothes after the show was over. They could not associate with the patrons at that time. There were so many laws then. But I danced as a boy there. I never started performing in drag until I started the dance company in 1970.'

Joe's Deluxe was a gay/ straight club that was around for years. A 1943 review in The Chicago Defender reads: 'Valda Gray is presenting a show this week that is studded with fine music, dance and song, thanks to the aid of Dallas Bartley's great band. Monday nights the place is turned over to celebrities from the Loop and South Side who jam the place a la Broadway. In the cast are Dixie Lee and Petite Swanson, female impersonators who rate with the best dancers in the country. Yes, Owner Joe Hughes and Manager Charlie Christian have quite a show for the money you spend in this low-priced cafe.'

Back in the 1950s, while bars and clubs on the North Side were routinely raided in a climate of Mafia/bent cops and politicians, and cold-war paranoia, gay life in the African-American community on the South Side of Chicago was thriving. Not only thriving, but integrated; gay/straight together.

'In a sense it was more fun because we didn't have the gay-bashing,' said Cristion, 'You just knew where to go, and there weren't that many places to go. There was the 430 at 430 East 43rd street, everybody went to that. That stayed open until 4:30. Now it's much more open, but back then they were less flamboyant, and now a great deal of kids live as a woman, even some of the male impersonators, they live as a man. ... Back then there was no trouble with the police, you knew your place and you knew what to do.' Cristion also worked at the famous Club DeLisa. 'That was when it was on the east side of the street, but before then, in the '20s and '30s, it was on the west side of the street, but it burned down. It stayed open for a while and they closed it. It was an Italian owner, Mike DeLisa.'

From 1955 to 1957, Cristion toured the States, then in '61 he joined the Yolanda Johnson Dance Company. Shirley Hall Bass, who was the Director of the Sammy Dyer School of Theatre at the time, also had a school in the Bahamas, and so from '61 to '70, Cristion designed costumes for, among others, the Playboy Club, and danced there. 'Everything was so open, you could wear drag 24 hours a day in the street. I started a Ball there in '61. I came back to Chicago in 1970.'

In 1970, Cristion's sister suggested he have his own Ball in Chicago. 'When I started giving the Ball, my sister wondered why it had to be on Halloween, and I said 'It's against the law not to have it on Halloween.' Whatever day Halloween fell on, that's when the ball was. That's how Finnie started the ball. It got better over the years. That's why I try to give my Ball as close to Halloween as possible. If the police wanted to get technical they could put you in jail in drag.'

The legal status of Chicago's famous Drag Balls is shrouded in mystery, and diligent research is needed to uncover the exact details. Certainly, as far back as the beginning of the century, they have only taken place two days a year: Halloween and New Year's Eve. They are said to have been started by John J. Coughlin (Bathhouse John) and Michael Kenna (Hinky Dink) as a way of extracting money from the brothel owners in the Levee District.

The most famous Ball in Chicago was Finnie's, and they started in 1935 when a Black gay street hustler called Alfred Finnie held a ball in the basement of a bar on the corner of 38th and Michigan Avenue. It cost 25 cents to get in and was attended by a mostly Black crowd.

Even though Finnie died in 1943—he was killed in a gambling brawl—Finnie's Balls continued up until the '60s, and were huge glamorous affairs, with upwards of 1,000 people. (For more information on Finnie's Balls read 'Before Paris Burned: Race, Class, and Male Homosexuality on the Chicago South Side, 1935-1960,' by Allen Drexel, an essay included in Creating A Place For Ourselves edited by Brett Beemyn (Routledge $16.99))

In 1970, when Cristion started his Ball, a Defender reporter said to him, 'You must remember that you're going up against a mountain; Finnie's Ball.'

'Actually, it started when my sister said to me, 'Are you going to Finnie's Ball this year?'' explains Cristion, 'And I said, 'Yes, I am.' And she said, 'We should give our own Ball and use your name. Why should Finnie's have a monopoly on it?' I got a great deal of controversy from it, but a lot of people were happy that I did the Ball. They were not pleased with the fact that most of the white kids were receiving the trophies and the Black kids were not getting it.'

The first Ball took place at the Grand Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove. 'My opening was 'Soulful Strut,' that was the first dance in the show. That first year it was packed,' said Cristion, 'There was about 1,500 people. My sister's club (The Original Thirty Ladies and Gents Social Club, who organized Cristion's 1st Ball) had about 40 members. Imagine each one of them selling tickets. That wasn't a gay club, just a social club.

'At the Ball my brother Jerome was my first queen. He won. The first year I had only five drag queens in the Ball because everybody was down at Finnie's. Then I happened to visit a friend of mine, and I said, 'I'm looking for dancers because I'm giving my own ball' and she said, 'I can dance and I'm in a group of kids that dance.' They were all dancing at a lounge on 63rd, called Tweets, and I went and there were 11 of them. I took the whole show away as my dance company.

'Most of them were pantomiming and I built them. One said, 'I'm not a shake dancer,' and I told her, 'You're going to shake this year.' I built her act, I built several acts. I teach dancing and I taught them how, and they've taken their act and gone on.

'My first six years were at the Grand Ballroom. Then I went to other halls; I've been downtown, the Midland, the Radisson, but it became so expensive that I came back down south.'

In 1974, Shirley Hall Bass arranged an exchange and Cristion traveled to Paris, France, to do a show. 'I also sneaked into some French draping classes,' he laughs. 'Even though I had no business being there.' He eventually got caught, and though they said he could stay, he would have to pay. That was the end of that. 'So I was a tourist and a dancer too,' he continued. 'So we did the show and walked all over Paris with no money, and that's how you learn Paris.'

Cristion opened his first dressmaking store in 1970, the same year as the formation of his dance company and his first Halloween Ball in Chicago. 'My first shop was behind a barber shop, and then eventually the barber shop stopped making money and I took over the whole shop. It was bigger than this and longer, big enough for me to stretch 12 people across in a chorus line.'

'I knew I was different in high school,' said Cristion, taking us back to the beginning. 'I've never tried to be butch, never. What's the point of me going through that? I was just real. Then I began getting my hair fixed, processed; my step mother was a beautician as well as a dressmaker, and she'd give my hair a regular shampoo, press and curl. You can imagine what I was in the street.'

Along the way home I looked through the programs of Jacques Cristion's Halloween Balls-gone-by, and noticed all the ads, accept one, were from businesses on the South Side.


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