By Ashley Naftule
Henry James once said, “It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.” With that in mind, it’s something of a miracle that any cultural traditions survive in Phoenix. Like our mythological namesake, we have a pesky habit of burning down our history so we can start over again. Venues keep closing; iconic buildings are getting being razed, vital neighborhoods get the life sucked out of them by gentrification, community leaders and artists move away or die: An endless amount of history gets swept under the rug of progress.
Thanks to folks like Marshall Shore, some of that history is getting broomed back into the light of day. Dubbed “The Hip Historian,” Shore is an inexhaustible font of local history and lore. He’s spent years hosting slideshows and delivering lectures about Phoenix history, from exploring architectural landmarks and lurid crimes to shining a light on local oddballs like the Sunnyslope Rock Garden. He’s also been instrumental in helping to preserve Arizona’s gay history as one of the curators and organizers behind the Arizona LBGT+ History Project.
Recently, Shore (along with ASU’s Project Humanities) helped put on a show at FilmBar called Dispelling the Myths of Drag Queens and Drag Kings. Mixing historical context with performances by local drag artists, it was a chance for folks to see James’ little tradition & endless history in action. We talked with the Hip Historian afterward to find out more about his involvement with the show, his work with the ASU archives, and how Valley locals can help preserve history.
Echo: How did you get started doing these drag history shows?
Shore: That was born out of working with Project Humanities out of ASU with Dr. Lester. Our paths have intersected many times over the last few years, so we’ve always talked about doing something together. It was kind of my role to gather most of the presenters and figure out who should be there. One of the things I was focused on was trying to get a diversity of performers since we’re looking at drag kings and drag queens. I’m getting folks who’re in other communities as well—not just gay, but trans as well. And a wide of variety of ages; I think our youngest performer is 22 and our oldest one is maybe in their seventies.
And it’s also about getting a diversity of what people perform. So some of them have live piano players with them, others have lip-syncing, and you have classic numbers from acts like Chicago and Whitney Houston as well as more contemporary music.
Echo: And how did you track down all these performers?
Shore: I stumbled upon them while doing stuff for the Arizona LBGT+ History Project. It’s a project that we’re working on with Phoenix Pride. I’ve crossed paths with some of these folks while working on that project. So it was just a matter of going back to them and hoping their calendars were open.
Echo: For the History Project, I was wondering: How well-documented is Arizona’s gay history? Regarding primary sources and documentation, how much of that stuff is readily available?
Shore: That’s the reason for the project: It’s the first time that a considered effort has been put together to track this all down. So, it’s a collaboration with ASU who is the depository for the archives. We’ve been working with them to try and get this history archived and make it accessible to the public. We’ll have some of it up online in about a week. The first wave will be this series of periodicals from the early ’70s to the early ’80s. There’ll also be thousands of photos. In a lot of cases, we don’t know who these folks were. So there’ll be some crowdsourcing going into that where the community can chime in and say “Hey, I know whoever that person is. Oh, and this was there, and it was this event.” Right now we have none of that information.
Echo: How far back does the History Project go? You had mentioned you had sources from the ’70s- do you have material that extends beyond that?
Shore: We have stuff that goes back to pre-statehood. Especially when you start talking about the Native Americans and the whole idea of Two-Spirit people living outside of those two genders. And the fact that in those communities they were revered for their ability to live outside of the genders. So we have a little bit of earlier history, but a lot of the print stuff doesn’t start to show up until the ’70s.
I did find articles that, uh, did not paint the area in the best light. Stuff like the mayor congratulating the police chief on raiding a gay establishment… But then there are fascinating stories like Nicolai De Raylan, who was a Russian gentleman from Chicago who moved here for his health. After he passed away, they discovered he was a woman as they were getting him ready for burial. His two wives both said, “Oh, no — He was a man.” Wife number one said, “You know, we got a divorce because he was too amorous with chorus girls.” Wife number two was, indeed, a chorus girl.
Echo: That’s amazing.
Shore: Yeah. And he’s actually buried here in Phoenix. The other thing that I wanted to bring to events like Dispelling the Myths was to dig into the history of drag and put it into context. So we explored the theatrical background of where drag got started. I mean, in Shakespeare’s time, young men played so many of the roles that women would play.
Echo: For folks who want to contribute materials to the History Project, what’s the best way for them to reach out?
Shore: They can either contact me or reach out through the Phoenix Pride site. If you go under the Festivals and Events menu, there are three links at the bottom of the page to the project as well as to the Arizona Queer Archive and the BJ Bud Memorial Archives
Echo: Working as a historian, you get to come across all these tantalizing bits of history and lore. Digging into our state’s past, is there anything you’ve uncovered that’s changed how you perceive the culture here?
Shore: Yeah! Several years ago the BJ Bud Memorial Archives was kind of homeless. I was lucky enough to be able to find a space for it to reside in. And then we were pulling out all this stuff, and I was able to see all this material about these radicals from the ’70s and ’80s. I got to see what a rich, vibrant, and connected community there was. There were people putting on plays in their backyard, hosting bingos in their backyards for a variety of causes. It was interesting to see for me to see that there was this rich community and that now that we’re the fifth largest city in the country we still to see for me that there was this rich, vibrant community and as now we’re here the fifth largest city we still have a community.
So it’s a reminder to remember those that got us to this point. These stories, these pioneers, the challenges that have been faced by the LGBT community to get to this point where we’re in a moment of change where now we have gay marriage. It’s about making sure that those pioneers do not get lost because without them we would be.