Houston's Earliest Gay Scenes (Part 2)

Categories: Houston 101

photo by Rusty Walker
The winner of the Halloween drag contest at Palace Club 1970, Jimmy Ardoin
Part two in a series for gay pride week.

It didn't take Ron Levine and partners like the club-savvy Gene Howle long to turn the new Palace into a hot spot. In October, 1970, the private club -- private meaning mixed drinks were available and entry could be controlled -- hosted a drag pageant that is still remembered fondly by those in the know. This was three years prior to national and state drag competitions forming in 1974.

Rusty Walker, bass player for popular local band Sound Investment, remembers the Palace well. Shortly after Houston Press reported in early May about the demolition of the building, the top floor of which was home to a series of popular night clubs -- Top of the Mark, the Palace, Cody's and Sky Bar -- Walker forwarded: a yellowed color photo of what appeared at first glance to be a woman in a stunning red, white, and blue outfit.

See also: Looking Back at Some of the Hurdles Houston's Gay Community Had to Overcome (Part I)

But Walker explained that the photo was "the winner of the Halloween drag pageant at the Palace Club."

A freshman at University of Houston in 1970, Walker's band played the event.

Local activist Ray Hill, whose ties in the gay community go back to the mid-Fifties, identified the person in the photo as Jimmy Ardoin, whose nickname was "the China Doll," in reference to a movie character Ardoin impersonated in the act.

Johnny Maddox didn't move to Houston until a few years after the event, but he heard plenty about it, noting that Ardoin participated in a lot of contests but rarely won.

"But on this night, when he made his entrance he had two Afghan hounds on short leashes by his side."

The joint went wild and the title was Ardoin's.

Walker recalls a red carpet rolled out to the curb from the elevators so contestants could arrive like the Academy Awards.

"That was one of the craziest nights of my young life, " says Walker, describing a Fellini-esque scene. "They even hired two midgets who were dressed like circus weight-lifters, and they walked around in the crowd with these huge dumbbells on their shoulders. Of course, they were made of Styrofoam."

Walker also recalled his first intersection with gay nightlife came courtesy of the Palace.

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