It was one of those stories that floated around the University of Cincinnati campus until it took on a life of its own. The gist was this: After World War II, a male veteran allegedly ran for homecoming queen and won. The legend survives on UC’s web site in an alumni magazine quiz.
The legend made sense and conformed to stereotypes. In the late 1940s, UC’s enrollment soared as veterans on the G.I. Bill signed up for classes. So many former servicemen attended that UC filled its quadrangles with Army surplus barracks, and the ramshackle dorms earned the nickname “Vetsville.” The UC graduating class of 1949 was about two-thirds veterans.
It made total sense that one of the Vetsville students decided to prank the annual Homecoming festivities. Problem was, there is no mention of a male homecoming queen in UC’s yearbooks or in the student newspaper or in any of Cincinnati’s daily newspapers from that time. So where did the legend originate? It turns out that UC did select a male queen and veterans were involved, but the true story is a bit more complicated, offering some insight into Cincinnati’s LGBTQ history.
The story starts with UC’s student newspaper, The News Record. In February 1947, the paper published an editorial complaining about all the queen competitions on campus. Every student dance—and there were dozens of them—crowned a queen, who needed to campaign for weeks ahead of time. The News Record decided enough was enough:
“This farce should be stopped before it kills itself. Let’s keep the prom queen and the freshman queen, but why not give the organized women a break? To be a success, a dance need not feature a coronation. Too much of anything is not good.”
The same issue included a columnist’s appeal to UC’s veterans, calling upon them to employ their wartime experience to inject new ideas into student activities:
“We feel that initiative and spirit have reached a low ebb on this campus. The veteran is, of course, the only answer to the problem. His war training has matured and disciplined him. And activities are not below his dignity.”
As it turned out, the UC Veterans Association (which, despite all the sex-role stereotyping, was about 10 percent women) was selling tickets for its “Sweetheart Dance” that precise week, while co-eds campaigned to be named “Sweetheart of the Veterans Association” at that very dance. And so the evening of Saturday, February 15 arrived. The Pavilion Caprice at the downtown Netherland Hilton swayed to the sounds of Al Cassidy’s orchestra. Three black-robed judges somberly surveyed the candidates and unanimously chose their Sweetheart, but, as The News Record explained, there was a surprise:
“She was really he. No kidding. The ‘Sweetheart’ of the Veterans Association is none other than Kit Russell, female impersonator, appearing locally.”
Although he was a World War II veteran, Russell wasn’t a student. He was the star of the Gay Boy Revue, a drag ensemble headlining at the Band Box Night Club at Peebles Corner in Walnut Hills. According to The Cincinnati Post [February 21, 1947], some people failed to see the humor or the point of the protest:
“The parody of electing Kit Russell, the Band Box female impersonator, as queen of the Veterans Association dance at the Pavilion Caprice Saturday as a protest against the too many queen crownings didn’t go over too well with a few who took the thing seriously.”
Other than a brief item in the student newspaper and a couple of mentions in The Post’s college column, the whole incident was forgotten, though it later morphed into a false memory of a vet being crowned at Homecoming.
Kit Russell (born Russell L. Paull of Pennsylvania) was about to lose his gig at the Band Box. Ohio liquor control agents pressured the courts to take away the club’s liquor license, declaring that the Gay Boy Revue flaunted “things which are unclean and indecent.”
It’s interesting that the forces of law and order should focus their wrath on the Band Box. The Gay Boy Revue appeared at several local night clubs before and after their stint on Peebles Corner. Over a 10-year period, they entertained at Kelly’s on Central Avenue, the New Look Club in Newport, the Old Bar Nite Club in Northside, Koenig’s Clubhouse in Ft. Mitchell, Balli’s Radio Gardens upstairs in the Crosley Building, and the Nine Mile House (later Twin Lanterns) in Dent.
None of these establishments catered to a predominantly gay clientele. At the Nine Mile House, the Gay Boy Revue followed a troupe of female nudists. Nor was the Gay Boy Revue the only drag act in Cincinnati at the time. From the 1930s into the 1950s, there were usually one or two drag acts playing in town on any given evening.
As for Kit Russell, he left Cincinnati for a brief career in Hollywood performing (in and out of drag) in several obscure movies, including the 1949 thriller Project X. He went on to manage a couple of drag clubs, notably the influential 181 Club in New York’s East Village. A 1979 anthology of LGBTQ studies included John Kelsey’s memories of Kit Russell, from an appearance at a Cleveland bar:
“Another impersonator I recall was Mr. Kit Russell, who was billed a ‘the world’s most beautiful female impersonator,’ and what a good-looking woman he appeared! Yet any glamour was quickly dispelled in an effusion of one-and-one-half entendre jokes.”
Kit Russell lived to enjoy a modicum of fame as a pioneer of drag culture. Russell L. Paull died at age 70 in 1994 in South Carolina. Perhaps he ought to be named, posthumously, an honorary Bearcat.