Performance Costumes at the Kansas City Museum

Kit & Kay performing with the Brush Creek Follies, 1940

The Kansas City Museum’s collection contains more than 100,000 historical objects and offers a rich sampling of Kansas City’s local and regional history. Encyclopedic in nature, the collection is organized into several core collection groups. One of the largest groups is clothing and textiles. Since the museum’s founding in 1940, clothing and textiles have been an important and impressive part of the museum’s collection. The Women’s Division, the museum’s auxiliary founded in 1940, made collecting clothing and textiles a priority and curated a costume wing of the museum for many years.

Currently the clothing and textiles collection group consists of more than 20,000 pieces and spans more than 200 years. There are many subgroups within the clothing and textiles collection, including performance costumes of various kinds. The museum’s archives also complement the clothing and textiles collection group and includes many images of stage performances, including some of the museum’s 3-dimensional costumes “in action.”

The Alice Nielsen collection represents the Broadway and operatic career of a Kansas City-raised woman and includes scripts, letters, photos and more than a dozen of her stage costumes. In the 1890s, Nielsen was one of the first Broadway stars and one of the first “celebrities” to do product endorsements. Her name and face sold everything from high-end jewelry and purses to hot breakfast cereal. Starting in 1904, Nielsen left her successful Broadway career to travel to Italy and study high opera. As a prima donna, she sang at La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London, and was one of the founders of the Boston Opera. She starred opposite singers such as Enrico Caruso, and she was Puccini’s favorite in the role of Madama Butterfly. After the Kansas City Museum opened in 1940, Alice Nielsen returned to Kansas City to donate her collection to what she considered to be her hometown museum.

Alice Nielsen (center) surrounded by volunteers modeling her costumes, which she donated in 1944.

In addition to the Alice Nielsen collection, the Kansas City Museum has the performance costume of radio personality Irene Crouse (1920-2020), known by her fans as one half of the famous singing cowgirls Kit and Kay. Irene and her twin sister Orlene (1920-2005), born in Cainsville, Missouri, began singing in 1934 at radio stations in Iowa and St. Joseph, Missouri, before coming to KMBC in Kansas City. A contest renamed them Kit & Kay. Both left radio in 1942 to marry and raise families. The museum has one of their signature costumes, a white leather fringed vest and skirt with boots and Stetson cowboy hat.

Mr. Half-and-Half, ca. 1930

One of the larger performance costume collections at the Kansas City Museum relates to a long history of female impersonation. Kansas City has a strong tradition of female impersonation/drag shows, going back to the 1880s. In 1887, the annual Priests of Pallas celebration began, and one of the highlights was a man selected each year to oversee the festivities in the guise of Greek goddess Pallas Athena. The tradition continued in the Jazz Age, when many clubs featured female impersonation acts. Dante’s Inferno, a club located at 1104 Independence Avenue, regularly featured a performer known as Mr. Half-and-Half. The museum’s collection of jazz-era photographs contains both promotional images of performers, as well as those performers on stage.

The Jewel Box at 3223 Troost (later located at 3110 Main) opened in 1947 and advertised performances by “Femme-mimics” and legendary performers such as Sandy Kay, whose red sequined gown is in the Kansas City Museum’s collection. The Jewel Box was a tourist attraction for three decades.

Melinda Ryder and DeDe DeVille are two of today’s performers whose performance costumes from earlier years are part of the Kansas City Museum’s GLAMA collection. DeDe DeVille’s collection includes costumes and props of the Late Night Theatre troupe, which performed satires of well-known movies from

–Lisa Shockley and Denise Morrison

CategoriesArts Consortium

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