How Ross Freese Came Aboard to Lead Trolley Tours
For Ross Freese, becoming a tour director for Kansas City LGBT history all began with a phone call in 2009 from David Greene, former director of the UMKC LGBTQIA office.
“He said that my friend Tom Poe had recommended me and wanted to know if I would be interested in leading their annual gay history tour. So I said, ‘Sure,’ and we talked a little bit. Tom knew I liked history and liked gay history, and I had taken one of the tours that had been offered a few years before that. So we talked about it for a little bit and I said ‘How much time do I have to prepare?’ and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got plenty of time. You’ve got about 10 days.’ Eeek,” Freese said with a laugh.
“So I did the grad student, ‘oh, I’ve got a paper due in a week’ thing and ran to the major libraries around town, went to the gay sections and started pulling out every book, and just looking at the indices in the front and the back and the table of contents to see if there was any reference to Kansas City and Missouri and Kansas. And started finding some amazing stuff that I didn’t realize had ever happened and thought, this is pretty freaky. Why didn’t I know about this stuff?”
Freese said that Poe, an associate professor in communication studies at UMKC, also gave him some additional information that he had used for the tour that he had formerly led.
“So I started slamming all this stuff together and then started trying to interpret it as a trolley tour originating out of UMKC, and it just appeared to be meant to be. I drove it for the first time on my own and it came out to exactly 55 minutes, which was just what David had been hoping for.”
Freese said the tour took on even more depth when he met Stuart Hinds, head of the LaBudde Special Collections at UMKC, and a year later Hinds asked him whether he would develop the tour as a fundraiser for the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) collection.
“I did that a year ago,” he said, “and now I’m trying to fluff up the tour again for another fundraiser,” Freese said that once again he’s shooting for a 55-minute tour.
“It was funny, last year, the first tour that we put out, the driver was very sensitive to all of the information that I had and he started slowing down, which got me talking more, which ended up making the first tour about an hour and 20 minutes,” Freese said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Next time I’ll tell you what, I drove the tour averaging about 30 miles an hour, which is good for the streets and the neighborhoods and what-not, so go ahead and kind of keep that pace going for the next tour,’ and it worked out just bang-on.”
Although Freese has been leading the tour since 2009, he’s not opposed to someone else taking over. He said he’d welcome Tom Poe and local LGBT activist Lea Hopkins leading the tour again as they previously had done.
“I’m always kind of looking at little ways to tweak tours and keep things interesting and exciting,” he said. The tour is entirely on the trolley, originating and ending at Union Station in Kansas City, Mo.
Freese is a technical specialist in the UMKC Central Ticketing Office. He came to the university in 1974 and earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in theater there. He said that he was an actor and director in professional theater up to the mid-’90s. His job in information technology began as a part-time job at the theater and led into bookkeeping and systems administration.
Freese is considering writing a book on Kansas City’s LGBT history. “I don’t have much formal training in writing, but I do like telling stories from my theater background. The next big step is to start going to primary sources, for me, if I really want to try and do this. Going out and looking at people’s papers and other research opportunities.”
Freese said that in his view, four points of Kansas City’s history made it possible for LGBT people to come together here: Union Station and how that brought people to live here; the entertainment district, including vaudeville, burlesque and more; the jazz community and the butch women of the ’20s and female impersonation; and the Pendergast era.
“This town was wide open, and I still don’t know if we really realize how wide open it really was, especially in terms of the LGBT community,” he said.
In speaking with Freese, it’s easy to see his passion for GLAMA’s work and Kansas City’s history: “It’s thrilling. And it just keeps reiterating what I felt from the get-go is that we have an astounding depth of LGBT history here in Kansas City, and they are preserving it and serving it up. It’s really exciting.”
The GLAMA Trolley Tour is Oct. 15. There will be a tour at 11 a.m. and another at 1 p.m. Tickets are $25. All proceeds support GLAMA, the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America. Tours will probably sell out, so people are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance. To register and order tickets, visit www.kansascitymuseum.org/glama.html or www.unionstation.purchase-tickets-online.com.