Melinda Ryder’s Gowns Add Some Sparkle to LGBT Archive
Lisa Shockley, Kansas City Museum’s curatorial specialist, gingerly displays a pair of dresses for an audience of six in a back room at Union Station. Her boss, Christopher Leitch, director of the Kansas City Museum, helps her finesse the multicolored feathers on one of the frocks, while community relations specialist Andrew Mouzin focuses a video camera on the gowns.
The three are working together to start recording the oral history that will accompany the museum’s newly acquired Melinda Ryder collection of outfits and photos, which were donated to the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) by Bruce Winter. The museum has accepted eight Melinda Ryder gowns in the first of what Leitch hopes is a series of donations from Winter.
For the oral history, Winter, who performs as Melinda Ryder, and his partner, Kirk Nelson, reminisce off-camera about the collection and Ryder’s career as a few of the donated items are shown to them. Over the years, Nelson has either created or rehabilitated most of the outfits worn by Ryder.
This collection and video will become part of the GLAMA repository of artifacts documenting local LGBT history. The year-old archive (glama.us) is a collaborative effort of the Kansas City Museum, the Jackson County Historical Society and the LaBudde Special Collections of the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Ryder donation joins the Mike Sugnet AIDS Walk T-shirt collection, among others, at the museum.
Back at Union Station, Nelson and Winter note that many of the drag performers in town used to employ the services of Cleola “Nookie” Kincaid. Kincaid was a seamstress of considerable physical size who would rarely leave her bed. Instead, she would slide to its edge as she was presented with fabric, part her knees, and stitch together the order.
As gown after gown is placed before Winter and Nelson, they tell of six-foot Lucite staircases, tear-away skirts, thigh-high boots and heavy-duty zippers. They explain how the systems of drag pageants evolved and talk about Kansas City Costume Co., Kaplan’s Fabric on the Plaza, Bakers Shoes and René of Paris. They recall the drag personas of Donna Summer and Diana Ross and the real person, Michael Williams.
When Ryder started performing, most drag queens used only a single name; she was simply Melinda. After she briefly dated a cowboy, someone surnamed her Ryder, and she has used both names ever since. Ryder settled on her signature red hair color in the late ’80s.
When they first met — but before they became a couple — Nelson helped Ryder shimmy into a pair of pantyhose, and Ryder thought, “This one’s a keeper.” Now a mature married couple, they have earned fame and also brushed by it: Ryder once lent her sparkly eye shadow to Jennifer Holliday, and Nelson served as a judge for the national Miss Gay America pageant last year.
The GLAMA Collections
The three-dimensional GLAMA collections are housed at the Kansas City Museum and are available to the public for research with prior appointment. (Two-dimensional publications are at
UMKC.) Because the museum staff is small, it could take two weeks or more to arrange a viewing. Those with sincere interest in donating their artifacts are encouraged to contact Christopher Leitch or his staff. The museum cannot accept every item it is offered, however.
The Kansas City Museum is located in the Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo., at Corinthian Hall, 3218 Gladstone Blvd., the former residence of Robert A. Long. Corinthian Hall and the Carriage House are now closed to the public due to site-wide renovations. But despite the renovations, the museum hosts family events, workshops, history and science tours and history trolley tours throughout the city. The Community Curator Lecture Series and the Latino Writers Collective are also active offerings.
Kansas City Museum