Picture this: October 25, 1981.
You and your friends are preparing for the biggest event of the year. The theme is “A Black & White Affair.” You don your best suit, accessorize it with your most expensive cufflinks, complement it with your largest statement rings. You are dressed more extravagantly than you ever could have hoped. After looking yourself over one, two, three, five, ten times in the mirror, you think to yourself: “Perfect.” Your party makes its way to the venue, where an usher leads you to your table and offers each of you a program detailing the lavish night that awaits. The program lists special appearances by your hostess, Miss Dolly Divine, and... Nancy Sinatra!?
You’ve done it; you’ve made it to the illustrious Halloween Berwick Ball.
The Berwick Ball was a Columbus-based Halloween event, first held in 1964. The event began as a formal costume party and provided a safe space for LGBTQ+ people to gather and enjoy drag shows during a time when police routinely raided gay bars and parties. Over three decades, the Berwick Ball gained local renown to become an annual Halloween tradition.
As alluded to earlier, the host of this ball went by the name of Dolly Divine, a lovely drag queen known for her lavish singing voice and performing skills. But behind all the makeup, the extravagant wigs and the ornamental jewelry, there was David Zimmer.
Zimmer was born in Harrisburg, Ohio in 1929. When he was a young adult, he enlisted in the United States Army and served two years during the Korean War. Zimmer spent his time at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he often performed in drag to the wounded soldiers’ delight. After the war, he returned to Ohio and began performing as Dolly Divine, a name inspired by the song “Hello Dolly.”
It wasn’t until 1964 that Zimmer began the legendary Berwick Ball. He did so in partnership with Orn Huntington, a successful Hollywood actor turned Columbus bank examiner. (Listen to Huntington's oral history here.) Every year, the Ball had a different theme, such as “Tropical Nights,” “Red Hot Halloween,” and “A Black and White Affair.” The event always promised showmanship: ornate decorations, delicious food and beverages, and even choreographed numbers with performers in drag, including Dolly Divine herself.
While the event arose as an underground safe space for LGBTQ+ people in central Ohio, it garnered local acclaim. Capitalizing on this renown, Zimmer and Huntington mobilized the Ball as a fundraiser for HIV/AIDS and other causes.
Though the Berwick Ball's run ended in the late ‘90s, its impact on the life and legacy of David Zimmer was unprecedented. His charity work during the HIV/AIDS epidemic helped to establish his legacy in central Ohio. During the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, he was featured at many pride festivals and parades where hundreds of people watched him ride the backseat of convertibles, dressed no less lavishly than you’d expect.
David Zimmer died in 2005 at age 75. His service to Ohio’s LGBTQ+ community has ensured that he continues to be remembered for celebrating members of a marginalized community when they needed it most.
*Available for researchers to view in the Ohio History Connection's Archives & Library