Eric Feingold, History Curator
Ohio History Connection
At the Ohio History Center, visitors can see everything from American Indian artifacts to a Lustron home. Now, they can also find a display of materials related to an early LGBTQ activist and drag performer from Central Ohio.
In 2016, we received a number of objects, photographs, and other archival materials related to David Zimmer. For over 40 years, David was a beloved personality in the local LGBTQ community, best known for his performances in drag as Dolly Divine and as a co-founder of what would be known as the Berwick Ball. The display, installed in the museum’s “New Acquisitions” case, provides a colorful glimpse into David’s (and Dolly’s) role in shaping Ohio history.
In 1964, David, Orn Huntington, and others organized a Halloween costume ball in Columbus. Access to the invitation-only event was a closely guarded secret: ticketholders only learned of the venue—an American Legion Hall on North High Street served as the first—by calling a telephone number the day of the ball. Why so secretive? At the time, Ohio’s sodomy law was in full effect, as was Columbus’ cross-dressing law. These statutes, passed in 1885 and 1848, respectively, partly led to police raids of establishments with a known gay clientele. As a result, the Halloween ball served as an important safe space for the local LGBTQ community.
The event proved popular with the community and became an annual gathering where attendees dressed in drag or formal attire. Music, dancing, drag competition, and appearances by “Miss Dolly Divine” were staples of the event, which was organized by a committee. The aptly named Central Ohio Couturier League and its successor, the Columbus Metropolitan Halloween Ball Executive Committee, were early sponsors. These groups oversaw the ball’s growth and eventually introduced awards recognizing outstanding achievement in costume design and volunteer contributions to the event. Then, in the 1980s, the Berwick Party House and Restaurant began hosting the ball. First opened in 1955, the banquet hall located off Refugee Road became the event’s regular venue and namesake.
The display at the Ohio History Center features a small sampling of pieces related to David’s and Dolly’s involvement with the Berwick Ball, including shoes—covered in brilliant silver sequins—worn during the 1991 event.
These shoes, however, are hardly the only eye-catching pieces in the display. Two of David’s performance costumes are also featured. He commissioned Dick Frank, a local costume designer, to make them. With their intricate patterns and pronounced ruffles, the flowing costumes conjure images of Liberace and his iconic wardrobe.
This sartorial nod to Liberace reflects David’s respect for the performer who achieved widespread acclaim from the 1950s through 1980s. “His flair for costumes was as entertaining as his piano playing,” David said in a 1993 interview. David’s shows featured a combination of humor and music, and, just as Liberace’s, ended with the jazz standard, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” One photograph in the display even shows a smiling David playing his piano, candelabra in the background.
David may have performed throughout Ohio and the country, but he made his home in German Village. In 1989, the Harrisburg, Ohio, native moved to the Columbus neighborhood, where he became a constant fixture at community events. David often participated in the annual “Void Vilities” talent show and “Village Valuables” garage sale. He was also a member of the Schumacher Place Association and the German Village Society.
David’s importance to Columbus’ South Side is well-documented in the collection. In 2004, the German Village Meeting Haus hosted a “Diamond Jubilee” for his 75th birthday. The collection includes the event invitation, photographs from the evening, and clothing and accessories he wore during the celebration.
Some of these pieces, however, are not currently on display at the Ohio History Center. With a collection so comprehensive and full of so many great items, it can be difficult to develop a display with space limitations. But, if you are interested in learning more about David’s life and the collection pieces not on display, you can schedule a research visit with staff.
As an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing Ohio’s history, we are honored that David’s family and friends thought of the Ohio History Connection and our Gay Ohio History Initiative (“GOHI”) collection as the final repository for objects and archival materials from his life. We hope you will visit the Ohio History Center to see selections from the David Zimmer Collection and learn about his significant contributions to state history.
The David Zimmer Collection is currently on display at the Ohio History Center until Fall 2017.
Eric Feingold is a History Curator at the Ohio History Connection, where he preserves, researches, and shares historical objects from Ohio history. He works primarily with objects from the Gay Ohio History Initiative, popular culture, and sports collections.