Happy Pride Month! To celebrate, we spotlight the Barony Ball, a drag queen pageant that was a groundbreaking event for the LGBTQ+ community in Tacoma, WA, from 1975-1985. It was held in the grand spaces of what is now McMenamins Tacoma Elks. These days, all visitors are welcome and encouraged to peruse artwork, photos and specially named rooms touting those Barony Ball events and the creative, colorful people who brought them to life. One such leading light was Julie Montaigne, aka Marvin Ness. This wonderful painting by artist Eona Skelton portrays Miss Montaigne at the Barony Ball, in all her glittering glory. Read more below about Julie Montaigne and the history of gay pride in Tacoma, Washington.
Whenever Julie Montaigne entered a room, all eyes fell on her. She was well known for her over-the-top outfits, especially her famous, fabulous sequined flame dress (shown in this photo). Julie also had a reputation for having a quick temper and being a “pain in the ass,” as her friends recall. That fiery spirit came from a place of love, though, as well as the need to fight for the acceptance of her community. As legend has it, in 1975, Julie was bitter about not winning a pageant in Seattle and decided that she would take matters into her own hands and bring the gay court system, including the pageant, down to Tacoma. But in order to make the pageant scene a success here, she first needed to rally the underground gay community of Tacoma to ensure that the city was ready to welcome them with mostly open arms.
When not in drag, Julie Montaigne was Marvin Ness, a native of Renton, just outside of Seattle. Marvin grew up with lots of extended family. His parents, Floyd and Lucille Ness, shared a house with Lucille’s relatives. They worked hard for a meager income and were always trying to make ends meet. From a young age, Marvin knew he was destined for a life different than most around him. During the workday he stayed close to his roots, toiling as a metal fabricator for the Kenworth Motor Company. All told, he put in more than 40 years with Kenworth. This may seem like an unusual path for a man who was a boisterous drag queen by night, but this is a common story for many pioneering queens who had to live closeted lives or risk being disowned by their families.
Tacoma—unlike its sister cities of Portland and Seattle—did not have a large, organized gay community by the 1970s. There were bars in Tacoma, such as the Sand Box, the Fun Circus and the Flamingo, that were welcoming, and even supported the early pageants financially through program advertisements. However, the city remained mostly closeted. These bars were places where gay men could gather socially; outside the safety of their four walls, there was constant fear of judgement from mainstream society as well as targeting by police. What the gay community needed was a large venue in which they could safely gather. They found that in the former Tacoma Elks Lodge, then operating as a catering venue called the 565 Broadway Corporation.
On November 8, 1975, Ron Parry, a local teenager who picked up catering shifts at the 565 Broadway here and there, was asked to set up chairs for an event booked by a mysterious group calling themselves the Queen Anne Businessman’s Club. To his surprise, the organizers of the event came in and began to set up huge, glittered flags emblazoned with unknown symbols (which he later discovered represented drag pageant courts of the Pacific Northwest). There were also 4-by-6-foot posters of old Hollywood film stars, balloon decorations and more, all for this special night: the Tacoma Court’s inaugural Barony Ball. The theme was “Great Scenes from the Silver Screen.” When the crowd began to gather, Ron was caught completely off guard: more than 200 guests, dressed to the nines in gowns and tuxedoes, the majority of whom were men dressed as women.
Harry DeVries, manager of the 565 Broadway, was also shocked. Still, DeVries, a Danish gentleman in his 70s, described by employees as a tough manager, wanted to ensure that these paying clients had a successful evening. And he invited them back for more events to come, including the Mr. & Miss Gay Washington Pageant. It seemed a promising sign that Tacoma might be ready to let the gay community into their hearts.
Like with a lot of family infighting, what was said and done between the new Tacoma Court and the old Seattle Court didn’t end up causing a total schism. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The Seattle Court and many of the surrounding cities’ courts were supportive of the upstart Tacoma group, in favor of building up their Pacific Northwest community. Julie Montaigne, also known as Fire Pussy, had kickstarted the movement in Tacoma; she remained the backbone of an increasingly thriving gay community in the city well into her 70s. Julie/Marvin passed away on New Year’s Eve 2017. She was well remembered by her family, especially her sister Mary Lou, and by the community for the legacy that she left in Tacoma.