Ep 1: “The Dirty Old Lady”: Chicago Drag History and the Mystery of Miss Tillie

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Tillie, c. 1940's

“Everything that sparkles is Tillie”

In 2014, Gerber/Hart received a collection of photo albums that belonged to a performer named Miss Tillie “The Dirty Old Lady of Chicago.” The collection is incredibly rich, with over a thousand images of Miss Tillie performing throughout the 1940s-1990s. Gerber/Hart also has in its collections a VHS tape with a short documentary created by Daniel Lee that aired in 2002 at the Reeling Film Festival.

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Tillie, c. 1940s

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Tillie, c. 1940s

Much of Miss Tillie’s life is shrouded in mystery. We know that she moved to Chicago in 1961 from Dayton, Ohio. Tillie’s first show was at The Front Page, where she “screamed above a Sophie Tucker record.” Performer Roby Landers added “The Dirty Old Lady” to Tillie’s name, and from then on, she became known as Tillie “The Dirty Old Lady of Chicago.” Tillie performed all over Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. She was one of the early performers at The Chesterfield and was arrested in several bar raids that occurred there in the early 1960s. She also frequently performed at House of Landers and later worked with Chuck Renslow to start a drag show at Sparrow’s. Tillie passed away in 2005.

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Tillie, c. 1940s

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Tillie channelling Mae West

"You put that wig on - that can make you or break you. When I have the dress on I am just like Jekyll and Hyde. I am an entirely different person. My personality changes. Everything. And everyone tells me I am a very elegant bitch."

Listen in to learn more about Miss Tillie and her collection. This episode features interviews with grassroots historian Owen Keehnen, Gerber/Hart volunteer staff and paid staff member Jen Dentel, and former Gerber/Hart board president Carrie Barnett.

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Tillie, c. 1960s

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Tillie on Carol's Speakeasy Pride Parade float in the 1970s

The Tillie Documentary

Daniel Lee's 2001 documentary Tillie profiles Tillie "The Dirty Old Lady of Chicago" who was a prolific drag queen in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. The film including Tillie recounting experiences with bar raids in the early 1960s and one of Tillie's later performances as Sophie Tucker. The film celebrates Tillie and the contributions the performer made to the early drag scene in Chicago.

Want to Learn More?

Miss Tillie Papers - Archival Finding Aid

  • Follow Gerber/Hart on Instagram and Facebook for Tillie Tuesdays 
  • Other Archival Collections of Interest:
    • George Glustris - photographs of performers in Chicago and several playbills
    • Toots Lorraine - Toots performed throughout Chicago, often with Miss Tillie and in outfits Toots embellished. These costumes are part of the Toots Lorraine collection. 

More on Chicago Drag History:

  • Dugan’s Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady, Owen Keehnen, 2018.
  • Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, 2008.
  • Jim Flint: The Boy from Peoria, edited by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen, 2011.
  • Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall, St Sukie de la Croix, 2012.