One of the most exciting breakthrough moments – (left to right) Christine Risher, Brandon Wolf, and Joel Draught view Houston Post negatives from 1960. Following a lead from Art Graeter at the House of Glass, negatives were located that captured images of 3416 Louisiana - the birth place of the Dianas.
Photo Credit: Jo Collier
By: Brandon Wolf
This book is the result of an assignment I was given in January 2009, to write a 1500-word article for OutSmart magazine about The Diana Foundation, prior to Diana 56 in March 2009. When I showed up at the home of then President John Heinzerling, to interview him, Harry Guyton, and Mark Brown, I never imagined that I would end up spending the next year researching and writing the sixty year history of the Dianas.
Up to that time, I had been generally aware of the Dianas, but never knew the details. That initial interview revealed to me that the Dianas had started in the early 1950’s. I have a personal passion for gay history, because I find there is so little of it – especially the pre-Stonewall days. From the moment I understood when the Dianas began, I was hooked.
The interview that day focused mostly on the Diana eras from 1980 and forward. The three men wanted to talk about ‘the glory days’ at the Tower Theater in the 1980’s, when over 1100 people lined up in black tie to attend the awards shows. Try as I would, I couldn’t unearth any solid information from them about the first three decades of the organization.
I began to follow what leads were given me, trying to establish what happened from the very beginning up to the current day. The more I heard, the more fascinated I became. But I still couldn’t break through that pre-1980 barrier.
I had already convinced both OutSmart and the Dianas to give me more time developing the story. In the meanwhile I had started to do the math, based on the awards show numbers, and calculated that the Dianas had begun around 1953. I wrote to several friends who are published gay historians, and researched the Internet for information on the country’s first serious gay organizations.
The Mattachine Society started in 1950, and its spin-off One Inc. began in 1952. From my research, the Dianas were third in line. But a dramatic difference existed – the Dianas had been continually active since their beginnings, but the other two organizations had since disbanded. I now realized I was researching the oldest, continually active gay organization in the country.
The opportunity to explore this history was intriguing, and since I was then in semi-retirement, I was able to focus on researching the story. But I frustrated that I couldn’t seem to undercover any information prior to 1980.
Then one day I was talking with Sandy Bubbert, the owner of Acadian Bakers, who I had recently interviewed for OutSmart. She asked what I was working on for the magazine, and I mentioned the Dianas. I also lamented not being able to pierce into the time period of the earliest days.
In her characteristic Southern drawl, Sandy said, “Darlin’, don’t you know Johnna Mueller? She was at the first Diana party, I think.” In the life of a researcher, this is one of those moments that you come to treasure forever. Suddenly, a whole world of history seemed open to me to explore.
Sandy put me in touch with Johnna and other members from the earlier days, and the news I was researching the history of the Dianas began to spread. Soon, I had dozens of contacts. As I began to mine the memories of many of the early participants, facts started to slowly fall into place.
The more I found out, the more I wanted to know. By the time I had finished researching the history of the Dianas, I had talked to nearly 100 people. Fifty-five were Diana members – past and present. Thirty were people with knowledge of Houston’s history and/or Houston’s gay history. And an additional 10 people were familiar with national gay history.
I reviewed over 4000 photographs that emerged from a Diana member’s closet, 12 videotaped Diana Awards shows, 35 souvenir programs, and nearly 500 pages of documents then housed at what was the Charles Botts Collection.
I want to extend special appreciation to the following individuals for their role in the preparation of this history, without whose help the story could not have been told: John Heinzerling and Harry Guyton of the Diana Foundation; Jo Collier, Joel Draut and Charles Stephenson at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library; Art and Lynn Graeter at House of Glass; Larry Criscione, Mike Kelly and Leif Hatlen at the Charles Botts Archive; and numerous members, past and present of The Diana Foundation, who provided oral histories and various Diana memorabilia.
* * * * * *
Assisting me every step of the way was my best friend Christine Risher. She accompanied me on interviews, transcribed recordings, proofread copy and offered up excellent revisions to the copy. Together, we set out to hunt down what physical traces still existed of the locations of the annual Diana awards shows. She celebrated the victories and consoled me through the losses.
We spent a good deal of time in the Texas Room of the Houston Public Library, cross-referencing names with phone directories and maps, to isolate who lived where and when. By process of elimination, we were able to nail down the location of all the Diana awards shows except for the 1950’s.
The evolution of the organization fascinated us. By the end of the project we felt as if we had known David Moncrief, Charles Hebert, Tom Adams, Bob Fields and Linda Mele – all of whom had big parts in the constant development of the Dianas.
Mining for history has its down moments. We discovered that slides of the 1960’s and early 1970’s had been kept in someone’s closet for years, but discarded shortly before we picked up the trail. Boxes of Diana materials had been dumped from a former member’s storage room years ago to make more room for items deemed more important at the time. Homemade movies of the 1960’s shows ended up somewhere, but to this day we don’t know where.
But there were also moments of great exhilaration. A visit to a chandelier shop across the street from where the first Diana party had taken place yielded a photo showing part of the building where that party occurred. A yellowed newspaper article from 1960 led us back to the Texas Room, and our jaws dropped when we discovered that the original negatives from that Houston Post article had been preserved – and they showed us exactly what the block on Louisiana Street looked like back then. This was important because a relatively new housing complex now occupies that spot of land.
A visit to a local rest home ended up yielding the earliest known photograph of a Diana awards show – 1969. Tom Osborn, known as ‘the Diana Diva’, had a box filled with priceless 8x10’s from his past.
Johnna Mueller and Jack Bresnahan – the two surviving guests from Diana 1 – were located and found to be in good health. We listened with rapt attention as their minds went back to that night in 1953 when the Dianas were born.
The history of the Dianas was a labor of love, inspired by the wit and spirit of the people who began the organization and those who continued it. When it was finished, the history was more than just interesting. It was an inspirational tribute to the human spirit in general and to the determination of gay people in particular. The story of the Dianas is the story of emotional survival amidst oppression - the utter resolve to change the world we live in - and the determination to have a good time in the process. This book is thus dedicated to the spirit of the Dianas, and every individual who gave life to that spirit.
It is in this spirit that Christine and I present the first book to document the incredible history of The Diana Foundation – with the wish that you will enjoy the story as much as we have enjoyed researching it down and committing it to written form.