Event on April 13 pays homage to Club Jewel Box, one of Miami’s first queer clubs, at O, Miami Poetry Festival
By Jose Cassola
“Club Jewel Box,” a one-night only experience celebrating queer culture and expression, will take place at 8 p.m. Friday, April 13 at the The Jewel Box at the National YoungArts Foundation, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., in downtown Miami.
As part of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, the event is a reclamation of queer spaces that have disappeared in Miami, combining queer avant-garde cinema with poetry and performance. “Club Jewel Box” pays homage to a 1940s Miami club of the same name, which was one of the city’s earliest queer clubs run by Danny Brown and Doc Brenner from 1946 to 1952. The original Club Jewel Box operated alongside the nationally touring Jewel Box Revue, featuring drag queens and kings in a nightclub show.
Friday’s event will present six films punctuated with poetry, read by local poets from Miami and feature performance components from local drag entertainers, including King Femme, Ded Cooter, Kunst and Jupiter Velvet, among others. The films are: “Blow Job” (Andy Warhol, 1963); “Christmas on Earth” (Barbara Rubin, 1963); “Fireworks” (Kenneth Anger, 1947); “Looking for Langston” (Isaac Julien, 1989); “Mano Destra” (Cleo Uebelmann, 1986); and “Pink Narcissus” (James Bidgood, 1971).
“Club Jewel Box” is the brainchild of Trae DeLellis and Juan Barquin, the curators of Flaming Classics, a film series pairing feature films with live work by local performance artists. Each event, based at the Bill Cosford Cinema, includes an introduction, a screening and a tailored live performance. When the duo started to plan Flaming Classics as a series, DeLellis said they were “adamant that it have a kind of disrespect of categories and genres.” Instead, they wanted it to showcase the variety of a queer perspective and audience.
DeLellis and Barquin said they had always had in mind to implement more experimental and avant-garde material at Flaming Classics, but they didn’t know when it would be the right time or place. When the partners took notice of the O, Miami call for proposals, having attended their events for years, they decided to create an event around experimental queer cinema and poetry and that’s how “Club Jewel Box” was born.
“We finally put it together that many of the experimental films we had been considering [at Flaming Classics] had a kind of poetic essence to them,” DeLellis said. “These films are very much about mood, themes of desire, the relationship between restraint and excess, but most importantly about expressing something that is about feeling. I think in that way, poetry is also a format that attempts to verbalize non-verbal feelings.”
Both Flaming Classics and O, Miami are Knight Arts Challenge award winners. As a result of that, DeLellis and and Barquin say they were “ecstatic to have O, Miami — a fellow winner — accept and collaborate on the project.”
“We’ve watched as [O, Miami] has delivered on their mission statement, solidifying and expanding that mission each year,” DeLellis said. “Through them, we have been able to connect with the National YoungArts Foundation and secured one of Miami’s most beautiful buildings, The Jewel Box, as a venue for the evening.”
DeLellis says “Club Jewel Box” is an event that wouldn’t be possible without the resources and aid of O, Miami, YoungArts and others like Obsolete Media Miami, who is helping with the projection; Claire Grossman and Jose Villar-Portela at Reading Queer, who are working on poetry selections and performances; and the entertainers who are crafting special performances for after the films. Friday’s event is open to attendees age 18 and over due to sexual content. Cocktails will be provided by Concrete Brewery and Tito’s Homemade Vodka for attendees age 21 and up.
“We do a call for festival projects every fall, asking for ideas for how poetry can reach more people in Miami,” said Scott Cunningham, executive director of O, Miami. “This year, we received around 300, and we were thrilled to receive one from Flaming Classics.”
O, Miami’s mission to expose every citizen in Miami-Dade County to a poem in April. DeLellis said one of his and Barquin’s goals is to build off that mission and expose people to queer culture and history in some way through “Club Jewel Box” and all other Flaming Classics events. He adds it’s also “very important to promote and create new queer spaces” because he feels there is now “a sense that queer spaces, among other safe spaces for minorities, are in danger.”
“We were inspired by one of Miami’s earliest queer spaces, the original Club Jewel Box, and their traveling show the Jewel Box Revue, which featured male and female impersonation,” DeLellis said. “It’s so exciting to celebrate that heritage and reimagine the past in a very contemporary way.”
After viewing some footage from The Wolfson Archive that depicted the police raids of queer spaces in the past, DeLellis says he and Barquin decided to nickname their event a “pervert roundup.” Pervert roundups were when police would invade queer spaces and arrest anyone in the space.
“With ‘Club Jewel Box,’ we wanted to reappropriate that concept of a ‘pervert roundup’ as a positive,” DeLellis said. “Instead of shame, it’s a proud celebration of queer culture and a choice to embrace the label, ‘pervert.’”
DeLellis said they will have select images from the old Jewel Box on display for people to see. The night will be documented by photographers and Sooperkool videographers to “preserve this for Miami’s queer history.”
“We definitely want the event to reflect the queer past, present and future of Miami,” DeLellis said. “With ‘Club Jewel Box,’ we want to expose everyone to something they may not have experienced before.”
DeLellis says Flaming Classics is about experiencing something new or re-experiencing something in a new context or with a new community. While planning, he and Barquin are constantly asking each other if “we’ve seen this or that.”
“It’s so easy to limit the LGBTQ experience, both by mainstream culture and even within our own community,” DeLellis said. “[At Flaming Classics], we are proudly presenting queer content and themes, but the series has always been about inclusion of LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ individuals. That is one of the things we like about the label, queer. It really starts to encompass so many different types of people and perspectives that eventually you realize that being ‘non-queer’ is the minority.”
Flaming Classics is currently finalizing its May series, which will be centered around queer films dealing with “mommy issues” in honor of Mother’s Day. Their June series will feature a selection of four queer films connected to Florida in time for Pride Month and Miami Film Month. Called Florida Focus, the series is supported by the Florida Humanities Council.
While there are other large scale projects in the works similar to “Club Jewel Box” for the future, DeLellis says he and Barquin enjoy the uniqueness of each Flaming Classics event.
“One of our favorite parts of Flaming Classics is that by pairing a film with a performance, it becomes difficult to repeat the events. They are always defined by the performer and the audience, which is an energy that is in constant flux,” DeLellis said. “This version of ‘Club Jewel Box’ will definitely be a one-time event, but we’d certainly be open to recreating the concept with new films and performers. We like sequels, as long as they are thought out and add something special.”