Father Larry Ebony founded House of Ebony nearly 39 years ago. Now House of Ebony — and the whole ballroom culture — is still going strong

Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

It was 1990 when Madonna set everybody vogueing on the dance floor, and that Jenny Livingston released her documentary, Paris Is Burning, bringing New York’s ballroom culture into the spotlight and showing where Madonna found the idea for her hit.

But ballroom culture existed long before Madonna, long before Jenny Livingston, long before Paris burned. Many people will tell you it started sometime in the 1960s or ’70s. But others trace the roots of ballroom culture as far back as 1869 and the secret drag balls held at Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge.

The house balls were — and still are — parties, with competitions in various categories. Contestants “walk” in categories like “best dressed,” “butch queen realness,” “vogueing,” “European runway” and more.

By the 1980s, ballroom culture was a thriving underground scene for black and Latinx LGBT people in New York. And despite its underground status, it has helped build a foundation for LGBT/queer culture and, more importantly, has provided safe space and family for generations of LGBT people.

Larry Praylow, better known as Father Larry Ebony, knows well just how important ballroom culture and its houses are. He has been involved for more than 40 years, and it is still a central part of his life.

Father Larry, who lives in North Texas now, was born and reared in Brooklyn. It was there that he founded the House of Ebony in 1978.

“Coming out of Brooklyn back then, you couldn’t be gay and not get harassed. But I did ok, because I wasn’t flaming. You couldn’t just look at me and know I was gay,” Father Larry said this week, adding that he had both a boyfriend and a girlfriend at the time.

“Then one night, I met my brother’s friend, Richard Sears, and he took me to my first ball,” he continued. “I won best dressed man and realness that night. I always used to win both those categories when I walked.”

Larry eventually joined with Sears as founding father and founding mother of The House of Ebony, “and now, it is one of the biggest houses out there,” he said. “We have members all over the country. We’re international now, with people in London, Paris, Russia — all over.

“At one time, we had almost 2,000 members. And seven different houses have been born out of the House of Ebony — House of the Prodigies, House of Chanel, House of Overness,” he said.

“In those early days, often, we only had each other. Most of us back then couldn’t go home and say, ‘Mama, I’m gay.’ You’d get kicked out, sometimes even attacked,” Father Larry recalled. “But you always had your ballroom family, your house. I started House of Ebony because I wanted a family that would never leave me, and that’s what I got. In a lot of ways, my House of Ebony family is closer to me than my [birth] family.”

But Father Larry was more fortunate than many. He explained that he was raised in a three-story brownstone in Brooklyn, and eventually, he said, his mother handed the brownstone over to him and his Ebony family.

“My own mother moved into a retirement home so that she could give me the brownstone, so that we could keep our Ebony family together,” he said.

“There were times that we had 40, 50 kids all living there at the same time. We called it Camp David.

“I’ve lost about 200 of my kids to HIV over the years. It’s been hard sometimes. But when you don’t have anyone else, you always can turn to your ballroom family.”

Ballroom culture has changed and evolved over the years. While it remains, in essence, an “underground” scene, it has gained more mainstream popularity — thanks to Livingston’s documentary, Madonna’s song and video, and patronage by celebrities ranging from Tyler Banks to Li’l Kim, from Mariah Carey to Jennifer Lopez, Father Larry said.

“You have a lot of people these days converting over from the pageants to ballroom, and the younger ones, they’re bringing in the kiki scene now, and that’s more like it was when we first started ballroom,” he continued. “Back then, you couldn’t just walk down the street in your affect. You had to wait to you got to the ball to change, to transform for the night. But once you were there, you could be whoever you wanted to be for that night. You knew that when you had to leave the ballroom, you had to change back. But while you were there, you could be whatever you wanted.”

Father Larry, who is a chef by trade, came to North Texas when his only remaining birth sister, a pastor, asked him to. “She lived here, and she told me, ‘Come here to Dallas. You’re all the family I have left, and I want you here.’ So I moved here.

“I was still coming from the street back then, and I was a single father. I have a [biological] son that I raised on my own. And moving [to North Texas] gave me some better opportunities. Now, I own a trucking company that’s 11 years old, and we are doing fine down here.”

The House of Ebony is doing fine back in New York, too: “I just held my 38th anniversary ball in Grammercy Park in New York in February,” Father Larry said. “And it was huge! They had to shut down Grammercy Park because there were so many people standing in line outside just to get in!”

Even though the ballroom scene has grown and changed, Father Larry said, it hasn’t gone away. And it won’t be any time soon. “We’re still here, and we’re stronger than ever!” he declared. “And me, I am the father of all fathers. I am everybody’s father!”

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As part of Dallas Southern Pride 2017, the Dallas Black Pride weekend, Father Larry Ebony and The House of Ebony present 24K Ball IV: The Green Edition, Sunday, Oct. 8, at Cedar Canyon Dude Ranch, 4523 N. Houston School Road in Lancaster.

Doors open at 4:30 p.m. and the ball runs from 6-11 p.m.

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2017 Dallas Southern Pride Schedule of Events

Wednesday, Oct. 4
• Pre-Pride Party at Marty’s Live
4207 Maple Ave.
10 p.m.-2 a.m.

Thursday, Oct. 5
• Opening Reception
Tekilas
10945 Composite Drive
7:30-9:30 p.m.
Free food and drinks while supplies last

• Mr. and Miss Dallas Southern Pride All-Star Review Show
Tekilas
10945 Composite Drive
9-11:30 p.m.
(In the past, Dallas Southern Pride has included a Mr./Miss Southern Pride pageant. But this year, in light of the recent arson at Abounding Prosperity, the devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and in memory of the 21 trans people who have been murdered this year, the pageant is being replaced with a special show featuring favorite entertainers to commemorate things and people lost in 2017 and show gratitude for what we still have. Proceeds will benefit the AP Inc. Fire Relief Fund and those affected by the hurricanes.)

Friday, Oct. 6
• State Fair Classic & Black Pride Pre-Party
Marty’s Live
4207 Maple Ave.
10 p.m.-2 a.m.

• AfterHours Sun Rise Party
Club Babylon
11311 Harry Hines Blvd.
11 p.m.-4 a.m.

Saturday, Oct. 7
• Dallas Southern Pride Pool Party
featuring Grammy Award winner Remy Ma
and Fly Young Red
Cedar Canyon Dude Ranch
4523 N. Houston School Road, Lancaster
4-10 p.m.

• Octane Pride Mega Party
Presented by Street Dallas —
Shoncy Raspberry
Southside Music Hall
1135 S. Lamar St.
10 p.m.-3 a.m.

Sunday, Oct. 8
Pioneer Father Larry Ebony Presents
24K Gold IV: The Green Edition
Cedar Canyon Dude Ranch
4523 N. Houston School Road, Lancaster
6-11 p.m.

• UBE and DSP Presents
The Black Pride Unity BBQ
Tenison Park
6600 E.Grand Ave.
2-7 p.m.
Free food and music

• Sunday Night Lights –
Pride Edition Tekilas
10945 Composite Drive 10 p.m.-4 a.m.

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With up to 5,000 people expected to converge on Dallas over the next week for the city’s annual Black Pride celebration, one of the highlights of the week will be the Ball/House and Pageant Communities Conference on Leadership and Health Disparities taking place next Friday, Oct. 6, at Marriott Suites Market Center, 2493 N. Stemmons Freeway, host hotel for Dallas Southern Pride, which hosts Dallas Black Pride in conjunction with Abounding Prosperity Inc.

The B/HAP Conference targets African-American and Latino men who have sex with men as well as male-to-female transgender individuals who are all either members, fans, supporters, allies and/or spectators of ball/house and pageant communities, and organizers have invited members, patrons, spectators and allies, along with researchers, sexual health educators, prevention specialists, medical professionals, governmental health officers, policy makers and elected officials to attend.

Throughout the weekend, Abounding Prosperity will provide free and confidential HIV, syphilis, and HCV screenings to all attendees. Additionally, resources and educational materials will be available to all attendees at the host hotel and events throughout the weekend to facilitate awareness of risk and resources for linkage/re-linkage to medical care.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 29, 2017.