It was nearly three decades after she left Lexington that filmmaker Jean Donohue realized she lived through an extraordinary time with some extraordinary people.
The epiphany came while she was back in town to see an exhibit of work by Lexington artist and her old friend Bob Morgan.
"We had a really long, rambling conversation, because I hadn't seen him in like 30 years," said Donohue, who now lives in Portland, Ore. "He kind of told me what had happened between 1982 and 2007, and I found it to be kind of an extraordinary story."
It was the story of growing up in a flamboyant and openly gay community in a Southern city where few thought that sort of thing could happen.
It was the story of transitions from a genteel, closeted culture to the liberation of the 1970s to the grip of fear in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and '90s.
It was the story of characters including writer Tennessee Williams, artist Henry Faulkner, drag queen Sweet Evening Breeze, bon vivant Bradley Picklesimer and Morgan.
Donohue has turned that story into a documentary, The Last Gospel of the Pagan Babies, which premieres Thursday night at the Kentucky Theatre.
The film's title riffs on a name Morgan gave the group of artists and drag queens that created a gay culture in Lexington that has roots back to the Civil War.
"It turned out to be more than Bob's story, but using Bob as the focal point to tell the story of gay culture in Lexington," Donohue says.
At one moment in the film, Morgan recalls being at a club with James "Sweet Evening Breeze" Herndon, a well-known 20th-century Lexington cross-dresser, watching performances by Faulkner's blues band and Picklesimer's punk rock band, The Thrusters.
"I didn't think about it at the time, but we were talking about spanning 100 years of underground history in Lexington," Morgan says in the film.
It is a culture that many people in and out of Central Kentucky have found difficult to believe existed in a time when homosexuality was taboo and fairness ordinances and same-sex marriage were unimaginable. That is in part why Donohue wanted to make the documentary.
"Talking to friends in New York or California, they would say, we don't believe that happened in Lexington, we don't believe there was a gay culture like that in Kentucky, much less Lexington," Donohue says, echoing comments from several people featured in the film. "So it became obvious this had been a special moment and maybe there was a milieu that was grounded in something older than any of us."
Fortunately for Donohue, it was also a well-documented time, particularly in photographs by John Ashley, with whom Donohue had worked. With Ashley behind the lens, Morgan, Picklesimer and others created wild images of themselves in elaborate drag. At one point, the images were aimed for a Pagan Babies book that never got published; they were eventually lost until just a couple years ago.
Donohue says the film project ended up taking much longer than the two years that was expected when she started in 2007, but that also allowed for developments including Ashley's photos to be rediscovered and additional contacts to be made. Part of her challenge was that while there was a lot of footage available, it was on almost every format from Super 8 film to digital files, and getting it all transferred consumed time and money. On top of that, she was shooting new footage.
A key figure in the film is Picklesimer, now a Los Angeles-based event designer whom Donohue interviewed for a day and a half in his West Hollywood home, decked out in full drag. Between interviews with him and Morgan and other local notables, Donohue had many hard decisions to make about what made the final cut.
"Structuring it has been extraordinary," Donohue said. "We completely restructured it two weeks ago."
Donohue says that with Pagan Babies she tried to create a film that would have appeal beyond Lexington. She says she hopes to get it into gay film festivals across the country and find national distribution.
What Donohue ended up with that she didn't expect was the story of a culture that continues to renew itself and grow, sometimes despite itself.
"It's the journey of these two guys who lived this exuberant, artistic, creative life and it's wonderful and everything, but it also became over-the-top," Donohue says. "They both fell into alcoholism and drug addiction and what I've admired most about them is they figured it out and they survived and they lived to tell pretty enlightening stories about that journey."
IF YOU GO
'The Last Gospel of the Pagan Babies'
What: World premiere of Jean Donohue's documentary about Lexington's evolving gay culture.
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5
Where: Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St.
Tickets: $13. Available in advance at Showclix.com/event/3788045.
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.