Jimmie Dale Freeman, aka Fritz Capone, had not only one of the most iconic names in Wichita's gay community, but one of the biggest hearts in bringing people together.
Mr. Freeman died suddenly July 27. Friends in San Diego, San Francisco, Dallas and Atlanta plan to arrive in Wichita this weekend to pay tribute to a man many credit with helping give them courage in accepting their own sexual identity.
"For many people coming out in the gay community, he was one of the first people you would ever meet," said Tim Wood of Wichita. "He treated them with respect. He was a mother figure to a whole generation of gay people."
Mr. Freeman, a professional female illusionist for more than three decades, died from complications of liver failure and high blood pressure. He was 56.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at First Metropolitan Community Church, 156 S. Kansas, followed by a 4 p.m. Celebration of Life at Our Fantasy Complex, 3201 S. Hillside.
Mr. Freeman was born July 12, 1954, in Zachary, Louisiana. He went to school in Baton Rouge in the newly desegregated South. He was proud that during his senior year, he was the editor of the school yearbook — at a time when black and white students did not appear together in photographs. Mr. Freeman, who was white, changed that by standing with black students in his class photo, said friend Kenny Warner of Wichita, who lived with Mr. Freeman the last months of his life.
After high school, Mr. Freeman attended the University of Louisiana where he met and married a woman. He then became an interior decorator. The couple was married five years and had a son before divorcing.
Mr. Freeman came out as a gay man in 1975, moving first to Oklahoma City where he worked briefly in the antiques business. While there, Mr. Freeman began performing as a woman. He was named Miss Gay Oklahoma in 1980.
And that, friends say, was when Mr. Freeman's career took off. He traveled the nation with an 11-man dance team called "Fritz and Company," imitating and performing as Bette Midler and Dolly Parton.
He used the show name Fritz Capone. He'd been nicknamed Fritzie in high school, kept the name as he got older and added Capone because, he told a Wichita Eagle reporter in 1987, "It sounds naughty, like Al's daughter."
While working for the Free Spirit bar in Oklahoma City, he received a phone call from Linn Copeland, then owner of Our Fantasy in Wichita, to do a show for the bar's grand opening.
He did and was eventually hired as the bar's show director of the Fantasy Follies.
When Mr. Freeman moved to Wichita in 1981, he became active raising money and awareness about AIDS, HIV and human sexuality. Through the years, he raised more than $100,000, said Teresa Romey, a former pharmacy technician and pastor who worked for Central Kansas AIDS Project and other groups. She is currently an HIV case manager for physician Donna Sweet at the University School of Medicine.
"He helped us raise money since the early days of the AIDS crisis," Romey said. "He was not wealthy. He had only what he could move around in his car and a few furniture pieces. But his mission was to give back."
He also helped raise money for the Kansas Gay Rodeo Association and was named the 1986-1987 Miss International Gay Rodeo.
Wichitan Colleen Didier said he was an excellent cook and would make Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for people who had no place to go.
"Some had just come out and weren't welcome at home," Didier said. "Fritz would always welcome them with open arms and tell them to come on over."
Jackie Carter, pastor of the First Metropolitan Community Church in Wichita, expects the memorial service on Sunday for Mr. Freeman to be one of the largest her church has had. On a Facebook page devoted to Mr. Freeman's life, more than 300 people have said they would attend services.
"Fritz could move this community and he cared on a level that very few people care," Carter said. "If the leaders of this city learn one thing from Fritz, it would be how to organize a community — how to bring people of different beliefs and thoughts together to work for a cause. That was his strength. He did it with humor. He was an entertainer."
In lieu of flowers, memorials can be sent to the Donna Sweet Emergency Fund, 1010 N. Kansas, Wichita, KS 67214 or First MCC, Loaves and Fishes Pantry, 156 S. Kansas, Wichita, KS 67211.