A little over a year after the Stonewall riots of 1969, Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton spoke these words on August 15th, 1970, in an attempt to guide his more homophobic and patriarchal brothers into remembering that oppression, any kind of oppression is wrong, even if its directed towards gays and women.
Before 12 West (1975), Crisco Disco (opening date unknown), Paradise Garage (1977), or Studio 54 (1977). The Flamingo (1974) was NYC’s first exclusively gay disco. The Sanctuary (1969-72) tried to make this claim but it attracted a good number of heterosexuals couples and single women as well and was not “exclusively gay”.
Flamingo was promoted as the first discotheque for an exclusively gay male clientele and opened on December 14, 1974. It was located on the 2nd floor of a building at the corner of Houston St. and Broadway in New York City. Since there was a constant fear police raids the club had an unlisted telephone number, but members and those in the loops knew they would find it under Gallery for the Promotion of People, Places, and Events housed at 599 Broadway.
Started by Michael Fesco, a former Broadway dancer and a gypsy in the chorus of Irma La Douce, members paid up to six hundred dollars a year “membership” (In 1975 that was a lot of money even by gay standards) . The Flamingo was in an upstairs loft space, and there were two stunning women who operated the door, both with gardenias behind their ears. After passing them at the entrance they were the last women who you would see as in the beginning it was an “all male” club.
For those of you too young to remember the movie Cruising it is a 1980 psychological thriller film directed by William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame and starring Al Pacino. The film is loosely based on the novel of the same name, by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker. It’s about a rookie NYPD cop that goes undercover to bait a homophobic serial killer in the leather and S&M world of New York’s Greenwich Village.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force ( back when they actually had a task and did something ) in a letter to the New York Times wrote that “in the context of an anti-homosexual society, a film about violent, sex-obsessed gay men would be seen as a film about all gay people. The psychosexual dynamic of Cruising is certainly questionable—deliberately so, to some extent—though in chalking up violent homoerotic impulses to unresolved daddy issues, the movie may be a greater insult to the intelligence of psychoanalysts than to the sensibilities of gays.”
The movie suffered a huge backlash from the LGBT community which did everything it could to disrupt the movies filming in Greenwich Village and promotion in NYC.
Village Voice writer Arthur Bell was the person who raised a call for full out sabotage on the movie writing that Friedkin’s film “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen,” he wrote, “the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight. I implore readers . . . to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhoods.”
Gay-owned businesses on Christopher Street barred the filmmakers from their premises. People attempted to interfere with shooting by pointing mirrors from rooftops to ruin lighting for scenes, blasting whistles and air horns near locations, and playing loud music. One thousand protesters marched through the East Village demanding the city withdraw support for the film to which Mayor (and famous closet case) Ed Koch responded, “Whether it is a group that seeks to make the gay life exciting or to make it negative, it’s not our job to look into that.”
Al Pacino who starred in the movie said that he understood the protests but insisted that upon reading the screenplay he never at any point felt that the film was anti-gay. He said that the leather bars were “just a fragment of the gay community, the same way the Mafia is a fragment of Italian-American life,” referring to The Godfather, and that he would “never want to do anything to harm the gay community”.
Friedkin asked noted gay author John Rechy, to screen Cruising just before its release. Rechy had written an essay defending Friedkin’s right to make the film, although not defending the film itself. At Rechy’s suggestion, Friedkin deleted a scene showing the Gay Liberation Front slogan “We Are Everywhere” as graffiti on a wall just before the first body part is pulled from the river, and added a disclaimer:
“This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”
Friedkin later claimed that it was the MPAA and United Artists that required the disclaimer, calling it “part of the dark bargain that was made to get the film released at all ” and “a sop to organized gay rights groups”. Friedkin also said that no one involved in making the film thought it would be considered as representative of the entire gay community, but the late great gay film historian Vito Russo disputed Fredkin claims citing the disclaimer as “an admission of guilt” writing “What director would make such a statement if he truly believed that his film would not be taken to be representative of the whole?”
Now over 40 years later despite the movies content which by today’s standards seem schlocky and mediocre at best. Snippets of Cruising are easily one the most graphic and true depiction of the NYC underground gay leather scene ever seen in a mainstream movie and is also in a way, a documentary of a time and places lost in history with background shots of the West Village and West Side highway that capture that period in time.
Locations like The Ramrod, The Anvil, Mineshaft, and the Eagle’s Nest (the latter two eventually barred Friedkin from the premises) have been gone for decades, but Cruising is a flashback to a time of poppers, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore discos, bathhouses, backrooms, park cruising and yes even Crisco. It is a visual time capsule back to a part of our history that has been overshadowed by by the plague known as AIDS that would soon wreck havoc on the gay community in the years after the movie was released.
Like it or not the movie Crusing is a part of our history and reflects an era of images and memories that is slowly being lost forever.
Note: The exterior entrance of the club that Al Pacino enters into is actually the door to the infamous Mineshaft in NYC. (CLICK HERE to learn more about The Mineshaft.)But as stated above Friedkin was barred from filming within the establishment. The next shot of Pacino walking down the stairs was actually filmed at the Hellfire Club Sex Club in the triangle building at 14th street which later would house J’s Hangout and home of the New York Jacks on 14th and Hudson Street.
What now stands in its spot is the gentrified 675 Bar which is described as a “subdued lounge attempts to bring back some dignity to the Meatpacking District with pedigreed cocktails, and uncomplicated entertainment”
Dutch painter and writer Willem Arondeus during World War II hatched a plan to burn the Bevolkingsregister which housed the citizen registration office in Amsterdam where the Nazis kept copies of all of the identity cards held by Dutch citizens.
In the spring of 1941, Arondeus started an underground periodical in which he tried to incite his fellow artists to resist the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Earlier than others, Arondeus realized that the demand by the Nazi occupiers that all Jews register with the local authorities was not, as the Nazis claimed, for their own safety, but rather so they could be deported to the Westerbork concentration camp and from there to the death camps in occupied Poland. In the spring of 1942, Arondeus founded Brandarisbrief, an illegal periodical in which he expressed the artist’s opposition to the edicts imposed by the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture), the Nazis’ cultural committee.
A concerted operation was underway to hide Jews among the local population, with various underground organizations preparing forged documents for Jews. Arondeus was a member of one such group .Within a short while, the Nazis began to expose the false documents by comparing the names with those in the local population registry. To hinder the Nazis, late on March 27, 1943 Arondeus led a group in bombing the Amsterdam Public Records Office.
Arondeus and fourteen others, including two young doctors, donned German uniforms, asked the building’s guards to open the building for a special inspection. As soon as they gained entry, the two doctors injected the guards to put them asleep and placed them in the courtyard away from harm while the rest of the crew set fire to the building. Thousands of files were destroyed, and the attempt to compare forged documents with the registry was hindered.
Five days later, an unknown spy informed on the group to the Nazis, which in turn arrested them. During the trial, Arondeus took full responsibility for the fire. The two doctors were sentenced to life in prison, but the rest were ordered to go before a firing squad.
On July 1st. 1943 in his last message before his execution, Arondeus, who had lived openly as a gay man before the war, asked his lawyer to pass a long this message:
“Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards!”
May 14, 1883 – On this day of America’s foremost female impersonator is born in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Julian Eltinge was a stage and silent film star who few actually realized was a man. So popular was he that during the Korean War a troop ship was named in his, or rather, her honor.
After appearing in the Boston Cadets Revue at the age of ten in feminine garb, Eltinge garnered notice from other producers and made his first appearance on Broadway in 1904. As his star began to rise, he appeared in vaudeville and toured Europe and the United States, even giving a command performance before King Edward VII. Eltinge appeared in a series of musical comedies written specifically for his talents starting in 1910 with The Fascinating Widow, returning to vaudeville in 1918. His popularity soon earned him the title of “Mr. Lillian Russell” for the equally popular beauty and musical comedy star.
Hollywood beckoned Eltinge and in 1917 he appeared in his first feature film, The Countess Charming. This would lead to other films including 1918s The Isle of Love with Rudolph Valentino and Virginia Rappe. By the time Eltinge arrived in Hollywood, he was considered one of the highest paid actors on the American stage,
Eltinge was an intimate of the top Hollywood stars and a wealthy man, worth over $250,000. He built Villa Capistrano, one of the most lavish villa’s in the Hollywood area, where he lived with his mother and entertained lavishly. He also built a ‘dude ranch’ for men in Alpine, CA near San Diego But times were changing. The outrageous performances of female impersonators Francis Renault and Bert Savoy, and the drag balls and gay speakeasies of the 20’s “pansy craze” in New York made Eltinge’s style appear old-fashioned. He began to drink heavily and in 1923 was caught smuggling liquor from Canada. Despite a sensational trial and bad press, he managed to get an acquittal.
It was the beginning of his decline and with the arrival of the Great Depression and the death of vaudeville, Eltinge’s star began to fade.. Eltinge resorted to performing in nightclubs. Crackdowns on cross-dressing in public, a misguided attempt to curb homosexual activity, prevented Eltinge from performing in costume. At one appearance in a Los Angeles club, Eltinge stood next to displays of his gowns while describing his old characters.
On May 7, 1941, Eltinge fell ill while performing at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub. He was taken home and died in his apartment ten days later. His death certificate lists the cause of death as a cerebral hemorrhage.
Julian Eltinge leaves a legacy as one of the greatest and most forgotten female impersonators of the 20th.century.
Raise a glass and remember Julian/Vestta!
“My heart is simply melting at the thought of Julian Eltinge; His alter ego, Vesta Tilley, too. Since our language is so dexterous, let us call them ambi-sexterous – Why hasn’t this occurred before to you?”
Sarah Pollard was born in 1846 in New York, the daughter of a middle class merchant family. After working in a shoe factory in Massachusetts and sewing shirts in New York, she headed west to Colorado in the 1870s. She caused a stir because of her masculine appearance. Around 1876 she moved to Nevada and took up wearing male clothing in order to find work and she started calling herself “Sam.” She met young Marancy Hughes, born in 1861 in Missouri, and actively courted her. Hughes’ family hated Pollard and the couple eloped on September 28, 1877.
They were happily married for six months, and then Marancy broke the secret. The small silver-mining town of Tuscarora, Nevada was transfixed by the story. The matter ended up in court and after Marancy testified, a dramatic re-union took place. Stories about the troubled marriage were carried in newspapers across the country (even appearing in a New Zealand paper). The couple broke up two more times, before Marancy moved on to a marriage with a man in 1880.
Pollard’s story appears to have had a happy ending:
Sarah moved to Minnesota to start a new life by 1883, working by herself on a farm. The story of her successful farming career again made national newspapers, which noted she wore a bloomers-type outfit while plowing. By the 1890s she had met a woman named Helen Stoddard, a schoolteacher who was born in 1864 in Vermont. In later census records Helen was listed as her partner or companion. Sarah died in 1929, and Helen paid for her arrangements at a local funeral home, the owners puzzling over the relationship of the two women.
There seems to be some confusion in the gay and lesbian historical community vs. the trans community about weather to identify Sarah as lesbian or transgender.
But a decade later, the evidence shows that she presented herself with a female name, and became a partner to a female schoolteacher. Thus the reason I rightfully identify her in this piece as a lesbian.
The once infamous Cock Ring and Hotel Christopher was located at 180 Christopher Street at West Street on the SE Corner in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
The building itself was built in 1858 and then known as “The Great Eastern Hotel,” and was located directly across the street from the ferry wharf. But the Great Depression, years of neglect, and introduction of the overhead West Side Highway turned the hotel into into nothing more than a flophouse in what was then a very seedy neighborhood.
In the 1970’s with gay liberation and the great influx of gay men into the neighborhood “The Great Eastern Hotel, was renamed “The Christopher Street Hotel”
On the ground floor in 1972 was a business called Gay Dogs, which was described as a “24-hour food & beer cruise cafe” but in just 4 years Gay Dogs would be gone and the space would become and one of the most notorious of New York City’s gay bar/disco/backroom sex spots called The Cock Ring.
The Cock Ring was dark, cruisey, and always hot. It was the at the center of the gay universe in the mid 70’s and anyone who was anyone and horny in the village went there; though not everyone readily admitted it.
On Sundays when the uptown gays who generally turned their noses up to the cruisey sexual energy of the West Village descended south and flocked to the corners of West Street on weekends when it really came alive: it was an open block party as the young and old alike. They came by the hundreds most of them shirtless, hanging out and hooking up, traveling between the river front bars Badlands, The Ramrod, Keller’s, and The Cock Ring. It was an ongoing Pride celebration every weekend of the year.
The drug of choice was pot but the hardcore often preferred cocaine and Angel Dust. Real amyl nitrite was passed freely around the dance-floor.
Upstairs at The Hotel Christopher, had to be one of the sleaziest hotels in 1970’s New York City. and that was a hard order to fill in the time. You could rent out a tiny, roach infested, room by the hour or the night. On Sundays during the height of the mid-afternoon bacchanal while the streets were packed with men shopping for their next trick it wasn’t uncommon to see naked men beckoning to the crowds below to come up and have sex with them or to witness sex acts going in front of windows to cheers from the crowd below.
But times change.
In 1982 the building was converted into a posh hotel called, The River Hotel. Atop it was a chic restaurant, The Grand Corniche, featuring panoramic Hudson views and a dramatic circular stairway. For a short time The Cock Ring below was replaced with Uncle Charlie’s- Village which had a slightly more up-scale bar and disco that never really caught on and closed shortly after it’s owner, Lou Katz fled to Brazil after stabbing to death his lovers boy friend. (More about that in another post)
While the eyesore of the elevated highway was torn down the new proposed West Side Highway didn’t get the government funding, backing that was expected to change the waterfront the block still remained pretty dismal. Despite the views of the river, tourists, even gay tourist didn’t want to venture there and then the beginning of the AIDS epidemic started to take it’s toll.
In 1986 The Bailey-Holt House arrived to take over the building, just as the neighborhood started to improve and the AIDS epidemic was at its peak.
Fittingly Bailey-Holt House, was the nation’s first hospice residence for people living with AIDS.
In the years since the neighborhood has gentrified and all the gay bars and businesses from Christopher and West Street are gone. But the memories and ghosts of the past remain for now until one day when they will be completely forgotten and will just fade away.
That is why I write this. To keep the memory and history alive.