The Golden Age of Gay Bars in YYC

Calgary was booming in the 70s. The city’s population increased about 50% in those 10 years. Club Carousel, the only gay club at the beginning of the decade saw its popularity wane as commercial gay bars opened in the city. The owners and operators had more capital to invest in their emerging discotheques, and the growing gay community flocked to them.

The Parkside Continental ran from 1973-1986 and was located at the corner of 13th Avenue and 4th Street SW (where Shelf Life Books is currently). The Parkside was named after a famous gay tavern in Toronto. Vance Campbell, a businessman and gay bar owner from Vancouver moved to Calgary to start the Parkside with local partners.

In the early years, there were provincial regulations about food being served with alcohol at bars. Rudy Labuhn, who was initially a DJ at the club and then manager, remembered that when the Parkside began they served 50 cent burgers to all drinkers.  He explained that the Province also limited the amount of recorded music that could be played. Fortunately, a straight bar called Lucifer challenged those rules successfully ushering in the age of disco to Calgary. Interestingly, the bar would end most nights with a song that was decidedly more downtempo: Broadway singer Maureen McGovern’s song, “The Continental.”

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A grainy image of Vance Campbell in front of the Parkside Continental from the Body Politic, Sept. 1980.

The Parkside expanded upstairs creating a second bar called The Green Room. The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch in April 1976 was founded there; their first coronation followed in January 1977 at the Holiday Inn Downtown. Drag legend, Sandy St. Peters who grew up in Calgary and lived and performed across Canada, entertained occasionally at the Parkside. After a big Saturday night at the bar, she would run across the street to campily welcome churchgoers arriving Sunday morning for early service at the First Baptist Church. In addition to drag performances, Eartha Kitt famously did a highly regarded concert one night in the Green Room.

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Sandy St. Peters (1953-2001). Image Source: YouTube

Vance Campbell proved to be a divisive figure at times publicly opposing the local gay activist community, which revolved around Gay Information & Resources Calgary (GIRC), headquartered only one block away. He was described by the Body Politic in 1980 as one of the power brokers in the gay community “confident enough of his position to write to the mayor and counter GIRC’s claim that Calgary could face a gay rights march.”

Another reason perhaps why Campbell felt powerful was he was an owner of Calgary’s other gay bar of note: Myrt’s.  Opened in 1976, the sign on the building said Myrt’s Beauty Parlour and was located at 808 9 Ave. SW (now a parking lot). This gay lounge and disco were initially open Friday and Saturday nights for men only. As its popularity grew, it operated six nights/week and became a mixed club, reportedly played the best music in the city.

Parkside Discotheques

Advertisement in GIRC’s 1977 publication, “Gay Moods”

A hallway off the dance floor led to a 150-seat theatre known as the “Backlot” which also served as an after-hours bar. The gay community was encouraged to use it as much as possible; it was the venue for emerging theatre artists, Imperial Court drag shows, Mr Butch Calgary “Slave Auctions” and, on Sunday mornings, Metropolitan Community Church services. Myrts’ final song every night was Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.”

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Butch Bucks from a Calgary Slave Auction in 1978. Donated to the YYC Gay Archives by Terry MacKenzie.

The bar closed on New Year’s Eve 1981/1982 as the building fell victim to boomtown redevelopment. Myrt’s and the Backlot briefly moved to 17th avenue before it closed again. One former patron broke into the site and retrieved the neon “Backlot” sign. The preserved sign now hangs over the door of the contemporary Backlot bar on 10th Ave. SW.

Backlot

Neon sign at the Backlot Bar, 2017. Photo: Kevin Allen.

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Full Court Press decades on in YYC

{Our sympathies go out to the friends and family of David Crosson, a lovely, witty man who passed away this week. A successful interior designer, he was also pivotal in the city’s gay media history through his work as editor of Outlooks Magazine from 1997 – 2005. He will be missed. – Kevin}

No other gay organization in Calgary has the long and storied history of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch (ISCCA). A chapter in the International Court System, the ISCCA hosts many drag events throughout the year as well as their signature coronation ball which elects a new Empress and Emperor annually. ISCCA events are dependably fabulous and fun. They often are also fundraisers for important community causes.

The Court System started in 1965 in San Fransisco, and the first Canadian chapter began in Vancouver in 1971.  In the early 70s, a handful of gay friends from Calgary who were active at Club Carousel escaped to Spokane, Washington for a long weekend road trip. By chance, they encountered a drag ball hosted by the Imperial Court of Spokane. Not only did they have a terrific time, but they met other gays from all over North America who were also in attendance. The Calgarians were hooked: in the next couple of years, they travelled to other Court events in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and Anchorage.

Jack's vest for ISCCA post

Court organizer and First Emperor, Jack Loewen, owned a leather vest with souvenir pins from Court events he travelled to.

Organization of the Calgary court began in April 1976. An application was made to the Mother Court of Canada in Vancouver, and by June of that year, Calgary’s charter was granted. The organizers looked for local inspiration in naming their court, settling on “Chinook Arch” as an iconic Calgary phenomenon. Legally they registered themselves as a daughter group of the Scarth Street Society which also operated Club Carousel. Their first major function was the coronation ball held in January 1977 at the Holiday Inn. With a small loan of $300 from the Club, they hosted an event that made history. It was one of the most elaborate balls the Court system had seen to date, featuring a sit-down dinner and the crowning of Calgary’s first Empress Veronica Dawn and first Emperor Jack. Representatives from Courts in San Francisco, Seattle, and Alaska were in attendance.

In the first year of operations, the Calgary Court had paid back their loan and ended the year $1200 in the black. Generally speaking, any profits the Court makes from their activities are donated to worthy causes. However, in the 70s it was sometimes difficult to find charities who would accept support from the gay community. Emperor Jack, in an Outlooks interview, remembered that the children’s hospital rejected their potential donation then because it came from a gay group. In contrast, the Children’s Wish Foundation was a group who early on did accept gay monies and consequently has been a recipient of ISCCA’s philanthropy ever since.

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Coronation ’78 Advertisement in Gay Moods Magazine (GIRC)

In the Court’s fourth year of operations, it decided to become independent of the Scarth Street Society and go its own way. There were some communication issues between the two groups, and Club Carousel itself had come to a natural end as members migrated to the more popular commercial gay bars which had emerged in Calgary.

Like the police/pride debate of this summer, Calgary’s LGBTQ2 community has been polarized before. In 1980, the community was extremely divided on the idea of having a gay rights march as part of the national conference of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition which the city was hosting. A representative from the Court said to the Calgary Herald: “the minute you start flaunting yourself, you’ve got a problem [The march] is an embarrassment to the entire community.”

However, feelings changed. 11 years later at Calgary’s first Pride Parade, Calgary’s 15th Empress, Tiffany (Lawrence Steedman), led the parade in a purple beaded gown and confidently faced down protesters who spat and cursed. Tiffany said: “I’m proud to represent my community. Every drag queen wants to be empress, it’s an honour.” Member of Parliament Svend Robinson, who spoke at that event gave the nod to the Court explaining that it had been drag queens who bravely were the vanguard of the gay rights movement in North America.

Coronation 86

Coronation ’86 Poster from the Broach Magazine

Toronto writers from The Body Politic were bemused by the Court when they wrote an in-depth feature about Calgary’s gay community published in September 1980:

“The court system seems to be a purely western phenomenon, and rather bizarre to most easterners. Most gay activists, even western ones, seem slightly embarrassed by the whole thing and tend to react as if they’re being forced to talk about a tribal custom they really wish the anthropologists hadn’t discovered. [The Court] simply throws the biggest gay parties Calgary gets to see, and the intrigue behind who gets elected Emperor and Empress probably makes a run at the Calgary mayoralty seems rather tame.”

Ironically, a Toronto Court would form later in that decade holding its first coronation ball in November 1987.

Other notable Calgary Court events include Mayor Ralph Klein’s famous impromptu speech at the 5th annual coronation ball in 1981. The speech, in support of the gay community, proved ground-breaking and those in attendance gave him a three-minute standing ovation. Sadly, he recanted his sentiments in the controversy that quickly followed.

In 1989, Court members ended up in a court of the legal kind, over a tiara snatching incident. The crown was stolen as a ransom for an outstanding debt on ball gowns which allegedly was owed by the queen who had won it.  The judge eventually acquitted the five accused of stealing the headpiece “due to an honest misunderstanding.”

Empresses

Empress XIII Justine Tyme and Empress XIV Ty Morgan on the cover of AGLP.

The ISCCA also has sponsored daughter Courts into existence.  In September 1990 they were instrumental in granting a charter to Regina’s Court: the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Governing Body, Golden Wheat Sheaf Empire.

However in Calgary, perhaps the ISCCA’s biggest impact has been philanthropy. The Court took a leadership role during the AIDS crisis in Calgary, advocating for HIV prevention and conducting pivotal fundraising for AIDS research and housing of people with AIDS. Since its inception more than 40 years ago, the Court has raised and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for causes close to their heart. Good work we can all celebrate.

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‘Twas a full week of Gay History

Calgary Pride 2017 was very energizing for us at the Calgary Gay History Project. Our history walks and the festival booth were well-attended, and we received a lot of positive comments about the project.

It is important that we honour community trailblazers and in 2017 we certainly did. Lois Szabo was a stunning Parade Grand Marshal in her purple tights. She was also delightful in her many media interviews.

The YYC Legacy Project harvested lots of community feedback on what a LGBTQ2S+ history commemoration could be. They had an impressive display at Pride in the Park as well as a great interactive map of Calgary.

A very special thank you to Ayanna and Gordon who helped volunteer at the Calgary Gay History Booth. We would also like to thank project donors and all of those who came out to speak to us and were enthusiastic about our work. Finally, a big shout out to Gary Evans, a professional photographer who came to both gay history walks, documenting them, and then sending the photos to us.

Consequently, here is a photo summary of our week:

Lois and Premier

Lois Szabo, Parade Marshal with Premier Notley and a friend. Source Twitter: @RachelNotley.

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Ayanna and Gordon sharing history at Pride in the Park. Photo: Kevin Allen.

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Meta media image: Steve Polyak, Gay Calgary Magazine, taking a photo at the beginning of the history walk. Photo: Gary Evans, Full Frame Fotography.

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Telling the story of Angels in America in YYC. Photo: Gary Evans, Full Frame Fotography.

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At the site of the historic Club Carousel. Photo: Gary Evans, Full Frame Fotography.

Downtown Gay History Walk Aug 31 2017

Spontaneous sidewalk photo with walk participants – what a good looking group! Photo: Gary Evans, Full Frame Fotography.

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