Tag Archives: Backlot

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.”

Butch Bucks

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.

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

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Before Gay Marriage in YYC

The Metropolitan Community Church was founded by Reverend Troy Perry in Los Angeles in 1968 and the movement grew quickly, addressing a pent-up demand in the gay community for spiritual services. Within a decade there were congregations all over North America including six in Canada: Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal.

The Calgary MCC Church began in September 1977, with the arrival of Reverend Lloyd Greenway from Toronto. Church services were initially held Sunday Evenings at the Unitarian Church on 16 Ave. NW. Then in June 1978, MCC Calgary services moved to the Backlot, a 150-seat theatre at the back of a gay bar named Myrt’s at the corner of 9th Ave. and 7th St. SW. Sunday morning services at the Backlot commenced at 11:30 and a typical congregation would have about 20 parishioners, swelling to 50 or more when a celebrated MCC minister came to town. Troy Perry himself led the Calgary Sunday morning service on February 18, 1979.

Reverend Greenway proved to be a polarizing figure in the Calgary community, known for both his personal charm and charisma, as well as his unorthodox personal life. However, he became a leading figure in the community and a go-to commentator regarding gay issues in Calgary media.

In July 1978, Reverend Greenway conducted Calgary’s first MCC Holy Union between Bruce Grant and Russ Raymond. The two young men gathered their friends and families at the Unitarian Church to witness their marriage-like ceremony – 27 years before same-sex marriage would be legal in Alberta.

The Calgary Gay History Project recently interviewed Russ about this landmark event. He explained that at the time they did not care about the legality of the service, rather they were very interested in making a spiritual connection as a couple. Russ added that he loved the excitement of that day.

Although their relationship lasted but two years, their Holy Union was groundbreaking in its day. Russ has donated his Holy Union Certificate and photos of that day to the Calgary Gay History Project Archives.  Thank you, Russ, for sharing your story with us!

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