Tag Archives: Myrts

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.

Backlot

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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YYC LGBTQ Legacy Sites

The City of Calgary’s LGBTQ Legacy Committee recently formed: a group spearheaded by Ward 8 City Councillor Evan Woolley, with support from the Calgary Gay History Project. The Committee’s goal is to commemorate our city’s LGBTQ history with a significant and lasting monument. We are at the beginning of the process but look forward to engaging with everyone who is interested in helping to shape what our monument could be.

One of the initial questions for a monument is where? The Beltline and the inner city seem like an obvious choice, as it is where much of our community spaces were clustered in the 20th Century.

Gay Beltline in the 80s

Doug Young personal papers, Glenbow Archives M-8397-1.

Gay activist Doug Young’s personal records are in the Glenbow Archives. His hand drawn map of the Beltline from the mid-80’s illustrates there were more queer spaces at that time, then we have today.

Some ideas for a monument location that we came up with:

  • The Old Y – now called CommunityWise, was the location of the first peer support organizations in Calgary, PLC and GIRC. It later hosted dozens of other queer non-profits and collectives and became the de facto hub for the LGBTQ community. Currently, CommunityWise is home to Calgary Outlink and Fairy Tales.
  • Central Memorial Park – a gay cruising park in the 70s, it was also the site of frequent police harassment of queers. Law student Henry Berg fought back in 1981. He took the police to task and won. Later in 1990, the Boer War Memorial at the centre of the park was the site of the first Pride Rally in 1990 – the origin of Calgary Pride.
  • McHugh House – Calgary’s 6th oldest building was moved recently into Humpty Hollow Park, in a corner of the Beltline that saw a lot of gay action, with nearby bars Myrts (later the Republik), Off Centre and later MoneyPennies in the Centre 15 building. Centre 15 also housed AIDS Calgary for a number of years.
  • Tomkins Park – the block-long green space nestled on the south edge of the Beltline, was the site of a number of Pride Festivals in the 1990s when the Pride Parade’s route went down 17th Avenue.
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    Sept 1978 Ad in Gay Calgary – a GIRC Newspaper

    It was also close to Books N’ Books, an independent bookstore which proudly sold LGBTQ books, newspapers and magazines (now Big Cheese Poutinerie).

  • Greenline 12th ave station – this new LRT station opening in 2024 might pop out at 12th avenue and 1st street SW (or be an underground station): super close to the original Club Carousel as well as the Old Y.
  • Connaught Park – this West-Central Beltline Park is surrounded by lots of hi-rise apartment buildings and walk-ups. Nearby City View Manor was rumoured to have been designed to house gay men exclusively, with walk-in closets and wrap around balconies.
  • Barb Scott Park – is close to current gay bar Twisted Element and the former Warehouse and Underground Pub (which earlier was a short-lived gay bathhouse).
  • Haultain Park – is close to Central Memorial Park, Old Y, and Club Carousel. Also not too far from A Woman’s Place Bookstore, another community hub in the 80s and 90s.
  • East Village – outside of the Beltline this is one of the oldest parts of Calgary. There was a historic bath house, somewhere east of City Hall in the early 20th century that had gay undertones. Later in the 70s, there was a gay steam bath named Dan Dominique’s on 3rd St. East between 7th and 8th Avenue, reportedly not recommended for the squeamish.

Where would you like to see a memorial? Write to calgarygayhistory@gmail.com – share your thoughts.

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