Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dayton's Oldest Gay Bar

Daytonology was visiting Sacramento during Pride Month, so a belated Gay Pride thread for Dayton, doing some Gay History (and, yes, there is such a thing)

Before Gay Bars: The Levee

I don’t know if there were saloons or halls that catered to gays back before prohibition, but I do know that in the police records there was one or two arrests per year for ‘impersonating a female”. Unfortunately the records don’t list particulars for those cases.

I do suspect, and this is just speculation, that the levee was a place of assignation, a cruising spot. I say this because the levee was the cruising spot in modern times, but not actually on the levee, which makes me think that this is a name carried down from an earlier location that’s long gone.

Perhaps this location:

…which appears in the New Dayton Illustrated

This would be the levee wrapping around downtown from Wilkinson Street to the west and south down to 4th or 5th.

Outdoor cruising spots have been pretty common in gay history: famous ones were Hempstead Heath in London, the Siegesaule (Victory Column) in the Berlin Tiergarten, and the square in front of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. For the US it used to be ‘the rocks” on Lake Michigan and Bughouse Square in Chicago and Pershing Square in LA.

In Ohio pioneer gay writer Edmund White mentions the old, pre-urban renewal Fountain Square as gay cruising spot and pick-up place in his early semi-autobigoraphical fiction

And for Dayton, it might have been this tree shaded promenade, which might have been more a meeting place rather than a sex space.

Another thing that leads me to think this was the orginal Levee is that nearby Robert Boulevard was a place of residence for gay men. Older gay men tell me their first sexual encounters were sometimes in these old houses, by then turned into apartments
The Levee was a long-lasting institution for those wanting male/male sex. It even made it to the internet era in the 1990s as there was the Levee BBS as an early online meeting & hook-up place for Datyon gay men

Another cruising spot was Cooper Park. No supposition here as there is documenation of tis as a place of assignation.

Cooper Park appeared in a collection of coming-out stories, where one of his authors mentioned his first encounter was arranged here, with a local educator (either a principle or school board member). The landscaping in these pix is somewhat sparse, but by the 1920s and 30s it was probably much more lush

City of Bachelors: Single Men Downtown

Cooper Park might have been equivilant to Bughouse Square and Pershing Square as it (and the levee) was in an area of rooming houses and small apartments and cheap hotels, the other side of downtown Dayton.

Unattached men of whatever sexual orientation where considered deviant, as discussed in Todd DePastino’s “Citizen Hobo (which discusses the moralistic tut-tutting about “Hotel Society” as well as the intinerant world). The book also has a section on “Hobosexuality”, discussing how this single society gave some cover for homosexuals.

A collection of character studies on Chicagos’ “Hobohemia” mentions gay, transvestite and lesbian establishments as part of Chicago’s Towertown, near Bughouse Square.

One can also see the SRO/roomer world as the gay habitat in John Rechy’s City of Night, recounting his days as an itinerant hustler.

For Dayton, the 1933 housing study helpfully identifies Dayton’s “Rooming House District” as the “1st Ward”’ AKA downtown and environs. Perhaps Dayton’s first "gayborhood (though it was shared by a lot of other folks).

What’s remarkable about this map is the concentrations, not mention it may not be counting one room and studio apartments, which would up the single population even further.

A close-up with some references. Note, though, that a lot of these roomers were single woman, as there was a big rooming house or hotel for single Catholic country girls come to work in the city, in that quadrant northwest of Main Street.

But there were a lot of apartments and perhaps residential hotels downtown. The most famous was the Arcade, but there were others, like these two on the Courthouse Square block (Atlas Hotel and Ratterman Apartments).

One can easily see this world of downtown apartments and single room occupancies giving cover to a gay demimonde.

The Oldest Gay Bar

Looking at a map of the block that had the Atlas Hotel and Ratterman Apartments. The buildings are on the lower left hand corner. And, on this same block was Dayton’s first gay bar, 24 W Second Street. The Latin Lounge, on the ground floor of a parking garage (click on the image to enlarge).

There may have been other post-Prohibition places, but this is the first one old-timers that I’ve talked to remember.

From what I’ve been told this place wasn’t gay until later at night, which would parallel an old-school approach to socializing and meeting. A bar or restaurant/bar would have a predominantly straight clientele, but as the evening wore on the straight folk would finish up their dinners or drinking and go home, and gays would slowly filter in until the establishment was predominantly gay by late evening and closing. The old Bungalow Restaurant on Mill Street in downtown Lexington used to operate this way.

The Latin Lounge opened in the early 1950s, say 1952 or 53. In the early 1960s, say 1961, it changed names to The Stage Door Musical Bar. “Musical” was an old school coded way of referring to one as gay…as in “He’s musical”. Old gay slang…the lost language of queens. But the yellow pages of 1966-67 does list it as having live music.

The name change happened after a brutal murder or gay bashing associated with a Latin Lounge pick-up gone wrong. There was an earlier Stage Door in Dayton, but it was in the Mayfair Burlesque building, and as far as I know has no relation to this name change.

The Stage Door remained on 2nd until the early 1970s, when urban renewal demolition for Courthouse Square forced the location to change to Jefferson Street (1973), where it remains today.

Dayton’s Second Gay Bar

The well-remembered but short-lived “Club Tai Tae” (the city directories call it “a cocktail lounge”) shared the second floor of the Victoria with the Schwartz School of Dance. You can tell where the place was by the porthole windows:

(image from the unfortunatly out-of-print Dayton Sketchbook, which was one of the better books on the city)

The odd name was because this was a Korean Karate studio before it became a bar, and I guess the owner decided to keep the name as cover or because it sounded exotic, like a tiki bar.

The place was a piano bar, and the piano player, Harry, was also the doorman at the Stage Door in later years. When Harry passed his funereal was at the local Metropolitan Community Church (a GLBT-oriented church) and was a sort of landmark event.

The Third Oldest Gay Bar

This being Dayton building demolition rears its ugly head in any story, and it does here, as The Martinque, Dayton’s third oldest gay bar was torn down, perhaps twice!

The Martinique started out as a cocktail lounge on Salem Avenue, between the bridge and Grand Avenue, opening in 1967. Presumably it served the singles who were living in the new apartments buildings in Grafton Hill.

And perhaps those buildings attracted a gay population, too. There was an ownership change in 1970 or 71, and after that the place turned gay. Eventually it became Dayton’s lesbian bar (the first?) until being closed and torn down in the early 1990s. It was in a converted old house when I moved here, but I am not sure if that was the original location.

The Oldest Gay Bar Today

When the Stage Door relocated to Jefferson it moved to the building on the left, with an expansion in the 1980s to the building to the right. So there are really two buildings and two bars here. The first, older bar is usually closed, but open on weekends if there is a big crowd or special event.

Also, when the bar relocate it apparently retained the "Muscial Bar" listing in the phone book, too. Reportedly it was a stop-over for traveling entertainers who were either gay or gay freindly, among them Betty White, who supposedly gave a little impromtu concert here

The Stage Door is repositioning the original bar as sort of a Country/Western place, but at the back of the bar in this little alcove are two marionettes, reminders of the theatrical connections of the place.


Anonymous said...

god i had so much fun at this place i remember willie, we have long sinced moved away but will always remember the great times we had here in the late 80's and early 90's

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I remember the Door and Willie from that late 70s and early 80s and even later in teh 80s after I had long moved form Ohio to Florida. This was one of my favorite places (after the Studio One and Infinity) in tghe Dayton area. There's no place else like it.

Anonymous said...

Other gay bars include The World, Male Boxx, Studio One and Victor's. The World was the first gay bar I went to back in 1975. Good times for sure.

Anonymous said...

Back around '89, the early 90's (when I was young and hot - now I'm just hot LOL) - anyway - it was always fun going to the Door - Willie and his gentle gruffness - some of the regulars.

Cruising was such a game to me - I would love to go to the Door - pick out about 3 guys who I'd like to have sex with, and then do my best to get them to ask me. It was an art.

Anonymous said...

The stage door today is just as fun and the feel of the good ol days are still very much alive they have a Jew bartender name David that is smoking hot

Anonymous said...

He got mad at me.

Unknown said...

No one will probably see this, but does anyone remember Doug Ferguson, Dale Yates or Dave Freese? We were regulars at Studio One and the Martinique during 1978 - early 1980s. Both of my friends have passed away, but I'd be interested in reconnecting with anyone we knew from that era, and also, going to the gay bar in Miamisburg whose name I can't recall.

Anonymous said...

I see so many comments about Willie. I think it's worth noting, back in the 80's and 90's so many of Dayton's gay men were lost to AIDS. One night, while hanging out in the Stage Door, one of my friends told me Willie had been paying for and burying the patrons that had died. I was stunned. I went to the bar and thanked Willie for what he had done for the community. Willie said to me, "What was I going to do? These men have no family. They have been shunned by coming out and now sick and dying. All they have is each other. This is their family". I've never forgotten that.

Anonymous said...

Summer of 1976 turned 18 and went to the World and Vicky Sue Robinson ,Turn the beat around was playing, a great night and club lol From 78 to 83 is was old Stage door Willie would make sure you were going to have a great time. the drinks were 3/4 booze and splash of water or Sprite And as a previous person mentioned , Willie was a great man and soul.

Anonymous said...

The World was my first gay bar ❤️Remember hearing that song play!

Anonymous said...

Gotta give a shout out to 1470 in Kettering - once the largest queer bar in the Midwest and pulled drag shows from both coasts back in day - had a banging lesbian “strip” show too - was the place to be on Sat nights in 1980s