To the majority of Vancouver’s younger gay and lesbian population, the idea of having to sneak into a gay bar and worry about raids is something they can’t imagine. But for many queers, this was the reality in the not-so-distant past.
“In 1970, the first gay club opened up in Edmonton. It was called Club 70 and it was hidden away in an abandoned gas station with all the windows boarded up,” says Lloyd Nicholson. “There was this little hole you had to look through in the window to be let in. I used to sneak off there during the winter, but you had to walk around the block a few times to make sure no one could see you go in.”
Nicholson has borne witness to the evolution of the gay liberation movement thanks to his chosen profession in musical theatre. He spent most of the 1970s touring Canada from Nova Scotia to British Columbia before settling into the Davie Village apartment he has called home for the past 32 years.
Nicholson is on the faculty of Langara College and is musical director for Studio 58’s upcoming production of Guys & Dolls.
“Guys & Dolls will burst forth from our tiny basement theatre here at Studio 58,” says Nicholson. “It’s a unique way to see a full scale Broadway musical, scaled down to a small room. We’re going to have a three-piece band and a cast of 26. It’s going to be a tight fit.”
Looking back on the path that brought him from small town Alberta to the faculty of one of the best collegiate theatre training programs in Western Canada, Nicholson remembers a time when just discovering the basics about who he was was next to impossible.
“I can date exactly when I knew I was gay,” he remembers. “In 1964, Life Magazine put out a special issue on homosexuals. It had a picture of two men in San Francisco on the front. The article explained that they wore soft-soled shoes and cardigan sweaters and that they all had criminal records.
“When I was older I looked up homosexuality in the graduate library at the University of Alberta because back home there was nothing,” he continues. “It was listed in the criminology department, and everything that was written about it was the Crown vs so-and-so in a sodomy trial.”
The first stop in Nicholson’s remarkable journey across Canada was Victoria. When compared to tiny Jasper, Alberta, the BC capital seemed to him like another planet.
“When I came out of Edmonton and did my first stint at the Bastion Theatre in Victoria, everyone there was out of the closet,” he recalls. “It was a completely amazing experience. At the U of A everyone whispered about it but no one came out. In Victoria, the set designer and the costume designer were a couple and the lady who managed the theatre was a lesbian. It was great!”
Nicholson’s journey through the world of theatre started at an early age thanks to parents who were a bit more open-minded than you would expect to find in the wilds of our most conservative province.
“We saw the plays of the Jasper Players and I guess the earliest would have been either Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward or an Agatha Christie play,” says Nicholson. “I remember seeing them around age 10 or 11 and they really got me going. My parents were very good about taking me to shows since they loved them so much. I’ll never forget the first time I heard an orchestra. It was during Carmen and they had it on a hydraulic lift. It was way down and you couldn’t even see it. When the music started they lifted the entire orchestra up and I was just blown away.”
No prodigal journey through Canada is complete without a trip to Lotus Land, but little did Nicholson realize that it would be the final stop.
“When I first came to Vancouver, I started doing shows at a lunch hour theatre on Howe St known as the Doughnut Shop,” says Nicholson. “It was a converted doughnut shop and myself and a friend of mine talked them into doing their first musical. One day, Anthony Holland, who was the head of Studio 58, came to see a show and asked me if I wanted to help adjudicate their singing finals. In 1981, they offered me the chance to teach their singing classes.”
Nicholson has called Studio 58 home ever since and has helped stage such productions as Pal Joey, Hair and She Loves Me. But it was a 1998 production of Cabaret that helped to put an exclamation point on his spectacular theatrical journey.
“We were doing a production of Cabaret here at Studio 58, which is a musical version of a popular play from the 1950s called I Am a Camera,” remembers Nicholson. “That play started on Broadway and Julie Harris won a Tony award for [her role as Sally Bowles]. She came and saw Cabaret during a day off from filming a television show. Most of the students didn’t know who she was; they were too young, so I had to explain it. I happened to be dressed in drag for this play as often happens with productions of Cabaret. So, there I was, dressed as this big, ugly old woman and Julie wanted to address the students. She stood there, arm in arm with me, two little old ladies, and never let go of me the whole time she talked to these students with me sort of moderating it. It was an amazing night.”