It must be difficult for a club-going emo boy in 2014 to imagine the semi-secret world my generation inhabited when we wanted to be among our own. We had more clubs, tubs and pubs available to us — about twice as many by my calculation — but they were also harder to find and more protective of our privacy.
Unmarked storefront entrances led to tiny lobbies where you’d wait for Dennis or Doug or Big Bird to buzz you through to the next level of heaven or hell. You brought your own booze and paid dearly for your mixer.
It was an underworld where we groped about in search of friends and lovers, barely believing that what we were doing was now legal. We bent and snapped many other rules in our pursuit of good times.
It was a scene made possible by the entrepreneurial skills of a handful of gay men, and except for the formidable and beloved dyke Charlie Brown, who managed several of these clubs, it was an all-male proprietorship scene until The Quadra. These men were also looking for friends and lovers and figured out that to do that we needed out-of-the-way places to gather.
Current oral tradition is that The Montreal Club, an upstairs hideaway on East Hastings, may have been our first gay “club,” modelled on the “Joe-sent-me” boozecans that proliferated through the 1930s and ’40s. It was a going concern in the early ’60s, which is when and where young John Mikulik got his first taste of the business — until the owners’ mounting unpaid bills finally closed the doors.
John went on to a real-life career in retail and later real estate, but in the late ’60s he was lured back to the wild side and took over the lease on the recently opened New West Steam Baths. Again, previous management’s unpaid bills played a role.
About this same time Keith Rotsey had, with the help of a rumoured sugar-momma, launched the B&B (the Betwixt and Between) at the south end of Richards Street and by 1971 had got himself into a situation that culminated in a drive-by shooting that left a bullet hole in the club’s front door. Keith was understandably anxious to get out of town, and John and partner Jim Brand were able to take over the lease at a very sharp sticker price.
John and Jim called their new hot spot The Playpen, which became an instant sensation as Vancouver’s first leather-scene hangout. They were among the founders of The Border Riders, our first gay bike club, which continues to meet monthly at the PumpJack.
The club’s first Labour Day Weekend Slave Auction was memorable. At least 800 sweaty guys came and went over the evening in a venue that was probably licensed for no more than 100.
“Everyone was taking their clothes off, it was so hot, and so many guys were sitting up on the bar to get out of the jam that we had to keep pushing them off because the lag bolts holding the bar in place were coming out of the concrete,” John remembers. “I can still picture us pulling out of the parking lot in our new Lincoln after closing, with the truck bulging with cash!”
The Playpen South was also the home of Vancouver’s first “back room.” John installed a powerful fan to air the place out (the pot smoke billowing out into the back alley kept the neighbours happy). He also built a convenient ledge against one wall and turned out the lights. I’ll never tell what went on there, but Mona Lee might.
“The shit we got away with back then,” John says with a sigh. “How did we ever do it?”
John and Jim got away with a lot of other shit in a couple other locations. In 1975, they opened the Playpen North. Within the year, Vance Campbell was exploring his own options at his Thunderbird Cabaret, just south of Robson on Seymour, and the next thing we knew the Playpen boys had themselves a Playpen Central.
North and Central came and went fairly quickly, but the South thrived through to 1982, when its doors closed.
Nobody today could get away with the shit that was practically routine for our pioneer club owners and managers. While they did it for the money, and some like John and Jim were good businessmen, they also did it so we would have places to find our friends and lovers.