The most embarrassing moment of my summer came when I had to explain to a very nice tourist from way, way out of town why we had erected a statue to the noted 19th-century diddler, Alexander Wood.
“Well, uh, he fondled a few penises, got involved in a scandal and bought some property in the neighbourhood.” I looked at my feet, hoping he hadn’t heard what I had just said. This is the best we can do by way of a gay hero?
With so many bars either disappearing or changing identities, and a coherent history of gay and lesbian Toronto yet to be written, now seems like a crucial time to solidify our sense of gay history.
A few emblems of the past are still visible. The Club Baths (established 1973) is still hanging in there on Mutual St, now Club Toronto. But much of gay Toronto has been turned into retail outlets for food (Chaps), electronics (the St Charles) or clothing (the Quest). Soon there will be nothing left to evoke the past.
For most people, after all, the downtown scene starts with the (now defunct) Steps in ’84 or maybe Woody’s in ’89 and doesn’t extend too much further back. The other night in Woody’s a drag queen tried to make Barbra Streisand intelligible to a younger generation by mentioning not “People” or Funny Girl or the other ’60s hits that made her famous, but that pinnacle of ’80s kitsch, Yentl. The 1980s! That’s as far back as the collective memory goes.
It’s great to know that organizations like The Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives are on the job, collecting the materials from which a formal history of the city and its various scenes may yet be written. But what about the informal history, our on-the-street sense that what’s going on now which from earlier incarnations of the Toronto gay experience?
How many people now know, for instance, that Zipperz didn’t come out of nowhere, that there was a gay dance bar on that site in the ’70s? Called Studio II, it was larger and glitzier than the present joint, with two floors, an entrance next door at 72 Carlton and plenty of useful nooks and crannies, particularly in the basement.
Ditto, in a different way, for 457 Church, which has housed everything from the Melody Room in the ’60s to Together, Seagull and now the Black Eagle.
Perhaps it’s time we started putting up a few plaques about town, starting with George Hislop Park (between Charles and Isabella), where the absence of a plaque explaining the man’s achievements would be embarrassing if it weren’t completely inexplicable.
Other sites in need of commemoration:
* Letros, 50 King St E. A legendary bar in the ’50s and ’60s, it attracted everyone from Noel Coward to (perhaps) the late Ian Scott. “It [Letros] was open long into the night,” wrote Scott in his autobiography, “and famous, or notorious, depending on your point of view, for its parties in The Nile Room” — also known as the basement “Vile Room.” The whole place closed in 1972 and today only a restaurant and optician’s office remain, though the five-storey brick building still stands.
* Bemelman’s, 83 Bloor St W. When this faux New York bar/ restaurant opened in the spring of ’77, it had one of the gayest and prettiest waitstaffs in town. Management wasn’t impressed and took corrective measures, exiling half the staff to other parts of its empire. Today it’s just another retail outlet, overshadowed by the living vault (Tiffany’s) next door, but for many years the wainscotted bar with its brass fittings was the place to glitter and be gay
* The Carriage House, 306 Jarvis St. The small but snappy dancefloor on the ground floor of this Jarvis St hotel (now the Ramada Hotel And Suites) attracted ’70s sissies and camp followers like Xaviera “The Happy Hooker” Hollander, who extended a helping hand to at least one gay friend right there on the dancefloor
* The Manatee, 11a St Joseph St. More than two decades after it closed, this afterhours dance palace still has its fans (see the on-line shrine, Groups.msn.com/ClubManatee/clubmanatee.msnw). Elton John, Craig Russell and Michele Ross all put in appearances but it was the vibe that kept the kids coming back for more. With an upper gallery that was tailor-made for cruising and a DJ who played the occasional slow song, the place was both sexy and romantic
* The Parkside, 530 Yonge St at Breadalbane. The waiters were straight, the beer came in piddly 6oz glasses and the décor was beerhall deluxe, but this former “men’s beverage room” (now a Sobeys) was a key site in early gay lib. All the key players, from George Hislop to The Body Politic crowd, hung out here
* Richmond Street Health Emporium, 260 Richmond St E. The largest and glitziest of the four baths hit during the infamous ’81 bath raids, the Richmond never recovered from the damage, but most of the 300-odd men charged in the various raids were eventually acquitted, making this Toronto’s Stonewall.
Surely this deserves a plaque?