Opinion
3 min

When the toilets flushed booze

Back in the day, few gay clubs were licensed but many thrived

Last month I introduced you to Mrs G and the beginnings of her career as a nightclub maven in the early 1970s. I also introduced the use of pseudonyms and initials, which I have previously resisted in these chronicles. But I’m asking an ever-widening circle of auld acquaintance for permission to share their stories here, and sometimes that yields permission to reveal true identities and sometimes it doesn’t. Those who know will know.

 
So it came to pass that Mrs G’s Music Room, in the 1000 block of Seymour, was the happening place for a couple of years. Dee Dee Ambrose was still the diva-in-residence at Champagne Charlie’s, ted northe was bringing down the house at The August with his Anne Murray numbers (believe it!), and Faces was the hottest spot in town for both the aging sweater queens and the next crop of nancy boys.
 
But new hangouts were opening up everywhere. Champagne Charlie’s proprietor, John Stevenson, was the godfather behind many of these ventures, including The Music Room, and in the process had taken over an upstart upstairs steam bath across the street, The Adonis. 
 
Somehow in the flurry of plans and hopes and leases and subleases, John demolished the steam bath infrastructure but never quite opened a club there. Things fell into Mrs G’s helpful hands and, with a handsome young Music Room bartender who for now we’ll refer to as Billy B, she opened The Downbeat.
 
Yes, that Billy. Later with the Boom Boom Room.
 
In those days our club scene was a mix of licensed establishments (The August was the first to get legal in 1970), “private” bottle clubs where you brought your own and paid handsomely for your mix, and out-and-out bootleg joints. Sometimes it was hard to tell.
 
But The Downbeat was definitely in the latter, sketchier, category. This was where we refined the semi-secret vocabulary of “special coffee,” “juice” and “Coke” that, when ordered at the bar, would get you an orange and vodka, rum and Coke, or coffee and rye. All at $2 a shot.
 
Like many other hangouts of the day, The Downbeat was visited occasionally by the cops, who would confiscate any unopened bottles (we know where those went) and give stern warnings all ’round. It was a nuisance, but a cost of doing business. 
 
This is where the toilet tanks came in. Remember the old-style urinals with the big porcelain tanks suspended on the wall above them? It was after one such official visit that our Mrs G’s attention was drawn to the tanks over The Downbeat’s urinals and her guardian angel spoke. The booze would be invisible if it was in those tanks! 
 
And so it came to pass that for the next year or two, unbeknown to most of the customers, the juice and Coke taps at the bar were connected, by a clever series of pipes and hardware, to bottles suspended over the pisser. Only a bunch of quacking speed queens could have come up with that.
 
Anytime the police showed up the bartender would open the taps, drain the system, and the cops would find nada. It made them crazy.
 
So crazy in fact, that after a couple of years’ run, the cops made another unscheduled appearance, this time with firemen and axes in tow. They had decided that there was a still (or maybe a speed lab) somewhere on the premises, and they were going to take the joint apart if they weren’t told, right now, what the hell was going on.
 
It seemed easier to show the cops where the now empty bottles were stashed, and that was the end of that.
 
The party wasn’t over, but it had to move. So move it did, north on Seymour to the space Jim and John had just abandoned after their unsuccessful attempt to expand the Playpen franchise to include a Playpen North. And so our next episode will be about high times at Blondie’s and the unique plumbing problems that brought that Seymour Street escapade to a close.