LGBT nightlife in New York has changed drastically throughout the years, with an exodus of sorts to Brooklyn. There have been a multitude of reasons suggested for the decline, including rising rents, growing social acceptance obviating the need for LGBT clubs, and dating culture shifting to apps, eliminating the need to meet someone in a bar.
Regardless of the reasons for the changes and what they mean for the future, today we look back at some of the distinctive establishments that shaped LBGT culture in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo over the last century and a quarter — some clandestine and illicit, others shiny and open.
The Saint, 105 Second Avenue
Formerly the Fillmore East, this large theater space was also an amazing place to dance! In the fall of 1980, the building was converted into what was to become the city’s most celebrated gay disco, The Saint, established by Bruce Mailman. The Saint, with a planetarium dome and impressive lighting effects, quickly became famous worldwide, and has been called “the most spectacular dance club New York had ever seen and the most expensive gay business venture ever attempted.” Its doors were officially closed on May 2, 1988 following a non-stop 48-hour party. The building was used periodically for a couple of years for various live events and then stood empty until the auditorium was demolished in 1995. Today, the narrow and highly decorative Adamesque facade of the building remains, its lobby remodeled into a bank, which features some photos of the Fillmore East, but no memories of The Saint. Apartments called “Hudson East” occupy the space that used to be the auditorium.
Club 82, 82 East 4th Street
82 East 4th Street offered clandestine entertainment since the cops raided a “dripping-wet” speakeasy called the Rainbow Inn here in 1930. In 1953, club impresario Stephen Franse took over the bar and operated the biggest drag show in America. Thirty-five drag performers made up the revue three times a night, while drag kings served as bouncers and servers. It is said that Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, and Judy Garland were patrons of the club. Later, in the 1970s, the bar was taken over and turned into Club 82, serving a new East Village community including Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Lou Reed, who, it is said, met his lover Rachel there, a transgender woman who inspired a number of his songs about trans women and East Village nightlife generally. The New York Dolls, the Stilettos, and a pre-Blondie Debbie Harry all performed here.
Columbia Hall, 32 Cooper Square
Columbia Hall, better known as Paresis Hall, was opened by James T. (‘Biff’) Ellison by the 1890s. Ellison (a gangster affiliated with the Five Points Gang, and then the Gopher Gang) apparently made no attempt to disguise his establishment as anything other than a ‘fairy resort.’ An investigator who visited the place in 1899 noted that he had ‘constantly’ heard of it before, and that despite what was to be found within, he was easily admitted to the hall. Male prostitutes there acted much as female prostitutes did at other establishments: working the tables, soliciting the men sitting at them, and getting a commission on all the drinks sold.
The hall also served as an entry point into a much larger ‘gay world,’ where men just beginning to identify as ‘fairies’ could learn subcultural styles, and ways of speaking and behaving. They could exchange information about developments affecting them, from news of police raids to upcoming balls or social events
The Slide, 157 Bleeker Street
The Slide at No. 157, owned by Frank Stevenson, was popularly known as the center of New York’s gay nightlife in the late 1800s. The Slide was a ‘fairy resort,’ or a place where men could pay for sex with male prostitutes. However, it was more than simply a brothel that catered to men who desired sex with ‘fairies’. It was a place where they could socialize with friends, and entertain regulars, tourists, and each other. The Slide was closed by the police in 1892.
Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street
Webster Hall has hosted a wide range of parties and meetings over its 134 year history. In its early years it “acquired a reputation as a center of leftist, socialist, anarchist, and union political activity”, according to a January 1888 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article. As we previously reported: By the 1910s, Webster Hall became famous for its masquerade balls, following the success of a 1913 fundraiser for the socialist magazine The Masses. The parties, which attracted the bohemians of the Village and beyond, grew more and more outlandish–and the costumes, skimpier and skimpier. Although Prohibition could have killed the momentum of the parties, in fact, it had the opposite effect. As liquor consumption was driven underground, Webster Hall became a speakeasy, and the legends of the parties grew. Gay and lesbian Villagers first attended the parties of accepting organizations like the Liberal Club, but by the mid-1920s were putting together dances and celebrations of their own at the hall. These celebrations were able to continue without harassment, as long as the police were paid off properly. When Prohibition was finally repealed, a large ball called the “Return of John Barleycorn,” was thrown on New Year’s Eve to celebrate.
The 1920s brought a new series of masquerade balls organized by gay men themselves. They’d even show up in full drag, which was nothing short of revolutionary at a time when the state of New York had just banned the appearance or discussion of gay people on public stages. To this day Webster Hall hosts a gay circuit party series named “Devil’s Playground” in honor of the parties of the past that took place here.
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