Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Radio City: A Requiem

Posted By on August 19, 2009, 1:02 AM

Reports on the reluctance of Brandon's Big Gay Blog to weigh in on the Radio City situation have been greatly exaggerated.

Actually, when Bill Frost, out of the blue on a busy production day, transfixed me in his hypnotic gaze and challenged me with: "If you could say one thing about Radio City, what would it be?" I believe my reaction was not "sketchy," but "unsanitary." That may be a good spur-of-the-moment description, considering what the bar has become in recent years.

But perhaps a better reaction would have been, "Ye gods and little fishes, Bill, how can I distill a dozen memories into a single word?" ---

The Oldest Gay Bar West of The Missouri

The R.C. was the first bar I ever sneaked into as a teenager in the mid-'80s. A few minutes later, it also became the first bar I ever got kicked out of for being underage. Weldon Young, the manager, made a big impression on me--as did his bootprint on my ass on the way out.

Local lore had Radio City as "the oldest continually operating gay bar west of the [fill-in-the-blank] River." First I heard, it was the Missouri. Then, the Mississippi. Over the years, who knows? As the vicissitudes of old gay bars pushed the line of demarcation steadily eastward, it may have got well past the Ohio and reached as far as the Hudson.

Even so, I never heard that the R.C. ever became the oldest gay bar in the country--even if nobody I asked was ever sure exactly which venerable East Coast institution could rightfully claim that distinction. No doubt there's some Ye Olde Pub for Fancye Fellowes in New England dating back to the Revolution. Still, from what I gather, Radio City predates even the hallowed Stonewall Inn by quite a stretch.

Now, it was during the Clinton administration, while working on a history of Salt Lake City's gay bars, that I managed to interview Francine (aka Frank)--who, by that time, had become quite a venerable institution herself. In fact, so revered was Francine that a humble scribe such as I could not presume abruptly to enter her presence, but had to approach incrementally through a tentative series of requests via various assistants and factotums, each of whom made it clear that I would be lucky if she chose to speak to me at all.

So it was with A Terrible Sense of Awe and TrepidationTM that I was finally admitted into the sanctum sanctorum--and found Francine to be a remarkably candid and descriptive (if at times irritable) subject. She vividly described the bad old days of pre-Stonewall gay life here in the 1950s and '60s.

Francine's Story

For decades, Radio City was the center of Salt Lake City gay life. Through some law, policy or tacit arrangement with the authorities, it was an evening-hours-only establishment for the gays, who were not allowed to enter until respectable 9-to-5 folks had vacated the downtown area.

And no wonder! These girls did not dress down. They weren't trying to "pass" at all. Now, for an R.C. queen in those days, going out to the bar took a little bit of prep time. It was not a "come as you are" situation. Very fashionable types wore silk jackets over flowing ascots (Francine remembered a particular favorite in a bold shade of apricot). Those who arrived early would line up on the sidewalk outside the bar waiting for the magic hour--raising both eyebrows and hackles among State Street commuters.

The doors would finally open, however, admitting the faithful into a world of unimaginable glam: The walls were draped in red velvet and gold lame, groups of patrons were seated in plush, high-backed, red vinyl booths, and a sunken ballroom floor filled up with couples dancing to the latest Latin crazes: the rumba, the cha-cha. (No, the sleek bossa nova was not to arrive until several years later.)

And everybody kept a wary eye on the door. Police raids were regular occurrences. A squad of uniformed officers could burst in at any moment.

Sometimes, their arrival was announced with a shout and a few seconds' warning. But most times, the music would simply come to an abrupt halt as the bright lights were switched on. There was one light in particular which, Francine said, had had been installed at the city's insistence: The raid light ran the entire length of the bar, under the counter on the patrons' side--during raids, it allowed the police to make sure no male couples were holding hands.

Any violators--hand-holders; male couples caught dancing; men wearing makeup; men wearing ascots that were too apricot; guys who jeered, fought back, or got a little too sassy about the Constitution; or dudes who were just not right in that vague, you-know-it-when-you-see-it kind of way--were rounded up into a police van, fingerprinted and booked into the city lockup.

On a good night, Francine said--especially if it had been an early raid--they got lucky and were released before last call ... after which, everybody returned happily to the bar.

They were fabulous.


Thirty years later, by the time I--as a 15-year-old post-Stonewall gay-libber sporting a mullet, a Members Only jacket and impossibly romantic ideas--managed to sneak into Radio City for a few minutes, the red velvet and gold lame drapes had been removed, as had the raid light. The Latin ballroom tunes had been replaced by '80s disco, and any police raids mostly targeted underage drinking, public intox, and the litany of standard liquor violations.

The red vinyl, high-backed booths were still there, though. They didn't get taken out until the awful day management decided, a few years too late, to jump on the '80s bandwagon.

The wooden bar was replaced by a laminate countertop in some generic, Reagan-era color (was it powder blue or 25-percent gray? And wasn't there even--gasp!--a shell pink accent tone?). The walls were painted industrial Safety Gray, and posters, lit by the obligatory track lighting, were installed depicting Nagel-esque prints and cheesy black-and-white shirtless Marines.

It managed to remain a fun place for some time after that--but, I think, the removal of that wonderful old wooden bar was the amputation of the establishment's soul.

For decades, that bar's planks had preserved, under layers of thick lacquer, a set of antique broadsheets from The Salt Lake Tribune. Like the pages of most old newspapers, they were fascinating and sometimes bewildering. One featured a series of really long, multi-panel Sunday comic strips with weirdly humorless punch lines like, "A home permanent! Imagine!" Another page had polite yet impassioned letters to the editor regarding long-forgotten zoning issues. You could always while away a slow night reading the paper, and it was like playing around in the Marriott Library's microfiche archive, except you also got to order beer.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Those who know Radio City only from its final incarnation as a sullen, uninviting State Street dive are excused for failing to mourn its demise. But there was a time in living memory when that place was packed every weekend, full of chatter and flirtation and fun. There were A-gays there, and college students, and bikers, and drag queens, and Castro clones, and longhaired hippies, and political junkies, and drywall contractors, and intellectuals, and one overly cerebral mullet-head in a Members Only jacket.

We had many good nights there--nights full of camaraderie, cruising, commiseration. Now it even seems there was a pervasive awareness that, while we were partying with our friends, we were also occupying the Oldest Gay Bar West of the Missouri (or the Mississippi, or whatever). We never broke the chain. We kept the party going.

Didn't this awareness carry with it some queer sense of continuity, a subtle connection with the past? It was the spark of a feeling of being part of something halfway between a band of outlaws and a family.

Whatever that feeling was, it has now blossomed into a firmly established community that spans generations, with roots that reach deep into Salt Lake City history, and with polished, well-spoken professionals at the helm, none of whom have been to the R.C. in years, and many of whom have never been there.

Don't get me wrong--this is a good thing. It's the kind of progress that Francine and her Eisenhower-era cohort might have dreamed about. Or not.

But I've always thought R.C. management missed the boat by refusing to cash in on the bar's claim to fame. They should have retrofitted it back to the original vinyl and velvet. On weekends, there could be a twice-nightly floorshow--sexy, uniformed thugs would burst in and "apprehend" members of the clientele, locking them for 10 minutes in comfortably apportioned cells. (The late show would be rumored to get a bit naughty.)

With that kind of action, management could have started charging $8 a drink!

We have come a long way--and these are still trying times for gays in the Beehive State's Capital City. What else is new? Like 1950s Mattachines, a lot of us still can't help but slap neckties and conservative haircuts on our public image with our white-picket-fence campaigns for marriage and civil unions.

But, whatever strides we make and whatever blows we take, I hope we never forget the simple joys of knotting on a fabulous apricot ascot and flouncing down State Street like nobody's business.

Goodbye, Radio City. You have meant a lot to us.

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