Thursday, January 29, 2009

Guest Blogger: Backintheday

The winter weather horror continues unabated, there's continuing bad news about the economy, and my car is still in the shop. So if you're wondering why I haven't been blogging lately, there are a few reasons. Fortunately our friend Backintheday has stepped in with another tale of Detroit Gay Days Past! This time we get to hear about long-defunct drag bar Gagen's. Your gay education continues now ...


Gagen's: Wiggin' Out in the 70s

Imagine if you will, the world of a questioning youth nervously venturing out to see what tender mercies might await him beyond the walls of his beige bedroom in beige Harper Woods on a fall evening in 1973. Join him on his quest for the attentions of a quiet man who might resemble Gonzo from Trapper John M.D. or – dare one hope – be half as handsome as Adam West.

The only place this boy had heard of where an assignation of this type might have even the slightest chance of taking place was in a far-away land called Palmer Park. Specifically in a place called Gagen’s. ‘Round and ‘round the block he circled in his mother’s Dodge Dart, summoning the courage to enter this strange new world. ‘Round and ‘round his head spun visualizing the intimate setting he would encounter as he passed through the doors and into the arms of Ryan O’Neal, or at the very least Bobby Sherman.

Okay. So this “tender youth” was me. I said it was 1973.

That first night at Gagen's … after several beers I finally calmed down. And after a few more beers I went home with the man of my dreams. Who knew at the time that this Adonis was actually a hairdresser from Clawson with absolutely no finesse when it came to penetrating a nervous virgin - whose dream of tenderness in the arms of another man was shattered with a couple of extremely painful thrusts? Coming out lesson #1: true love and tricking are not the same thing. But, I digress…


Gagen’s was a drag bar that started out life as a straight supper club called Frank Gagen’s. And make no mistake about it, it was swanky! One big room with a bar along the right wall, and a raised dance floor at the rear with a stage behind it. The bulk of the space was filled with circular red leather banquettes; the ceiling over each was a concave circular depression covered in gold leaf and lit indirectly. Very moderne and very plush. By the time it had ceded to the reign of the queens, it was a little worn around the edges. A closer inspection of those red leather banquets revealed a fair amount of red carpet tape enlisted to keep it all together.


But the decor was only part of the magic. When you filter the experience through the lens of a terrified boy who had only lately been attempting what David Bowie had been urging (“Turn and face the strange." Ch-ch-changes indeed), it was like the club scenes in Baz Lurmann’s Moulin Rouge complete with whip pans, manic editing and breakneck sensory overload. A red and gold explosion of music, dance and theater.

And Sunday nights were smokin’ hot. The line-up included the likes of Buttons La Walker, Jennifer Foxx and Betty Clarke. Miss Clarke could be seen donning a forties style swimsuit and sipping a huge Cuba Libra while singing (well, lip-synching) “
Rum and Coca Cola” by the Andrews Sisters – all the while roller skating through a crowd gone wild with the spectacle of it all. Hummin’ Helen “sang” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in a nightgown as she dragged out an ironing board, set it up, plugged into a head-full of curlers and proceeded to iron the very rag she wore.

Miss Betty Clark, an artist's remembrance.


One major show-stopper was Sharene Dennis “singing” a wicked version of “It Should Have Been Me” by Yvonne Fair, a wrathful, ghetto screed about watching your man walk down the aisle with another woman. As the song reached a fever pitch, Sharene moved into the audience, pulled a knife out of her purse and brandished it at the imaginary couple.

One night she got so worked up she tore the wig off her head and threw it on the floor. This unheard-of act of improvisation was too much for the aging emcee for whom illusion was paramount. With microphone in hand, he fired her on the spot. The rest of the girls recognized Miss Dennis’ actions for what they were – an uncontrollable act of passion fully in line with the sentiment of the song – and tore their wigs off in a show of solidarity. After all the screaming and crying was over the emcee was forced to apologize. Hell hath no fury..!

I worked with Hummin’ Helen (a.k.a. Bill) at the
Roostertail while I was in college. He was a sly and amusing guy out of drag but a real handful in character. Through this connection I found myself escorting him to an awards show for female impersonators. The affair was every bit as elegant as its location would have you believe: The United Dairy Workers Hall in Highland Park. I was a bit embarrassed by it all. Watching drag behind closed doors at Gagen’s was one thing, but escorting a six foot tall glamour-puss with impressive deltoids and a fearsome baritone to a sold-out extravaganza in a cinderblock building alongside the railroad tracks was a bit much for my closeted suburban sensibilities.

True to form, Helen got loaded, fought with the other girls, and passed out in my car on the way back to her apartment. Much to my horror, I realized my tank was on empty. At two in the morning I found myself coasting into a service station somewhere in the vicinity of Hamilton and Grand Boulevard. I could only pray that my date would remain comatose in the passenger seat – bouffant bobbing, dress up around her knees, bucket between her legs.

The attendant, a polite African American gentleman of a certain age, couldn’t help but notice my stylish powder blue tuxedo (I forgot to mention that?) and the uncertain mess slumped next to me and said, in an embarrassed attempt to make sense of the scene, “My, my. That sure is a pretty lady you got with you.” To which the “pretty lady” lifting her head up in a sudden burst of consciousness replied basso profondo, “FAAAAAAAACKYOU!!” before collapsing once again into a swarm of organza. All in all, a lovely evening.

It’s no secret what killed drag. In a word: disco. I remember the night we decamped from Gagen’s and walked a few doors west to check out the opening of a new place called Menjo’s. Menjo’s would go on to have a few drag shows now and then to spice things up but it was definitely not about drag. Eventually Gagen’s went on to gain greater fame as Bookie’s Club 870, the premier punk club in Detroit. But by then the place had been stripped out and painted black. I guess all that deco decay had no place in a new wave world.

Somewhere along the way the place burned to the ground. Maybe it’s for the best. The building, like the entertainers it housed, might best be thought of as some great illusion the likes of which Detroit hasn’t seen since.

17 comments:

SupergayDetroit said...

And as an added thrill to your day, Dawn French does a hilarious bit with "It Should Have Been Me" here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5dzvE7YMpA

Anonymous said...

Bravo!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post - I always wondered what Bookies had been in a previous life...

SupergayDetroit said...

I'm gonna be pushy and tell you folks that if you are using those "Snapshots" (the little icons next to linked text) you can listen to the songs WHILE you read.

Just mouse-over the icon, when the window loads start the YouTube clip, then just move the little pop-up window out of your way and enjoy!

It makes for a truly enjoyable trip down someone else's memory lane!

Anonymous said...

You have made my day sweetie. Your (our) youthful passion is outdone only by that intrigue that is Detroit honesty that to this day, I for one, have yet to find comparable. Great days. Even better stories.

Kevin

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh....those were the days.
I was a Gagens ( Bookies Club 870 ) regular. It was the second gay bar I ever went to with The Iron Hinge being the first.
Countless times I witnessed Betty Clark perform, she was my favorite. It never ceased to amaze me when she would jump down from a performance light box with huge platform shoes and land dead on every time without falling.
As a person that loved to dance I remember one night dancing with her/him out of drag in high waisted baggy pants and suspenders. I could never get past the over tweezed eyebrows though when not in drag. Ewwwwwwww !
I continued to go to Gagens off and on during the punk era. I remember vividly Nina Hagen blowing her nose into her skirt while performing. Another night a band throwing raw hamburger into the crowd.
It was those events that made me happy for Menjos.

Menjos was my stomping ground for five years straight 6 nights a week.
Mondays nights it was the Palm River Club at the Roostertail.

That was a long time ago. Some say it was a waste of time. Though I spent years clubbing I have never regreted it. Needless to say life is very different now. For one I live in southern California, no winter!

Thanks for the drift back in time, Robert Tucker

roberttuckerart.com

Anonymous said...

Have soooo enjoyed your blog on Old Detroit. I mean old!! Being seriously considered as Florence Ballard's replacement when she was kicked out of The Supremes -- that was MY childhood fantasy! A white boy from Dearborn who thought he was a black, female back-up singer! My mother Always knew! Thanks for the laughs!

Todd

Styln said...

Great post! I remember Bookies. In the early to mid 80's me and my crew used to frequent Bookies, Todds and The Leland Hotel to dance. During the late 80's a group of us girls would go to Bookies and see the revival drag shows...just wonderful!

As silly teens (about 19 yrs.), me and my best friend would regularly try to get into Menjo's (her hairdresser had taken her there one night, she said it was the most fun she'd ever had at a club) but, we never got in.

I lived in Palmer Park (in several locations) for many years. I remember that when the Gays moved out and into Royal Oak the whole area went down and hasn't ever recovered.

Thanks for the memories!

Anonymous said...

Great piece. I mean your story. Was there also, but do you remember my friend Barbra Striesand, and Lana Carr, and even Boulavard Blanche...special times. Ron.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a wonderful post and beautiful memories your story brought back to me, I as well worked with Bill {Ms Hummin Helen} at Nikis Pizza in Greektown and spent many a nights running the streets with her Gas Station, Deck Bar, Flamingos,Glass House and the Woodward to name a few. Bill new everyone and introduced me to many, I miss him terribly and want to thank him for all the laughs and the fabulous times we shared who else would of sang to me Happy Birthday in a large room of people dressed like Annie Lennox.

Paul Keckonen said...

How wonderful that there are still some of us alive and kicking who remember those days. What I can't remember though is the name of an after hours dance club on the east side(?)somewhere that allowed the underage crowd (no alcohol was served). When the legal drinking age was lowered to 18 (I was 19 at the time) My friends and I from the 'burbs would hit Gagen's, the Iron Hinge, the Woodward, Tiffany's and eventually Menjo's. We occasionally hung out with Chili Pepper and her sidekick Miss Greg.
We went to Gagen's to dance and to the Woodward for the drag shows. I will never forget one night when one performer dropped to her knees so hard at a dramatic point in the song her wig flew off and the queens went wild!

Anonymous said...

Paul:

I think the after hours club you are talking about was called "The Marina". It was in a marina next to the Roosterfish. The dj spun records in a dry-docked boat. "Rock the boat, don't tip the boat over"! WOOHOO!!!!

Potter Steve said...

That was an awesome post. I was looking at a signed "glamour shot" from Hummin Helen this evening and decided to goggle her and your post came up.
These kids today do not know what they missed!!!!

Aka Mavis said...

http://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?fbid=3089833977897&set=a.1818605797987.95591.1625422763&type=3&theater link to a photo of Bill on my fb page. He did a guest spot at my first ever drag show at Chevy's on E 7 Mile in 1986. He and I along with Eunice Alexander ended up getting busted by Detroit Vice for performing w/out a performers license that night. What a wacky memorable evening. Just one of many in Detroit.

KEVIN MILES said...

OMY - Hummin Helen (Bill), now there is a blast from my past. She was a true entertainer and I loved her Dearly. I too knew him / her when working at NiKi's in GreekTown. She was my then Drag mother when I was doing a few shows. She invited me to do a show with her at The Deck and for the life of me don't know why I chose the stage name of ISIS but it stuck and I lived hell for it for the longest. Helen was indeed as you described her. What a great person and what great times we use to have. I remember my first night a older person was hitting on me just before show time and I looked at Helen all nervous and out came her truth - honey she's just an old tired drag queen. - Interestingly enough, I just posted a small tribute to her for being a mentor to me. Although, I gave up drag as fast as I began it. I do remember her dearly. So much fun were the nights with her.

HULA BEULAH said...

I left Detroit in 1975, having partied at Gagen's during all hours, even the happy hours, and danced, danced, danced many nights away. Thanks for your blog - 'supergay detroit' LOL - it was. We started going to 2nd-hand stores and wearing 40s drag - then glitter - what memories. Some readers here might not know, and some readers' elders might have told them, Detroit was called 'the Paris of the Midwest' - such a beautiful, beautiful city. My folks were pleased that their daughter was also going to Frank Gagen's as they had many years before; they thought it was a glam nightclub still. It was, just glam in a different way. I forget the name of the neighborhood bar just down the street towards Woodward. There was a motorcycle gang that used to hang out there. Believe it or not children, we all got along - Gagens, the mc club, etc. Our precious dream was LOVE & PEACE.

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