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.