Houston's Earliest Gay Scenes (Part 2)

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Part two in a series for gay pride week.

It didn't take Ron Levine and partners like the club-savvy Gene Howle long to turn the new Palace into a hot spot. In October, 1970, the private club -- private meaning mixed drinks were available and entry could be controlled -- hosted a drag pageant that is still remembered fondly by those in the know. This was three years prior to national and state drag competitions forming in 1974.

Rusty Walker, bass player for popular local band Sound Investment, remembers the Palace well. Shortly after Houston Press reported in early May about the demolition of the building, the top floor of which was home to a series of popular night clubs -- Top of the Mark, the Palace, Cody's and Sky Bar -- Walker forwarded: a yellowed color photo of what appeared at first glance to be a woman in a stunning red, white, and blue outfit.

See also: Looking Back at Some of the Hurdles Houston's Gay Community Had to Overcome (Part I)

But Walker explained that the photo was "the winner of the Halloween drag pageant at the Palace Club."

A freshman at University of Houston in 1970, Walker's band played the event.

Local activist Ray Hill, whose ties in the gay community go back to the mid-Fifties, identified the person in the photo as Jimmy Ardoin, whose nickname was "the China Doll," in reference to a movie character Ardoin impersonated in the act.

Johnny Maddox didn't move to Houston until a few years after the event, but he heard plenty about it, noting that Ardoin participated in a lot of contests but rarely won.

"But on this night, when he made his entrance he had two Afghan hounds on short leashes by his side."

The joint went wild and the title was Ardoin's.

Walker recalls a red carpet rolled out to the curb from the elevators so contestants could arrive like the Academy Awards.

"That was one of the craziest nights of my young life, " says Walker, describing a Fellini-esque scene. "They even hired two midgets who were dressed like circus weight-lifters, and they walked around in the crowd with these huge dumbbells on their shoulders. Of course, they were made of Styrofoam."

Walker also recalled his first intersection with gay nightlife came courtesy of the Palace.

"It was the first night we played there, not long after they opened. The lights were low, and we were all very jittery and excited about the gig, not wanting to do anything to mess it up," says Walker. "I just remember that by the second song I'd settled down and I finally focused on the dance floor, and there were all these older, well-dressed men dancing, mostly with all these younger men.

"One of the regulars, this very dapper man named Tommy, realized we were like fish out of water, so at the end of the set he took us aside and explained things," says Walker. "What the rules were, what you saw and what you didn't see, what you could talk about, what you never mention. But we got along fine there, the pay was good, and we played that gig almost three years. In fact, when the first owners got out, they sold the club to our manager, C.B. Bleike."

That scene seems far removed from the closeted lives of Houston's early gays and lesbians. Reporting on some of the more unusual arrests mentioned in HPD's annual report to the city council for 1924, a reporter noted that "one lone man masqueraded in woman's attire and was arrested for his trouble." This is the earliest item on the Houston ARCH historical timeline regarding any mention of gay activity in the city. Versus illegal stills (Prohibition was in effect) and "gaming," which totaled 800 arrests, with only one arrest filed for the entire year cross-dressing seems to have hardly been a priority. But in coming decades police harassment of bar patrons via cross-dressing laws would eventually become a key legal battle in the quest for equality.

By the time the 1930s and The Great Depression rolled around, Houston had a bustling gay scene, mostly centered around two downtown hotels, the Milby and the Texas State, according to elderly gay men interviewed by Richard van Allen for Montrose Voice in 1988. The article offers several interesting historical tidbits; for one, no one was yet using the term "gay."

"We didn't have gay bars in those days," said John, 69, who was born in Houston. "Everybody was in the closet, real deep."

According to Allen, the "gay circuit" was "downtown Houston, between Franklin and McKinney and Main Street east to San Jacinto." Long hair and leather were out of the question, so gays adopted the color purple as an identifier, either a purple spot on a handkerchief, a purple tie, etc.

They also noted that the term "cruising" was not yet in gay parlance, that it was referred to as "window shopping." The best window shopping was along Main and on the corner of the Rice Hotel. Another preferred area was the Sam Houston park adjacent to the main library.

One elder went so far as to criticize the late Eighties gay scene.

"If we had sex, it was kind of secondary to just knowing each other. Today, at least in the bars, it's hello and jump in the sack. People are too sex conscious today."

Randy Tibbits notes in a retrospective on the local art scene that the city had an established coterie of gay artists, writers, and actors in the Thirties. In praising the art scene in general, Tibbits summarizes, "Queer artists, musicians, writers, and theater people were an integral and even accepted (if tacitly so) part of that scene."

He goes further, noting that in a survey of Texas art in 1936, Art Digest called Gene Charlton and Carden Bailey, who were a couple for 15 years, "the most progressive artists in Houston today."

"Along with their fellow queer artist Forrest Bess, they formed the core of a modernist art group that would have been advanced at the time even in New York City."

He also name-checks lesbian artists Emily Langham and her musical partner Julia "Jack" Routt, who were involved with the Museum of Fine Arts and the Houston Symphony, as well as artist/educator Kathleen Blackshear. Highly respected theater maven Margo Jones formed her Houston Community Players troupe in 1936, and many gays were part of her entourage. Jones also had working relationships with Houston writers William Goyen, William Hart, and Zoe Leger.

Tibbits proclaims that "these queer artists and their straight colleagues consciously thought of the world they were creating as a Little Bohemia -- a Left Bank on the Bayou," in reference to the Bohemian/artistic area of Paris.

Royal Dixon, another writer, was part of that Houston bohemian set. He wrote for the Chronicle, but he also organized the Animal Church in New York City, the first national organization to be concerned with animal rights. It taught "the oneness of all life."

This is the second in a series of posts marking Houston Pride Week.

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