This is an adaptation of a tour script that I wrote for my Museum Education class. Edited on 13 November, 2016.
Seattle's LGBTQ community is the second largest in the United States, San Francisco being the first, with drag as one of the many vibrant aspects of the community. Drag isn't a new phenomenon of the modern age; for centuries it has permeated through folk customs, theater, art, and opera. Similar to the breadth and depth of these creative outlets, drag is incredibly diverse in expression and performance. Looking at the Seattle drag scene, there are comedy queens like Jinkx Monsoon, drag burlesque performers like BenDeLaCreme and Kitten N’ Lou, and even "scary" queens like Cucci Binaca. To understand how Seattle's drag scene evolved to what it is today, let’s look at two establishments that set it in motion: The Spinning Wheel and The Garden of Allah.
In the years leading up to the Twenties, the United States participated in a world war, added two amendments to the Constitution, and contemplated the notions of race and worker’s rights. America was encountering its first wave of mass culture; the mass production of automobiles, the introduction of jazz, glamorous movie stars marketed as celebrities, striking sports heroes. While the reality of the Great War still loomed, a new “fun morality” of pleasure-seeking and recreation emerged. This youth-driven culture began to explore the ideas of sexuality with more openness, rebellion, and shamelessness. At the same time, gay individuals began forming social networks within cities; they would meet in cabarets, bars, or cafes. Their identities remained private, however, coming out was reserved for the small realm of gay society, rather than their friends and family.
Drag is one of the first ways in which gay and straight community come together. Literature and public thought previously wrote off homosexuality as mental degradation, corruption on moral integrity. Coming together in a common space, drinking and socializing, enjoying entertainment started the normalization. How could my friend be a corruption if we both enjoy having a drink and seeing a show together? New York City held extravagant drag balls in public venues, growing so big to occupy Madison Square Garden. This exposure led to broader public interest and the publication of gay novels, films, and dramas, and the rise in popularity of gay nightlife performers.
In Seattle, Pioneer Square held the few establishments were LGBTQ friendly. The Casino, on Washington St and 2nd Ave, was one of the few places to allow same-sex dancing. While the saloons and taverns offered occasional entertainment, further uptown, The Spinning Wheel Cabaret’s stage almost always featured female impersonators. Starting out as a speakeasy, it became a honky-tonk with cheap drinks after the Great Depression. For 10 cents, one could have drinks and watch acts ranging from dancing to singing to even a strip-tease. Seattle artists Lubin Petric and William Cummings came to performances, sketching the range of emotions and attitudes of the performers and audience members. One of the prominent performers was Francis Blair, “the boy with the million dollar legs.” Blair was multi-talented; he was a singer, actor, comedian, musician, and costume designer.
Blair eventually moved to the Garden of Allah, where he started performing and organizing shows. The Garden was one of the most popular gay cabarets in Seattle during the 1940s-1950s and one of the first gay-owned gay bars in the United States. Fred Coleman, an investor in the Spinning Wheel, and Frank Reid opened the venue in 1946. Their idea for the Garden was simple: a full-time vaudeville (variety entertainment) filled with singers, dancers, performers and drag queens. Coleman and Reid set up the new club in the basement of the Arlington, a Victorian-style hotel located on 1st Ave and Seneca St. This distance from the red light district was strategic, allowing for the entertainment to be considered for face value, rather than written off as debauchery. The Garden became a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community; the patrons and stars became a family, providing support for young men and women coming out.
This sense of community fostered the beginnings of mentorship in drag and drag king performances. Before becoming regular headliners at the Garden, Hotcha Hilton, Jackie Starr, and Skippy LaRue, traveled and performed around the US and Canada for almost a decade. Having a regular schedule allowed for mentorship to beginning performers, making their way to supporting acts. The Garden held amateur nights, with a cash prize for the best performance or the possibility of a job. Drag kings began taking the stage, with Nick Arthur as one of the most prominent emcees and tenor voices. Before the Feminist movement, the lesbian community followed the very strict gender roles, dividing the community into femmes (women wearing and acting in traditional women’s roles) and butches (women wearing and acting in traditional men’s roles). Because of this expression in their identity, many butches had a hard time finding work in traditional industries. Drag became a way to express themselves and earning a living.
However, the Garden’s doors remained open for only a decade. The city imposed a higher tax on establishments that combined drinking and live entertainment, and the musicians’ union raised its price for hiring live musicians. Coupled with McCarthyism running rampant, it was too hard to remain open. Though open for a short amount of time, the Garden helped form a network of LGBTQ people in Seattle. Drag didn’t stop with the closure, in fact, it became more accessible in the city. The portable phonograph and rise of lip-syncing let drag performances happen in any saloon or bar. Drag no longer needed a dedicated space. But without The Spinning Wheel or The Garden of Allah, the community might not have been as structured for the following years for the fight for gay rights. These sanctuaries let people express themselves, express their beliefs, and most importantly, organize around those beliefs.
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