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Arts & Culture

Running A Gay Bar in the 1950s


Back in 1950s Hollywood, a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood gay bar offered an attractive mix of fizz, friends and fabulousness. But the proprietor ran a tight ship, unlike any gay bar you might drop into today.

She didn't allow anyone to buy a drink unless she knew them or a regular vouched for them. No kissing was allowed, and no hanky-panky in the restroom either. And she banned all effeminate behavior: absolutely no prancing around or wearing makeup.

As bar owner Helen P. Branson wrote in her 1957 memoir "Gay Bar," she needed to lay low by keeping her standards high. Authorities from the police to the alcohol board preferred to keep gays from congregating anywhere, so she made sure to not draw attention.

But as her affectionate and perceptive book shows, Branson still managed to provide a safe and cozy place for men who liked men.

"Gay Bar" spent 60 years in obscurity. But then a Milwaukee author heard about it and brought it back to life in the newly published "Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s."

In an interview, I asked author Will Fellows to describe what he discovered about gay life in Southern California more than six decades ago. I also rang up a local historian to learn about the history of gay bars in San Diego.

Randy Dotinga: What makes this book so unique?

Will Fellows: Helen Branson had many gay friends in the 1940s and 1950s, and she was an extraordinary straight ally at a time when being a straight ally of homosexuals was unheard of.

It occurred to me that a revival of the book seemed warranted. It struck me as a kind of curious, quaint and somewhat charming period piece of a book. Then I gradually began to realize it was more significant than that. It was a pretty groundbreaking book: by my estimation, the first book by a straight person that depicts the lives of gay people positively.

Q: What surprised you about the book and her story?

A: It was just really remarkable that a woman like Helen would have been courageous enough, or bold enough, to publish this book with her real name attached to it. She was writing this book when Senator McCarthy was still ranting and raving about things, a climate of what we could all call homophobia -- great antagonism toward homosexuality and homosexuals, perversion and deviants, and all that sort of stuff.

Here she is working as a small bar proprietor, trying to make enough to live on until she could make it to retirement and Social Security checks. It would have been very reasonable and understandable if she would have elected to use a pseudonym, and she didn't.

Q: What was her gay bar like?

A: There was nothing fancy, nothing high end about it. It was not a cocktail bar. It was bottled beer, bottled soft drinks and various things to munch on. She really saw it as a kind of public living room.

She had a lot of gay friends she'd developed since her divorce in the 1930s, and she had managed other gay bars for other owners. She didn't like some of the practices that she had to go along with in managing the other establishments. She was able to do things her own way, in a way that created a hospitable, friendly and inviting atmosphere but still maintained safeguards against problems with law enforcement and hustlers and people who were not necessarily out to treat her gay friends well.

Q: Why did she have such a strong policy against acting too gay?

A: At that time, there some gay men who in their self-presentation, because of feeling so oppressed and belittled and beleaguered and trapped in their lives, they kind of acted out in almost wildly flamboyant ways, carrying on in ways that were more than just authentic expressions of maybe an degree of effeminacy on their parts.

These kinds of individuals -- the screamers -- were really a problem for these early homosexual rights organizations because they were just bad p.r. Many leaders of homosexual organizations tried to distance themselves from these people, whom they viewed as excessively flamboyant types.

There's another thing that's a fascinating dimension of homosexual thought at that time: even early gay rights organizations were very intent on enforcing pretty traditional standards of dress for men and women. In some ways, it's similar to some of the early black civil rights organizers in the African-American population who felt the way to win acceptance was to be as white as possible in how you lived your life. Many gay men and lesbians had a similar kind of perspective: what we need to do is conform.

Q: It's amazing how Branson discusses issues that are still big today: Can gays have healthy long-term relationships? (She said yes and proved it.) Does nature or nurture create homosexuality? Were you surprised by how modern the book sounds?

A: When I first read the book, I was kind of blinded by some of the things that rubbed me the wrong way. But I missed how she was insightful and progressive in some ways.

She had a real interest in finding patterns in life. When she realized that the men she found most appealing as friends when she was working as a palm reader in Los Angeles in the 1940s were gay, she became really intrigued by that.

She didn't put gay men up on a pedestal and suggest they are paragons of virtue. But she points out that gay men are real people who have a fascinating mix of things going on in their lives, with various strengths and weaknesses.

In some ways, she's very insightful. Some might read what she says and think she's indulging in stereotypes, but I think some of the things are more like archetypes. There are some patterns that really hold up under modern-day scrutiny.


Did San Diego have gay bars in the 1950s? Written sources suggest that it did indeed. "They were the one place where queer people could meet and come together," said Frank Nobiletti, who teaches history at San Diego State and serves as president of the Lambda Archives of San Diego.

The bars were typically run by straight people, however, and were often less than fancy. "The drinks were watered down, and the places were not attractive," Noblietti said. "It wasn't until Lou Arko opened up the Brass Rail that someone really tried to create a bar that was worthy of its clientele."

The Brass Rail, which opened its doors in Hillcrest in 1960 (after apparently moving from downtown), is still a gay bar -- it's now known for its ethnically diverse clientele -- and sits at the corner of Robinson and Fifth. It's said to be the oldest gay bar in the city.

Arko, a straight man who opened several gay bars in the city, died in 2009 at the age of 1992.

During the latter decades of his life, gay bars went from rarities in San Diego to common sights that serve a variety of types of gay people.

Unlike the past, kissing is most definitely allowed. And, as always, fabulousness is encouraged.