BY Tim Miller
Gay Bar is a remarkable time capsule view into how gay folks lived, loved and gathered a half-century ago in a small bar on Melrose in Los Angeles. With the interweaving of the remarkable charm of Helen Branson's personal memoir and Will Fellows' deft contemporary analysis, this work is a major contribution to gay history. Will Fellows delivers an impressive series of commentaries that open up the original work in remarkable ways. It is a very compelling story with a completely appealing mother hen at the center. The book pins Los Angeles as a crucial petri dish for gay liberation in the '50s. From the founding of Mattachine Society, to the work Harry Hay and Evelyn Hooker, to the publishing of One, L.A. in the '50s was a primary locus where gay people began to claim social and political space.
Tim Miller: Gay Bar really invites us in to a vivid look at what it was like to be gay in an urban area in the 1950s. What brought you to Helen Branson's wonderful book? How did you discover it?
Will Fellows: I first became aware of the book when I noticed Gay Bar among the results of an online used-book search. The book's snappy title and intriguing description stuck in my mind. But it was quite expensive and not really what I was looking for, so I didn't buy it. A year or two later I was in St. Paul breakfasting with my playwright friend Dean Gray, discussing a script he was working on. The story centered on his Uncle Irvin, who grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1930s and '40s; moved to Los Angeles in the '50s in pursuit of a music career; and killed himself in L.A. in 1963. Dean asked if I knew of any books or other materials that might give him some insight into what it was like to be a gay man in Los Angeles in the 1950s. About the only thing that came to mind was Gay Bar; the excellent Gay LA had not yet been published. That same day, Dean and I were thrilled to find a copy of Gay Bar on the shelf at Quatrefoil Library in St. Paul. Before long, I was beginning my excursion into the long-gone world of Helen Branson and her boys.
TM: Assuming you have a handy time machine, is Helen's Gay Bar a bar you could imagine yourself spending time in? Could we figure out the code and have any idea what was going on?
WF: I think I would enjoy some evenings at Helen's. It was a small, low-key gathering place, a modest neighborhood tavern on Melrose Avenue, a few blocks east of RKO and Paramount studios. Bottled beer and soft drinks only. But I'm sure I would be daunted by the code of conduct that prevailed at Helen's as it did at many gay bars of that era. Men conformed quite closely to the code of conventional masculine conduct. No hugs or kisses, no affectionate touching, no same-sex dancing, nothing that would draw the suspicious attention of potential troublemakers, including the police. By all means, keep your giddy exuberance in check! Private house parties were the place for letting yourself go, but even those gatherings could be risky.
TM: How did Helen happen to become the mother hen of a gay bar?
WF: When Helen opened the bar in 1952 she was in her mid-50s and had managed gay bars for other owners. She had been a housemother in a gay rooming house. She had known many gay men as friends for years, many of whom she met when she was working as a palm-reader in nightclubs. So, though straight herself, Helen was not naïve about the hazards of running a bar for a gay clientele. In fact, she was quite savvy in managing those who came into her bar, and in her dealings with the uniformed police, the vice squad, and the state liquor licensing agency. As a result, her boys felt safe, like baby chicks huddled under a mother hen's wings. One way Helen protected her boys was by insisting that none of her regulars have any contact with an unfamiliar newcomer until she had a chance to find out more about him. When Helen served a newcomer's drink in an unchilled glass, it was a sign to her regulars: "This person is off-limits until I've figured out what he's about and why he's here and I give an all-clear signal." Helen could be unforgiving to a customer who flouted her rules, because he jeopardized her boys' safety as well as her license.
TM: I was delighted where Helen Branson reveals she won't use any parentheses in her book because her typewriter didn't have them; she brings a direct voice and heart to every page of the book. But it is also fantastic the thoughtful unpacking of the work that you do to pull things deeper. What was it like having a conversation with Helen a half century later?
WF: It's great to hear you say that you sense Helen's heart throughout the book. I consider Gay Bar to be the first book by a heterosexual to depict gay people's lives with admiration, respect and love. From today's perspective Helen was not especially progressive, but for the 1950s she was truly extraordinary. After all, she ran a friendly little gay bar and wrote a book about it during America's most anti-gay decade.
In order to create a revival edition of her book, I needed to learn more about Helen. She died in 1977, but I managed to find her daughter and grandson, and my conversations with them were invaluable. But understanding Helen's point of view well enough to put it into period context also required that I steep myself in the culture of mid-century America. It was a remarkably complex and fascinating period: Alfred Kinsey and Allen Ginsberg were right in there with Ozzie and Harriet! I tried to better understand Helen's perspective by immersing myself in publications of the period. Books like The Problem of Homosexuality, They Walk in Shadow, Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?, and Must You Conform? I also dived into early homophile periodicals, Mattachine Review and ONE magazine, trying to imagine the circumstances of gays from around the country who were writing earnest, heartfelt letters to the editors. I wanted to complement Helen's voice with the voices of others from that same period.
TM: Your book marks Los Angeles as a charged space where gay people were creating a culture. Why was so much going on in L.A. in those years?
WF: "Charged space" is an excellent way to put it. Especially after World War II, Los Angeles and San Francisco were major destinations for American gays and lesbians in search of community, tolerance, and opportunity. The nation's pioneering homophile groupsMattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis, and ONE, Incorporatedwere all born in California in the '50s. The uprootings of wartime introduced many gays from around the country to LA and San Francisco, and many of them chose to remain in those cities after the war. The general economic boom of the 1950s and '60s drew even more gays and lesbians to the state, as did the movie, television, and music industries. With so many creative gays flocking to these major West Coast cities, freed from the more hidebound cultures of eastern cities, inspired by Alfred Kinsey's sex research and by Southern blacks rocking the boat, gays began to understand themselves as an oppressed minority. By connecting with one another, overcoming isolation and loneliness, they could begin working together to improve their lives.
TM: What does diving into the lost world of a '50s gay bar bring to a contemporary reader? What can we learn from this journey?
WF: First of all, we get to know Helen Branson: straight ally extraordinaire, a delightfully gutsy divorced grandmother who opened a bar for gay men because she enjoyed their company and deplored their plight. Her 1957 book is an illuminating period piece, a small time capsule. Years later we open it and examine the contents, sometimes puzzling over their meaning and significance. Hard as we may try, we can never fully grasp what life was like for homosexuals in that age of anxiety. American culture has changed so much since then, even the memories of those who remember that period are often unreliable. And, so, Gay Bar helps us to get our bearings, to get a better grasp of how far we've come in the gay-rights arena. Many of the positive changes that young gays today are able to take for granted were almost unimaginable 50 years ago, even in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Tim Miller is a solo performer and the author of the books Shirts & Skin, Body Blows and 1001 Beds. He can be reached at his website, www.TimMillerPerformer.com .