Hustlers, Scores, Queens and Pharoahs
A look into the history and legacy of Downtown's forgotten gay pioneers
By Ian Gabriel
Like many old city centers, Downtown Los Angeles has the oxymoronic quality of being both stagnant and in flux. The historic buildings are the constant. The ones that remain have seen much of Downtown’s history, surviving earthquakes and the irrepressible growth of the city. They are the unchanging shells that house the flux: the ever-morphing jumble of people and animals, scenes and communities, bars and cafes, attitudes and movements that have passed through Downtown.
Today’s prevalent historic narrative of Downtown flippantly ignores the 60-year gap between its economic heyday in the early 20th century and its more recent real estate-fueled comeback. The historic character of the buildings has been commodified, and many who live Downtown are not aware of communities that flourished here during that perceived decades-long gap — groups of people who lived, drank, created and loved in the same buildings we occupy today. One example is the gay community, which had a significant presence in Downtown between World War II and the mid-1960s. For many gay men, Downtown offered liberation in a time when homosexuality was both a cultural taboo and completely illegal.
I first learned about Downtown’s gay history when a friend, knowing that I had studied and written about 1950s social movements, lent me a copy of queer history book Gay L.A. by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons. As a resident of Downtown and a history nerd, I was mortified that I had never heard about the gay bars, cruising spots and homophile organizations that existed in my neighborhood. People here love to talk about how Downtown has changed in the last five or ten years, but I had never heard stories about the 1950s. As I continued to research the subject, I came to realize that gays in that era inhabited Downtown for the same reason that I do: its strong sense of community and acceptance.
Gays found community and liberation Downtown by frequenting the bars, theaters, parks and hotels that tolerated and catered to them even when homsexuality was a crime. Especially during the post-war period, paranoid and accusatory government authorities like Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee recklessly persecuted social deviants who were deemed threats to the patriotic status quo. While they primarily targeted communists, their persecution of nonconformist minorities also extended to gays, African Americans, Native Americans and others. In this climate of public shaming and outing, both the FBI and the notorious LAPD Vice Squad routinely monitored, harassed, entrapped and arrested men and women who exhibited any sort of proclivity toward gay life and culture. This targeting forced homosexuals to either hide their desires or escape to places like Downtown, away from their families and jobs, where they could both express their true sexualities and find a community of others doing the same thing.
I discussed this sense community with Faderman, co-author of Gay L.A. “It was so easy to be totally closeted as far as your neighbor was concerned and then get in your car and drive to where you could find other gay people either for cruising or camaraderie,” she explained. “Los Angeles offered anonymity — which was very important for gay people — and it offered community.”
The 1963 novel City of Night by John Rechy aptly illustrates this coexistence. In the novel, he vividly details his nameless protagonist’s daily life as a young gay hustler in seedy 1950s Downtown. The main character, based on Rechy himself, flees the constraints of his family in rural Texas for New York, where he first delves into the gay underground. Later, he relocates to Downtown Los Angeles, where nobody knows him, and quickly notes the existence of gay life in his new city. Walking past dingy bars and theaters on Main Street for the first time, he narrates: “Instantly, I recognize the vagrant youngmen dotting those places: the motocyclists without bikes, the cowboys without horses, awol servicemen or on leave…And I know that moments after arriving here, I have found an extension, in the warm if smoggy sun, of the world I had just left.” Rechy found a world familiar to him on the same city blocks where I walk every day.
To better understand the geographic landscape of Rechy’s story, I met up with Rick Mechtly, a specialist in the history of Bunker Hill and gay activity in Downtown. He took me on a tour of the locations of the very bars and neighborhood hangouts Rechy describes. We began at Pershing Square, undoubtedly the anchor of gay activity in Downtown. Its proximity to bus terminals, a metro stop and the train station made it a place where people like Rechy, escaping their pasts, ended up. Prior to a series of renovations starting in the late 1950s, the square was a park replete with banana groves, underbrush and secluded pathways that offered hidden places for sexual activity. Male prostitutes and their clients, known as “scores,” frequented the park, as did men cruising for free sex. Rechy described the scene in Pershing Square: “malehustlers (‘fruithustlers’ / ‘studhustlers’ : the various names for the masculine young vagrants) like flitting birds move restlessly about the park — fugitive hustlers looking for lonely fruits to score from, anything from the legendary $20-up to a pad at night and breakfast in the morning.” The high density of bars and gay-friendly venues off the park was no coincidence — bar operators and hotel owners recognized the financial potential of setting up shop next to an established cruising zone.
From Pershing Square, Mechtly led me to the locations of some notable bars. Each venue had its own shtick; each catered to different sectors of the gay population and provided a different type of experience. For the sophisticated and more conservative crowd, there was the subterranean Crown Jewel at 8th and Olive, which, unlike most other gay bars in the neighborhood, had a fancy dress code and an elegant interior. Those who preferred touching over talking went to another underground bar called the Metropolitan, at 5th and Hill, where patrons stood in the dimly lit bar and groped each other over drinks. For those looking to move their bodies, there was the Brass Rail at 3rd and Hill, “one of the only places where people could go and dance,” Mechtly explained. Men interested in a more loud and crowded setting went to Maxwell’s, on 3rd between Broadway and Spring, which was popular among men who worked in the nearby department stores and among military personnel. The Waldorf and Harold’s, two long-established gay bars on Main between 5th and 6th, attracted gays across the spectrum.
Around the corner from Maxwell’s on Spring Street was the 3-2-6, commonly known as the Numbers. This bar attracted drag queens, including Destiny, a real person and a character in City of Night. Faderman knew Destiny personally and told me about a time when they ran into each other Hollywood in the 1950s: “I remember Destiny once telling me that he was through with Hollywood Boulevard, that people were too phony and uppity there and that he was going back Downtown to the Numbers — that’s where his kind of people were.”
And after the bars closed, the flop houses swelled. Mechtly showed me the site of one, a mother-son operation at 6th and Hill whose basement was filled with cots separated by glory-holed partitions. The clerks at the front desk of the Lankershim Hotel at 7th and Broadway provided horny truck drivers and traveling salesmen with cheap rooms. Men also used all-night movie theaters for sexual contact. One of Mechtly’s friends had his first gay sexual experience in the dark upper balcony of the Paramount Theater adjacent to Pershing Square, and Rechy writes about the burlesque theaters on Main Street, “where along the dark rows, in the early jammed hours of the morning on weekends, men [sat], fly open, pulling off.”
In a way, merely visiting a gay bar was a form of activism — standing up to the homophobic authority by refusing to stay in the closet, even if it meant risking arrest or abuse. In late 1959, that liberation morphed into rebellion at a late night doughnut shop on Main Street. Cooper’s Donuts, located between Harold’s and the Waldorf, stayed open after the surrounding bars closed for the night, serving coffee and pastries to what Rechy calls “the scattered army” of post-bar drag queens, hustlers and revelers. Because of its largely homosexual and deviant nighttime clientele, Cooper’s was also a frequent target of police scrutiny and harassment. One night, LAPD officers entered the doughnut shop and demanded to see the IDs of three customers without providing a reason. Cooper’s patrons responded in a humorously ironic fashion by throwing doughnuts and coffee at the cops. Police backup arrived after further escalation and found a riot that would shut down Main Street until the next day. The Cooper’s Donuts Riot was an organic act of defiance toward the police in which the rioters, emboldened by the strong sense of community that existed in gay Downtown, banded together to fend off injustice.
In addition to fostering uprisings in the streets, Downtown also played a central role in the conscious, intellectually driven movement for the improvement of gay rights helmed by early homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society and ONE Inc. These groups convened and operated in Downtown, using printed publications, manifestos, organizing techniques, research and legal efforts to advocate on behalf of homosexuals. While their numbers were few — by Faderman’s estimate, no more than several hundred members nationally at any given time — the impact of their political action was significant.
The Mattachine Society was formed in 1950; its seven founding members were Harry Hay, Bob Hull, Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Chuck Rowland, James Gruber and Konrad Stevens. They were a group of intellectuals, musicians, and writers — a few of them communists — who came from a wealthier social class than the down-and-out hustlers of Main Street. Meeting clandestinely at private residences in Silver Lake, Echo Park and Bunker Hill, the founding members, or the “pharoahs,” as Faderman described them, intended to be secret leaders, drawing inspiration from communist theory and cell structure. In 1951 they produced a manifesto that outlined their purpose: “Only a Society, providing an enlightened leadership, can rouse the homosexuals… one of the largest minorities in America today… to take the actions necessary to elevate themselves from the social ostracism an unsympathetic culture has perpetrated upon them.”
That necessary action came into play in 1952, when a plainclothes vice squad officer arrested innocent Mattachine member Dale Jennings in a public restroom in MacArthur Park, baselessly charging him with lewd conduct. Instead of pleading guilty and paying a fine to keep his arrest quiet, Jennings decided to fight back in court. His Mattachine colleagues raised legal funds by organizing the Citizen’s Committee to Outlaw Entrapment and were able to hire attorney George Sibley to represent their comrade. The jury at the ensuing trial acquitted Jennings even after he confessed his homosexuality, marking a successful retaliation against police intimidation and entrapment and victory for the Mattachine Society.
Jennings would later help to form ONE Inc., a Mattachine offshoot organization also devoted to securing rights for gays. Starting in 1953, ONE began to print ONE Magazine, a monthly publication sold in the streets of Downtown that was one of the first in the nation to openly discuss homosexual issues. Its editors and contributors included Mattachine founders Jennings and Rowland, as well as Don Slater, Jim Kepner, Dorr Legg and lesbian couple Joan Corbin and Irma Wolf. The magazine ran pieces about police entrapment, scientific research on sexuality, criticisms of homophobic articles in other publications, poetry and personal anecdotes about being gay in 1950s America. In late 1953, as the publication grew, ONE Inc. established offices at 2nd and Hill Street, a couple of blocks from Pershing Square. The FBI methodically monitored the office and the publication, including the names of the editors, their physical descriptions, home addresses and workplace locations in its reports. Attempting to link the magazine to both communist activity and sexual obscenity, one declassified FBI report refers to the publication of ONE Magazine as a “security matter” and states that “further review of the Publication indicates that it is written for Sex Deviates.” Publishing ONE Magazine was incredibly risky, but that did not stop its editors and contributors.
In October 1954, the Los Angeles postmaster Otto Oleson, with the help of the FBI, confiscated the copies of that month’s ONE Magazine that had been mailed to subscribers, stating that they contained obscene content and were therefore illegal. With the help of young attorney Eric Julber, ONE Inc. contested the confiscation in court. After four years of dismissals and rulings in favor of the postmaster, the case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court which reversed the lower court decisions, deciding that the confiscation of the magazine was a violation of the First Amendment. This was a major victory in the gay rights movement and marked the first time in U.S. history that the Supreme Court had heard a case involving homosexuality.
ONE Inc. also organized yearly conferences called the ONE Mid-Winter Institutes, which took place at different hotels Downtown, including the Biltmore on Pershing Square. Dorr Legg was the primary organizer of these conferences, which consisted of speeches by activists like Mattachine co-founder Harry Hay, workshops and lectures. In one of these speeches, according to Faderman, Legg called for a homosexual bill of rights that demanded “the right to full first-class citizenship, the right to be free from discriminatory statutes, the right to be free from police surveillance, the destruction of all government records of any citizen’s homosexual behavior, the right to equal treatment before the law...” Legg’s proposal was ahead of its time, and many of his contemporaries deemed it ridiculous and impossible. According to Faderman, Legg’s radical ideas were “so far-reaching. It’s what [pro-gay-rights members of congress] Bella Abzug and Ed Koch presented in 1974 and 1975 to Congress and they could get no support then. It’s what we still don’t have.”
Legg’s bill of rights never materialized, but today the police no longer raid gay bars, the FBI has stopped censoring homosexual magazines, and the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. In fact, three new gay bars have popped up in Downtown over the past year: Redline at 6th and Los Angeles, the Precinct at 4th and Broadway and Bar Mattachine at 7th and Spring. The owners of these bars sensed a resurgence in the gay population of Downtown that made the neighborhood a fitting location for their businesses. I spoke with the owners of Redline, Zachary Beus and Oliver Alpuche, about how these new bars fit into the context of Downtown’s rich gay history. Beus explained that when the two were scoping out locations, “We truly wanted to go historic. The Historic Core, I still believe, will always be the location where gay life will thrive.” Alpuche echoed Beus’ desire to pay homage to history: “Downtown was a very vibrant area [for gay life]. When we were going through locations we definitely took that into consideration because Main between 5th and 6th was a huge part of history that not a lot of people know about.”
Although there are far fewer gay bars here than there were in the ‘50s, those that exist are as diverse in their approaches as their post-war counterparts. Alpuche explained that Bar Mattachine will offer a sophisticated and refined atmosphere, reminiscent of the Crown Jewel. Redline, by contrast, is more geared toward neighborhood residents and offers a relaxed, inviting feeling, similar to Harold’s or the Waldorf. The Precinct is comparable to Maxwell’s with its crowded and energetic party scene. Another bar, the New Jalisco at 3rd and Main, which has been Downtown for years, is known for its clientele in drag, like the 3-2-6.
Downtown has always attracted gays and other socially ostracized groups because it is distinctly nonjudgmental. It is a neighborhood that does not necessarily conform to the societally constructed standards of what it means to have a job, a family, a house or a relationship. And even though Downtown changes so quickly, residents here have always appreciated the constant collision of opinions, cultures and ideas that propels Downtown forward. It lets people live how they want to, and that will never change.