Friday, March 2, 2012

Huddle Tavern

219 Cumberland Avenue (2010) - Now a vacant building
Huddle Tavern

Location: 219 Cumberland Avenue, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA

Opened: 1940, possibly later?

Closed: 1981

According to an article in Metro Pulse On-line, the Huddle Tavern was "housed in a basement at the corner of Gay and Cumberland between 1940 and 1981."  It is also a place of literary significance, as it is "mentioned in Cormac McCarthy's Knoxville-based novel Suttree."  Additionally, we hear that that there was a sign out front announcing the Huddle was the "gayest spot in town."

Kelly Robinson at Out & About tells us more:

Before there were explicitly gay clubs, the Huddle on Knoxville's Gay Street was doing business in the 1950s.

“It was popular with gays, lesbians, transvestites, prostitutes, newspapermen, and other fringe sorts who didn’t always feel quite as comfortable at, say, Howard Johnson’s.” says local historian Jack Neely. (A patron at Club XYZ remembers it as a place where “you could go without gettin’ your head busted open.”)

The Huddle is near-legendary to literature fans, as Cormac McCarthy immortalized it in his novel Suttree. McCarthy writes about a “cool and dark” dive with “the door ajar,” where one could observe the patrons on the downtown end of Cumberland as “they came down the steep street and turned in two by two.” He describes a “group of dubious gender” in the corner booth at the Huddle, where drinkers could have beer in a fishbowl or whiskey from a jelly jar.


Cormac McCarthy fans should definitely check out this site, which identifies and provides photographs of some of the Knoxville locations referenced in Suttree, including the Huddle Tavern. Here it is claimed that the Huddle didn't open till 1952 or 1953--not 1940, as reported above.

According to Tony Carlisle--known as Knoxville's "Talk of the Town"--the Huddle didn't become primarily lesbian until her later years:

The late Seventies and early Eighties saw several gay and lesbian bars come and go: Europa, the Factory, the Pepper Tree and the Back Office Lounge, among others. The Huddle was still plugging along, though Carlisle recalls the latter-day crowd being primarily women.

“Sometimes if the first show at the Carousel didn’t go well,” he says, “We’d all go to the Huddle, put a quarter in the jukebox and perform for tips, then make it back to the Carousel for the second show.”

Or as another commenter adds (with just a sniff of disapproval), "Ann Brummet and her girlfriend and daughter ran the lesbian bar 'The Huddle' 'Few Queers & no straights allowed'. Not my words, hers."

More recent lesbian bars seem to start out as lesbian bars and then become more "diverse" over time--to the point where they are no longer lesbian bars in any meaningful sense. But then there are a few that apparently started out as more diverse, and then became more lesbian-identified territory overtime. This is more likely to happen when the neigborhood becomes less "desirable" (i.e. less commercially viable as retail space), which is what happened to the Gay Street area over the 1960s and 70s.

10 comments:

  1. As the author of one of the pieces cited, I wanted to thank you for the mention. You have a wonderful site that will help ensure that some parts of history don't become completely forgotten.

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  2. Thanks, Kelly. So much of history happens outside of major cities like New York, San Francisco, or Paris, but it tends to stay out of sight. I really like investigating what's happening in the smaller places, and trying to provide a forum for the journalists and historians who do so much to bring this research to the public.

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  4. I really like investigating what's happening in the smaller places

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  9. It's sad to see buildings that once were vibrant and alive now cold and empty. I recall Gay Street full of people, businesses and all when spending every summer with my sister Mary Perkey, hanging out at Vivian Woodard Salon off Clinch Street and later at her own salon Mary & Jackie's. This period of my life is what gave me the urge to live in a big city leaving the little one red light town Piney Flats for NYC.

    During the times of the Huddle and Europa my sister the hairdresser to help out along with Jamie Chambers plus others began what was the first drag shows on Gay Street at the Hideaway Bar the owner was Rose Welch. It was near the old Sterchl's building in the later 60's during the day it was a pool table bar then at night they would use the back stage area until the Carousel came along. The Huddle was the bar they would go to hang out, Rava, a well known local lesbian and great friend of my sister's one night leaving the Huddle encountered the mayor's son and his friend that began to harass my sister being overweight and one thing lead to another until Rava had to take matters in her hand and ended up cutting the major's son. Of course the law was call they got arrested but beat it all in court and had charges filed against the guys. Growing up and discovering my own gayness it was much easier for me than some I had only visited the Huddle a few times it was not really for the guys it was mostly lesbian or friends of and drag queens. The guys were more at Joseph's place the Europa basically across the street from the Huddle on the other side of the block. Sometimes I would go to the Carousel but when Joseph was murder late 70's and later on when Jake Butcher took the block to build his bank for his World's Fair fraud we had no choice it was the Huddle or Carousel there was one other bar that I never did get to visit.

    A lot of people never gave the ones before them the credit due one such person was Jamie Chambers. Jamie endured the local police with their many bar raids and when they attempted to stick drug charges on him claiming it was found in the dressing room unlike the normal queens he did not give in he stood strong and fought with all he had to later on wining against the drum up charges. From that he proceed to broadcast via radio open gay discussions that sometimes really pissed some locals off. He along with Tony Carlisle as well as Rava paved the road for Knoxville if it had not been for these strong people standing up against the ones that did not want the gays there I am not sure how the city would have ended up. I have some of the best memories during those days from a child of age 10 to a young adult at the bar with Jamie (he would say I was the only boyfriend he ever had) and Tony plus all the other show queens. My first car I learned to drive a stick in front of the Huddle in fact it was Rava's old MGB did I ever have some fun in that car cruising the block around the library and bus station areas.

    It is a pleasure to see that someone is documenting some of Knoxville's Gay history so many are gone and left so many years early. And some like myself were lucky to have survived through the period of AIDS, myself without coming down with it. To anyone out there say older than 40 :-) we owe it to our dear lost friends and love ones to help document history anyway we can. I discovered a couple YouTube channels that someone has been collecting the various drag shows from the area but I do not recall seeing any from the Knoxville area I hope someone does this love to see some of the ladies again. https://www.youtube.com/user/CubsterTN https://www.youtube.com/user/jimmiedavisnc

    I hope I've shared some light on the Gay history of Knoxville and if anyone knows the whereabouts of Tony or Rava please pass on that I said hello, its been since the early 80's seeing anyone!

    Thank you for allowing myself to add to your history blog. Ron Perkey, NYC formally from Tri-Cities TN area.

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