Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mary's First and Last Chance

2278 Telegraph Avenue today
The Rock Paper Scissors Collective
Mary's First and Last Chance

Location: 2278 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, California, USA

Opened/Closed: 1950s

In an article called "First and Last Chance: Looking for Lesbians in Fifties Bar Cases," Joan W. Howarth examines four California appellate cases from the 1950s that involved the shutting down of gay bars by revoking liquor licenses. The four bars discussed include Black Cat, located in San Francisco's North Beach (1951); Pearl's in downtown Oakland (1957); Hazel's in San Mateo County (1958); and First and Last Chance (1959). After reviewing the court records, it became evident that lesbians had at least a nominal presence at all these bars. The only one that could truly be called a lesbian bar, though, was First and Last Chance: 

Finally we arrive at the last stop, the First and Last Chance, a lesbian bar on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. This was the bar at issue in Vallerga v. Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the 1959 California Supreme Court case that closed out the fifties. The First and Last Chance gives us the most complete representation of lesbians, provides the most powerful critique of the false conduct/status dichotomy, and tells us the most about the racing and classing of lesbians.

Wiley Manuel, the California Deputy Attorney General who litigated on behalf of the ABC, chose a tone of ironic condescension for his description of the goings-on at the First and Last Chance:

Helen Davis,  a policewoman, was on the premises in May of 1956 with  another policewoman, Marge Gwinn. Buddy, a female waitress, greeted the policewomen who were later joined by the lesbian, Shirleen. Shirleen  told  Marge  "you're a cute little butch." Shirleen later grabbed Marge and kissed her. Buddy the waitress just said to watch it and if they continued to do that they should go to the restroom. The next night nothing apparently happened. The following night Buddy joined the group again with a trio of sexual  perverts.  Shirleen was not the only girl who took a liking to Marge for Buddy had grown quite fond  of Marge too. 
. . . .  On May  11, 1956  two  females  this  tune were observed  by Agent Sockyer holding hands affectionately. The only thing normal about this pair was that one of the couple used the women [sic] restroom.
Shirleen was rather fickle. Before she discovered policewoman Marge Gwinn she had kissed  another female patron.

The Deputy Attorney General went on to argue that the Business and Professions Code section was constitutional,  "[n]o matter how orderly the perverts are .... " He argued that the "evil to be prevented is clearly shown in the evidence" and that the statute was necessary  to "protect[]  innocent persons from being the object of unnatural advances, e.g., the policewoman who was kissed by the lesbian in this case." (That policewoman had gone undercover, in the words of the bar owner's attorneys, "disguised as a lesbian.")

The court of appeal issued a remarkable opinion that was staunchly skeptical of the Deputy Attorney General's impassioned arguments. The court found the pairing off and mannish attire relatively inconsequential:

If entitled to any legal significance, [it] merely emphasized the fact that the patrons were homosexuals or lesbians. Of  themselves, these acts did not amount to immoral, indecent, disgusting or improper acts. They merely tended to prove that the patrons were homosexuals, a fact the licensee admitted. That fact alone, for reasons already stated, did not justify revoking the license.

The court of appeal further emphasized that the paucity of evidence of wrongdoing was especially noteworthy given that "some officers [namely Helen Davis and Marge Gwinn] visited the First and Last Chance almost daily for nine months."

Read the rest here.

Other sources have clarified that this bar was called Mary's First and Last Chance, with the address listed above.

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