Saturday, October 31, 2015

Famous Door

From the Famous Door's later incarnation as a gay
male bar in the 1970s
Famous Door

Location: 1786 Madison, Memphis, Tennessee, USA

Opened: 1969

Closed: 1969

As far as I can tell, Famous Door was a (predominatly) lesbian bar for only a few months in 1969. However, even that history is buried in the location's subsequently more famous history as a gay male bar known as George's. 

From a book called Carryin On In the Lesbian and Gay South, specifically the chapter called "Softball and Alcohol: The Limits of Lesbian Community in Memphis from the 1940s through the 1960s" by Daneel Burring: 

Memphis's first primarily lesbian bars opened in the late 1960s. Nancy, one of the narrators, entered into the lesbian bar business in 1969 when she took over the lease for a bar named the Famous Door. She subleased the Famous Door from a lesbian couple who had previously owned the Raven and the Aristocrat [two mixed gay private clubs in Tipton County, Tennessee].The bar had originally opened as the Twilight Lounge Tavern. At the time, the Twilight Lounge catered to both gays and lesbians; however, when Nancy took it over lesbians predominated. After a short time Nancy gave up the lease on the Famous Door and opened the Psych-Out, which legally changed names several times throughout the 1970s but always referred to as the Psych-Out by patrons.

Later on, the article adds:

None of the butch narrators who participated in this study was ever prosecuted for cross-dressing, but several remember the anxiety they felt about going to the bars.

"If you pulled up in front of the Famous Door, and this was done many times, and you saw a police car there, you drove around and around and around. If you were in there when they came in and . . .you had your arm around somebody, you dropped it. If you sere sitting a little bit closer, you immediately tried to act straight. You wouldn't dare talk back."

This selection from an article at Memphis Vive Magazine adds a few more details. Notice that once again, we see a familiar theme: how gay men take over lesbian space and make it their own. And how the lesbian usage of that space is effectively erased from that history, so that only a few random individual women remain--even "Nancy,"the one who took over the lease for a time and made it into a lesbian bar, has disappeared. Also notice that this article on the history of George's and gay bars at that location (if you look it up) includes no photographs of women or lesbians--just drag queens and gay men. 

It was way back in 1960, a long time before gay acceptance by society was even a dream, that a woman remembered only as “Lou” opened a little, dumpy beer bar at 1786 Madison called The Twilight Lounge. In those days the term “closet” meant “dungeon.” Sharon Wray (an owner or partner in many gay and lesbian bars in Memphis) used the phrase, “Gays were allowed to come in.” Gathering places were rare and usually far from town such as Ben’s, near Lehigh, AR, and the Raven, across the Tipton county line. Lou discovered that the gay crowd was a well-behaved crowd and that they spent money and kept coming. Thus was the location established.

The name changed for the first time to Cookie and Blanche’s in a year of two; no one remembers whether the two women were actually lesbian or not but the crowd was still encouraged to come. Mike Rollins took over the ownership in 1965, took back the original name and it was a bartender who leaned over the bar to kiss a sailor which caused the bar to be busted and closed. The newspaper story read, “Twilight Kiss Closes Twilight Lounge.” In order to smooth things over, a lesbian was produced and the two people involved swore that they were a couple. The ruse worked and a much more discreet Twilight Lounge reopened.

George Wilson

The ownership passed to two women named Kay Thornton and Sarah Forbes in 1969 and the name changed to The Famous Door. Several times that year, the establishment changed hands, even once belonging to Sharon Wray and business partner Carolyn Marbury. In those days beer and setups were sold. The laws were very exacting: a bar could be cited for allowing a patron to stand up to drink; they had to be seated. Beer could be sold until 12 AM, then later up until 1 AM. Sharon remembers that water setups had to be poured from a pitcher, as there was no sink behind the bar.

George Wilson had moved to Memphis and opened an antique business. He was persuaded to become involved with the long-time gay hangout at the end of 1969. He finally obtained ownership and called it merely The Door. After the new year, an old acquaintance named Dennis Belski moved back to town and was hired to tend bar. George had also acquired a new lover/partner from Canada, Don Rossignol by name. The sun was about to rise in an explosion of glitter and sequins.

In a history written by and/or interviewing lesbians, somebody would know who "Lou" and "Cookie" and "Blanche" were, and whether they were lesbians. Here they are merely ciphers. Of course, lesbians would pay attention to such things. To gay men, they are merely background figures in the scenery. 

In addition, notice that this article on this history of the Memphis white gay male community makes no mention of this location's previous existence as even a short-lived lesbian bar. 

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