The Palms may be the only lesbian bar in West Hollywood and the oldest continually operating lesbian bar in the Los Angeles area but it is far from the first lesbian bar in the area.
The June Mazer Lesbian Archives, located at 626 Robertson Blvd., adjacent to West Hollywood Park, maintains an extensive collection of lesbian-related information from across the nation. WEHOville consulted with the archive to learn more about some of the early lesbian bars in the area.
Angela Brinskele, the archive’s communication director, said that early records of lesbian bars are sketchy. Before the Stonewall riots, which are credited as the single most important moment leading to the gay liberation movement, police used to routinely raid gay and lesbian bars. As a result, people didn’t keep things that might associate them with those bars. To buy some protection for the bar and its patrons, lesbian bar owners often paid off police officers, either with cash or sex or both.
In 1991, the archive videotaped a half-dozen women reminiscing about the early lesbian bars. The archive hopes to hold another videotaping session this summer. People interested in reminiscing about lesbian bars from the 1950s to the 1990s should contact the Mazer.
The Mazer is still learning a lot about the bars of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Recently, the archive received a donation of several photographs dated August 1955, taken at a bar called the Green Door on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. The donation is notable, Brinskele said, because LGBT historians had never heard of the Green Door. Furthermore, the photos show women freely posing, which was rare in a time of police harassment.
Below is a brief history of some of the earliest lesbian bars in the Los Angeles area, gathered from that taping session, Lillian Faderman’s book “Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians” and other resources at the Mazer.
If Club – Located at Vermont Avenue and 8th Street (in what is now Koreatown), this is the earliest known lesbian bar, opening in approximately 1947. It was a working class, racially mixed bar. Sometime in the 1950s, The Open Door opened across the street, catering to a similar crowd. A 1966 “Barfly” gay guide described the If Club (also known as the If Café) as, “a crowd of butch girls, men in 40s, others from area.” That same guide described the Open Door as having the “same crowd as at If Café.”
Star Room – Located between Watts and Gardena in an unincorporated portion of Los Angeles County, this was a “cruising bar” that attracted a more pink-collar clientele (teachers, secretaries, nurses, etc). Opened in the mid 1950s, owner Jo Heston had to marry a man in order to buy the bar because laws at that time didn’t allow women to own bars. The laws also prevented Heston from pouring liquor, so the bar had male bartenders.
Club Laurel – Located in Studio City on Ventura Boulevard at Laurel Canyon, this was an upscale club with a dance floor owned by singer Beverly Shaw, a celebrity among the lesbian community. Shaw, who was described as having a sultry voice, often sat atop the piano to perform songs and dressed in tailor-made suits wearing a bow tie. Patrons tended to dress up when they went to Club Laurel, which one review described as an “uptown club unlike anything in the way of a gay club we had ever seen.” It opened to great fanfare in 1957, closing in approximately 1971.
Joani Presents – Located in North Hollywood at 6413 Lankershim Boulevard, this bar was owned by Joan Hannan, who was most famous for playing the drummer in the all-girl band in the 1959 Marilyn Monroe film “Some Like it Hot.” Attracting many classes of women, the bar was popular throughout the 1960s and 1970s, only closing when Hannan and her partner moved to Humboldt County.
Canyon Club – Located in Topanga Canyon between Malibu and Pacific Palisades, this was a private membership club complete with a swimming pool that attracted “women who looked like women” (which today would be known as “lipstick lesbians”). Drawing a more professional crowd who couldn’t risk being arrested in a police raid, women gladly paid the $20 yearly membership fee. If the police did drive up, management would flash the lights, indicating women dancing with women should trade partners with the men dancing with men. Same-sex dancing was illegal in Los Angeles County until the 1970s.