The Gay 90's: An oral history

The famed Minneapolis bar bears witness to a city’s coming of age

The Gay 90's: An oral history
Sasha Landskov

A murder. A ghost. A vaudeville dance show. The original Victorian stage bar of the Gay 90's has been the backdrop for more than a half-century of transforming civil liberties in the Twin Cities.

Though the Gay 90's was a target of prejudice and harassment, it was also a living celebration of family ties, of close friendships, and of profound camaraderie, helping to take gay rights from taboo to mainstream. And it was instrumental in spawning an approachable and accepting community of broad-minded people.

This is not just the story of a bar. This is the story of a city's coming of age.

The Beginning

Sasha Landskov
Cee Cee
Sasha Landskov
Cee Cee

Robert Parker, general manager: The Gay 90's was called the Casablanca back in the '40s. It was a strip club that had famous strippers on the stage behind the bar. The place was renamed the Gay 90's in the '60s — this was before the vernacular change in the word "gay" and before the bar was a gay bar.

Michael Bloom, owner 1977-2008: Dick Gold owned the Gay 90's before we did. Al Cohen owned the Happy Hour and Dick and Al merged the two places together.

Parker: In the '60s there was only one bathroom at the Happy Hour. The Happy Hour was an underground gay bar and people that came to the Gay 90's started to hook up with people at the Happy Hour.

Bill, customer: I've been coming to the Happy Hour next door to the 90's since 1960 — 54 years. When I first started coming, the 90's was not a gay bar. It was a popular local dining spot and had live vaudeville and famous strippers, like Sophia Tucker. There was even a murder at the 90's around 1946 — a big union guy.

Parker: Above the little stage and the bar, there's a hallway that runs from a tiny room above the kitchen to the front of the building. In the '40s, it's rumored the room is where people would get a hooker and take the hallway out the door and not be seen inside the dining area.

Michael Bloom: The underground tunnels when we owned the place used to go all the way to the courthouse. When we first bought the bar, we walked through the tunnels. I won't comment on a ghost.

Corey Bloom, bartender and Michael's son: When I was little, I'd take a flashlight and my friends and we'd walk through the tunnels. I didn't ever see a ghost.

Parker: Yes, supposedly there's a ghost in the 90's. People have reported seeing her in the tunnels underneath the building. The tunnels connect all over the city. In the 1940s, deliveries would be dropped from the river and the tunnels connected up to the Lumber Exchange building and delivered. Now, the tunnels aren't connected anymore across Hennepin Avenue, but people who work here will say they see her down there or up in the hallway above the bar.

Karin Hartigan, assistant manager: I didn't believe it [the ghost]. I don't believe in those types of things. Until last year, I got a photo. The woman is in a full-length, turn-of-the-century gown standing on the bar. She is dark and everyone else on the bar is lit up with lights.

Late 1970s-1990

The Gay 90's grew from a small bar with a tiny stage into one of the biggest clubs in Minneapolis after the Blooms purchased it in 1977. As the bar grew in size, the gay civil liberties movement gained momentum.

Michael Bloom: My dad, Mort, bought the place and we were the third owners. When we bought the bar in 1977 it was already a gay bar. Right away, I had the vision to make it one of the biggest bars in Minneapolis. I bought the office spaces upstairs and the surplus store next door. We built the annex first — the dance area. Then we built the leather and piano bars.

Corey Bloom: My grandpa Mort, at 15 he escaped concentration camp from Lithuania with scarlet fever. He was honorably discharged after serving in the war at 17. He played baseball for the Cleveland Indians. There was nothing he didn't do. And then there's my dad. My dad wakes up super early between 4 and 5 a.m. and would head straight to the 90's and work until 2 a.m.

Don Waalen, 1990s drag queen show director: It was a gay man's bar in the '80s. No heterosexuals would step foot in the bar — no faghags either, typical females who are friends with gay boys. People would drive by the 90's and shout obscenities.

Tony Bouza, Minneapolis police chief 1980-1990: I respected the business they were doing at the Gay 90's and it was my job to make sure no one was being harassed by the Minneapolis Police Department. One of the outrages, the Minneapolis PD was at war with the gay community — certainly from 1970 to 1980.

Michael Bloom: There was so much prejudice in the police department, and now we have a gay police chief.

Corey Bloom: When you look back, you realize you were part of this huge movement and you didn't know it at the time. People yelling "Fags!" and even worse. It was so ugly. We had good security protecting our customers. Adam — our 7-foot-1 drag queen — he'd make cookies as big as my head. He took care of us and he did it all nonviolently.

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