The Gay 90's: An oral history
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.
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.
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.
Craig, customer: I came to the 90's for the first time in 1984. I was working downtown at JCPenney. I knew I had something going on that was different inside me, but I was scared. I was shaking when I first came inside. I didn't know the gay culture and Jeff, who is still bartending today, was the bartender the day I came in here.
Michael Bloom: I've always been an advocate for gay rights. It was our livelihood. The police department and the City Council were, up to that time, really homophobic. They didn't want nothing to do with the gay community back then. Brian Coyle became a City Council member and he was the first openly gay council person. The police department would park their paddy wagons in front of the Gay 90's to harass our customers. I'd call up Tony Bouza at 2 a.m. and he'd say, "Give me 20 minutes." And he'd show up in the bar. Tony and Brian were the first gay advocates in the city [administration].
Craig: I had never been in a gay bar. I didn't know if I was gay. Back then we just didn't talk about it. I remember when I first started coming here, there weren't many clubs downtown and it was the only big gay club. I was standing outside waiting to get in the bar with about 100 other people. Someone saw me and told my dad where I was the night before. He called me the next day and said I better not ever go to that bar again. I told him I wouldn't. It's just the way it was back in the '80s.
Bouza: By the time I got to Minneapolis, the gay issue was a very hot issue. There were two big bath houses. The gay issue was fraught, complex.
Phil Willkie, gay activist: I became active in the movement in 1977 and I was active in the DFL. I was a part of the militant camp of activists. Tony Bouza, that's a good story. That was the peak of my activism.
Bouza: [The police] used to have raids of the gay bath houses and would parade down the street with all the people they arrested and what they confiscated, like giant plastic penises. The last raid on the gay bath house took play on February 10, 1980. I was sworn in on February 11, 1980. I replaced the two commanders of the vice units that were conducting the raids. I never forbade any raids. I never issued an order that you can't raid the bath houses. What I said was I want other priorities to come first. That is low down on my priority list and we ain't going to get to that one until the others are done. Of course we never got to it and February 10 was the last raid.
Willkie: Tony was brought in to reform the police. Starting in 1979 the cops would raid the gay bath houses. The police department was always a problem in Minneapolis. There was a vice squad that would entrap people, people would get beaten up, there were at least a dozen murders that happened around Loring Park and the police didn't investigate them properly. People weren't properly charged. There were some really bad cops on the force.
Don Fraser, Minneapolis mayor 1980-1993: Brian Coyle was the council leader in the '80s [on issues concerning the gay community]. He was a good council member. It was sad when he died of AIDS. I worked with Tony Bouza directly on the issues. I supported his approach.
Bouza: Throughout the '80s and '90s we had a wonderful mayor who hired me. Donald Fraser. Great man. In the mid-'80s, Don authorized an ordinance which I supported that said in Minneapolis you could be a cop irrespective of your sexual orientation. Fraser and I said you can be gay and you can be a cop. I hired [current Minneapolis Police Chief] Janee Harteau.
Willkie: Fraser was elected mayor in 1980. Bouza was sworn in in 1980 and I organized a total disruption of the ceremony. We were frustrated and we wanted to show that we wanted change in the police department. Tony had a really good sense of humor. We burned our citations in the City Hall chamber, which set off the fire alarms. All the media, cops, politicians were there. It turned the whole thing into a three-ring circus.
Bouza: I was sworn in in the council chambers. Phillip Willkie and others burned the citations they had been issued on the last raid — in protest of my hiring. As far as they knew, I was just another monster in a long list of monsters that was going to give them a bad time and break their balls. They had no clue as to what I was about. My deputy chief told me I couldn't replace two vice commanders. I said I don't want my head to hit the pillow tonight without having these guys replaced. The next day we had two new vice commanders.
The Early 1990s
The fight for gay rights wasn't over as the 1990s began and AIDS ravaged the tight family of customers at the 90's. Despite the hardship, one of the most celebrated drag shows was born.
Michael Bloom: I saw hundreds of my friends who were customers die of AIDS in the late '80s, early '90s. Young kids in their 20s dying of aids. Then people got scared — scared to come to the Gay 90's and touch the place. That's when we started the first AIDS fundraiser in Minnesota. We started Healing of the Hearts that raised over $3 million in four years. A few years before the AIDS scare, we started the first drag queen show — the longest running drag show in the Midwest.
Waalen: I was Miss Gay Minnesota in 1991 and I learned to dance like a gazelle — leaping through the air as Dee Dee Richards, my stage name at the 90's. We had a progressive drag show director, Ron Seketti, at the time. I became show lounge manager in 1992. The show started in a tiny, long, narrow room next to the piano bar on the second floor of the 90's.
Nina DiAngelo, current drag show manager: Dee gave me a break and saw the potential in me. Dee is a super influential person in my life. She taught me how to sew, which is a big part of what I do now for designing costumes for queens.
Waalen: Michael [Bloom] told me we were going to renovate our small stage into a huge show lounge and we changed the showroom name to La Femme. I had a vision for a professional stage with theater performance drag queens. We grew the show to the biggest in the Midwest. We hired the best caliber entertainers. We made the drag show bright and public and not hidden away.
DiAngelo: Everybody that does drag wants to work in the 90's. Not only in the Twin Cities, but other states as well.
Max Malanphy, drag performer: RuPaul said you are born naked and the rest is drag. I like to define drag as the embodiment of everything we've been told we should suppress. It's an opportunity to express those things, and anything is possible.
DiAngelo: It's not easy to find talent, but it easy to find people who want to perform. A lot of girls think that once they put on a dress that they should be working at the 90's. Our show is not a proving ground for people. We put on a professional show and our entertainers are some of the most well-known and have competed nationally. In 2003, I competed and won entertainer of the year. Roxy, who has been there a little longer than I have, has placed in the top five in the national circuit. Cee Cee and Monica have all placed high at the national level.
Cee Cee, drag performer: I worked for MCI Worldcom in Colorado. They transferred me here to work on business accounts. I was in Edina and Minnetonka. They didn't know what to do with me coming in my three-piece business suit with a flowered vest. I finally quit and said, "It's diva time!" That's when I started working here full-time. We are like family. We spend more time together here than we do at home. The fabulous four had the greatest impact on drag. Dee changed the lounge. Nina changed the professionalism of drag. I introduced characters. And Roxy is the consummate professional.
Roxy Marquis, drag performer: I remember I had a mom come up to me after the drag show and she said, "My son is petite and feminine. You and your show have given me such comfort. If he can do something as beautiful as what you are doing up there, I will be a happy mom." I take that with me every time I go out on stage.
Malanphy: The 90's is a great venue for anyone, gay or straight. The 90's is like you step back to the classic drag show. The queens there are very in touch with how drag started as a performing art. It's a nostalgic, comforting feel.
From about the mid-1990s into the next century, the Gay 90's exploded — right alongside the gay rights movement.
Parker: When I first started, we had a women's bathroom, but there was no one to use it. We were the first bar that mixed both lesbians and gay men — a lot of stuff went down when there were women in a gay bar. Now we have every demographic that mash together. Black, Latino gay, lesbian, straight, transgender. We were the place that embraced the change around 2000 where we became the mainstream place for anyone who wanted to come. We got a lot of flak and took a hit. The older gay generation where their sexuality was kept in the closet — they reversely discriminated against the people that started coming. Subgroups were now welcome.
Willkie: The 90's was more mainstream than the Saloon, and from my perspective, wasn't a big part of the activism. They started advertising in the general press — the weeklies, the Reader and City Pages — as a dance bar without telling people it was a gay bar, so a lot of straight couples went there. There turned out to be some real problems. Guys would come on to guys that were straight and there would be fist fights. They were trying to make the bar both gay and at the same time appeal to a straight, younger audience.
Michael Bloom: Once we built the big stage, we'd get male strippers from all over the United States to dance in the bar. Strippers from Texas, New York, Atlanta — we'd get the top talent, like Miss Gay USA and the top queens from all over the United States. We'd have big performances, like Village People and Boy George and RuPaul.
Waalen: I remember the first bachelor party to get off their bus and come into the Gay 90's. They didn't cause any trouble, just wanted to come in and see the place.
Corey Bloom: We were booming. We sold so much beer — the only place that served more beer than us was the Metrodome. We outlawed Miller at the 90's because they didn't want anything to do with Gay Pride. We wouldn't serve Crown Royale — any liquor that didn't support gay rights.
DiAngelo: We are such a big club and we have a really good drag show, so we attract a lot of straight people. I do miss that cult following that is made up exclusively of gay people. But it's a double-edged sword. When you fill the room with straight people, the gay people don't feel like it's their home. It's part of the territory when you have a really good drag show and more than just gay people want to see it.
Michael Bloom: We were averaging about 4,000 people, seven nights a week. We'd have lines from the front door, past the Brass Rail, past the pizza joint, all the way to the next block. This is after we'd already hit capacity for the night. You have to understand, this was in the 1990s, when there were only six or seven bars in all of downtown Minneapolis. Now there are about 30 to 40 bars.
Hartigan: On Sundays, we have an all-age drag show along with an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet. Last week, we had a young girl about nine doing the drag show. It's amazing to see nuclear families come in for brunch and the drag show performances — the makeup, the outfits, the talent. It's an art.
As a new chapter in the gay rights movement transitioned into the right to marry, another chapter of the Gay 90's began after the Blooms sold their family business.
Michael Bloom: I sold the Gay 90's because I was offered a lot of money and it was time for a change. I never put it up for sale. Larry Flynt's son — from Hustler magazine — is the majority owner. This is a guess and a theory, but I think they have bars all over the U.S. and in Europe and they have people running the places in different states. Pete Hafiz is part-owner and runs the places for Flynt here in Minnesota.
Corey Bloom: I was barbacking at 15 and bartending at 18. Family. It was like a gay Cheers. It doesn't happen anymore. It's gone through a lot of changes. It's corporate now. Before it was a family-run joint on a large scale.
DiAngelo: The Gay 90's is my home. My best friends are there. When you go from a family business to a corporate business, there is a definitely a different way of doing things, but our relationships have stayed intact.
Bloom:I grew up in Plymouth and went to the Torah Academy. We used to have employee parties at our house. I'd see the neighbors looking out the windows as the drag queens walked by. It was normal for a 6-foot-5 black gay guy to be playing basketball with me and my brother in our driveway.
Bouza: The one thing that gays taught me is not depriving someone of a right unless you have a goddamn good reason for doing it. And that reason should be emblazoned in law. That's what the gay issue taught me more than anything else. Looking back, I changed people's behavior. I didn't change their attitudes one bit.
Waalen: I've seen good, I've seen bad. I just did a show for the first time in years last Friday night. Someone at the 90's told me I am a legacy. I never thought I'd be part of something like this. The people I hired are still my friends to this day. In fact, I met my husband at the Gay 90's. It was 26 years, 11 months, 11 days from the day we met until the day we got married on September 28, 2013.
DiAngelo: My mom asked me if I'd ever get married now. When I was kid growing up, I knew I was gay. Marriage was never a possibility, so I never dreamed of marrying the man of my dreams. Now, 20 years later, it is accepted. But I didn't spend the last 20 years looking for my husband or thinking about that future.
Bill: I still come here five nights a week even after 54 years. I love to play bingo, and the $2 tacos on Tuesday are really big and good.
Michael Bloom: My son would bartend at the front stage. He had hundreds of the same customers every week. Not 10 or 20. We are talking hundreds. We were a family.
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