Monday, May 29th, 2023

An LA gay bar of the 1950s and its matron

Gay Bar:

The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s

by Will Fellows and Helen P. Branson

Published by University of Wisconsin Press

Published October 7, 2010
186 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

December 28, 2011

Though published by a university (Wisconsin) press, Will Fellows strikes me as a community historian (an “organic intellectual”) rather than an academic one.

The oral history collection Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest moved a large general audience. A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture seems aimed at a general audience. His most recent and quite odd book Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s is somewhat more academic, at least in Fellows’s part of the book, but is built around a very chatty memoir (originally published in 1957) by Helen P. Branson who ran a bar at 5124 Melrose (near the Paramount Studio) in Los Angeles during the 1950s.

I can’t improve on this précis:

After years of fending off drunken passes as an entertainer in cocktail bars, this divorced grandmother preferred the wit, variety, and fun she found among homosexual men. Enjoying their companionship and deploring their plight, she gave her gay friends a place to socialize.

In the Mom decade, Branson definitely was a den mother to “her boys” and quite censorious, particularly of any exhibitions of effeminacy. The book is an antidote to the romanticizing of gender transgressivity in Esther Newton’s Mother Camp and a whole lot of recent academic discourse about “queer” (which, now as ever, indexes gender unconventionality rather than sexual conduct). Far form drag queens being the “heroes” of pre-gay-liberation American male homosexuals, there were congregations of homosexual male Americans who loathed drag and effeminacy and wanted to hang out with gender-conforming (i.e., masculine-acting and -appearing) peers.

Fellows shows that this loathing of flaming “swishes” was not confined to Helen’s bar with quotations from Mattachine Review and ONE Quarterly letters from the 1950s.

BTW, the bar did not serve hard liquor: beer and soft drinks only. “No hugs or kisses, no affectionate touching, no same-sex dancing, nothing that would draw the suspicious attention of potential troublemakers, including the police.” California law proscribed congregations of “sex deviates” with enforcement in the hands of the very intolerant state liquor authority (Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) inspectors (see Nan Boy’s Wide Open Town on the ABC). And the LAPD Vice Squad was vigorous in entrapping gay men through the 1970s.

Anyone who came in whom Helen did not know or who was not vouched for by one of her regular “boys” was given a warm drink and a cold shoulder. (When Helen served a newcomer’s drink in an unchilled glass, it was a sign to her regulars: “This person is off-limits until I’ve figured out what he’s about and why he’s here and I give an all-clear signal.”) More than drinks, perhaps as much as companionship, Helen sold safety: not only from the vice squad, but from hustlers who “count on a gay person taking punishment without daring a complaint, and steal from them without fear of retribution. My demand that any newcomer be sponsored by a regular keeps these parasites at a minimum.”

Fellows considers “Gay Bar to be the first book by a heterosexual to depict gay people’s lives with admiration, respect and love. From today’s perspective Helen was not especially progressive, but for the 1950s she was truly extraordinary. After all, she ran a friendly little gay bar and wrote a book about it during America’s most anti-gay decade.”

Fellows supplements what must have been a very slim book with an introduction and follow-ups to Branson’s chapters that draw heavily on homophile publications from the time and the ONE archive at USC. Especially in that the project began in St. Paul, I thought it odd that there was no reference, let alone comparison, to Ricardo Brown’s The Evening Crowd at Kirsmer’s, a memoir by a customer of a gay bar in St. Paul, Minnesota from the late 1940s (published by the University of Minnesota Press). (I don’t recall any mention of Donald Vinings’s multivolume Gay Diary either (from the right coast). I was even more frustrated that the book does not include an index. It does include some photos and the original legitimating introduction by Blanche M Baker, Ph.D. (and discussion by Fellows of Branson, Baker, and Hal Call who was Mattachine San Francisco and published the 1957 book).

first published by epinions, 28 December 2011
©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.