History-Rich Los Angeles
Published in Xtra!, November 2012.
“There used to be signs in the windows of places for rent: ‘No Jews, dogs or actors allowed,’” Jim Anzide explains of West Hollywood’s colourful history as he takes me on “Hollywood’s first and only gay bus tour” (outandabout-tours.com).
“The area was very family-oriented,” he says, and the locals were fighting the influx of “movie people.” As a homo hunk in a tank top and short-shorts walks by, it’s clear who won. “Coming into the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” Anzide says, “this area filled with bohemians from the film industry.”
Because West Hollywood was not incorporated, Los Angeles police had little authority in the area, leading to looser laws and, ultimately, making it a gay haven.
It also saw an influx of Russian Jews during the 1980s. “Café Galea was nicknamed Kaffagela,” Anzide says, and the homos in the area were referred to as “gefilte swish.”
Anzide points out a number of modern queer landmarks, like the restaurant offering up fresh corn from the grill. Decades ago it became the home of the Metropolitan Community Church as the congregation outgrew the Reverend Troy Perry’s living room. Not far away is the site of the infamous Studio 1 nightclub (now called the Factory, home to twinks and their admirers). “This club shaped gay club life even today,” Anzide says, though not for the best. Back then it catered to a mainly white male gay crowd. “Anyone of colour, or women, was asked for three pieces of ID . . . the Professor of Gilligan’s Island’s son did an exposé to see who was being turned away. Big scandal.”
Drama and bars go drink in hand, and this being West Hollywood, it’s a double. We drive past the straight bar Barney’s Beanery, which sported a sign that said “Fagots [sic] stay out” until the country’s first openly lesbian mayor was elected in WeHo in 1984. One of her first acts was to “walk in and take it down.” It’s a perfect example of the region’s strained relationship with queers, where gays and lesbians have at times flourished while still facing horrific persecution.
A homophobic sign, however, pales before what lies ahead. We head downtown for some of the most emotional moments of the Out & About Tour.
Anzide takes us through a revitalized strip on what’s now Los Angeles Street. Back in the 1800s, “with the influx of newly freed Afro-Americans it took on the name Nigger Alley. That name was posted on street signs and maps until the City of LA changed that in 1877.”
As we move onto Hollywood he gestures to the slew of back alleys that were entrances for “pansy clubs,” which flourished during Prohibition. Effeminate men performed flamboyant drag numbers, and stars would “rush” to see them after a long shooting day.
After Prohibition, Hollywood’s flirtation with the deviant element changed dramatically. The curiosity for novelty in the “anything goes” era waned with the legalizing of booze, and the height of the Great Depression led to a strengthening of the religious right. Homos became enemy number one.
As we drive, Anzide points out the battered metal sign that says “Morris Kight Square/Co-founder of the world’s first street-closing gay pride parade/Sunday, June 28, 1970.” This victory was costly. Entrapment had long been used in many cities, with police officers posing as gay to entice men into compromising situations in places like public restrooms. With the booming movie industry, Hollywood had its own twist on this, “dating as far back as the silent film era.” The police hired handsome young men who had come west hoping to become stars but didn’t quite make it. Instead, these so-called Hollywood rejects would flash their junk at urinals or glory holes, and when their unsuspecting victims went for the bait arrests would follow.
There was a two-strike system. The first arrest could lead to six months in jail. The second time, “you were sent to Atascadero State Hospital . . . They’d be given a choice. Lobotomy or castration.” Both gays and lesbians were persecuted, some of them forced into hospital by family members.
We stop outside the beautiful Biltmore Hotel, whose grandiose interior has hosted presidents, celebrities and a gay revolution. While most gays think of New York’s Stonewall riots as the tipping point for gay rights, on the opposite coast a small group of queers, who were essentially tortured in mental institutions, fought back. It was here they won one of the most significant victories in the battle for gay rights.
In 1971 the country’s most influential psychiatrists gathered at the Biltmore to discuss policy. Disguised as doctors, a group of gays crashed the meeting. Half the psychiatrists fled, while others stayed and listened to how their “treatments” had destroyed these men’s lives.
Two years later homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders.
Hikes & bikes with a dyke
I highly recommend following up the rich Out & About tour with a Bikes and Hikes experience (bikesandhikesla.com). Discovering any city by bicycle is an amazing experience, but to do it in LA, with its car-centric network of freeways, is mind-blowing.
Thanks to the queer-friendly nature of the group, I also meet some charming gay Aussies, as well as our lesbian tour guide, Kim Beaudoin.
Our starting point is West Hollywood, where Bikes and Hikes is headquartered. (They have two locations and are the only bike touring company in the city; they also do rentals.)
In six hours we cover more than 30 miles, with lots of water and pee breaks. Beverly Hills and Bel Air present the biggest challenge with their many hills, but anyone of moderate fitness level should go for it (there’s also a shorter tour “that an 80-year-old grandmother” could handle). Highlights include Lucille Ball’s old place and the rental house where Michael Jackson died.
The rest of the route is fairly flat (topographically speaking), taking us down to Santa Monica, then along Venice Beach (where we pause for a healthy lunch of wraps and salads while ogling shirtless hotties headed to Muscle Beach). From there we glide by Marina del Rey (where Dexter comes to dump body parts) and veer toward Ballona Creek (site of the Terminator 2 motorbike chase). With an amazing bike path alongside it, the creek takes us all the way to Culver City, the final highlight on the tour. The Wizard of Oz was shot here (Beaudoin points out that in that pre-internet era most of the Munchkins actors had never met other little people. Like any marginalized set of individuals brought together for the first time, they partied. Hard.)
With my brain brimming with gay history and my body whacked by six hours of cycling, I wrap with a visit to Universal Studios theme park. The Simpsons TV show has long been a gay favourite, and fans will love the ride. Strapped into a car that tosses us around in a 3D simulation, we struggle to escape Sideshow Bob. The new Transformers ride is also hugely popular. I loved the studio tour, complete with cheesy Jaws attack. There’s something about visiting the clock-tower square from Back to the Future (still crushing on Michael J Fox), seeing the peaks of Dr Seuss’s campy Whoville’s towers poking up over the roof of the neighbouring Bates Motel (creepy!), and then driving through the airplane crash site from War of the Worlds. I mention the latter because Tom Cruise is not gay. You heard it here first.
WHERE TO STAY
Hyatt Regency Century Plaza
This beautiful hotel in Century City has a walk-in pool, hot tub and private cabanas, all steps from an Equinox fitness club and an upscale, open-air shopping plaza with the likes of Hugo Boss, Brooks Brothers and Bloomingdale’s. Car renters may want to take advantage of the Hertz location on site, and Starbucks is right there for your caffeine fix. centuryplaza.hyatt.com
Located directly across from CBS studios, where shows like The Price Is Right and Dancing with the Stars are taped, the Farmer’s Daughter is a fun, country-style hotel. It’s within easy driving distance of West Hollywood and is minutes from The Grove outdoor shopping mall, where hunky Mario Lopez tapes his Extra TV segments Monday to Friday. farmersdaughterhotel.com
The very friendly folks at the Sheraton Universal are clearly eager for visitors to have a good time. With its beautiful pool, hot tub and workout area, it’s just a shuttle-bus ride away from the Universal Studios theme park. It’s also a five-minute walk from the city’s red Metro line, which can take visitors into Hollywood. sheratonuniversal.com
In the downtown area, the historic Hilton Checkers is a great option. It’s close to the Metro, has a rooftop pool, whirlpool and sun deck — with an amazing downtown view — and offers easy access to Hollywood, the Museum of Modern Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. hiltoncheckers.com
With numerous direct flights to Los Angeles, American Airlines has some of the cheapest airfares to the City of Angels. aa.com
LA Tourism discoverlosangeles.com West Hollywood Tourism visitwesthollywood.com