By Ian Darnell
April 8, 2016: The St. Louis LGBT History Project recently identified photographs of three early LGBTQ-oriented bars. Dating to the 1940s and 1950s, these are among the oldest images we have found of St. Louis-area LGBTQ drinking establishments. The images were discovered in the Missouri History Museum's collection of historical photographs of St. Louis streets scenes. The special significance of these photos seems to have previously gone unrecognized.
The first photo (above), dated 1941, is of the Market Tavern. It was located at 601 Market Street, now on the site of Kiener Plaza near the Old Courthouse. This nightclub was in business from mid-1930s (shortly after the repeal of Prohibition) to the early 1940s. While it was definitely a "queer space" (to use a modern phrase), Market Tavern might not have a "gay bar" in the sense that its clientele was predominantly LGBTQ. The Market Tavern hosted performances by "female impersonators"—what we would now normally call "drag queens." During the 1930s, a nationwide fad called the "Pansy Craze" briefly popularized "female impersonation" and other forms of risqué, gender-bending entertainment. In New York, Chicago, and other cities, many "normal" people visited nightclubs that specialized in these types of acts. The Market Tavern seems to have been a St. Louis-area example of the "Pansy Craze." St. Louis LGBT History Project researchers are in the process of accessing police and court records that might help us learn more about the Market Tavern and the "female impersonators" who worked there.
The second photograph (see arrow above), taken in about 1946, shows the exterior of Uncle John's tavern. On the right side of the photo, you can make out a sign reading "Uncle John's" beneath an advertisement for Budweiser beer.
Part of another bar, the Entre Nous tavern, can be seen in the far left of the third photograph (see arrow above). This photo appears to have been taken in the late 1950s. The entrance to the Entre Nous can be seen beneath an advertisement for Stag beer. The first floor of the building was occupied by the bar; the second floor was taken up by Busy Bee Billiards. In business for a number of years in the 1940s and 1950s, Uncle John's and the Entre Nous were located nearly across the street from each other on the 600 block of Pine Street in downtown St. Louis. The buildings where the bars were located have since been demolished and replaced with parking garages.
Uncle John's and the Entre Nous seem to have mostly attracted men who were sexually interested in other men. Because the two bars catered to this clientele of "degenerates," they both drew the attention of the St. Louis police, who sometimes raided the bars and arrested their customers and employees.
Last year, the St. Louis LGBT History Project uncovered police reports documenting one of these raids. The reports, which offer a fascinating glimpse at LGBTQ nightlife in St. Louis in the 1950s, were the subject of another article published on the Project's website. The Project is continuing its efforts to reconstruct the history of St. Louis's early LGBTQ-oriented bars which also include Dante's Inferno, Martin's, and Madame Touhy's. Look forward to future posts about these bars and their owners, customers, and troubled relationship with the police.
Images copyright Missouri History Museum, St. Louis