Flash From The Past
by Tim Turner
And help from others...
When you look at some of the photos from the Playroom Club era, 1978 to 1986, it almost seems as though everyone was happy and gay during that period in time. From what I remember, we were. We worked hard and we played hard, like most Americans at that period in history. The end of the Free Love Era certainly was not evident in the gay club scene in the late 70's. AIDS was pretty much unknown, at least in our part of the world, life was good...spirits were high, there was uncharted territory.
Around 1970, I got to hear great stories of the first known gay bars in the Tulsa area. Tropical Gardens, as far back as the Early 40s, operated by two sisters in an old filling station; The Blue Note Lounge located on North Denver during the 40s and 50s; The Blue Haven opened November, 1948 by the 'much loved' Producer, Activist and Entrepreneur, the late M.C. Parker.
M.C. Parker and Tim Warren would later cultivate and produce the largest, most spectacular Oklahoma Gay Event in history, the Miss Gay Oklahoma Pageant at the Camelot Inn. (Tim Warren, his life partner forty years his younger, was later murdered and his body discovered in Mohawk Park. The murder was never solved, as well as most gay murders in our city as I recall. ) M.C. was a promoter, he contracted sponsorship by major brand names such as Phillip Morris and Halston and achieved an estimated attendance of over 2000, and that's not including the number of baptist protesters outside the hotel. The Camelot was sold out for this event for one of the few times in it's history, it was said, and was never the same afterwards. The entire event was, to say the least, amazing... especially for it's time in history. We could talk about it for hours over cocktails sometime.
The Milwaukee Tavern, a 40s and 50s lesbian bar located at about 15th and Cincinnati; Bishops Bar, 40s and 50s located downtown with a mixed crowd, but a popular gay hangout; The St. Moritz 40's and 50s located on South Main which was THE place to go and was closed down after a move, in anticipation of Liquor by the Drink... which didn't pass. Little Mexico, late 50s, owned by Thurman Glynn. The Doghouse, owned by Bob Johnson. The famous Skoo-Bee-Do Club owned by Paul Scott who, rumor has it, met with a curious and untimely death in Hawaii.
Then there were the clubs I have personal memories of. At 20 years old I actually had no idea there were nightspots that were frequented by crowds of gays. I actually thought that there might be at least ten other gay people in the whole State of Oklahoma. That was, until I ventured into Friends Lounge at 3rd and Utica, owned by Tracy McLaughlin, aka Tony. Tracy has always been somewhat of my mentor as far as the club business. He ran a tight ship and a good bar. He worked hard and loved giving the kids a safe place off the streets. Friends Lounge was famous for it's Friday night drag shows and was a coming out place for hundreds over the years. Unfortunately, much of the potential profits went for court costs and attorney fees over time. Frequent police raids and obvious, blatant incidents of harassment were much too frequent and it was my first personal experience of bigotry, political and social intolerance. I was amazed to realize that at the same time I had discovered a multitude of others of the same sexual orientation, I was also unknowingly transcending from a safe, accepted majority into that of an often misunderstood and shunned minority. The battle, for me, had begun.
Tracy did a lot toward gay acceptance in Tulsa and for Oklahoma. Most of which today's generation will never realize. But Tracy never wanted the spot light, he only wanted to be left alone and given an opportunity to make a living and provide a place for gay people to go. Equal treatment to straight bars. I will never forget, with amusement, one time when Tracy was to appear in court on a trumped up charge of some kind, I asked him if he had a good attorney and he told me he didn't need one. When I asked why not, he told me to show up in court and see for myself. Tracy showed up in court with five stunning, outlandish, drag queens and the case was thrown out before they had a chance to parade to the witness stand. The Judge didn't want his court room turned into a circus, although the police had already taken the first step towards that end. Friends lounge would later move West down third street to be called Tracy's, then The New Edition and later sold to Jimmy and Roy and became the new location for the Tool Box, which moved from downtown where Renegades is still located.
Around the same era, things were hopping downtown. (The Fruit Loop as it was called.) Friends Lounge was less than 5 minutes from the famous pink pool table in the Zebra Lounge on Main Street, owned by Tom Oliver, which was just around the corner from the Taj Mahal, owned by Norma Peterson and later purchased by the late Pete Longenbaugh and Robert Kowalski (aka Sugar). Sugar was the victim of a brutal knifing inside the Taj Mahal after hours....also unsolved. The Fruit Loop was notorious for hustlers and parking lot parties for 'after clubbers' and those too young to make it past the I.D. check at the clubs. The police seemed to just allow it for a period of time then would randomly decide to clamp down... but the revelers would return and the cycle would continue.
About the only dance club, The Gala at 11th and Lewis, (Just under the Meadow Gold Milk Sign), eventually to be re-opened as Tim's Playroom Club, (Yours Truely) had been closed for about 5 years, and that left Mary and Jody's The Club" on Memorial which had a very strict door policy and was a good distance from the downtown action. "The Club" was probably one of the most versatile gay/lesbian mixes next to the Gala of all times. We all partied together, both inside and out.
I saw the vacancy for a dance club and had the itch to get into the gay club business myself. I eventually met a new acquaintance who's uncle (uh huh) purchased a huge brick 13,500 sq. ft. masonry building at 911 S. Main, which was very close to the action and would fill the void in the club scene. With a lot of ambition, sweat, learning experiences and a little borrowed money, Tulsa's grandest, most beautiful Art Deco Disco to date (one of the first) opened with a frenzy. I'm thinking that it was about 1974. Bright red walls and bar lined with metal flake padding, mirrors out the ying yang and a beautiful Art Deco stage with Silver Lamé curtains, The Queen of Hearts Club and Cafe would be short lived, but it introduced Tulsa to a new era of national advertising, dance clubs with professional sound and light shows, DJ's, pageants, national entertainers like the Laughing Kahunas from Hawaii and Sami Joe Cole known for her hits, "Tell me a Lie" and "It Could Have Been Me", and brought hundreds more out of the closet in Tulsa and OKC. It also began to draw more attention from the city fathers which meant more media coverage, more cops....more lawyers.
After the Queen of Hearts closed, it became New York, New York for a while and then was purchased by Evelyn White who named it The Fountain of Youth, then The 911 Club, then Papillon. After Evelyn sold it to Bill Oliver, who closed the Zebra after some 20 years, it became Caruso's. People loved the club, as did I, and didn't want to let it go. Carusso's was later demolished for parking space along with Mary's, our favorite wino bar which was snuggled between Queen of Hearts and the Tiffany Club at 915 S. Main, owned by the late Jim Smith, Robert Wilson and some other idiot. Anyway, at least my first 'dream club' became established in the minds of many.
I then dabbled with Tim's Anything Goes Club, a plush conversation cocktail lounge at 58th and Peoria in the rear of the center and gave it up as "too quiet" after a short time for the opportunity to manage the New Plantation Club with some guys from Dallas, at 51st and Yale.
Eventually, through trial and error and with a tip from a well known and much appreciated Tulsa Newspaper sports writer, I opened the type of bar that I was most comfortable in.(Trashy Classy, as some called it, very much like Tramps is today!) He pointed me to a location that had been a well known gay hang-out for close to twenty five years (Including the next seven) and had been closed for the previous five years. Thus, becoming one of Tulsa's most controversial yet fun, notorious and nationally known gay clubs ever, Tim's Playroom Club. Eventually we joined in with the OHR Blueboys and helped gay softball achieve fame in Oklahoma. We had national invitational tournaments in Tulsa as well as traveled to Houston, Dallas, Kansas City , OKC and Wichita. It really helped put Tulsa on the gay map. We once played in one of the nations largest invitational gay tournaments in Houston among a field of twenty two teams from places such as New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and won the Most Spirited Team (Miss congeniality) award. I still think it's because we had the best-looking team there and we made more friends in the bars. Team Photo
Doubling in size in just a few years, The Playroom would offer a diverse crowd a variety of entertainment and events. From a Cruise Bar at noon to a wild, thumping Dance bar at night Tulsa got it's first feel of Cerwin Vega Earthquake speakers in a bar that pounded away at the fifty year old brick walls causing them to crumble. It also got a close up look at dozens of Tulsa's Police Officers who constantly toured with flashlights in their hands and disgust and smirks in their faces. It was an ongoing battle. We had it set up so that whichever of the staff went to jail for whatever trivial or trumped up reason, Team B would contact the attorney to bail out Team A and reopen immediately. During the seven years of operation there were more than fifty arrests of myself or staff members and resulted in NO CONVICTIONS. Imagine that. Eventually, with the help of KOTV Channel Six who did a thirty minute segment on Tulsa gays, most of which was filmed in my bar and called "Strangers In The Night" (of which they no longer recall or can find a copy of in their archives), and aired it during prime time, a face to face discussion with then Tulsa Police Chief Jack Purdy and a meeting with a nationally recognized attorney who could not represent us because of conflicting interests, but made a strong recommendation to the Police Department Internal Affairs that they cease the harassment and change their policy and treatment toward gays or face another Stonewall or worse, a lawsuit.
Things got much better for a few years. Some policy changes were eventually made and the attitudes seems to have improved somewhat over time. Although there were still questions, such as the tragic and unbelievable unsolved multiple murder of manager Robert Kowalski (aka Sugar)and another, which inadvertently closed the downtown version of the Taj Mahal. There were several other unsolved gay murders in Tulsa before and after that incident. (another story) Pete tried moving the Taj to 11th & Lewis behind the Playroom, in the old Zebra Club, but I don't recall that it lasted too long.
It surprises most to hear that there were as many as thirteen active, open gay bars in Tulsa during this time frame and most were successful. Great clubs with another complete history behind them, such as Zippers at 33rd and Yale owned by the late John Willis and of course the legendary Bamboo Lounge on Pine Street which has reopened a couple of times since the infamous late Gene Curnigan.Tulsa Mining Company, Seekers Choice, Over the Rainbow and Dante's, just to name a few, but none bring back the memories of the early days like the old downtown scene as seen in many other larger cities.
Due to the eventual adoption of the much misunderstood at the time, and misconstrued by the public, Liquor by the Drink, I realized that the end of the club business, as I knew it, had come. Gone were the back-door bottle club days. The bulk of the profits would now be re-directed from the owners and investors to the government coffuers, using a common method known as over-taxation and regulations.....or progress, as some would call it. But that is yet, another story all together.