George’s – A History
“Twilight Kiss Closes Twilight Lounge” – “The men were arrested recently at The Door…” – “George’s – the queen mother of Memphis gay bars…” – “GDI On the River opens…” —— these phrases all speak of one of the fondest remembered gay institutions in Memphis—George’s. It was 20 years, in the year of grace 1989, since George Wilson took over the little saloon at 1786 Madison and at least 25 since the Twilight Lounge made the papers because one man kissed another. Hundreds of people; gay, lesbian and non-gay, came out, went out, grew up, passed by, and passed on knowing the name George’s and knowing full well what that name stood for. In April of 1989, it was high time its history was written and this writer began talking to those who had been around since the beginning.
The Early Years
It was way back in 1960, a long time before gay acceptance by society was even a dream, that a woman remembered only as “Lou” opened a little, dumpy beer bar at 1786 Madison called The Twilight Lounge. In those days the term “closet” meant “dungeon.” Sharon Wray (an owner or partner in many gay and lesbian bars in Memphis) used the phrase, “Gays were allowed to come in.” Gathering places were rare and usually far from town such as Ben’s, near Lehigh, AR, and the Raven, across the Tipton county line. Lou discovered that the gay crowd was a well-behaved crowd and that they spent money and kept coming. Thus was the location established.
The name changed for the first time to Cookie and Blanche’s in a year of two; no one remembers whether the two women were actually lesbian or not but the crowd was still encouraged to come. Mike Rollins took over the ownership in 1965, took back the original name and it was a bartender who leaned over the bar to kiss a sailor which caused the bar to be busted and closed. The newspaper story read, “Twilight Kiss Closes Twilight Lounge.” In order to smooth things over, a lesbian was produced and the two people involved swore that they were a couple. The ruse worked and a much more discreet Twilight Lounge reopened.
The ownership passed to two women named Kay Thornton and Sarah Forbes in 1969 and the name changed to The Famous Door. Several times that year, the establishment changed hands, even once belonging to Sharon Wray and business partner Carolyn Marbury. In those days beer and setups were sold. The laws were very exacting: a bar could be cited for allowing a patron to stand up to drink; they had to be seated. Beer could be sold until 12 AM, then later up until 1 AM. Sharon remembers that water setups had to be poured from a pitcher, as there was no sink behind the bar.
George Wilson had moved to Memphis and opened an antique business. He was persuaded to become involved with the long-time gay hangout at the end of 1969. He finally obtained ownership and called it merely The Door. After the new year, an old acquaintance named Dennis Belski moved back to town and was hired to tend bar. George had also acquired a new lover/partner from Canada, Don Rossignol by name. The sun was about to rise in an explosion of glitter and sequins.
Dennis remembers deciding to have a drag show one evening. Just like that. “It wasn’t as if we never had heard of it. We had had shows at The Hunt [on Jackson Ave] and Dixie had done shows at the Aristocrat [in Tipton County].” A milestone had been reached with the first public Miss Gay Memphis pageant, which was held at the Guild Theatre [Now Evergreen Theatre] on Halloween of 1969 with no arrests. “There was a piano, a Hammond organ and a palm tree, painted in Day-Glo colors with a black light,” Sharon said. Drag was done live with piano accompaniment. Much of it was camp and comedy. Don Rossignol was an accomplished singer and George credits much of the first successes of The Door to the talent of the performers. The attempt to keep the shows new and different saw the beginnings of lip-sync pantomime–in the beginning, each drag queen had to put on and take off her own record. More performers were added, Don became MC (and DJ) and finally group and production numbers were added. Production numbers became a trademark of the bar. George had a character named “Marilyn Misfit”, Dennis was “Melina” and Don went by “Danielle.” George Wilson became even better known to the community and, though he owned a bar named The Door, everyone was soon saying, “Let’s go on down to George’s.” In 1971, he changed the name to George’s Theatre Lounge, henceforward known as George’s.
George’s Becomes a Landmark
In 1971, George’s was raided by the police department for cross-dressing (a strange ordinance on the city books) and lewd behavior (a performer kissing another man who had just tipped her). The drag queens were photographed in drag for mug shots. “I kept asking them to let me change. I was in a green Afro wig about 3 feet wide. But they wouldn’t,” said Dennis “Melina” Belski. This was September 15. “They told us at first that we could never, ever do it again, that we’d get closed every time. Well, you know what a bitch I am, I said they’re not gonna do this to me.” Business became extremely bad and everyone was afraid to go to George’s. Dennis and Don decided to throw caution to the winds and do a show. That show was Don’s first appearance in drag, doing an Edith Piaf impersonation. They were not raided again. John T. “Buddy” Dwyer represented the men in court and on October 9, all charges were dismissed by Judge Ray Churchill. Then Melina, Danielle (Don), Heather and Loretta became heroes/heroines just as the drag queens at Stonewall in New York had been. Business boomed and gay pride became a real concept in Memphis.
The first major expansion of the bar came in 1972-3. Disco lights and liquor were added, the first in a Memphis gay bar. Dancing was done with one eye on the front door for police and a complex code system for changing the dance floor to a dining area like lightning. It was again Buddy Dwyer who acquired the dance permit for George’s. He personally railroaded it through all the necessary approvals. “Nowhere on the permit did it say who would be dancing with whom,” recalled Sharon Wray. Charges had been dismissed against another bar called The Closet, after a raid resulting in the arrest of four couples, and the disco era had begun.
In 1976 and 77 another passing remark resulted in the well-known moniker “George’s Truck Stop and Drag Bar” which came complete with T-shirts and promotional photos of the cast atop the hood of a large truck. This writer has had news of one souvenir ashtray, owned by a prominent actor/impersonator from Memphis, which has surfaced intact.
In 1978, the final expansion was accomplished. George bought the Procape’ coffee shop to the left of the bar on Madison Ave. and named it Le Cafe. It was connected to the showbar which now stretched from the new cafe to the wall behind Mercury Valet Cleaners, taking up most of the building. Improvements to plumbing and parking had been added, the lighting was improving and video games had taken their places next to the pinball machines. The seating capacity had risen from 39 to 600 without counting the cafe. Many non-gay people were coming by to dance and see the show. To many, George’s was THE gay bar in Memphis though, in reality, there were a number of others. George’s was even a stop on the very first St. Patrick’s day pub crawl. This writer was present at the Blessing of the Kegs, in the sunken bank courtyard at Main and Monroe, and then, after a quick change, met the crawl for beer and dancing at George’s on Madison. The crawl then ended in Overton Square. It was a day not to be forgotten.
George’s on Marshall
Dennis “Melina” Belski stated, “George wanted to own his own bar. The rent on Madison was terrible.” George said, “Well there was the Front Page on South Cleveland, the Psych-Out on North Cleveland and the Rain Check 2 on Jackson [between Main and Second} downtown. I wanted a place where people would pass by on their way to and from.” That spot was the old Alexander Tile Company building at 600 Marshall and a large automotive building next door. The year was 1979. There were many problems. The building was gigantic with a main floor (the showbar with a dance floor); a lower level with a second, larger dance floor; a smaller split-level upper floor; an adjacent large room (The French Connection restaurant); and the adjacent building which was cavernous in itself called The Barracks Disco. George and Don even moved into the upper section for a while (and survived on beans, according to Sharon Wray) living “over the store.” They had acoustical problems, visibility problems (a DJ needs to watch his dancers) and the closing of the downtown Rain Check II about one week after George’s moved nixed the notion of people traveling between the Midtown bars and George’s and the downtown disco. Success finally arrived as all three main level sections opened along with the lower dance floor. Turnabout Night, Miss Gay Memphis, Miss Mess Memphis, Miss Mod and a host of other entertainments found a home on Marshall St. The aim was: Something For Everyone.
Between the years 1979 and 1984 many venues came and went that were associated with “Georgetown” (as some referred to the area). The Coach House on Monroe (later known as Terry’s Townehouse–now Kudzu’s) had a “cell block” motif in the basement and a leather dress code. The Psych-Out 2 on Marshall was a spacious women’s bar. Club Peaches, on Jackson in the old Rain Check building (a former reformed Jewish temple, now empty), was financed by George and Don and operated by Lady Peaches, a well known black impersonator. Sam’s (named for Sam Graves) was a quieter small bar in the next block from George’s on Marshall. None of these locations was open for long. “Everyone who didn’t like me stayed away and everyone who didn’t like George stayed away,” said Sharon Wray who operated the PO 2. “We both lost at that location.” The Memphis leather community was not strong enough at the time to support its own bar. Conflicts of interest closed Club Peaches. Sam’s just fizzled.
The Marshall St. George’s had problems of its own. The newest name “George’s Krisco Disco” didn’t catch on. Complaints of discrimination against black patrons, the removal of the local gay newspaper (Gaze) from the three bars, and many malicious rumous and accusations arose. Competition between the Marshall St. bars and others had its vicious moments. George did remember 1981 as the banner year. “We had that Halloween 1,300 people in George’s and 1,000 people in the Barracks,” he said. The Barracks was leased out as Trapper John’s for a short while, closed for a few months and renamed Rumors when it reopened, “…because of all the rumors about it flying around,” remembered George. The lower floor of the main bar went from peep shows to pool tables to video games to a gift shop and boutique to just being boarded up. However, stories, photos and fond memories abound from the Marshall St. years. Many remember it as the George’s.
In 1984 the partnership, on all levels, of George Wilson and Don Rossignol was dissolved. Don retained the bar operations and George retained the Club South baths and the Georgetown Inn. This occupied the present location of Strings and Things on Madison at Marshall and was a bath house and spa on the lower floor and a guesthouse on the second. It housed for a short time the Aristocrat restaurant, also run by the owners. George later remarked that this business was the one he was proudest of and enjoyed the most. Steve Cooper, a well-known name in the adult bar business, purchased the bar complex with all its memories, rumors, foibles and legends the weekend before Thanksgiving of 1984.
Steve and his gay brother Frank went into partnership to revamp and operate George’s. Many gay bars of the 70s and 80s were not pleasant places compared to mainstream clubs. The restrooms were usually very basic and not extremely well kept. In the era where non-gay owners put as little as possible into businesses catering to gays and lesbians people didn’t expect much. The money went into sound systems, lighting systems and such rather than good furniture and fancy rest rooms–and the bars saw rough use as well. Frank remarked, “I had never been to George’s. It was so dirty and run down I wondered why people would come to such a place.” David daPonte, Frank’s partner and later co-owner of the business, recalled that George’s, for all its shortcomings was, “like a community center in those days. It’s where everybody saw everybody else.” So, the new owners began a long process of remodeling and cleaning up.
George’s had always had its share of non-gay visitors who came to dance and watch the shows. There had been graduation parties from the Memphis College of Art at George’s where graduates went to where their friends partied. The new owners decided to expand this mix. It had seemed a good idea; for a while in the 1980s, Sunday night at TGI Friday’s in Overton Square was known as Rave Night featuring new music and dancing, a different format than normal. Gay and non-gay people all came. David remembered, “It was gay night at Friday’s, guys danced with guys and girls with girls. Then, suddenly one weekend, they would not let in anyone who was gay or lesbian. We didn’t understand why because it didn’t seem to bother the non-gay people who had been there.” Rave Night died a slow death after gays were not allowed. Frank’s idea was to have a gay bar that was every bit as nice as any other bar. “George had done so much to make gay people comfortable with being gay, now we wanted to bring people together and make everyone comfortable with one another,” he said. On New Year’s Eve of 1984 the refreshed location hosted 1,200 people including George Wilson himself who dragged a terrified Frank Cooper onto the stage and introduced him to the huge crowd. Both were wildly applauded. Frank became sole owner in 1985.
The new management had its own set of problems, not the least of which was the 1984 raising of the drinking age from 19 to 21. Business had fallen off considerably. There was the recurring problem of putting large spaces to use. The Rumors section was attached to George’s, then separated again, pained red and named Inferno. Many different types of entertainment were tried at George’s including closing that block of Marshall for GayFest during the 1987 Pride celebrations. However, hundreds of people continued to come for entertainment, pageants, benefits and special events. George’s remained a famous location and, to many, THE Memphis gay bar. Later that year, now more experienced in the bar business, Frank decided to move from what he felt to be a poor location. On Halloween weekend, a very sentimental closing saw the end of another era in the life of George’s, many employees were in tears and the patrons refused to leave until Frank himself came down to turn on the lights for the last time. The story was not quite over.
GDI on the River
In 1987 Frank Cooper and David daPonte struck up a business relationship with Jackie Wilson and Lamar Jones who ran a bar at 92 North Avalon which, in its day, was home to an entire string of gay and lesbian bars. The building was torn down to make way for the midtown Home Depot. Frank and David’s bar took the upstairs section which they called Temporary Quarters and opened six days after George’s on Marshall closed. The shows continued and after a while the crowds returned. David remembered his New Year’s resolution for 1988 was, “We will not try to pack 500 queens into 3,000 square feet again.” Frank had purchased the Delta Casket Company building at Front and Huling. Much conflict arose with Henry Turley, developer of the residential building across the street, which forced the casket company spot to be abandoned due to lack of parking. The next choice was the old Shoreline restaurant at Front and Pontotoc. The Wagner St. end of the building had been the Shoreline Restaurant with a river view. The center section was small cubicles and rest rooms and the Front St. end hadn’t been used in many years. The contractor had the owners stay away from the building for two days and gutted it completely to the brick walls, wooden supports and sloping wooden floor. The floor sloped because it had been originally a cotton warehouse. Several plans were proposed and altered and many snags had to be overcome with the Fire Inspector, Building Inspector, Health Department, Liquor Board and various permit offices. The DJ booth was still being constructed and the light system still being hung just before opening. The liquor stock arrived around 5 pm on opening day.
This was April of 1988. GDI on the River–George’s Disco Incorporated–was off and running. It was a different image–huge open spaces, a river view, a cafe, elaborate show lighting, but staff and performers were carrying on the George’s tradition. Greeting patrons was a huge portrait captioned “Our Foundress, Marilyn Misfit.” Glittering production numbers had returned from a long absence, much more Las Vegas than camp, under the direction of Australian Holly Brown. She added a dimension of live performance and production quality which hadn’t been seen in a long time. Disco dancing was promoted through elaborate light shows and a state-of-the-art sound system. Jackie and Lamar remained partners until selling to former owner Steve Cooper. They went on to open other locations.
GDI opened in time for the 1988 Memphis in May festivities. The country honored that year was the United Kingdom and crowds were enormous. Lines containing both gay and non-gay people filled the bar to capacity and there were long waits. The mix of people was what the owners had been hoping for but there were gays and lesbians who had strong feelings about who got in first. GLBT people had fought for a long time for their own space. They could be very jealous of it, especially in those years, being always outnumbered by non-gays and sometimes liking to be surrounded by brothers and sisters without fear or intimidation, whether external or internal. So, there was controversy about GDI’s policy. GDI’s atmosphere resembling more mainstream drag bars attracting non-gay onlookers also made some people upset. In 1989, in response to comments and rumors, a plaque was hung near Marilyn’s portrait that read, “George’s Belongs to the Gay Community. It Always Has and Always Will. While We Appreciate Your Patronage and Enjoy Your Company, Please Remember Where You Are.” This history of George’s was originally written in April of 1989 to both celebrate the 20th anniversary of the bar and to address these concerns.
On the other hand, Frank recalled meeting many individuals later who had enjoyed the years at GDI. It was very different but the regular shows were memorable, benefit shows were frequent and a large number of people remember GDI with the same affection as others remember the Madison and Marshall locations. Frank and David sold their interest in September of 1989 and the bar closed, abruptly, in early April of 1990, citing a broken sprinkler system and the large expense to repair it. George Wilson died on June 6, 1990.
Frank said, “As I look back on the ‘George’s Era’, I am reminded of a cohesiveness that can be compared only to a family. This was not just a place – it was where the gay community was Home and felt secure. It was a simpler time before the Internet – George’s was the Internet to many. It was a time before our community found its voice and became more complex. It was like the Classic Silent Era – full of glamor and fun where people were bonded in a common identity. And that, I believe, is what makes George’s timeless – both real and legend. George’s was simply magical.” Frank and David opened two other bars after leaving GDI, G Bellington Rumples (the G being a nod to Georges) and Amnesia. They consider these bars, though having much in common, not in direct descent from the original George’s. Their story is separate.
“Lord, girl, the queens I’ve seen come through these doors….” Melina (Dennis Belski)
“I enjoyed every minute of it….” George Wilson
It was like our community center in those days.” David daPonte
“George’s was simply magical.” Frank Cooper.
This writer supposes, strangely enough, that the best comment came from an unidentified non-gay woman as she was leaving the queen mother of all Memphis gay bars: “This really is Fantasy land, isn’t it.” And it will remain so in our memories.
– by Vincent Astor