The Gay Piano Bar is endangered and sentimental researchers are racing to save this beloved and historic institution.
Numerous studies have concluded that the Gay Piano Bar (let’s refer to them as GPB from here on) first came to the U.S. in the 1940s, as the American musical was growing in popularity. The GPB found fertile and friendly land in liberal American urban cities, especially New York. At these fun, social and safe drinking night spots, shy queer newcomers could come together to harmonize in unison as a pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes accompanied them.
Two of the earliest and most iconic homes in the mid 1940s were the Five Oaks (which closed in 1996), and Marie’s Crisis (still drawing a fervent audience) in NYC. It was here that the GPB could begin to find its own particular voice. At the Five Oaks in particular, a wondrous siren, Marie Blake, sang with legendary soulful majesty, belting out the great standards across the village of Greenwich.
The GPBs’ success would go on to inspire new outposts in the years ahead across the U.S., from Boston (Napoleon’s), over to Baltimore (Jay’s on Read St.), into Nashville (The Jungle), up to Chicago (Gentry’s), down to Miami (Magnum Lounge), over to Indianapolis (Bollander’s), west to San Francisco (White Swallow, Purple Pickle, Sutter’s Mill), south to Laguna Beach (The Little Shrimp) and all the way west to Los Angeles (Toy Tiger, Daddy Warbucks, Sahara’s) just to name a few. The GPB was thriving in the USA.
Some claim the piano bars did so well because the DNA was similar to its theatrical cousin, the European gay cabaret. However, further analysis recognizes that the GPBs’ raison d’être originates from a wholly American evolution. The musical is indigenous to America and so to were its Cole Porter-loving and playful gay admirers.
The gay piano bar, beaming Cole Porter and George Gershwin tunes from within, was an almost primal draw for the frolicsome queers who came to its doors. After all, musical numbers are fancifully choreographed expressions of deeply held sentiment, which perfectly suited the droll nature of the American urban homosexual.
As they were steadily multiplying across the U.S., there was also the continuing and pervasive threat against the queer community: angry, dangerous homophobes. These bigots were on the hunt to rid the land of the GPBs and their queer patrons.
In spite of the dangers lurking, the GPB had become much more than a bar with a piano. It had also become a treasured communal public house that gave the LGBTQ+ tribe a place to share stories and enjoy a great song (and maybe enjoy each other later that night).
In times of such ubiquitous threat to the queer community, musical classics were being colorfully enhanced into subtly coded songs of rebellion. The convergence of a safe communal space, show tunes and something old-fashioned to sip, was a perfect breeding ground for these gamesome queers to #resist the hate with the cheeky and gently biting parody of beloved classics. In Hollywood, homosexuals were principal craftsmen of the very movie musicals that provided the gay community with a unifying, cheeky language.
Among the notable nightingales of the GPBs who had mastered this particular form of campy parody, there were such queens of the pack as the incomparable Rudy de la Mor in Chicago and later Southern California, the peerless Juanita Harris of San Francisco, Chad & Gary of Palm Springs and the exceptional Mona Caywood in Long Beach.
Then came the 1980s, and as Cole Porter sang, “Such a strange change from Major to Minor” it was.
The 1970s had seen a major expansion in the rights and visibility of gays and cheering experts hoped that this vital American group would now find a safe home in America. Those hopes were dashed by a brutal plague; AIDS. By the late 1990s when the disease was finally brought to somewhat control with a new cocktail of drugs, the damage was done and an entire generation was lost, leaving only a minor number of survivors.
During this time, most of the older piano bars were abandoned and shuttered due to declining patronage. The slow demise of the GPB was a reflection of the end of the dark era and the onset of something new. The gay millennial has been raised with a liberated sense of Glee (the TV series but not necessarily the emotion), which has inspired a passion for some killer karaoke but sadly not much interest in the show tunes of the past.
However, this next generation of gays has reestablished the numbers of the tribe and are thriving in a new century that is seeing their greatest strides in protections under the law, come to pass. These gays of the new millennia are also finding their own fun havens.
Most importantly, gays of all ages continue to fight for their rightful space in the American landscape. It is the hope of this observer that the younger community of LGBTQ+ will also land on a barstool in one of the public gay piano houses to be emboldened and entertained by a fun night of musical standards.
For those ready to appreciate some great show tunes sung with good-humored campy bite, there are still some great gay piano bars standing. Check out the GPBs in Palm Springs (Street Bar), up in San Francisco (Martuni’s), down south to Houston (Michael’s Outpost), back up to Minneapolis (Gay ‘90s), a hop over to Chicago (Davenport’s), down south to Key West (La Te Da), north to Philadelphia (Tavern on Camac) and right back to NYC (The Duplex, The Monster), among others dotting Dorothy’s America.
So get to a Gay Piano Bar, order an Old Fashioned and, as Leonard Bernstein advised, “Glitter and be Gay!”