Thursday, 26 February 2015

All sweat and sway

"All sweat and sway of so many people dancing in a small space, that was part of the excitement. It was the electric atmosphere created by a lot of lusty women that made the club so special, not the surroundings." - Maggi Hambling, artist

Hearing the magnificent Jill Gardiner reading fascinating "oral history" accounts from lesbian women in the murky mid-20th century at Polari on Monday has prompted me to do a bit more reading about the notorious Gateways club, the subject of her book From the Closet to the Screen.

From the utterly marvellous London history blog Nickel in the Machine:
The Gateways had been in existence at 239 Kings Road on the corner of Bramerton Street in Chelsea since the thirties. It became more or less exclusively lesbian during the war when a huge number of women came to London to work or were stationed nearby and needed somewhere to go they could call their own.

A man called Ted Ware took over the club during the war, purportedly winning it in a poker game (“I raise you my lesbian members-only club…”). He married an actress called Gina Cerrato in 1953 and she soon took over the running of the club, joined, after a few years, by an American woman called Smithy who originally came to England as a member of the American Airforce. After an arranged marriage in the early sixties Smithy stayed in London for the rest of her life.

The membership fee during the sixties was just ten shillings (50p) and no guests were admitted after ten o’clock to discourage people who had spent their money elsewhere. Maureen Duffy explained that ‘rowdies or troublemakers’ were often banned immediately. Being excluded in those days was more than just embarrassing, it was unbelievably inconvenient – the nearest alternative lesbian club would have been in Brighton. Dining out with a girlfriend was often too expensive for a lot of women and even into the sixties women wearing trousers were actually banned from most restaurants. Pubs were still unpleasant places for women especially if unaccompanied by a man. In 1969 the London Spy guide book’s main advice for women looking for a drink was, essentially, to avoid pubs if they were alone, saying: "You may be thirsty, but nobody, nobody will believe you."

So for many lesbians the Gateways Club was the only relaxing and affordable place they had to go.

Between 9th and 16th June in 1968 The Gateways club became internationally famous when it appeared as a backdrop to many scenes filmed for The Killing Of Sister George, a movie starring Beryl Reid, Coral Browne and Susannah York. In 1960, York, a starlet at the beginning of her acting career and newly married, lived in a house at World’s End in Chelsea just a few hundred yards from the Gateways. Although it’s reasonably safe to say that York wasn’t a regular.
From Lost Womyn's Space:
During the 1970s, as many gay and lesbian people became more politically motivated, members of the Gay Liberation Front staged a protest at the bar. This action did not make Gina happy.

Though supportive of social acceptance for lesbians, and keen to create a lively venue where they could enjoy themselves, Ware was never involved in political campaigning. When her club was the target of direct action by the Gay Liberation Front in 1971, who pulled the plug on the jukebox and urged the horrified Gateways women to come out of the closet, Ware called the police, and had the demonstrators thrown out.

Many of the GLF members were arrested and charged with obstruction. Not surprisingly, the Gateways wasn't popular with many radical feminists either, because they believed it wasn't political enough. Political activists were tolerated at the Gateways, though, "as long as their politics were left at the door on the way in."
The club wasn't to last the test of time, however. From the Brighton OurStory blog:
Over the years lesbian and gay clubs have arrived and vanished with the sidereal rapidity of waves landing on Brighton beach. That this would happen to The Gateways Club, the most famous Chelsea cellar in the lesbian litany, had been inconceivable. But it did. On September 24th 1985 the final strains from the vinyl whirring on the DJ’s turntable died away and the lights went out on a chapter of lesbian history which had, amazingly, endured for forty historic years.
RIP The Gateways.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Oomph Girl

"They nicknamed me "The Oomph Girl", and I loathe that nickname! Just being known by a nickname indicates that you're not thought of as a true actress... It's just crap! If you call an actress by her looks or a reaction, then that's all she'll ever be thought of as."

"'Oomph' is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth."

"Some people have such interesting things happen to them during the knock-down, drag-out try for a career. Others it just seems to drag along, and mine sounds so boring. If something exciting had happened I could understand, but it was just hard work, that's all."

[On the "Golden Age" of Hollywood:] "There was a certain kind of fantasy, a certain imagination that is not accepted now. The world is too small. Those were glamorous days."

Indeed they were - and today is the centenary of the birth of one of the most glamorous stars of that "Golden Age", Miss Ann Sheridan. She acted with Cary Grant, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis, yet was overlooked for starring roles. Admittedly she made mistakes - she famously turned down Mildred Pierce, which was snapped up by La Crawford - and by the 50s, embittered, she had turned her back on cinema in favour of television roles.

But who knew she sang? From Thank Your Lucky Stars, here she is with Love Isn't Born, It's Made:

Ann Sheridan (born Clara Lou Sheridan, 21st February 1915 – 21st January 1967)

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Fantastic Mrs Fox

And so, farewell the flirtatious and utterly camp "Mrs Fox" - inspiration for many a drag act - aka Patricia Cundell (15th January 1920 - 14th February 2015).

Now there's only two original cast members from Dad's Army left (Pike and the Reverend)...

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

I won't remember which dress you wore

As part of Camden & Islington LGBT History Month, on Sunday we went to see the incomparable Miss Tiffaney Wells ("the Jewish Princess") - a drag artiste with possibly the biggest and best array of costumes in the business - performing a selection of showtunes, in a venue that (thankfully) still retains the aura and faded glamour of "old Soho" - the fabled Phoenix Artist Club, hosted for decades by the legendary theatrical queen Maurice Huggett until his death in 2011.

Here is Miss Wells herself (filmed at the venue while we were there), giving her magnificent tonsils some exercise on two great numbers...

I Won't Send Roses:

Le Jazz Hot

Splendid stuff, you will agree. Thank heavens for old-school drag singers, I say!

Tiffaney Wells website.

Phoenix Artist Club

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Faded to Grey

"I was the freak of the village, long before Matt Lucas started doing those sketches. I was banned from school but I was a grade A student. It was ridiculous. I wasn't going to be a rugby player and I wasn't going to go down the pit, I was a creative spirit and so I ran away."

"I [became] known as the strictest door whore in London!"

"I don’t think there’s anything as pioneering now as there was in the ‘80s... [The] whole Blitz scene was incredibly pioneering. No one was doing what we were doing."

It is a very sad day for those of us who lived through that magical era that was the early 80s - dressing-up to go to the most selective of clubs, the mix of electronica and (Northern) soul dance music, the carefree toying with the notion of "style" as an antidote to punk, the outpouring of artistic creativity not seen since the rise of David Bowie and Roxy Music - for the man who did more than any other to bring us that world is dead.

Rest in peace, Mr Steve Strange. We all owe you an incredible debt of gratitude.

Steven John Harrington, aka Steve Strange (28th May 1959 - 12th February 2015)

Monday, 9 February 2015

Chica, Chica Boom Chic

"More affectionate than a kiss is a well done hug in someone that you love. Have you ever notice how I can give delicious hugs?"

"Hollywood, it has treated me so nicely, I am ready to faint! As soon as I see Hollywood, I love it."

"Look at me and tell me if I don't have Brazil in every curve of my body."

"I have never followed what people say it is 'fashionable'. I think that a woman must wear what fits her. That is why I created a style appropriated to my type and my artistical genre."

"Knock one banana off my head and I will make of you de flat pancake!"

Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, better known as Carmen Miranda (9th February 1909 – 5th August 1955)

PS In my head, that is how I enter every room...