In An Archive of Feelings, Ann Cvetkovich discusses the unique nature of archiving queer history, stating: “In the face of institutional neglect, along with erased and invisible histories, gay and lesbian archives have been formed through grassroots efforts, just as cultural and political movements have demanded attention to other suppressed and traumatic histories, ranging from the Holocaust, to labor and civil rights activism, to slavery and genocide. Forged around sexuality and intimacy, and hence forms of privacy and invisibility that are both chosen and enforced, gay and lesbian cultures often leave ephemeral and unusual traces. In the absence of institutionalized documentation or in opposition to official histories, memory becomes a valuable historical resources, and ephemeral and personal collections of objects stand alongside the documents of the dominant culture in order to offer alternative modes of knowledge” (8).
Both drawing on and emphasizing Cvetkovich’s understanding of queer archives as ephemeral records of affect and memory, the Pittsburgh Queer History Project’s exhibition Lucky After Dark at Future Tenant Gallery, which closes June 29, uncovers the hidden history of Pittsburgh’s gay after-hours social clubs. Curated by Harrison Apple, Lucky After Dark focuses largely on three social clubs–the Transportation Club, the House of Tilden and the Traveler’s Club, which were all owned by Robert “Lucky” Johns, a gay working class Italian-American from Pittsburgh’s North Side who sadly passed away on June 18.
From photographs to membership cards to cocktail napkins and flyers, Lucky After Dark depicts the underground world of the gay social clubs as sanctuaries for gay men, which as licensed members-only fraternal organizations were quite distinct from other commercial bars. Spanning the years 1967 to 1990, the exhibition unveils a local nightlife scene completely different from the “gay meccas” of New York or San Francisco, revealing, as Harrison Apple explains, “not just a queer history but a queer history of Pittsburgh.”
In order to learn more about Pittsburgh’s gay social clubs, as well as make up for my disappointment in not being able to visit the exhibition in my own hometown (though my parents did!), I spoke with Apple and Dr. Tim Haggerty, who head the Pittsburgh Queer History Project, about the development of the exhibition, the significant differences between Pittsburgh nightlife history and larger cities and the importance of Lucky’s social clubs in developing a gay community in Pittsburgh.
A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and an artist-in-residence at CMU’s Center for the Arts interested in “queer archaeology,” Apple began the Pittsburgh Queer History Project in the summer 2012 after discovering an abandoned gay after-hours club in East Liberty through his friend Lauren Goshinski, who was opening a club in the space with her then-business partner. Even though the club closed in 2003, the space was still intact, filled with pool tables, booths and a stage. As Apple remembers, “I collected all the materials left inside as meticulous as possible and started to build an image of what an after-hours bar was.”
Hidden under one of the structures, Apple found a wallet with a membership card to another social club called the Traveler’s Club, which marked Apple’s introduction to Lucky’s clubs and kick-started the Pittsburgh Queer History Project. “I started looking into what this club was,” explains Apple, “I learned about the structure of the social clubs in the city and the country going back to repeal. It started to snowball from there. I’d ask someone for information that I knew was alive and out about that time and they’d recommend me to someone else from people who worked in public health to bar owners to eventually, Lucky himself.”
Interviewing Lucky for often five hours at a time, as well as gathering archival materials and oral histories from other bar owners, employees, performers and patrons, Apple, along with Haggerty, a CMU professor and Apple’s advisor, began to reconstruct a compelling history of the centrality of these social clubs, as well as Lucky himself, to the gay community in Pittsburgh. At the height of the social clubs’ popularity, Lucky’s clubs had 30,000 members from both Pittsburgh and elsewhere. As Haggerty describes, “It’s the cultural watershed of Steelers fans. From State College to Erie to Youngstown to Morgantown, it’s a population of about two to two and a half million people. So 30,000 in that population is not small.”
While Lucky After Dark and the Pittsburgh Queer History Project most obviously trace a cultural history of these clubs, Haggerty asserts that the social clubs also act as a microcosm of a wide variety of local histories. He states, “The distinctions between one history and another tend to be heuristic. It’s not just a cultural history. It’s a labor history, a social history, a class history…”
And he is certainly not wrong. Looking at the history of Lucky’s clubs, their rise and decline in popularity reflects the unique history of Pittsburgh itself, which stands in stark relation to larger cities such as New York or San Francisco. While these larger “gay meccas” existed as places where LGBTQ individuals would migrate in order to be “out,” LGBTQ individuals who stayed Pittsburgh had a different relation to their sexual identity, negotiating several identities rather than solely their sexuality. Haggerty explicates, “People left places like Pittsburgh for places like New York, San Francisco or Washington D.C. to be gay. One of the things we argue, which is very much what David Halperin argues in How To Be Gay, is that being gay became the central component of your identity. When you stayed in a place like Pittsburgh, you negotiated all different sorts of identities. You were still connected to your family, your neighborhood or your workplace.”
While Pittsburgh never had, and still does not have, gay-borhoods, this certainly does not mean that the social scene surrounding these clubs were any less liberated than their big city counterparts. Though presenting the importance of these social clubs, Apple and Haggerty present powerful evidence against the reductive view of smaller cities being more closeted and repressive. As Haggerty reflects, “To say that we weren’t out and then to meet someone like Lucky is just a contradiction.”
However, Pittsburgh’s nightlife was certainly different, namely the gay social clubs’ connection with local politicians and police. Social clubs originated from organized crime in the 1930s and while the gay social clubs were not mob-related, these after-hours gay clubs, as Apple notes, “were a part of the underworld and to make them function for 40 years you really had to know what you were doing.”
Illustrating the differences between New York and Pittsburgh’s nightlife, Apple points to Lucky’s reaction to the Stonewall riots. As Apple recalls, “Lucky said, remembering Stonewall, ‘I don’t know what those New York queens were up to. It was ridiculous. We don’t do that here.’” Asking Lucky why he thought they were so ridiculous, he responded, “Well, when we had trouble, we would call our local politician that we knew very well and had a relationship with.” Creating a sanctuary for gay men through their connection with the local institutions, Lucky and other social clubs employees, owners and patrons, as Apple describes, “were citizens of Pittsburgh. They knew how the system worked and worked with it.”
Sadly, all good things come to an end. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the social clubs began to shut down for a wide variety of factors from AIDS to Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to the shift of the enforcement of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code from local authorities to the state to perhaps most notably, the disappearance of the steel industry in Pittsburgh. Without men leaving steel plants at 4 am and increased raids, including the noted 1988 Valentine’s Day Raid at the Traveler’s Club by Liquor Control Agents, the era of the social clubs was over.
Although nightlife in Pittsburgh and elsewhere has changed tremendously, the history of these gay after-hours social clubs remains a rich and important history, illustrating the development of a local gay community, as well as the construction of queer worlds within the boundaries of these spaces.
Asked about the role of these spaces in queer world-making, Apple responds, “Jack Halberstam’s book In A Queer Time and Place really speaks to that. The social clubs were more than just a place to drink after 2 am. It provided a very different social settings that offered alternative and maybe queer futures, if we can say that, to a minority population in the city–one maybe defined by a thing called membership. It pre-dates the use of the term community to describe a gay and lesbian population but it becomes integral to how the terms are applied to real people.”
Echoing the importance of these social clubs as communities, Haggerty continues, “Most of our informants up to now are integrally related to this world as owners, employees or customers. You do get a sense, particularly with people coming into the gallery, of nostalgia. The problem with commercial establishments is that there is not the drawing of the line of community around it. Every bar has its regulars but it is not like a club where you know Lucky will be there. X, Y or Z will be behind the bar. You’re pretty sure who will be there on Wednesday nights. You can let your hair down.”
Throughout the run of the exhibition, which has garnered seemingly unending enthusiasm from the community, many former customers, employees or other participants in the scene have visited Lucky After Dark to donate material or identify people in the photographs. “In many instances, people who never really thought of themselves as being part of history realize that they did make a contribution,” Haggerty observes.
Immediately after my conversation with Apple and Haggerty, they received the devastating news that Lucky passed away. The “Pope of gay Pittsburgh,” as Haggerty termed him in our conversation, Lucky was an unquestionably influential, important and inspiring figure in the development of Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community. In a moving obituary documenting Lucky’s legacy he sent me after our conversation, Apple writes, “The bars were there before anything else, and Lucky was the key player in that world for decades. We owe him a great deal.”
In addition to the clubs, Lucky “helped produce numerous community events including annual picnics for the LGBT community, and provided seed money for gay and lesbian social services, including the Lambda Foundation, the Tavern Guild, and the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. He is survived by the community he helped create.”
“Lucky After Dark” will be on view at Future Tenant until June 29th. A celebration of life for Robert “Lucky” Johns will be held Wednesday, July 16th at Donny’s Place at 1226 Herron Ave., Pittsburgh from 5:00 to 8:00 pm.