The Palliser Hotel had a colourful watering hole when the hotel first opened in 1914. Once known as the “Carriage House”, the pub is better known for its final name, the “Kings Arms Tavern” or as the gay community liked to call it, “The Pit.”
The Tavern was a known drinking establishment for gay men back into the early 1960’s. You can still access the lower level entrance today on the 1st Street SW underpass, just south of 9th Avenue, into what is now a Starbucks.
The Pit was not an exclusively gay venue. It was a popular spot for the business lunch crowd, old-timers in the afternoon and the gay crowd in the evening. Described as an old fashioned beer parlor, it was one of the last pubs in Calgary which kept women out. Then, on July 2nd 1970, it reopened after renovations including new carpet and a new name: Kings Arms. Ringing in the end of the men-only pub era in Calgary, the Kings Arms first female employees set fire to the Men Only Door signs with a little pomp and circumstance.
Throughout the 70s, the organized gay community grew in Calgary and the Kings Arms developed a gayer reputation. It was a popular pre-clubbing drink venue, and Club Carousel which was at the apex of its popularity in the early 70s, was just a few blocks south on 1st Street.
By the late 70s, after a bar management change, the Kings Arms started to be uncomfortable with its reputation and started behaving badly. A popular rumour was that the establishment was trying to oust its gay customers by closing earlier. Suspected gay patrons were denied service due to clothing regulations, same sex kissing or sitting too close together. In December 1978, the harassment had built to the point that tensions erupted between gay patrons and the tavern manager. After a heated verbal exchange there was a dramatic eviction of 20 customers from the bar, facilitated by six police officers and four paddy wagons.
The Kings Arms Tavern closed its doors on July 31, 1982. A large crowd of patrons, many from the gay community, came out for its final night. Many thought that the Tavern was being closed because the Palliser did not like the reputation of having a gay bar at its hotel. Earl Olsen, the public relations spokesman for the CP Hotel chain denied the allegation, saying the tavern was making way for a much needed coffee shop. Sentimentality reigned on that final evening, with many patrons taking a piece of the tavern with them. By the end of the night, all of the plaques and coats of arms that had adorned the tavern walls, were gone.
One of the gay patrons lamented, “they should never close down an institution. [The Kings Arms] is not really a cruisy bar. It’s just a nice place to sit and meet people and not be hassled.”