The Golden Age of Gay Bars in YYC

Calgary was booming in the 70s. The city’s population increased about 50% in those 10 years. Club Carousel, the only gay club at the beginning of the decade saw its popularity wane as commercial gay bars opened in the city. The owners and operators had more capital to invest in their emerging discotheques, and the growing gay community flocked to them.

The Parkside Continental ran from 1973-1986 and was located at the corner of 13th Avenue and 4th Street SW (where Shelf Life Books is currently). The Parkside was named after a famous gay tavern in Toronto. Vance Campbell, a businessman and gay bar owner from Vancouver moved to Calgary to start the Parkside with local partners.

In the early years, there were provincial regulations about food being served with alcohol at bars. Rudy Labuhn, who was initially a DJ at the club and then manager, remembered that when the Parkside began they served 50 cent burgers to all drinkers.  He explained that the Province also limited the amount of recorded music that could be played. Fortunately, a straight bar called Lucifer challenged those rules successfully ushering in the age of disco to Calgary. Interestingly, the bar would end most nights with a song that was decidedly more downtempo: Broadway singer Maureen McGovern’s song, “The Continental.”

Vance
A grainy image of Vance Campbell in front of the Parkside Continental from the Body Politic, Sept. 1980.

The Parkside expanded upstairs creating a second bar called The Green Room. The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch in April 1976 was founded there; their first coronation followed in January 1977 at the Holiday Inn Downtown. Drag legend, Sandy St. Peters who grew up in Calgary and lived and performed across Canada, entertained occasionally at the Parkside. After a big Saturday night at the bar, she would run across the street to campily welcome churchgoers arriving Sunday morning for early service at the First Baptist Church. In addition to drag performances, Eartha Kitt famously did a highly regarded concert one night in the Green Room.

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 12.46.50 PM

Sandy St. Peters (1953-2001). Image Source: YouTube

Vance Campbell proved to be a divisive figure at times publicly opposing the local gay activist community, which revolved around Gay Information & Resources Calgary (GIRC), headquartered only one block away. He was described by the Body Politic in 1980 as one of the power brokers in the gay community “confident enough of his position to write to the mayor and counter GIRC’s claim that Calgary could face a gay rights march.”

Another reason perhaps why Campbell felt powerful was he was an owner of Calgary’s other gay bar of note: Myrt’s.  Opened in 1976, the sign on the building said Myrt’s Beauty Parlour and was located at 808 9 Ave. SW (now a parking lot). This gay lounge and disco were initially open Friday and Saturday nights for men only. As its popularity grew, it operated six nights/week and became a mixed club, reportedly played the best music in the city.

Parkside Discotheques

Advertisement in GIRC’s 1977 publication, “Gay Moods”

A hallway off the dance floor led to a 150-seat theatre known as the “Backlot” which also served as an after-hours bar. The gay community was encouraged to use it as much as possible; it was the venue for emerging theatre artists, Imperial Court drag shows, Mr Butch Calgary “Slave Auctions” and, on Sunday mornings, Metropolitan Community Church services. Myrts’ final song every night was Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.”

Butch Bucks

Butch Bucks from a Calgary Slave Auction in 1978. Donated to the YYC Gay Archives by Terry MacKenzie.

The bar closed on New Year’s Eve 1981/1982 as the building fell victim to boomtown redevelopment. Myrt’s and the Backlot briefly moved to 17th avenue before it closed again. One former patron broke into the site and retrieved the neon “Backlot” sign. The preserved sign now hangs over the door of the contemporary Backlot bar on 10th Ave. SW.

Backlot

Neon sign at the Backlot Bar, 2017. Photo: Kevin Allen.

{KA}

7 responses to “The Golden Age of Gay Bars in YYC

  1. Great article. I worked with Rudy and Vance as the the other D.J at the clubs. Thanks for the flashback. Started back with them in 1978.

  2. Pingback: News from YYC Gay History | Calgary Gay History

  3. Great article!! Keep gay news alive and soon we hopefully will have a new club to kik our heel together.

  4. Jon Francis Heaney

    As I recall in about 1968 there was also the club 690 or 649 it was in a basement, I think on 4th St, Then there was always the Palliser beer parlour, which was always a great social place to meet up.

  5. Jennifer (Jenn) Jenkinson

    Everyone at Parkside knew me as Angie or the Royal Scribe.. though I was born a Jennifer. I have some amazing memories of Parkside and, to this day, some 42+ years later Vance Campbell remains one of my best friends and godfather to my only chilld. I partied at Parkside from 1978 through early 1985 but more importantly found my self-confidence there with a group of folks who understood so very well what it meant to not be accepted and to feel “out of step” with the rest of the world. I thank them one and all for bringing me out of my shell. I quickly got involved with the Imperial Court as my other good pal from those days Clint Beaton decided to run for Emperor and along with Empress Erica ran an Egyptian themed court, I was their Royal Scribe but I also did a fair bit of organizing, typing and other tasks for the ICCA, over a couple of years. Spent a lot of time at Myrt’s and Backlot too.. and think of that every time I hear Rainbow Connection.. The lovers, the dreamers & me.. that was us.. and how ironic that the rainbow has come to symbolize so much today!

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