The Golden Age of Gay Bars in YYC

{The Calgary Gay History Project is revisiting its most impactful blog posts—now numbering in the hundreds—since its inception nine years ago. The Golden Age of Gay Bars in YYC has been the source of much nostalgia since it was published on September 22, 2017. It recounts a time of oppression, community, possibility and camaraderie.}

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.”


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.


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


12 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!

  6. Pingback: Shop local for queer history | Calgary Gay History

  7. Stephen Shawcross

    Gigged in the lounge and the green room from 1980 to 1984. What a scene for a breeder to observe. Great people and the owners were first rate. Was never treated better in my entire musical life. Am currently including those times in my next work of fiction(thinly disguised).

  8. I came out at Parkside in 1984 and treasure all the time I spent there. I wonder if anyone remembers Dicks, which became 318? Or Radio City? The Warehouse? So many great clubs over the years!

  9. We owned a hotel in ’76 in Golden,B.C. and I was in Vancouver on business. My wife and some waiters,bartenders went to Calgary one weekend,ended up at the Parkside Continental.Our one waiter was gay so he knew the place. Anyway my wife goes to the washroom and someone came into the washroom and my wife was scared to leave as this girl was pacing back and forth. It took 30 minutes for our waitress to come in and get her.Everyone had a good laugh. Meanwhile,I’m flying back to Calgary to get back to Golden. When I get there I call a cab and tell the driver I want to go to the Parkside Continental because I had to meet my wife. He turned around,looked at me and said sure you do.We had some really good times back then !

  10. Hey Kevin! Thanks for all the amazing work you have done in documenting gay history in Calgary. I moved to Calgary in 1980, so I remember hanging out at both the Parkside and Myrt’s. I seem to recall however, the closing song at Myrt’s being “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee (there may have been several closing songs used in rotation). In 1983, I was fortunate to get my first DJ gig working at a new bar called “Trax” that had opened the previous year, replacing then-DJ Len Prosko. It was owned by a guy named Al (sorry I can’t recall his last name), and featured a big video screen on the dance floor. “Al” compiled videos from various movies and other sources and played them on the screen while I happily played the music. Trax was located in one of the bays in the strip mall at 10th Avenue and 11th Street SW, and was most busy, of course, on weekends. Because of the location, it was rather a strange layout, long and narrow, with a huge oak bar on the west wall, which ran a good part of the length of the space. The dance floor, DJ booth and washrooms were at the far end of the room, which meant patrons had to cross the dance floor to get to the washroom. As it got busier, another DJ, Hector Rainville was hired and we both had the “time of our lives” getting new music, DJing and helping develop strategies to make the bar a more fun place. My buddy at the time, Kevin Bateman was hired as bartender, and along with a shirtless bartender named Paulo (sorry, can’t recall his last name) they manned the bar which, because of the layout, could become quite chaotic at times. Trax ran under Al’s leadership until sometime in ’86 or ’87 when it was sold to another owner, then later again to another owner who changed the format to country ‘n’ western. I am unsure of when the space finally closed as a bar. Kevin, of course, went on to bigger and better things as a partner in the Boystown/Rekroom conglomeration, which has it’s own place in Calgary’s gay history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s