Tag Archives: Cecil Hotel

We Are Back!

Kevin Allen is now (almost) finished with the federal election so look forward to weekly posts from the research collective until the end of the year.

Lots has happened in the last couple of months.  Catch Kevin’s interview on Yeah, What She Said, Calgary’s only feminist radio program, airing every 3rd Monday each month on CJSW 90.9FM.  Ironically, the pre-recorded interview aired on election day, Monday October 19th!

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Tereasa, and partner Dan, in Ottawa on Parliament Hill. Gosh that statue looks familiar…

Tereasa Maillie represented us in Ottawa, October 15-17, at Canada’s Annual History Forum. She also had tea with the Governor General at Rideau Hall after attending the Governor General’s History Awards.  The Calgary Gay History Project was invited because of its honourable mention for excellence in community history programming.

National Trust

The 2015 National Trust Conference Gay History Tour. We are in front of the Cecil Hotel – what, the sign is gone…  Photo: Harry Saunders @harry_historian

Heritage Canada’s 2015 National Trust Conference was held in Calgary.  We were invited to give a downtown gay history walking tour to delegates from all over the country.  The tour on October 22nd was well received by a particularly enthusiastic crowd.


The Kings Arms Tavern

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.”

Tavern Sign in 1980

Tavern Sign in 1980

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.

Stop on a Gay History Walk in the Palliser Hotel - former location of the Kings Arms Tavern.

Stop on a Gay History Walk in the Palliser Hotel – former location of the Kings Arms Tavern.

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.

Calgary Herald Photo at Kings Arms, July 3 1970

Calgary Herald Photo at Kings Arms, July 3 1970.

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.”


Lesbians, Softball and the Cecil Hotel

Sports, and specifically softball, provided an important outlet for the development of lesbian subculture and identity in North America.  Sally Munt writes in Heroic Desire: Lesbian Identity and Cultural Space, “any sample of publicly identifiable US lesbians from the period 1960-1968 would have likely been corralled from the local softball team.”  Calgary was part of this trend and in the 60s had a couple of women’s teams that were predominantly lesbian in their make-up.

After a game, teammates would go to their favourite watering holes, which for many was the backroom of the Cecil Hotel.  Lois Szabo remembers being really excited when she discovered the Cecil.  “We stumbled upon it by accident – all these women – it was like finding mecca,” she remembers.

Cecil 1

Photo Credit: Del Rath

Carolyn Anderson’s 2001 Lesbian Oral History Thesis (available from the University of Calgary: here), contains more conversations about softball.  She recounts one story,

“I wanted to be involved with all these women but I didn’t particularly want to play softball. I actually thought it was a pretty boring game so I became the team doctor. It seemed to suit everybody just fine. I would always take something to read like my medical books or whatever lesbian stuff I was getting in the mail and I could just be around all the neat dykes. The coach still remembers me and how she would look up into the stands and there was this woman reading through this whole game. After the games, some of the women tended to frequent the bars.”

The Cecil Hotel had a notorious past as a saloon and boarding house, and was always described as a blue collar bar.  Built in 1912, the building became a locus for prostitution, drugs, murder in modern times.  The City eventually revoked its business licence in 2009; police were called to the Cecil 1,700 times in its final year of operation.

Jen Gerson, in the National Post quotes Leo Silberman one of the Cecil Hotel’s owners.  “When I bought the place [in 1968], the women were worse than the men,” he told the Calgary Herald before he passed away in 2007. “They fight like heck every day. Very, very rough.”

Lois concurs, “I remember that some of the women would get into fights, particularly the butch women if someone looked at their femme in the wrong way.”

However tough, softball and the hotel bar provided much needed gathering places for Calgary’s lesbian community in the 60s.  Another quote from the oral history thesis explains, “With the ball teams, you had your north side gang and your south side gang. We were the south side gang and we all went to the Cecil [hotel]. We liked the Cecil because there was a nice private backroom there. It was marked for Ladies and Escorts and we’d laugh because we didn’t know which we were! God, we used to have a lot of fun there. They used to cater to us because we were the best part of their business.”