Tag Archives: Palliser Hotel

The Passing of Nick de Vos

Last week I attended the funeral of Nick de Vos, who was one of the first gay elders we talked to when the Calgary Gay History Project started in the Autumn of 2012. Born in Holland in 1932, he and his family immigrated to Canada in 1948 after the war.


Tom and Nick on holiday in 1960

He wrote to me once, “I have been gay since birth” and was lucky enough to find his life partner in 1959, Tom Deagon, who passed away in 2011 – a 51 year relationship! Nick was active in Calgary’s gay community when it was still largely underground, and talked often about fun times at the Palliser Hotel (the Kings Arms Tavern). He recalled:

Most of us had to enter through the front entrance and worked our way to the bar as the First Street bar entrance was too obvious – there was a danger of getting known and losing your job.

When the bar closed everyone placed a $1.00 on the table for someone to buy beer to keep the party going at someone’s apartment. There was always a volunteer host for those parties which went into the wee hours of the morning on weekends.

Nick valued his privacy and spent his lifetime being discrete where his sexual orientation was concerned; he operated on a don’t get asked – don’t explain principle with the world at large. Yet he was very out in the gay world, attending lots of gay events, including some he created. He was proud of the length of his relationship with Tom, and their 39th anniversary was featured in the June 1998 issue of Outlooks Magazine, a local gay publication.

A lifetime performer, Nick claimed the best gay bar Calgary ever had was Club Carousel, where he performed on stage numerous times, as well as created and managed numerous shows, including “It’s a Carousel World.”


Nick (right) with a friend at Club Carousel in 1972

Nick was a bon vivant, a firm hugger, a prolific emailer and an accomplished event photographer.  He liked being in the centre of a party; his eyes often twinkled. In collaboration with Third Street Theatre, we held a Club Carousel Cabaret at the 2014 High Performance Rodeo. Nick, invited as a special guest, was moved to tears which he called tears of joy.


Nick de Vos, Lois Szabo, and Kevin Allen at One Voice Chorus’ Club Carousel Concert  (2015)

We will miss you Nick.



Homophobic Hoteliers Created Activists

The catalyst for the formation of the Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) came out of an act of discrimination. In the Autumn of 1988, a group called Project Pride was arranging a special fundraising event to help send a Calgary contingent to the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver. They had just completed Calgary’s first Pride Festival that June and were on a roll.

The event was to be a banquet at a downtown hotel with high profile Member of Parliament Svend Robinson as the keynote speaker. Robinson had recently come out as gay, which was a precedent setting first for a Canadian MP.

The Delta Bow Valley Hotel happily entered into a contract with Project Pride to rent their hall and provide a banquet dinner for 70 people. In February 1989, Project Pride’s Co-Executive Director Cheryl Shepherd went into the hotel to make the final arrangements and informed the hotel about her organization’s constituency: lesbians and gays. She was then told that there had been a “misunderstanding” and that the Delta was not prepared to rent to such a group.

Delta 2

The Family of Man statue in front of the Delta Bow Valley Hotel in Calgary 

Sexual orientation was not a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act then, so the Delta’s decision was completely legal. The rejection prompted outrage among a couple of movers and shakers in the gay community. Dr. Ruth Simkin, an outspoken physician often labelled a lesbian feminist in the media, and John Steen, a gay man who was a Liberal Party Organizer, aimed to tackle the injustice.

Both Ruth and John were members of Calgarians Networking Discretely (later the Calgary Networking Club, an organization for gay and lesbian professionals), which was a partner to Project Pride in organizing the banquet. As neither Project Pride nor Calgarians Networking Discretely had any appetite to be political, Ruth and John thought an organizational name behind their protest would be advantageous: a working title of Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild was created.

They sent protest letters to the Calgary press, the Delta Hotel’s head office in Toronto, federal MPs, the provincial and federal human rights commissions and the provincial Labor Minister Rick Orman, who was responsible for human rights. They got an immediate response and a flurry of excited local and national media coverage.

The president of Delta Hotels, Daniel Oberlander, called Ruth from Toronto to apologize personally and sent a complimentary bottle of wine. Local Delta general manager, Tom Matthews, was on the record calling the incident a misunderstanding. He said, “If we offended this group or any other group, that was not our intention and we apologize.” The Delta then made a cash donation to CLAGPAG, which turned out to be seed money for the organization.

The Palliser Hotel stepped into the breach and offered to host the banquet, which they did, and as the controversy died down, CLAGPAG became an official entity, with a 15-person steering committee by May, 1989. CLAGPAG was active for ten years and had many achievements, not the least of which was organizing the first Pride Rally and first Pride Parade in Calgary.

{Note: the Delta Hotel of the past is not the same Delta today.  This year, the hotel hosted  the sold out, 40th Anniversary Coronation of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch}




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.”