The Pansy Craze: When gay nightlife in Los Angeles really kicked off

It was New Years Eve, 1929. Three hundred men in tuxedos were celebrating the opening of Hollywood’s first gay nightclub. It was called Jimmy’s Backyard and it sat in a big craftsman style house on Cosmo Street, just east of Cahuenga. The rooms had been converted to dance floors and on a warm night, music poured from the house and into the backyard which was filled with LA’s hottest crowd, all with a drink and a cigarette in hand. Rae Bourbon, who was one of the most famous drag queens of his time, had a regular gig at Jimmy’s Backyard.

Just down the street, B.B.B.’s Cellar opened up on Las Palmas. It was a wild and raucous place, run by a drag queen named Bobby Burns Berman. The patrons would be given little hammers, and every time someone new walked through the door, they’d bang them on the tables. BBB’s revue of ten men dressing like women was apparently the hottest show in town.

Celebrities like Cary Grant, Howard Hughes, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West were all regulars at these clubs.

It’s an era KCRW listener Jim Lingenfelter from Indiana asked about when he submitted this question to Curious Coast.

“I’m curious about the gay club history of the 1930’s in Los Angeles, specifically the pansy clubs that were often outside the city limits and were illegal.”

This period, during the late 1920s and the early 1930s, was a golden era in Los Angeles for gay performers, entertainers in drag and the crowds of Angelenos – gay, straight, rich and poor – that loved them. It was during Prohibition and all the clubs were underground; but the culture was completely open and vibrant, filled with fluid sexuality and music that was often coded. It was called the Pansy Craze and it swept up not only Los Angeles, but many of the major cities nationwide.

Lillian Faderman, co-author of “Gay LA: a History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians,” said of the era, “I think that sexuality was very fluid in Hollywood, particularly in the movie industry in the 1920s and the 1930s. These upscale nightclubs that featured female impersonators and male impersonators were a real draw for bohemian Hollywood.”

Sheet music cover, Pansy Craze era. Courtesy of ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive

Sheet music cover, Pansy Craze era. Courtesy of ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive

Go to the ONE National Gay and Lesbian archives at the USC Libraries, and you can see sheet music from that era, with covers featuring photos of men and women dressed in drag, and titles like “Japansy” and “If you knew Susie, like I knew Susie.” There are also photographs of the Pansy Craze’s biggest stars, including Jean Malin dressed in a gown in the movie “Arizona to Broadway” or in a tux sitting at a table with Marlene Dietrich.

“I think that there was a wink and a nod and people were ok with things,” said Joseph Hawkins, director of the ONE archives. “People kind of just went with the flow. There were things you didn’t talk about in polite society, but when you were in the right circles, if you were at a speakeasy or if you were with people who were in the life, then basically you talk about that freely and do whatever you wanted to do.”

Picture of Jean Malin (left) at his Hollywood club, Club New Yorker. At a table with friends including Marlene Dietrich. Photo courtesy of ONE National Gay and Lesbian archive at USC Libraries
Jean Malin as Ray Best who dressed in the manner of Mae West in the movie “Arizona to Broadway” Photo courtesy of J.D. Doyle

However, this was still a time when homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison. Dressing in drag could lead to six months of jail time. And on the streets of LA, the paparazzi was intent on outing Hollywood “degenerates.” The LAPD’s Vice Squad came down hard on the gay community and drag performers.

“I think female impersonators in the 1930s were particularly offensive to the police, and Jimmy’s Backyard was raided several times,” said historian Lillian Faderman. “Usually it was the female impersonators who were carted off.”

The Sunset Strip emerged as a center for gay and lesbian clubs during the 1930s because it was an unincorporated part of LA County called Sherman, and the LAPD had no jurisdiction over the area. They couldn’t bust up any of the clubs and the patrons felt less targeted there. The LA County Sheriff’s Department policed the area, but it was much more loosely overseen.

Promotional photo of Bruz Fletcher, who performed on the Sunset Strip for five years. Photo courtesy of Tyler Alpern
Performer Bruz Fletcher, who had a five year run at the Club Bali in the 1930’s. Photo courtesy of Tyler Alpern

It was on the Sunset Strip, that a tiki lounge called Club Bali opened its doors. Waiters wearing sarongs would serve drinks and “curried dishes” to all the patrons sitting on red couches. And the headlining act for five years was an openly gay, high society piano and song man by the name of Bruz Fletcher.

“He performed in a tuxedo and he was like Cole Porter. He was from Indiana, from a very wealthy family and he performed sort of witty sophisticated double entendre songs,” said historian Tyler Alpern, who wrote a book about Fletcher’s life.

Fletcher’s lyrics were laden with gay subtext. It was a style of song called Camp and came through in Fletcher’s song “My Doctor.”

Rich and poor, black and white.
Ring his bell all the day and night.
Some folks faint at just the sight of….
My doctor!

(“My Doctor” courtesy of Tyler Alpern)

Alpern said Fletcher did something back then that many were rightfully afraid to do. He lived an openly gay life with his long time partner Casey Roberts, an Oscar nominated set designer. Roberts and Hollywood’s artistic crowd would fill the Bali night after night, as would movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Louise Brooks. During Fletcher’s five year run at the Bali, his name appeared in the Los Angeles Times around 200 times.

Before this was Cafe Society, this was the Club Bali during the 1930’s. On the 8800 block of Sunset Boulevard. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

“You could go to a place and mingle and let your hair down and gossip and party with your friends,” said Alpern of clubs like the Bali, “it was an incredible venue and very precious to the people at that time.”

In 1941, Fletcher took his own life. He had struggled with mental health issues, and some say he was despondent over the fact that by that time, he wasn’t able to find gigs. But one of his most famous songs, “Drunk with Love,” became an anthem for the LGBTQ community.

“It was the number one song that you would hear in gay, especially lesbian bars of the 1940s and ‘50s,” said Alpern. “You can’t look at any literature or interviews or oral histories from that time without somebody mentioning ‘Drunk with Love.’”

(“Drunk with Love” courtesy of Tyler Alpern)

It wasn’t just men who partied and performed in drag during the 1930s. There were some high-end lesbian cabarets on the Sunset Strip including Jane Jones Little Club. Two famous male impersonators that performed on the Strip were Jimmy Reynard and Tommy Williams, both described as broad shouldered woman who sang in tenor voices.

“There was a lesbian club in the 1930s on the Sunset Strip called Tess’s International, and everyone knew about the night that Tommy Williams brought Marlene Dietrich to Tess’s and sang to her,” said Faderman.

Joseph Hawkins, Director of USC’s ONE National Gay and Lesbian archives, thumbing through “Bachelor” Magazine, a magazine for gay men that started publication in 1937.

The Pansy Craze and this golden era of gay performers and male and female impersonators came to a close once Prohibition ended and the Great Depression hit. And the 1940s and 1950s proved to be very hostile to the LGBTQ community.

As for the legacy of that era, ONE Archives director Joseph Hawkins said performers during the Pansy Craze were “creating culture on the fly, and I think one of the things that gay people, queer people, have been doing throughout their lives- is creating culture on the fly. Whenever it is, wherever we are, we are always inventing new ways to be who we are.”

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Note: This post has been corrected to indicate that Casey Roberts was an Oscar-nominated set designer.