by Vincent Astor
“Twilight Kiss Closes Twilight Lounge” – “The men were arrested recently at The Door…” – “George’s – the queen mother of Memphis gay bars…” – “GDI On the River opens…” —— these phrases all speak of one of the fondest remembered gay institutions in Memphis—George’s. It was 20 years, in the year of grace 1989, since George Wilson took over the little saloon at 1786 Madison and at least 25 since the Twilight Lounge made the papers because one man kissed another. Hundreds of people; gay, lesbian and non-gay, came out, went out, grew up, passed by, and passed on knowing the name George’s and knowing full well what that name stood for. In April of 1989, it was high time its history was written and this writer began talking to those who had been around since the beginning.
The Early Years
It was way back in 1960, a long time before gay acceptance by society was even a dream, that a woman remembered only as “Lou” opened a little, dumpy beer bar at 1786 Madison called The Twilight Lounge. In those days the term “closet” meant “dungeon.” Sharon Wray (an owner or partner in many gay and lesbian bars in Memphis) used the phrase, “Gays were allowed to come in.” Gathering places were rare and usually far from town such as Ben’s, near Lehigh, AR, and the Raven, across the Tipton county line. Lou discovered that the gay crowd was a well-behaved crowd and that they spent money and kept coming. Thus was the location established.
The name changed for the first time to Cookie and Blanche’s in a year of two; no one remembers whether the two women were actually lesbian or not but the crowd was still encouraged to come. Mike Rollins took over the ownership in 1965, took back the original name and it was a bartender who leaned over the bar to kiss a sailor which caused the bar to be busted and closed. The newspaper story read, “Twilight Kiss Closes Twilight Lounge.” In order to smooth things over, a lesbian was produced and the two people involved swore that they were a couple. The ruse worked and a much more discreet Twilight Lounge reopened.
The ownership passed to two women named Kay Thornton and Sarah Forbes in 1969 and the name changed to The Famous Door. Several times that year, the establishment changed hands, even once belonging to Sharon Wray and business partner Carolyn Marbury. In those days beer and setups were sold. The laws were very exacting: a bar could be cited for allowing a patron to stand up to drink; they had to be seated. Beer could be sold until 12 AM, then later up until 1 AM. Sharon remembers that water setups had to be poured from a pitcher, as there was no sink behind the bar.
George Wilson had moved to Memphis and opened an antique business. He was persuaded to become involved with the long-time gay hangout at the end of 1969. He finally obtained ownership and called it merely The Door. After the new year, an old acquaintance named Dennis Belski moved back to town and was hired to tend bar. George had also acquired a new lover/partner from Canada, Don Rossignol by name. The sun was about to rise in an explosion of glitter and sequins.
The sun was about to rise in an explosion of glitter and sequins.
George's Becomes A Landmark
In 1971, George’s was raided by the police department for cross-dressing (a strange ordinance on the city books) and lewd behavior (a performer kissing another man who had just tipped her). The drag queens were photographed in drag for mug shots. “I kept asking them to let me change. I was in a green Afro wig about 3 feet wide. But they wouldn’t,” said Dennis “Melina” Belski. This was September 15. “They told us at first that we could never, ever do it again, that we’d get closed every time. Well, you know what a bitch I am, I said they’re not gonna do this to me.” Business became extremely bad and everyone was afraid to go to George’s. Dennis and Don decided to throw caution to the winds and do a show. That show was Don’s first appearance in drag, doing an Edith Piaf impersonation. They were not raided again. John T. “Buddy” Dwyer represented the men in court and on October 9, all charges were dismissed by Judge Ray Churchill. Then Melina, Danielle (Don), Heather and Loretta became heroes/heroines just as the drag queens at Stonewall in New York had been. Business boomed and gay pride became a real concept in Memphis.
Growth and Expansion
The first major expansion of the bar came in 1972-3. Disco lights and liquor were added, the first in a Memphis gay bar. Dancing was done with one eye on the front door for police and a complex code system for changing the dance floor to a dining area like lightning. It was again Buddy Dwyer who acquired the dance permit for George’s. He personally railroaded it through all the necessary approvals. “Nowhere on the permit did it say who would be dancing with whom,” recalled Sharon Wray. Charges had been dismissed against another bar called The Closet, after a raid resulting in the arrest of four couples, and the disco era had begun
George's on Marshall
Dennis “Melina” Belski stated, “George wanted to own his own bar. The rent on Madison was terrible.” George said, “Well there was the Front Page on South Cleveland, the Psych-Out on North Cleveland and the Rain Check 2 on Jackson [between Main and Second} downtown. I wanted a place where people would pass by on their way to and from.” That spot was the old Alexander Tile Company building at 600 Marshall and a arge automotive building next door. The year was 1979. There were many problems. The building was gigantic with a main floor (the showbar with a dance floor); a lower level with a second, larger dance floor; a smaller split-level upper floor; an adjacent large room (The French Connection restaurant); and the adjacent building which was cavernous in itself called The Barracks Disco.
George and Don even moved into the upper section for a while (and survived on beans, according to Sharon Wray) living “over the store.” They had acoustical problems, visibility problems (a DJ needs to watch his dancers) and the closing of the downtown Rain Check II about one week after George’s moved nixed the notion of people traveling between the Midtown bars and George’s and the downtown disco. Success finally arrived as all three main level sections opened along with the lower dance floor. Turnabout Night, Miss Gay Memphis, Miss Mess Memphis, Miss Mod and a host of other entertainments found a home on Marshall St. The aim was: Something For Everyone.
The aim was: Something For Everyone.
Georgetown: 1979 - 1984
George's without George
In 1984 the partnership, on all levels, of George Wilson and Don Rossigno, was dissolved. Don retained the bar operations and George retained the Club South baths and the Georgetown Inn. This occupied the present location of Strings and Things on Madison at Marshall and was a bath house and spa on the lower floor and a guesthouse on the second.
It housed for a short time the Aristocrat restaurant, also run by the owners. George later remarked that this business was the one he was proudest of and enjoyed the most. Steve Cooper, a well-known name in the adult bar business, purchased the bar complex with all its memories, rumors, foibles and legends the weekend before Thanksgiving of 1984.
The Cooper Era
Steve and his gay brother Frank went into partnership to revamp and operate George’s. Many gay bars of the 70s and 80s were not pleasant places compared to mainstream clubs. The restrooms were usually very basic and not extremely well kept. In the era where non-gay owners put as little as possible into businesses catering to gays and lesbians, people didn’t expect much. The money went into sound systems, lighting systems and such rather than good furniture and fancy rest rooms–and the bars saw rough use as well. Frank remarked, “I had never been to George’s. It was so dirty and run down I wondered why people would come to such a place.” David daPonte, Frank’s partner and later co-owner of the business, recalled that George’s, for all its shortcomings was, “like a community center in those days. It’s where everybody saw everybody else.” So, the new owners began a long process of remodeling and cleaning up.
George’s had always had its share of non-gay visitors who came to dance and watch the shows. There had been graduation parties including the Memphis College of Art at George’s, where graduates attended and where their friends partied. The new owners decided to expand this mix. It had seemed a good idea; for a while in the 1980s, Sunday night at TGI Friday’s in Overton Square was known as Rave Night featuring new music and dancing, a different format than normal. Gay and non-gay people all came. David remembered, “It was gay night at Friday’s, guys danced with guys and girls with girls. Then, suddenly one weekend, they would not let in anyone who was gay or lesbian. We didn’t understand why because it didn’t seem to bother the non-gay people who had been there.” Rave Night died a slow death after gays were not allowed. Frank’s idea was to have a gay bar that was every bit as nice as any other bar. “George had done so much to make gay people comfortable with being gay, now we wanted to bring people together and make everyone comfortable with one another,” he said. On New Year’s Eve of 1984 the refreshed location hosted 1,200 people including George Wilson himself who dragged a terrified Frank Cooper onto the stage and introduced him to the huge crowd. Both were wildly applauded. Frank became sole owner in 1985.
The new management had its own set of problems, not the least of which was the 1984 raising of the drinking age from 19 to 21. Business had fallen off considerably. There was the recurring problem of putting large spaces to use. The Rumors section was attached to George’s, then separated again, pained red and named Inferno. Many different types of entertainment were tried at George’s including closing that block of Marshall for GayFest during the 1987 Pride celebrations. However, hundreds of people continued to come for entertainment, pageants, benefits and special events. George’s remained a famous location and, to many, THE Memphis gay bar. Later that year, now more experienced in the bar business, Frank decided to move from what he felt to be a poor location. On Halloween weekend, a very sentimental closing saw the end of another era in the life of George’s, many employees were in tears and the patrons refused to leave until Frank himself came down to turn on the lights for the last time. The story was not quite over.
GDI On The River
This was April of 1988. GDI on the River–George’s Disco Incorporated–was off and running. It was a different image–huge open spaces, a river view, a cafe, elaborate show lighting, but staff and performers were carrying on the George’s tradition. Greeting patrons was a huge portrait captioned “Our Foundress, Marilyn Misfit.” Glittering production numbers had returned from a long absence, much more Las Vegas than camp, under the direction of Australian Holly Brown. She added a dimension of live performance and production quality which hadn’t been seen in a long time. Disco dancing was promoted through elaborate light shows and a state-of-the-art sound system. Jackie and Lamar remained partners until selling to former owner Steve Cooper. They went on to open other locations.
GDI opened in time for the 1988 Memphis in May festivities. The country honored that year was the United Kingdom and crowds were enormous. Lines containing both gay and non-gay people filled the bar to capacity and there were long waits. The mix of people was what the owners had been hoping for but there were gays and lesbians who had strong feelings about who got in first. GLBT people had fought for a long time for their own space. They could be very jealous of it, especially in those years, being always outnumbered by non-gays and sometimes liking to be surrounded by brothers and sisters without fear or intimidation, whether external or internal. So, there was controversy about GDI’s policy. GDI’s atmosphere resembling more mainstream drag bars attracting non-gay onlookers also made some people upset. In 1989, in response to comments and rumors, a plaque was hung near Marilyn’s portrait that read, “George’s Belongs to the Gay Community. It Always Has and Always Will. While We Appreciate Your Patronage and Enjoy Your Company, Please Remember Where You Are.” This history of George’s was originally written in April of 1989 to both celebrate the 20th anniversary of the bar and to address these concerns.
“Lord, girl, the queens I’ve seen come through these doors….”Melina (Dennis Belski)“I enjoyed every minute of it….”George Wilson"It was like our community center in those days.” David daPonte“George’s was simply magical.”Frank Cooper.
Acknowledgements to Tracy Love