Gene Otto – Sociability

“Jack’s Nite Hawk was an equalizer.”

[During the 1960s-80s Jack’s Nite Hawk] was a very open gay bar, quite notorious. You came and went through the back door if you didn’t want to be public. There was a front door, but other people came to that. We business types came to the back door. People didn’t see you in the alley then in the dark. There were definitely discrimination-type elements about that. People with minimal jobs—they could always get another minimal job—would come through the front door. They were self identifying. It wasn’t like you could hurt them. People that could be hurt because of their [professional job were] more vulnerable. So [professional people] came in [the back door], quietly. You knew all the people pretty much, because it’s a small community. But, yeah, you just came in the back alley way and appeared in the bar.

Jack’s Nite Hawk was an equalizer. When you came in there, you were all equal, because you were all gay. There weren’t many women, for whatever reasons. They ran a social world of their own. There was drag. I don’t know if it would be once a month or once a quarter, but there was always a drag show to raise money for something. The bartender was usually a little tipsy because people would buy him drinks, so you’d get a better drink once in a while.

[In those days, it was] very smoky in the bar. There was a fireplace that smoked even worse [than the cigarettes], and so it would always smell like dead wood burning. It was probably not the cleanest place. I always used the women’s restroom because nobody was in there and it was not dirty. The drag queens usually used that also, to dress for the shows. I don’t think in those days there was a lot of sexual activity, other than meet and greet in the bar. Now some of the bars are just . . . I mean, why go there? It’s like a bathhouse, or what bathhouses used to be.

[The owner, Jack Allen,] came and went in financial straits from time-to-time, because he was a good person. When he died [in 2007], in his safe there were probably $40,000 in bad checks that he’d taken over time, trying to help people along. Every once in a while he’d try and collect, you know, when the person had money. A lot of times they didn’t, or wouldn’t give him money. He was just a really good community supporter.

June was a bartender there. June’s son was badly injured and the community pulled together. This was early AIDS, and the men were asked not to give blood because of blood-borne illness. When the guys couldn’t give blood, everybody went out and found a woman to give blood to the poor kid. So the women came together and the women all donated in [the men’s] names. I don’t think June was a lesbian, but the bigger thing about it was that June was like your [bigger] sister. Everybody kind of gave and took care. Her poor little son—must’ve been about every four months or something—needed major blood transfusions for his surgery. Well, nobody’s going to drop the ball at that point. The community still pulled together. I think the boy eventually died when he was probably 14 or 15 years old. Still, people kept track of June. You know, she was one of the community. You took care of your own. I don’t know if you accepted the responsibility, or it was just you followed the crowd. You know, “Okay, everybody’s doing it, so I’m doing it too.”

I ran lights for drag shows—especially for some of the Seattle people, because I had a theater background. [I knew that] Joe, who was black, needed a different colored gel to show off. You put a bleaching out white [light] on a black guy, it doesn’t do any good but make them sick gray! There were just a lot of sociality there. Most of the people I remember from the drag element are all dead now . . . There were three of them that entertained like the Pointer Sisters or the Andrews Sisters. They were the wild crazy ones. Viviane Vivaine from Vantage. They had crazy names, and everybody just loved them. It was a real social event. You’d meet other people that you probably knew from somewhere, like seeing them work someplace, but you didn’t make an attempt to say “Hello” to them really, other than in the bar.

[In the late 1970s, there was Sonya’s Majic Inn.] Sonya was from Great Falls, Montana. Sonya’s became more [of] a drag bar because Sonya was transgender. The women liked the drag queens a lot more, so they kind of found their location there, I think, because of the entertainment. Jack was glad to have [the drag shows] gone. Even though it brought in a lot of people, there were fights among the drag queens: “You have my dress! You have my earrings! My song!” [Laughs.]

I’d lost my insurance job. I was managing an apartment complex. I knew the people who were kind of trying to keep Sonya’s head together. I could talk to [Sonya] about Montana, so I kind of fit in with that group. When there was an opening, I moved in to help bartend. I don’t know that they ever really asked me if I wanted a job. [Laughs.] I was bartending at Sonya’s Majic Inn [when I met my husband Ted]. He came in with friends. I was dating the other bartender at the time. [Ted] made his presence known. [Laughs.] He kept standing in the way at the end of the bar, so I couldn’t ignore him.

When [Sonya] came here, she truly had no skills. [She] did not really have a heavy work ethic. [She’d say,] “I’m an entertainer. I’m here to entertain my husband, to make him happy.” That was why Sonya had no business sense. [She] be going off to having her hair removed, her beard, electrolysis. She’d just go to the till and take the cash! Well, if you hadn’t enough cash in your till, you couldn’t make change. That’s how Sonya ran her bar. You’re going, “Sonya you can’t do that. That’s a no-no.” [She’d say,] “Well, I have to go.” [We’d say,] “Yeah, okay, go; we’ll arrange tonight to give you the cash to pay for your . . .” Or she’d go to Bernard’s, which was a high end women’s clothing store here. She’d run up a bill and then you were expected to take cash over in a paper bag. [Laughs.] It was just that way, partly, I think, because [her partner] Kenny [Mealer] had always run her life financially. He had been a buyer for the Bon Marche type store in Great Falls, Montana, The Paris. He would go to New York and buy clothes for the governor’s wife and whoever monied people there were in Montana. There’d always be a dress that came home for Sonya.

The Zoo was another bar. I think that was owned by [Roma] Sinn. That was one winter [around 1977]. I don’t think that made it much more than a year.

The Backwoods was another gay bar [owned by Billi Blossom and Kenny Mealer in the early 1980s], way down near Browne’s Addition. It was a real masculine bar—pool. That was another one of those funny elements. The women played more pool than the men did. There was always kind of a confrontation over who had the table. As long as you had your quarters up, you were next. You had the table. Well, the women kind of controlled the table for a long time. [Laughs.] Not that they weren’t good pool players! They just dominated the table. The Backwoods was more of a man’s bar, as in jeans and flannel shirts, western, wood on the wall, a pool table, and beer by the pitcher. See, Ken and Bill had gotten together by then and opened that bar, when they didn’t have Sonya’s. Then, when Sonya’s went down [financially], Kenny got that [bar] back and changed it to First Emperor’s Club Disco 425. So [then] he and Billi had Sonya’s, the Backwoods, and then they opened Signatures. Then, the mysterious thing was the Backwoods burned. [Laughs.] It was just all rumors but, you know, financially this wasn’t working, and da, da, da . . . You knew the people. You knew their stories. You just watch it. I was an insurance adjuster, so immediately, [I think], “Okay, check the books. Were they current? Did they have a restriction on how much they could deliver on a Friday night to make sure they got paid by Saturday morning?” You just watch that. The people that drank heavily there would notice [financial troubles] long before anyone else: the glasses weren’t as full; there was more foam in your beer. They were quick to discuss it and criticize. A lot of times you’d just call it [the bar] “Sonya’s Tragic End,” because she was on her way down, down, down. She lost the bar to Kenny financially.

When Kenny opened Signatures [in the late 1980s], there was a restaurant [there]. At that time if you had to have . . . Was it 60 percent sales of food to your alcohol sales? You had to have a restaurant to sell hard liquor. The books were always cooked there. We knew people who had invested in it thinking they could make it. Then they would take over from another person, and another person. The restaurant rarely made it. Kenny and Billi were always in financial problems keeping the booze and the food balanced. At that point, I think you would say there were probably people who thought themselves a better class of people, because you did dress [up to go to Signature’s]. You were not wearing work jeans; you were not wearing just nothing shirts. You were definitely in slacks, shirts. I hate to label it this way, but it’s called “carriage trade.” You were people who had a job in an office someplace. You came after work, you had your cocktail. If you had two cocktails, then you’d better have dinner or the police would pick you up. You know, [that] kind of mentality. You saw a lot of people in stylish dance clothes. You would go out, you’d buy a really neat outfit, and you would be seen dancing. There was a great dance floor. In those days, lots of people danced and didn’t drink. You went out to mingle, meet people, dance until whenever, [hook up], and hope you could get up and go to work in the morning. [Laughs.]

Probably [in] the “golden age” you’d call it, there were what? Five [gay] bars? More after the [World’s] Fair [in 1974], because people could come out. People had learned a lot of who they were, and you could get together. People just would traipse between them, because you always wanted to see who was in the next bar. So there was quite a bar scene, and it did sort of kind of self identify. If you were following the drag world, you went to Sonya’s. If you were a beer drinking, pool player you went to the Backwoods.

[There was] a lot of social activity after the bar closed. They just called them after-hour parties. Somebody would announce, “I’m having everybody over to the house.” Miss G, who was a black hairdresser, big black drag queen—he was very dark—ran a beauty shop out of his house for people of color. It was set up with a big living room, which was normally his salon. But then everybody would come there after hours, when the bar closed, and we’d just kept partying. You know, just because the bar closed doesn’t mean we close!

[In the 1970s] Bud Buell literally had a chicken house that he turned into [an after hours] gay club. It was younger, prettier folk. They did some pig roasts out there a couple of times, but they were a little more rarified group of people in that they were a lot more sexually active, you know. I don’t think it was quite to Pines Road. I’m trying to think now . . . The freeway and everything has changed so much. It wasn’t out of town. It was really just out in the [Spokane] Valley. That was a long way in those days if you left downtown, the bar. It was typical Valley: a big plot of ground all covered in weeds and broken down vehicles. Somebody had converted their acreage to houses and they might have six or eight houses on their few acres. Then you’d have literally, probably four acres, six acres, of property. It had been a little truck farm or something at one day. Probably way back it might’ve had an orchard—that’s why there was a chicken coop and room for a cow. That’s why the weeds. They’d all grew up because nobody did any of that anymore. I don’t know that I was ever in his house. You just all came, parked in the weeds, went over to the chicken coop and partied.

There probably were only two or three light bulbs in the whole place. There would be like a corner countertop and people would bring their booze. Bud might start out with a case of beer or something. Everybody knew you brought some kind of [contribution]. There were always people that abused it and drank everybody else’s. Most evenings you’d see 20 or 30 people there. It could hold probably 40. You didn’t need a lot of room! [Laughs.] You were dancing and everybody is standing up. There weren’t tables and chairs. There was always music. If you were interested in somebody, you usually went outside, so then everybody didn’t talk about you and stare. [That was] probably early ‘70s. I don’t remember hearing about that as much [in the 1980s]. At that point, [Bud] had probably diabetes and foot problems. He could hardly get to the bar. Well, if he wasn’t there, he couldn’t take the bar crowd home after dark.

Bud Buell died and there was a huge funeral for him, because everybody loved him. He was a big man, very big man. If you were his friend, you were his friend. He was just a really good guy that way. I mean, if you had nothing, you could come stay at the house for free and eat. After you spent some time, it was like, “Time to get a job.” He was really like the fairy godmother. “Okay, get on your feet. Out there, working. You don’t get a free ride the rest of your life.” So, he was very good.


The drag court here in Spokane was in place four or five years before I’d gotten here [in 1974. One] of the people that I’d met early on was Bobbie Jean. His name was Bob, but [Bobbie Jean] was his drag name. He was the Dowager Empress because there’d been, I think, one or two before that. One of them had left Spokane for a man in Seattle, da-da, drama, drama, drama. [Laughs.] So Bobbie and all these people had to step up. Anyway, it was a wonderful social coming together of people. They threw an immense drag ball, probably twice a year. It was a popularity contest. You come together, you elect whoever made you feel good that year. So with Bob and Jim . . . they were just fun people. They cared, you know.

[I was a walker in some of the shows. The queens] needed somebody to make sure—because you didn’t wear high heels very often—that you didn’t fall over. [Laughs.] So there was usually a man-garbed person, walking the drag queen. That’s a walker. The walkers were more masculine acting. I’m not saying [the walkers were] all males, because there were some women who were cross-dressing and pretending they were Elvis Presley or whoever they wanted to sing like that weekend. They would put on beards, and funny hair, and men’s clothing. [Sometimes they were the walkers,] because their girlfriend—the femme—would be running for Miss Whoever-Knows-What. And [the girlfriend] had all the gowns and the pretties and the sparkles and hoo-hoo. Generally, the women weren’t dressing up their women as pretties. Sometimes the cross-dressing woman would have a gay man that she was dressing up. So, she was in line to be the partner at the shows. “I need to have a crowd to entertain, and so if I’m with you: you’re pretty, you attract a crowd. I can sing.” So it was very symbiotic. I don’t remember how I got started [as a walker,] other than [I was] running lights. Then you’re in [that] circle of people.

[I also knew about theater.] Like with Bob: he was supposed to be an old woman with saggy boobs. He had no idea how they should fit! [He used] a couple of bags of birdseed, and one’s higher and [they’re] not swinging together. I’d go, “Bob, you’re not anatomical today!” [Laughs.] So you just get to be a part of the support crowd. As a support crowd, you go and get a free drink here and there, but mainly you’re in the party circuit. That’s where everyone wants to be. You want to be in the high life, bright lights. Bob was probably one of the earliest ones that I walked.

Then, for a while I had a dating relationship going with a guy named the Widow Wilson. John Wilson died of cancer way back—about the time Ted and I got together. He probably died in ’78, ’79. John was 6’4”. He’d wear four-inch heels, two foot of hair. When he’d go to a drag ball, getting in and out of elevators was a problem. You’d have to hold hands, lower him down so get the hair in there, and then stand him back up, when they got out of the elevator. John was [wearing] Las Vegas style bathing suits and very showy: could dance, big feathers. The whole creation! You needed someone to keep you stable when you were on these platforms. This is back in the ‘80s when we had four-inch platforms and rock ‘n roll. I was a walker for him and a couple of the others. It was just part of the entertainment. You know, you got to be somebody [in the drag scene].

One of our favorite stories—for Ted and I both—is that because of my connection with that group and going to Seattle, and Portland, and Calgary, and whatever . . . There was a young fellow named John, who we’re still very good friends with. John [Phillip Reed] was the Marquis of Tacoma. He was also friends of all my drag queen friends. Anyway, [we] got really good friendship built up with him, because we were the walkers behind the scenes. The glitzy girls went out front. Okay. So I met Ted. He’d already dated John through other friends, but [that was] not known to either of us. We went to a drag ball in Portland, Oregon, one time. I’m there and I go, “John! John, you’ve got to come over to the table, I have a new, you know . . .” And Ted met him going to the bar separately. Anyway, he goes, “John! John! You got to come to the table and meet my friend.” John’s walking up to the table and just goes, “Oh, my God, you two?!” [Laughs.] He was just at our house for gay Pride in Palm Springs with his new husband. We keep those long-term relationships. They’re part of our family. It’s amazing how you come together in front of the scenes or behind the scenes. John and I met behind the scenes in the drag world.

[José Sarria] was one of the outstanding people [in the drag world] on the West Coast. Yeah. Jose was singing at the Black Cat Club in San Francisco. Jose would dress up in opera garb. He looked like one of the divas! He would sing opera, in his own voice, usually Sunday afternoon. There were different clubs with different shows and things. The laws at that point: men couldn’t wear women’s clothing and da, da, da. You always had some man garb on you somewhere to prove that you were a man, by law. Jose didn’t like that, especially because he’s entertaining! If he needed a corset to make you look like . . . whoever, he was going to have it.

He and probably another group of people actually started the drag court thing on the West Coast. That’s why they call him the First Empress of the United States. Outrageous person! Always flamboyant. Always had a new husband. [Laughs.] That’s also why they called him the Widow Norton. Norton was a homeless, almost nude person in San Francisco for years and years and years. He claimed he was the first emperor of the United States; he died after World War II. [Laughs.] Anyway, José had run [for] one of the city supervisor positions. Didn’t make it, but that was part of the coming out of gays in San Francisco. Not that Norton was gay or anything. He was just a notorious street person. Everyone knew the Emperor Norton. You know, “The emperor has no clothes,” and all this kind of stuff. That’s where José basically got his notoriety.

[José] ran a French restaurant here [during Expo ’74. He would also visit Spokane in later years,] because of the drag scene. A lot of the [Courts] would throw like a 30-year anniversary or something. They would pay him to show up and bring other drags from other cities to show up, and make it a big hoopla. More publicity, and more people wanted to come to the party because it’s a bigger party. Jose was the biggest party going! Generally [the Court] always did a fundraiser for some charity at these things. The more people that came to your drag ball, as you were stepping down [as] Empress, gave you more money to donate to charity. That made you a bigger, better Empress and Emperor. That’s how they measured that. [José] was one of those people who set a tone that you didn’t have to be a second-class citizen.

I don’t know who’s in or out in the drag world anymore. We pulled back to do other things, and they progressed on their own speed and things. We’ve been to a couple of balls, but generally, the world has turned for all reasons. You don’t need that to meet people now. That was your social outlet then. Like the bars! People rarely go to bars now.


In ’78 I [co] founded a Dorian Group. It was [originally] founded in Seattle, [in 1974 by Charles Brydon]. He underwrote marine cargo ships, insurance. They started a conversation group over there. Once a month they would have a main speaker, but it was all about gays, gay rights, and how they could blend with the community. They were trying to get a chapter on this side of the state [and] we knew someone on this side of the state that wanted a chapter. So I helped co-found a chapter with a [Dr. Jim Edmonds], friend in Cheney out at the university. I’d get up on Sunday morning like at 3:30 [a.m.], drive to Seattle, have a meeting there almost all day, leave there about 4:00 in the afternoon, and then drive home. That was how we operated this bi-state thing. But [Dorian Group] was strictly a non-bar activity, with all these different people coming in as professionals to speak to gay people to [communicate], “Okay, you don’t have to be victim. You can be a professional. Respect yourself.”

[The group in Seattle] would help us. You know, “If you contact this person,” or “You get that free place . . .” I think there were two or three people in Pullman who used to go also to Seattle. We all thought, “Okay, if we pull together—Pullman and Spokane—we should be able to get a group together.” As soon as we got organized here, [the people from Pullman] disappeared. I don’t know if it was because they were students . . . Jim and I kept it alive. A lot of it was because Jim wanted a social outlet that wasn’t a bar scene. He didn’t feel comfortable being a black professor in a bar. I don’t think he was married at the time. He had married a white woman, which was very controversial in Spokane. That was probably more in the early ‘70s, maybe even in the ‘60s, when he got here.

Anyway, so Jim and I got this group together, [for] non-bar activity. He probably was more financially supportive. I was more the social stir-it-up, bring-in-the-people, get-a-place-to-meet. Everybody that came, we gave them kind of a chore, because we needed people to return. It was kind of a core group of our friends and whoever we could add to the group. We had speakers, we had discussion groups, we felt it was important to do activities like ice-skating in the winter. A group of 14 or whatever would go rent skates, go down to the center, skate, have a potluck afterwards, go to a movie, go in the summertime [to] the water music at the river. You’d just have a group to go socially. It didn’t have to end up in the bar. You could come and go. You always knew a night that it was going to be.

Ted and I ran [the Dorian Group] for years and years. It just got to be . . . We weren’t seeing each other, because he would go off to meetings, I’d go off to meetings. It was like, “Okay. Do we have a relationship here? What are you [going to be] giving up? What am I giving up?” The easiest one—because of all the years of involvement—was to give up the Dorian Group. People started referring to it as my group, and it wasn’t supposed to be. It never started as my group. It was always supposed to be a group of people. I was doing most of the work. I was appointing people to do work. It was still, “I want to come to your group.” And I’m just going, “It’s not mine.”

I got other people to take over. It dwindled, and dwindled, and finally gave it up. Which is okay. If you don’t step aside, no one can step in—which was one of those arguments you constantly had with yourself: “If I don’t do it, who will?” You’d go, “Somebody else has got to do this, or it won’t grow.” Well, then it’d kind of falter. You’d step back [in] and say, “Okay, I’ll throw this party,” or, “We’ll call everybody to go skating.” Oh good, good, good. Then people would come. But for the most part, I suppose because we were a couple, we could pull it off. We had more man power. Other people had homes, but they were single or whatever. They wouldn’t put forth the effort to do a group effort. You kind of got to be the center. Everybody depended on you, and they didn’t have to work. So then it’s like, “Okay, if we quit, will you step up?” They sort of didn’t. [Laughs.]

It felt good to let it do its thing. What it was supposed to do, it did. Plus, I think, again as the times changed, it wasn’t as important. Other things came and went. Maybe it was its time, kind of mentally. Who knows. It did its job for the time it was going on.


Sources: Interview with Susan Williams on 3 December 2006, held at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture; interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 27 November 2012.