Olga and "Bob" "Adams," March 10, 1993
by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2009. All rights reserved.
I interviewed Olga "Adams" at her home in suburban Philadelphia in March 1993. Olga was her real name; "Adams" was not. Her husband "Bob" (not his real name) was not present for most of the interview, but joined us toward the end. Olga was one of the two people I interviewed who did not identify as gay or lesbian; I interviewed her because she and her husband owned a gay bar, the Lark Bar, in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania. Bridgeport is located 18 miles north of Philadelphia in Montgomery County. I knew about the Lark Bar and the Ell Club, which was based at the Lark, because they were mentioned in a few homophile movement periodicals and in homophile movement correspondence; I think movement organizations initially were not quite sure whether to regard the Ell Club as a homophile movement group. I found Olga by telephoning the Lark Bar, which still existed in the early 1990s. By this time Olga and "Bob" had sold the bar and retired, but the owner or manager of the bar supplied me with their contact information.
In 2012, when I tried to locate Olga and "Bob," I learned that "Bob" had died earlier that year; an online obituary indicated that he was predeceased by Olga.
Marc Stein Interview with Olga "Adams" (and "Bob Adams"), 10 March 1993. Transcribed by Kate Wilson and Marc Stein
MS: You and your husband owned the Lark Bar and you helped start the Ell Club. I'm really just hoping to find out as much as you can tell me about how the club started and what the bar was all about.
OA: After I realized I was serving the gay community, I discovered from getting acquainted with the customers that it was a sad affair. At that time, people couldn't go home and tell their parents they were gay. And they were hungry for binding together and talking about their problems and talking about their careers and talking about different things that they couldn't do at home. So I started this club, hoping to help them socially and psychologically. Although they behaved normal, I knew that they were deeply disturbed. And that is only because they couldn't reveal themselves. They were what we later identified as closet queens. O.K? And the reason I didn't realize I was serving the gay community is because they were so well-behaved. You couldn't tell the difference between what they call straight or gay.
MS: When did you open the bar?
OA: We opened the bar back in 1948. And it wasn't until 1952 or '53 that the gays began to come in. And I didn't identify them 'til around '54, '55.
MS: How did you realize that they were gay people?
OA: How'd I realize? One of them approached me and asked me if they can have a Halloween party. And the first year we had the Halloween party, I didn't recognize any one of the customers. They were so beautiful, absolutely beautiful. It wasn't that honky-tonk gaudy dressing. It was very, very elegant, with their diamonds and their mother's mink capes and stuff. And then it hit me: "Gee! They're so pretty they could be girls."
MS: So they were mostly men who were coming into the bar, not women?
OA: Later the girls came in.
MS: I see.
OA: But the girls you can tell. The girls I didn't identify as gay. I thought they were like tomboys until I realized.
MS: Sounds like it was mostly a young crowd.
OA: Well I have to say 21, but some of them came in when they were 20 and I had to ask them to kindly come back and I'd give them a birthday party on their twenty-first, when I realized how young they were. That's why we stayed in business as long as we did. I was strict. They had to behave. They had to be of age. They had to show me identification. So it was a safe haven for them. And the Ell Club came about because we had some prominent people coming in. They were afraid somebody would see them from work because the place started to get very popular. And a lot of people came in out of curiosity. But it was 98% gay. And so I decided to have a club where people had to identify themselves before they went into the back. We had one large back dining room with a dance hall and if you wanted to dance that's where you went. But you had to identify yourself. So your brother, your mother, your coworkers, nobody else could come in and see you dancing. And it was the only bar between Philadelphia and Allentown.
MS: Is that right? The only gay bar, you mean?
OA: The only gay bar. Unless they wanted to go into the city. And every time it seemed like they went into the city, they either got beat up or mugged. They were just afraid. They'd get harassed and neither the bartenders nor the owners ever stuck up for them or helped them in any way. But because I liked the crowd and they were so well-behaved I was able to control everybody. Soon as I saw somebody hug or something, I'd say, "Uh-uh, your mother's watching." Immediately. There were times when they'd forget themselves. And they'd put their hands up on the bar and hold hands up on the bar.
MS: And was that all right with you?
OA: Not really. But I let them get away with it for a little bit and then I'd say, "O.K., that's enough. Your mother's watching." And they would pick up their drinks then.
MS: And you and your husband both were running the bar?
OA: Well, no, he worked. We were in debt, so my husband worked down at the naval base. And I ran it for about seven, eight years. Of course he helped me with the ordering and he helped me with setting it up and all. But he never knew. He never knew that it was a gay bar until he retired from the naval base. And the first time he was behind the bar, we were very busy. It used to be three and four deep at the bar.
MS: About how many people? As many as a hundred?
OA: Oh yeah, easily.
OA: Really. I had to hire one of the boys to stand at the door and not let anybody in. I didn't want to lock the door because they were using it to go in and out. But I'd make sure that this is the capacity and don't let anybody else in.
MS: So about how many people do you think usually might come on a Friday or Saturday night?
OA: Oh I'd say 100, 120.
MS: So you were telling me how he found out. When did he retire?
OA: Oh gee, I don't remember the year.
MS: In the '50s?
OA: Late '50s.
MS: Late '50s?
OA: Yeah, late '50s. And the first time he got behind the bar, he worked for about a half hour. And I saw that the expression on his face was changing. He was puzzled. You know when a person puts his brows together? He was puzzled. He kept looking around, looking around, and finally he said to me, "What do you have here?" And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You know what I mean. What do we have here?" And I said, "If you're referring to what I think you are, O.K., they're human beings and they're behaving. What they do in their own bedroom is their business. That shouldn't concern you." I said to him, "Nobody gets drunk." Believe it or not, they drank, but it was more like a social place than coming to get drunk. I remember one or two instances where one fellow was rejected or something and he came in and he drank more than he should. But I had a policy. I became not their mother actually, but their mother and their psychiatrist all rolled in one. And when I saw one was having too much, more than he should, not to hurt his feelings and not to jeopardize his life even, I'd say to him, "Tom, let me have your keys. I'll give them to you before you leave." That's why I loved them so much. They always cooperated with me. I'd get his keys and I'd give them to a friend: "Make sure he gets home safe, even if I have to pay for his cab fare." And so I'd say to him, "You've had enough. Would you like to have a cup of coffee? You can stay as long as you want. You can have your coffee. You can have your soda. Or if you want someone to take you home now, if you allow someone to take you home, tomorrow, the day after, next week, whenever you come in, the first drink is on me." And it always worked.
MS: You said you had some pretty prominent people coming in? What do you mean by prominent?
OA: Oh I had lawyers. I had priests.
OA: Oh yeah, absolutely. I had doctors. Yeah. All walks of life.
MS: And then what about this club? How did you come up with the name?
OA: Well Ell stands for lark, the first initial of the Lark.
MS: Oh, O.K. And that was the name of the bar.
OA: That was the name of the bar, the Lark. And we picked the name Lark because "Bob" originally wanted to name it Olga's Bar. And I said, "Oh no, that's corny. It's too common." Let's get something exotic. So he said, "Well gee, I can't think of anything." I said, "Well let's call it the Bird." Later on it became known as the Bird, because the Lark became so famous that the parents of the kids in the area knew who went to the Lark. It got the reputation. So they used to say the Bird. He said, "You have to give me another name other than the Bird." I said, "Let's pick a real happy, cheerful, colorful bird: the lark, the meadowlark. Well he said, "The meadowlark is too long." I said, "Well name it the Lark." And that's how it got its name. We sat up all night thinking up the name.
MS: Do you remember when the Ell Club started? I think one of the letters here says it was about November 1956. Does that sound just about right?
OA: Yeah, it was in the mid-'50s.
MS: About how many members did it have?
OA: I had at least 50, 60 members.
MS: Evenly between men and women or mostly men?
OA: Yeah, mostly men.
MS: Mostly men.
OA: Mostly men. And then later on it evened itself out.
MS: Oh really?
OA: Yeah, yeah, it evened itself. But I never truly encouraged the women and I'll tell you why. They're fighters. They don't have to have one drink, but if somebody saw somebody that they wanted to be with and somebody else was with them, they'd get into an argument over something simple. "You bumped me. I bumped you. You pushed my chair." Just so they could argue. So it got so that either they behaved or I flagged them immediately. And when I flagged them, that used to hurt them. They'd come back and say, "Just flag me for one day or for one week." "No. If I can't trust you today, I'm not going to be able to trust you a month from now."
MS: Flag them means that they couldn't come in ever?
OA: They couldn't come in anymore. That was it. They'd have to go to the city or they'd have to go up to Allentown or wherever. Well they didn't like that. It only took me a couple months to straighten them out, but they eventually learned to behave.
MS: So then it was mixed in the club?
OA: So then it was mixed and they got along beautifully. The girls and the boys got along beautifully. As long as it was mixed, I had no problems with anyone, the boys or the girls. But it got so that Friday night in the back room dancing was girl night, Saturday night was boy night. We used to take turns. And when it was all girls I had to be always on my toes. I was always afraid. It rarely erupted that bad that I had to call the police or anybody. I could always handle it. In fact one time I got in between two girls and one threw a punch and I got a black eye.
MS: Is that right? I bet you must have flagged them.
OA: Oh yeah. Ten years later they came back. They wanted to come in, apologize. They were settled down, they were grown up, and I allowed them to come back in. But it took ten years.
MS: So you said the guys and the girls got along?
MS: Did a lot of friendships form between them?
OA: A lot of friendships. In fact, to satisfy their parents, I know at least seven or eight couples that married.
MS: Is that right?
OA: And they all stayed together but two. They're still all good friends, but two of them got divorced. But they're still friends. In fact, when they want to celebrate their anniversary, they used to come back to the Lark.
MS: Is that right?
OA: They would disappear for a year or so and then to celebrate an occasion they'd come back.
MS: They would come back. And so what else did the club do aside from the nights? You told me on the phone that you had psychology hours or something like that?
OA: Yeah. That was certain afternoons. Some of them worked night work. Some worked the day shift, whatever jobs they had. But a lot of them around 4-4:30 were free, either home from the office or something. And I started a library for them. I acquired quite a few books and they used to come in and sit around the bar and either sip on the soda or orange juice or a drink even. And they used to read these books. And they had to sign in and sign out for it, O.K.? But nobody ever took it out. The reason I made them do that is because if you're in the middle of a novel and somebody else wanted that novel, I'd have to say, "Wait, let's see if there's somebody else." Of course if you came in you wanted to finish it. You didn't want to wait until the next person finished it. And that's how the system worked.
MS: What kind of books did you have? Novels mostly?
OA: It got so that I discouraged that because all the gay books written during that time ended very sad. Very depressing and very sad. And I didn't realize it because I wasn't reading them.
MS: Oh right.
OA: When I picked up a couple and read the last couple chapters, I said, "Uh oh, no. What am I doing here? This is so sad." Life isn't that sad. But you have to remember back in those days, being gay and open with it was sad. Hiding it was doubly sad.
MS: So people who came in had a lot of problems about that?
OA: Yeah, they did. They did.
MS: Did people ever describe being beaten up or losing jobs or things like that?
OA: No, because they were leading two lives. The only one I know that was a very happy go lucky chap had nails longer than a female would wear, O.K.? And he had a high-pitched voice, O.K.? But he worked for the government. He had a high-ranking position in the government. And it didn't bother the government. He said his employer knew. As long as he behaved and he did his work, he didn't care, which I thought was a marvelous feeling back in those days.
MS: Sure. How long did the Ell Club last? Through the '60s?
OA: Mostly, yeah.
MS: Until the 1970s?
OA: Maybe early '70s. But mostly in the '60s, because a lot of people mated and they bought homes together and they didn't frequent so much.
MS: Did the bar stay a gay bar?
OA: Oh yes.
MS: Is it still?
OA: Oh yeah, yeah.
MA: And you said it was incorporated?
OA: Oh yeah. We had to get a charter.
MS: Not just the bar, but the club, too?
OA: No, not the bar, not the bar. Just the club.
MS: The club. And how did you do that? Did you find a lawyer?
OA: Oh yeah. We went to a lawyer and did it legally.
MS: Was the lawyer a member of the club?
MS: Did you ever encounter some of the groups in Philly like the Mattachine Society or the Janus Society?
OA: I didn't have to ask anybody or tell anybody 'cause it just happened. But because we ran it, after "Bob" started to really bartend, he got to know them. We really protected them.
MS: Were there other things aside from the library and the psychiatry hour?
OA: Yeah, there used to be a lot of game shows on TV. They were just starting all those game shows. So I got them involved in watching games or whatever. And that, believe it or not, prevented them from drinking too much. Now I was in the business to sell liquor. In fact I had a couple tell me, "You running a Salvation Army here or what?" Because I always discouraged them from drinking too much from the very beginning. And I think that's why over the years, they knew after they had a couple it was time to say goodnight to me. Wherever they went after that, I don't know. But that's the way I liked it. I didn't want anybody getting drunk, getting hurt.
MS: Sure. Sure. You sounded like you remembered quite a few of the people who went there. I'm wondering if you might remember some names of people who I've been talking to. Jack Adair? Does that sound like a familiar name?
OA: Well, I'll tell you the truth. I never really wanted to know anybody's name.
MS: Oh, O.K.
OA: So I called everybody honey. Because the FBI dropped in on me a couple of time when there was a couple of what they considered gay murders.
MS: Is that right?
MS: In Bridgeport?
OA: No, not in Bridgeport. In Florida and wherever the murders occurred. And they interviewed us. And in those days they didn't know a thing about the gay kids, nothing. By that time I had been serving them maybe eight, ten years. And I got to know them pretty well. And I helped solve two or three murders for them, because I told them they're on the wrong track. It was not the gay kids doing the murdering. That was not their style. The kind of beatings that they were describing to me did not fit the gay kids. It's the gay kids picking up what I call rough trade. They'd go into these other bars, a straight bar, and pick up trade, a truck driver or somebody, and they'd get stabbed or beat up or thrown out of the window or something. And most of that happened either in Florida or in Washington, D.C.
MS: And the FBI would come all the way?
OA: And the FBI would come because we were known to be a gay bar.
MS: I see. Did the police come by a lot?
OA: In the beginning they used to come in, peep in, and peep out. They'd drop in. They would check in. And everything was run smoothly. I never had to call them when there was a disturbance.
MS: I've heard stories about police asking for money from bar owners. They never did that?
OA: No, never, never, no.
MS: And did the people who came to your bar ever get harassed when they were leaving out on the street?
OA: No, never.
MS: So there was no neighborhood trouble? What kind of neighborhood was the bar in? Was it in a downtown area?
OA: No, it was right on the bridge, honey, right in the middle of town. No, nobody bothered them. But there was a bar across the way. And some of the so-called straight people from town used to get half loaded from across the street and come in and wanted to be picked up. Well, that's one thing my customers never did. Because number one, they wouldn't do it. Number two, there was a rule that they are not to do that. And if I knew that they were doing it, then I'd flag them. I guess I got away with flagging them or scaring them with a flag, because it was such a popular place and it was run so smoothly that it was a joy. They felt safe, that's the thing. They felt safe in there. I used to tell them, "If you want a blood pit, go to Philly. You leave all your problems outside. When you come in, this is a social hour, social night. You enjoy it."
MS: So why do you think people liked it so much?
OA: Because we were like mother and father to them. They liked the discipline. I really believe they liked it and we did it in such a way that they didn't resent it.
MS: A lot of them liked to dance a lot?
OA: Oh yeah, both the boys and the girls. It got so that the boys would dance one night, the girls another. Then when they got really acquainted, they'd dance together.
MS: Is that right? With each other?
OA: Yeah. Yeah. It was just nice. It was like one big happy family.
MS: Did that create a lot of relationships there?
OA: Oh yeah. They still meet. We sold the place three years ago, but when I was still there, on certain dates, it was like old home week. Maybe twenty would come in that I hadn't seen for a year or two. They'd come in on the anniversary of something that they were celebrating together.
MS: Oh how nice.
OA: Oh yeah. Yeah, it was nice.
MS: Can you tell me something about yourself and where you came from, where you were born, and your family?
OA: Yeah. South Philadelphia.
MS: What year were you born? Can you say?
OA: Yeah, 1918.
MS: 1918? And your husband?
OA: He was born in 1913.
MS: And you were both born in South Philly?
OA: Oh yeah.
MS: What kind of family did you grow up in?
OA: We were all a close knit family, honey, very close.
MS: Were you parents European?
OA: Believe it or not, hardly anybody drank. I had a very well rounded out family. I had seven sisters and two brothers and we all get along.
MS: Were your parents from this country?
OA: No, they came when they were children.
MS: From where?
MS: Lebanon. And your husband's as well? That's what I thought. I thought it was Lebanon. Your husband's family was from Lebanon?
OA: His parents, yeah. We're second generation.
MS: And you said you had two kids while you were running the bar?
OA: Oh sure.
MS: Did the kids ever come by the bar?
OA: No. They came up occasionally, but they weren't allowed in the bar. But as they got older, when they were in high school, they'd come up for something or the other. Yeah, I mean nobody bothered them.
MS: You didn't have any trouble?
MS: And you lived in Bridgeport all this time?
OA: Yeah, I lived right in the building with the bar.
MS: Above it?
MS: So when did you buy the bar again? I think you told me before?
MS: '48. And can you tell me something about Bridgeport? What kind of a town it is?
OA: It's a nice quiet industrial town. It had 5,200 people. And we're bordered by Norristown on one side and King of Prussia on the other. We're in between.
MS: A lot of big factories?
OA: Most of the people worked in the carpet factory.
MS: Was that in Bridgeport, the carpet factory?
MS: Who owned that? Was it a big company?
OA: Lee. Lee Carpet.
MS: Did a lot of people who came in the bar work at Lee Carpet? No?
MS: And I know the letter that I have from Gerry Redcay says that people came from a 150 mile radius.
OA: Oh yeah, they did.
MS: Travelled quite a long way.
OA: They did, they did.
MS: Can you tell me something about her? I didn't even know she was a woman until you told me on the phone.
OA: Yeah, poor soul. She's dead.
MS: Was she from Philadelphia?
OA: Yeah, she was from North Philly. Yeah.
MS: And she would come out to Bridgeport? Or she lived out there?
OA: No, she'd drive. She first came up with a few girls. They all came up. And then she started to work for me.
MS: Work in the bar, you mean?
OA: Yeah, as a waitress.
MS: So you would hire people who came to the bar?
OA: Yeah, oh yeah, sure. Everybody knew everybody. We used to have Christmas parties and we used to have a New Year's Eve party and we used to have a Halloween party. And a few years we had this spring come out party.
MS: It sounds from reading these two issues of the newsletter that I have that there was lots of gossiping that went on in this newsletter. Did the newsletter come out for a long time?
OA: No, not for a long time.
MS: Just a few issues?
MS: Because it describes some weddings and some church goings on and parties.
OA: Well, everybody exchanged gifts and those that stayed together for awhile used to come out and celebrate what they called their wedding date, but it actually wasn't a wedding date. It was the day they met.
MS: Right, right.
OA: They tried to pass themselves off as what an average person would say, "They're an average couple." But that's because all this was hid. Here, when she talks about puppy love, she's talking about her dog, Alex, the daring dashing crew-cut Alex. That's her dog.
MS: Was that the mascot or something?
OA: Yeah. If we had a picnic, he'd come along. She'd fancy him up with a big ribbon. A little French poodle.
MS: Oh really? So you'd have outdoor picnics as well?
OA: Yeah, every summer we'd have a picnic.
MS: In a park in Bridgeport?
OA: No, no. We had whatever park was available to us. Mostly it was a VFW park up in the mountains.
MS: So do you remember the town where it was?
OS: Oh gee, no.
MS: You didn't have any trouble going up there?
OA: Oh, no, no. Before you got the park , I would tell them, "There's gonna' be a great, nice crowd. They're well behaved. And it's a gay crowd." First they didn't understand what gay was. "What do you mean, queer?" I said, "That's one word we don't use in our vocabulary 'cause they're not queer. They are as normal as anybody else." But I said, "This is a picnic. They feel loosey-goosey. They'll hold hands or something like that. So I told the manager, "Don't let that upset you. That's as far as it will go."
MS: Did they ever think that you were part of the crowd?
OA: Well I blended in with them, but no, they knew better because "Bob" was there.
MS: And no one in the bar ever made the mistake.
OA: No, no, no. Well he was always around. They knew. They used to call us Mom and Pop.
MS: I'm surprised a little bit that you didn't get into any trouble, that there was no one in Bridgeport who caused you any trouble or tried to close you down or anything.
OA: No, we had this fellow from the District Attorney's office come. I was looking for the letter he gave me. He commended me on the beautifully run bar. It was one of the best run bars in Montgomery County.
MS: So it was the Montgomery County D.A.
OA: Yeah. And he said it was so well behaved. He said it was a pleasure being in there, more so than in a straight bar where there was a lot of cussing. And that's one thing, there was no profanity in the bar. The kids were so great. I mean how much can I praise them, honey? They were just marvelous.
MS: So did you save anything from the club or from those days?
OA: No. I had a whole box full, but moving around I don't know what in the world I did with it. I really went through everything. I couldn't find anything. I must have said to myself, "Well, I don't need this anymore." In fact at one time I had the charter here. I don't know what I did with that either.
MS: The charter of the Ell Club? Well maybe I could find it, if you did it legally. If you were incorporated, it's probably on file.
OA: But that wouldn't do you any good anyway if you're writing a book, honey.
MS: Why not? You don't think it would give more information about it?
OA: I don't know. Why would it? No, it just says a club. They don't know what the club is.
MS: Oh I see. The charter didn't say anything. I see. Well is there anything else you can think of to tell me?
MS: It sounds really interesting. It sounds like you were really doing something that no one else was.
OA: Well, as I explained, I feel like I was a pioneer. I had explained to the FBI when they were investigating these things that they should learn more about the people before they accuse them or sit down so hard on them. So for maybe two, three weeks, they'd come in, four, five, six FBI men. They would sit in the back room on a slow afternoon. And they'd ask me questions and I would explain to them about their behavior and what they should expect. I said the most when they get into arguments, they push. They push each other. They don't even punch. They push each other. So they would never be that violent. Well one of them, a Mr. Fry, came back to tell me that I was so helpful to them that the department really appreciated it. I helped them solve three cases.
MA: Really? But you said not by pointing them in the right direction?
OA: In each case, like the Senator that was murdered down in Washington, he picked up these crummy kids out of some rough bar, took them home, bought them clothes, fed them, gave them money and what have you. And he wined and dined them three or four times with no approaches. So after the third or fourth time being with them, he made the fatal mistake of taking them to his apartment. And they saw the luxurious apartment. They beat him. They didn't do anything, but they beat him and they robbed him.
MS: What senator was that?
OA: I don't remember the senator's name. They stabbed him twenty-nine times. And I said, "Well, you know the gay kids aren't that violent. They're not violent. There's nothing wrong with their mentality." I said, "Of course in every crowd, in every neighborhood, there's always some goofy person floating around. But don't categorize everybody by the one.
MS: So you remember three separate times when you talked to the FBI? Is that right?
MS: Three separate murders? Was this in the '50s or the '60s? Do you remember when it was?
OA: I think it was back in the '50s, honey.
MS: You must have been a little bit scared. Were you?
OA: When they first came to question me, the very first time, no, I wasn't scared. There was nothing to hide. That's one thing. And so they start asking me for names. Who frequents the bar. And so the chief of police that was with them, the Bridgeport Chief of Police, said, "She doesn't remember names." And I said, "That's true. I'll remember a face, but I made it my business not to remember a name. I call everybody honey." I said to him, "How did I greet you when you came in? I said, 'Well hiya' there honey. Come on in.'" I said, "You see because I thought to myself, 'If anybody comes in, say for instance somebody's father or somebody's brother, to ask for their relative who comes in the bar, I want to honestly look them square in the face and say, "I'm sorry, I don't know."'" It happened once when this kid came in and he asked for his brother. And I said to him, "I don't know him." He said, "I was standing outside, I saw him come in." I said, "Well I don't know him. I don't know anybody's name, so don't even ask me."
MS: He was trying to find out if his brother was coming in to the bar?
OA: Yeah, yeah. And so I could honestly look them square in the face and tell them, "I don't know." To me what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. And if you can look at somebody square in the face and talk to them, then you have nothing to hide. And I didn't feel I had anything to hide. I was very proud that we ran a real straight ship.
MS: Why do you think you were so open-minded? A lot of people if they discovered that gay people were coming to their bar would have turned them away.
OA: Yeah, well I felt to each his own. God made all of us. And what you do behind closed doors is your business. Why should I barge in?
MS: Did your parents bring you up with those values?
OA: Yeah, I guess they did.
MS: Were they tolerant? Were they tolerant people?
OS: Well when they knew I had a gay bar, they didn't like it so much.
MS: No, they didn't? How did they find out?
OA: I have no idea. My father used to come up to visit and he'd see. He'd come home and tell my mother. But no, they were tolerant. As long as there was no problem and they behaved.
MS: Did your boys ever have trouble in school or anything?
OA: Oh, I don't know. They never brought any of their problems home to me.
OA: Recently, in fact not too long ago, we were talking and I said, "When we had the bar, you never told me how you got along with kids in school." The younger one told me they used to get teased.
MS: They did?
OA: Yeah, they used to get teased.
MS: When were your sons born?
OA: Born? One is 50 and the other is 52. So they came when they were little kids to the bar.
MS: So they did get teased. Did they tell you anything more about that?
OA: No, they just said some of the kids, there were two that used to tease all the time. The big one got into a fight, blackened a kid's eye, and nobody ever bothered them after that.
MS: Really? Over the bar? Really? But you didn't know it then?
OA: No, I didn't know it then.
MS: Oh really? That's something. So you're not so sure it was your parents who brought you up to be so tolerant?
OA: Well it was their way of life. You just grow up tolerant of your neighbors. You grow up tolerant of the nasty relatives.
MS: You grew up in the middle of the city, so you saw a lot of different kinds of people.
OA: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
MS: But do you ever remember knowing any gay people when you were young? The first ones you met were in you bar? And the club never had any relationship to the political movement when it started in the 1960s? The gay rights movement?
OA: Oh no, no, no.
MS: I know that the letter here that says that the Ell Club subscribed to the Mattachine Review, ONE magazine, and The Ladder. Do you remember that?
OA: Well probably the secretary used to send in a donation or something. I didn't know. They ran it the way they wanted. I just supervised it more or less.
MS: Really? So did they pretty much run it themselves? Or was it your organization.
OA: Yeah. Well before they did anything, they discussed it with me. And if I approved it, they did it. If I said, "No, I didn't think I'd like that," then they wouldn't do it.
MS: But they would be the ones to, say, organize the parties?
OA: They had a secretary. They had a treasurer. They had a president.
MS: So they put out the newsletter. They ran the psychiatry hour and the library.
OA: Yeah and the games on TV.
MS: And the picnics?
OA: And the picnics. And then the parties three or four times a year.
MS: So that's pretty much what the club did.
OA: Yeah. They were so talented. Oh boy, not only beautiful, but they were so talented. Beautiful.
MS: I would imagine given where it was it was probably mostly white people.
OA: I would say 90%. I had a small group of the colored boys.
MS: Did they come from Philly or from all around?
OA: I think they came from the area. And I had two that used to come down from New York every other weekend.
MS: Really? Well it sounds to me like you were a pioneer.
OA: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I had an understanding with the local cops. They came over and they said, "We understand." And I said, "Well, if you have any problems with them, take them in, but you'll never have any problems."
MS: So the understanding was as long as you kept order in the bar, they wouldn't interfere.
OA: Oh yeah, as long as the kids behaved when they left. I remember one incident where I think it was New Year's Eve. No it wasn't New Year's; it was one of the holidays. They got carried away and they were blowing horns for each other. "Are you going to this diner for breakfast?" "Oh no. I don't want to go there. Let's go to that diner for breakfast." They were conferring from car to car where they wanted to go have breakfast. And it must have woke the neighbor up and she complained. So then, when I had all the crowd together one day, I said, "O.K. I have something to say. When you leave the bar, please get in your cars and pull away. If you want to stop at Danny's Diner or if you want to go wherever you wanted to go for coffee, settle it before you leave. Don't do it in the yard. Don't do it in the parking lot."
MS: So other than that you didn't have trouble with the neighbors? The neighbors were O.K.?
OA: Yeah. The house next door was an apartment house and they had nine tenants. One tenant came in and at first the boys didn't bother with him. So he got on his high tail and every time there was a little noise or a little disturbance he'd find some excuse to call the police. The police got so they told him the next time he called they're going to lock him up. Because they came around to investigate and there was nothing! There was nothing. So we knew that he was just rejected.
MS: Was he gay himself?
OA: No. He wanted to be included. The boys never picked on anyone. They just stayed among themselves. They flirted and they did what they wanted to do among themselves.
MS: Would you say that most of the guys there were effeminate?
MS: They weren't?
OA: No, not all.
MS: Some of them were, but most of them weren't? Is that what you're saying?
OA: They were half and half, I think.
MS: Did they go out with each other?
OA: Oh yeah.
MS: Is that how it worked? Did two effeminate guys ever get together themselves?
OA: I don't remember. You couldn't tell who was and who wasn't to begin with.
MS: So people walking down the street couldn't have told?
OA: Never. Not in a million years.
MS: Not any? Not even the guy with the long fingernails?
OA: No. I didn't see him too often. And he was real cute. He was a little Jewish boy. And he used to tell me, "I may meet somebody. I don't care. My boss likes me. In fact I just got a raise." He was telling me. "And he doesn't care how I act or what I do or how I have my hands, as long as it doesn't interfere with my typing."
MS: So there was some camping it up, I guess, in the bar. Yeah? Any final things you want to tell me about? It's really interesting.
OA: Yeah, I don't know. I can't think of anything else I can tell you except that I feel through our efforts more of the neighborhood and the officials and everybody else could tolerate the gay community because they understood it a little better.
MS: Mmhmm. That's sounds true.
OA: Yeah. In fact some of the other bars were trying to entice some of my customers. They were offering them free drinks.
MS: Is that right? Some of the local Bridgeport bars?
OA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
MS: Did any of them succeed?
OA: Yeah, they went in to see what it was like and they'd come right back. They can have it.
MS: Maybe you can describe for me a little what the bar looked like.
OA: Oh yeah. It was a circular bar. And it seated thirty people around. And when we were serving tap beer, the taps were in the middle and the register was in the middle. And people used to talk across the bar at each other.
MS: Tables also?
OA: We had tables in the back room.
MS: That was where the club was, the club room. And you said there was a dance floor in the back?
OA: There was a dance floor and a dining room behind the bar.
MS: Did people eat? You said that there was a dining room.
OA: Yeah. I used to serve. It was a full-fledged restaurant.
MS: Oh really?
OA: And then I noticed that the kids were always on diets. And I wasn't doing so well. So I used to just serve sandwiches. There was always sandwiches ready for them if they wanted.
MS: So it was really a restaurant and bar.
MS: And what kind of decorations were in the bar? Was it a wood bar?
OA: No, I had a Formica top. It's hard to describe.
MS: Do you remember what you had up on the wall?
OA: Well at Christmas time we used to put Santa Clauses around and bells and stuff.
MS: But other than that not many decorations?
MS: Not real glitzy.
OA: No. Toward the end, Bob, how would you describe it? Contemporary decorations on the walls of the Lark? It was like from the '50s. From the '30s. Art deco.
MS: Is that how it was decorated? Yeah, it was art deco style? What was art deco about it?
OA: Well, was it stenciling on glass?
BA: Yeah, he had stenciled a bird, a lark.
MS: Oh, really?
OA: A girl posed with a cigarette in her hand.
BA: It was a guy with a high hat and a long cigarette.
OA: It was so that you couldn't tell. Do you ever watch TV. What's her name? The fellow that just died. Madame or something?
MS: Oh, the puppet?
OA: The puppet. Yeah, yeah.
MS: Charlie? I can't remember the name.
OA: Well that's how it was. That type of thing.
BA: And we also had art deco pictures.
OA: Yeah, it wasn't real swanky. It was just a neighborhood bar. I wouldn't say it was a real swanky place. No, it was a neighborhood bar.
MS: Well we have one more story about how the bar turned.
OA: I guess it was about '55, '56.
BA: I think it was when we first opened.
OA: No, it wasn't gay when you first opened. No.
JA: After '50.
OA: Yeah, you had railroaders before that. Sure. Anyway, this young fellow came in, real clean cut, nice quiet boy. And he used to come in every afternoon after work on his way home. He'd stop in for a drink. And we got acquainted. Oh I guess he came in about six months or so. And then one day he said to me, "Do you mind very much if I brought some of my friends in?" This was before I realized he was gay. "Sure, why not! If you like it here and you like my company, why not? So the following weekend, he brought in four boys. They were just as nice as he was. And one of the four said to me, "I don't know when I had a better evening. I know a few girls that I'd like to bring up. Do you mind if I brought them up." I said, "This place is a public bar. You can bring anybody you want, as long as they behave. I won't have any problems with fights, drunken fights." I said, "You know when you have enough to drink, I'm going to cut you off. So I don't want you to get angry with me." And that's how it started.
MS: The next time he brought in some girls.
OA: Yeah, he brought in some girls, but then I didn't see the girls for awhile. But the boys were starting to come in.
MS: You were saying it was railroaders who came to the bar? You mean people who worked for the railroad?
OA: Yeah. We had the roundhouse. You know what the roundhouse is? Trains come in and turn around.
MS: Oh, I see. So people who worked for the railroad would come in to drink. And they stopped coming around.
BA: It was a very industrial town.
MS: But they must have stopped coming around once the bar started to be more gay.
OA: But they behaved.
BA: They kept coming, but then fights started.
MS: There were fights?
JA: Yeah, because the girls would get up. They wanted to dance. And they'd want to cut in.
OA: Yeah that didn't last too long, because if they wanted to stay at the bar, they'd have to behave.
MS: The railroad guys, you mean.
OA: Sure, but they started to drift across the way.
MS: So they eventually stopped coming? That was when, do you think? When did the shift take place? '55, 56? Or earlier?
OA: No, later. I guess in the '60s.
MS: Well you said the club was started in '56.
OA: Oh yeah, earlier. Yeah earlier. That's right. Right, right. In the '50s, honey.
BA: She was naive. She'd never been in a bar before.
OA: That's why I didn't know.
JA: She was afraid they'd want to dance with her. I wasn't there. They knew I was working.
OA: Not the girls, the railroaders!
OA: Remember I said to you it was the railroaders?
JA: Yes, yes.
OA: All right! No, the girls never approached me.
MS: Well now we have another story. This one is about the book of places that developed.
OA: Yeah, right. Every time the customers went on vacation, they'd come back and tell me if they had a nice time or if they didn't have a nice time. They couldn't find a gay bar, so they were unhappy. Didn't round out their vacation. So then I got them to write down for me every place they went and when they found a gay bar I'd write it down. I kept a long list. And when others went on vacations, I would tell them, "Where are you going?" Some were going to Georgia. Some were going to Atlanta. Some were going to California, Kansas, wherever they were going, O.K.? Phoenix, Arizona.
BA: And they rated it good or bad.
OA: Yeah, they told me. I told them, "Make sure you tell me whether it was a good place or a bad place or if the proprietor was polite to you or not."
MS: And if it was boys or if it was for girls?
OA: Oh yeah. If it was for boys or for girls or combined. And I would have all that information on this tablet. So when he came in asked me to borrow it, at first I hesitated, but then I gave in to this one boy. There were two boys, actually, but the one boy in particular. So they went to New York and I didn't see them anymore. And they took my list and put it in a little book form. It would fit in the palm of your hand. And they sold it for three dollars. They sent me a complimentary book. I was furious! But after two or three years the boys were no longer together, so one of them went to California. And he published his own book there. But in that five dollar book, if they went into a bar for a drink, they'd write down that it was a gay bar. And it wasn't. So it wasn't really authentic.
MS: Oh really. Oh really.
MS: There were no books like that at the time?
MS: As far as you know, yours was the first?
OA: I started it, yeah. Yeah, I started it. So anyway, now it's so elaborate. Now they can go into almost any city, any town, and you'll find a gay bar. If you know where to go, there is one there. O.K.? Now they each sell for twenty dollars.
MS: Right. You could have made a fortune.
OA: Well, I didn't want to make a fortune on the kids. But at least they could have asked me for it: "Can we print this up" or something? I feel like they stole it from me. 'Cause they never even gave me back my original list.
MS: Sure, yeah.
OA: That was terrible.