The Flame, the Gay Bar of Ann Arbor, MI, 1949-1998

By Rostom Mesli and Brian Whitener

The history of the Flame is an odyssey, one that started in the late 1940s, with a young Greek sailor in the Merchant Marine. Christos Pasaportis was born on December 25th, 1930, in a small town in Greece. Christos lost his father as a young child and when he turned 16, his wealthy and well-connected uncle found him a position as a chief steward in the Merchant Marine. Our young sailor traveled the world, visiting ports of call in France, Spain, Russia, Germany, and the Caribbean. However, after three years of constant travel, in 1950, he decided to spend a 29-day leave in the United States. Christos visited his uncle in New York City and then went to visit another uncle in Michigan… and 60 years later he is still yet to re-board that ship. Christos arrived in this country as an immigrant, as at least in part an outsider and a “foreigner,” and took the name of one of his uncles: Harry Tselios. In those years, his relatives in Michigan, wanted him to marry, but Harry did not want to settle down. He wanted to enjoy his new freedom and was anxious to get back to sea. It this did not happen. Our sailor dropped anchor, in 1953, in Ann Arbor, on Washington street, at the Flame.

The Birth of the Flame

The Flame did not start out as Ann Arbor’s gay bar nor as a rallying point for gays and lesbians in the area. In fact, it did not even start as the Flame. It started in 1949 as “The Cupid,” a student bar owned by a local businessman, Bill Skinner. By the time Harry arrived, the bar’s name had changed, and the Cupid had become the Flame. Harry was hired on April 14, 1953, through his cousin’s husband who had been working as a waiter at the bar. When Harry was hired way back in 1953, the Flame was still not a gay bar. It would take a few more years for the Flame to become what it was for four decades: the only gay bar in Ann Arbor.

In 1959, Harry recalled, the “student bar was making good business,” but the owner decided to sell it to a man from Dexter, Michigan. This man’s name was Harvey Blanchard, and he was to own the Flame for 23 years. Although the Flame became a gay bar in those years, Harvey did not decide to turn it into a gay spot. At this point, there was another bar across the street, the Town Bar. The Town bar was owned and operated by two men who formed a gay couple. Harry recalled he was good friends with them. Since the owners were gay, the Town Bar attracted a gay crowd and was the gay bar of the time. The Town Bar seems to have been a cherished place for the gays of the area until the owners decided to feature live music in the bar. This change attracted a new crowd, which made gay patrons feel less comfortable there. Also, as a result of the presence of this new crowd, there started to be fights at the Town bar. Instead of creating a new bar, the newly barless gay population started to colonize the bar across the street. As Harry explains, the gays just started to leave the Town Bar and began to patronize the Flame.

In her classic article, “The Homosexual Bar,” Nancy Achilles notes that “homosexuals rarely infiltrate an already established bar and make it their own; a gay bar is gay from the beginning” (179). The Flame was one of those gay bars where this rare phenomenon transpired. The transformation did not, of course, happen overnight. However, local gay activist and former head of the University of Michigan Spectrum Center, Jim Toy, who came to Ann Arbor to study musicology in 1960, recalls that he knew the Flame was a gay bar during the 1960s. Moreover, by the late 1960s, the reputation of the Flame as a gay bar was firmly established among straight people as well. Anthropologist Gayle Rubin came to Ann Arbor for college in 1966, and she first heard about the Flame in 1968 or 1969. She had not come out yet, and it was her then-boyfriend who told her that the Flame was “a place where you do not want to go.” Gayle recalled that she had a vague feeling that it must be a queer place. When she came out around 1970-1971, she discovered she was right.

The Golden Age of the Flame

The Flame bar was located at 115 W. Washington Street, between Main and Ashley, where Logan’s restaurant stands now. The bar, throughout its lifespan, was located in the heart of downtown. In a 1980 article entitled “Gay Bars as Private Places,” Barbara A. Weightman notes that two thirds of the 60 bars that she studied were located in “what might be considered undesirable areas,” the others being located “along active, usually non-pedestrian, commercial strips in association with fast food enterprises, used car lots, building supply stores, and similar activities.” The Flame clearly belonged to this second, rarer, category of gay bar. The Flame, as we will see, was unique bar in many, many respects.

Just inside the door, as Jim Toy recalls, there was “a long bar that ran from the door, oh, probably thirty feet or so. And then booze.” He continues: “It was a single long room. Really long. With a side door at the back end that opened up into the alley. That I recall. There was no upstairs or if there were, it wasn’t used.” To many a customer’s despair, the Flame was not a dance bar, but it did have a jukebox. While the Flame was located in a very bustling area of Ann Arbor, it was not a high-end establishment by any means. Jim Toy nicely contrasts the Flame with its successor Logan’s restaurant: “Logan’s is bright; it’s clean, as far as I know. I don’t go there, because it’s too expensive. And it looks cheerful to me from the outside as well. The Flame was dark, dirty, smoky. Harvey had in the front windows, plants which were dying. He never replaced them. And so it was for me essentially not an inviting environment.” Gayle Rubin confirms that “the Flame was not particularly inviting.”

In fact, the dirtiness of the Flame was legendary. Of course, the plants in the window did serve a purpose; as Weightman notes that some of the bars she observed “are enshrouded by bushes or obscured in some way.” Harry’s dying plants certainly provided the customers with some privacy. Private or not, the Flame was most certainly what we might in today’s parlance call a “dive.” In a press article published in the Ann Arbor Observer in March, 1984, there is an allusion to those “dead geraniums” which, together with “faded newspaper clippings… collected dust in the front window for years.” In the same article, Anne Blanchard, Harvey’s former daughter-in-law who worked at the Flame, states that “Harvey just didn’t see dirt.” According to Anne, “the last significant investment in the bar came soon after Blanchard bought it [that is, in 1959], when his second wife bought new barstools as a wedding gift. The same stools, missing upholstery, backs, or both, are still in place.” In an article published in 1989 in the Ann Arbor Observer as well, Harry comments: “Harvey thought it [the dirt] was something cute, something different…. He thought it gave something special, the atmosphere.”

However, the layout was not the only element of the Flame that was unfriendly. It is true that a few months after Harvey’s death, local Libertarian Jim Greenshields wrote to the Observer that “Harvey was a friend to all—personal friends and acquaintances, customers, and present/past employees—always having a ready hello or nod of the head for those he met on the street or in his bar. Everyone was welcome in the Flame, and unlike the attitude of some of the watering holes downtown, everyone was treated alike; no inner circle or clique.” Jim Toy, on the other hand, recalls a somewhat different picture: “He was not a cheerful person.” Harry himself seems to have gotten along pretty well with owner Harvey Blanchard: “For years, we worked together… he was a good guy.” Yet, Harvey had his problems. As

Harry related to us:

That one was a little edgy. He was not, nice guy I mean, he just did not know how to handle a bar… so he never was too much there. Anytime he was there, he caused more problems…. He would just come in, and take the money…. Yeah, just, well he was not working person… So sometimes he would come in for an hour. – “Can I go home?” “Sure,” I’d say.

In fact, Harvey seems to have been perceived as fairly tightfisted by many patrons. “Blanchard reputedly spent not a penny of his own money on keeping it up,” wrote the Observer in 1989. This article also quotes a customer recalling that if one customer accidentally broke a glass, “six people would echo it. We figured he had to replace the glasses at least.” Jim Toy seconded these impressions: “That was the only so-called gay bar in the city…. that was a focal point of life…. and so, Harvey the owner, I’m sure was aware of that. He had a monopoly in that sense.” It seems that Harvey Blanchard then never granted the patrons of the bar the cleaning and fixing up they asked for so many times. Quite simply, he did not have to.

At the center of the Flame, however, was not its owner, but its charismatic bartender, Harry Tselios. In our interview with him, Jim Toy contrasted Harvey with Harry: “His bartender, Harry, was on the other end congenial. And people loved to chat with Harry. Harry was from Greece… Always polite. Always smiling. Always glad to talk, to chat rather. Absolutely.” A certain Kevin, a customer quoted in the 1989 article of the Observer, says about Harry: “He’s a very caring man… And very generous. Often he’ll just push your money back at you and say, ‘Catch me next time.’” Nancy Achilles’s study, “The Homosexual Bar,” emphasized the role of the waiter in terms that are confirmed by Harry Tselios’s position in the Flame: “The personality of the bartender is even more important than that of the owner in drawing a particular group or type of costumer. A successful bartender attracts a personal following, a large number of people who come to a bar because he is employed there. It may be his personality, his looks, his wit, or his style that brings the customers, but whatever it is, he becomes the bar’s most valuable asset” (180). This description fits the Flame to a very large extent, and as we will see later, Harry’s retirement (many years later) from the bar seems to have been a definitive moment leading to the closing of the Flame.

However, given this general commonality, there seems to be a key difference between the bars observed by Achilles and the Flame. Harry was very popular, but he was not representative of the bar’s patrons, or in Achilles’s terms, he did not “personif[y] the subgroup’s social type” (180). Harry was not identified as gay by the patrons. They knew he was married, and he had eight children who would intermittently come over and play at the bar, especially on Saturday mornings. There was no ambiguity concerning Harry’s sexual orientation amongst the patrons. When asked by us if Harry was gay, Jim Toy replied: “Not to my knowledge.” Dan, a patron interviewed in the Observer also noted that Harry “doesn’t have any problem with gay people… I guess that’s a little unusual for a traditional Greek guy, but he’s just great.” One may wonder whether he was comfortable working among queers in a gay bar. Jim Toy astutely answers: “Well, comfortable or not, he was congenial.” When asked by us, Harry said: “Not me, not me…. I’d bring my family. My family used to come down there, my sons.... Plus a lot of people they knew was my sons, my family…. My daughter, the one living with me, she was up there with no problem…. They never have no problem.” Harry further clarified this when asked directly:

Interviewer: Did you ever feel like you know if you told people that was your job, did you ever feel like some type of disrespect from people, because, you know, because you worked in a gay establishment?

Harry: No. No, I never had a problem with that. With gays or with straight people…. I never had a real problem. Not shame that I work for a gay bar or straight bar. It doesn’t matter.

In general, during all our interactions with Harry, we came away with the feeling that his candor and kindness were both unusual and refreshing.

The Flame played a distinctive role in Ann Arbor. As a small college town, Ann Arbor had specific issues in terms of homosexuality. When asked if he remembered meeting faculty members at the bar during its early years as a gay bar, Jim Toy responded: “No, no.” Of course, there were gays among the faculty. Jim remembered one of his instructors in the school of music who “was gay and closeted. He was married.”

Interviewer: And you met him there?

Jim: No, I was in one of his courses. And he’d invite me to come to his office for consultations late in the day as it began to get dark. Never made a physical move on me, but just the context of the conversation. . . . So, although I did meet a gay professor at the music school and had an affair with him. But he never went to the bar as I recall.

Especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, faculty members had good reasons to fear showing up at the Flame. The university, Jim recalls, in collusion with the police, was attempting to rid itself of gay faculty members. It seems safe enough to assume that faculty members as a result had to hang out either at private parties or out of town. As Jim noted, “People drove to Detroit, Toledo. Oh I did hear that faculty members would go to Detroit or to Toledo. They felt it was too dangerous to come [to the Flame].”

Interestingly enough, when the student bar turned into a gay bar, the gay population colonized the place completely and this drove the student crowd away. Jim recalls that was not until the 1970s that gay students started to hang out at the Flame. Bruce Frier, who was hired in the Classics Department of the University of Michigan in 1969, remembers that in those early years, “It was basically a dark and rather depressing bar, frequented by older men. . . . students rarely were to be found.” As a result, he did not frequent the bar much. Yet, Jim Toy noted that “there was no resource here in the 1960s for us, except the bar. There was nothing.” Therefore, the bar became for an adult (male) gay population, as Jim put it, “the focal point of life.” Barbara A. Weightman, in “Gay Bars as Private Places,” argued that “the bar is vital in the process of self-identification; many people first identify themselves as gay by going to a gay bar.” This description certainly echoes many people’s experiences in Ann Arbor; however, these processes were both more complex and occurred via more complicated mediations that are worth recalling here in some detail.

The Flame did play a critical role in the process whereby Jim Toy began socializing with other gays. A friend introduced him “to other queer students. And people who were not students. And we would go consorting with each other at the bar and piss and moan about Ann Arbor’s repressive climate, but then as the 60s turned to the 70s, the atmosphere became far more liberal.” However, and quite interestingly, he did not come out as gay at the Flame itself. His coming out happened in December 1969 and can therefore be read as a fascinating aftershock of that major cultural earthquake which had its epicenter at the Stonewall six months earlier. At the time, Jim was working in the radical Episcopal Church in Detroit as an organist. He recalls:

I was the director of music there. I also as part of my job typed up the Sunday Bulletin that we’d give out to people that came to church on Sunday. And I would put into the bulletin announcements. In December of 69 I’m typing. On the January calendar, January 15th, 1970, it said “Gay Meeting.” What is that? I had no contents. There had never been in Michigan, so as far as I knew, a gay meeting. So I went to the priest. In those years, we called them “daddy-o” at the radical church. I said, “Daddy-o, what is the gay meeting thing?” He said, he was a great big guy, six four or five. He played football at Harvard with Teddy Kennedy. And he had a big deep voice, “I don’t know what it is, but Bill in the Draft Resistance Group said could we have a gay meeting here?” (Laughter.) And I said, “If we can’t have a gay meeting here at this god box, that we call a church, you might as well shut it down.” And I was totally in the closet and I said, “Thank you,” and went back typing. That night I ran down to the Flame. My good friend John was sitting there. I said, “John there’s something very interesting going on at the God Box.” He said, “What?” “A gay meeting.” “What’s that?” “You know what it is.” We speculated what could that be. So, it’s a month away. Should we go? And we “ambivaleted” about that for a month. Should we go? No we wont go! The night before the meeting we got together at the Flame. Are we gonna go to this meeting or not? And we looked at each other and said, “If we go, that means we’re gay.” And the next day we got ourselves into John’s car and went... And that was my coming out to myself, his coming out to himself, because I was living with the self imposed belief that I was bisexual. . . . And so at the meeting were a dozen other woman and men just as scared as we were, excited as we were.

To explain this schism in Jim’s story, we could have recourse to George Chauncey’s distinction from Gay New York between the old “coming out into the gay world” and the more modern notion of “coming out of the closet.” Thus, while the Flame in itself certainly helped him “come out into the homosexual society” and to come to terms with what he perceived to be his bisexuality, the bar did not allow Jim to “come out of the closet” as a gay man, either to himself or to the community. But it is doubtlessly through the Flame and the acquaintances he made there that Jim met his friend John with whom he would go to this “gay meeting” at the “God box.” Moreover, they certainly helped one another muster up the courage to go to this meeting; the stakes of which were clear, as Jim noted, to each of them: “If we go, that means we’re gay.”

Another key element of this account which needs to be highlighted is the role that political activism played in Jim Toy’s coming out experience. The Detroit meeting led to the foundation of the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement in 1970, and John and Jim continued attending meetings. And then:

Jim: It was winter. And you know winter in Ann Arbor. It’s unpleasant and the group formed committees and John and I would go in two and three evenings a week. Well, we said this is becoming onerous. Let’s start a group here. So we put an ad in the Michigan Daily and this might have been March of 1970. And a guy I had met who was of student age, not a student however, Larry Glover, said you can use my apartment if you want to have a meeting. So we put an ad in the Daily and around 100 people came to the meeting, most of them students.” Within three months after this December night, Jim and John had created the first local gay political group in Ann Arbor. What is significant from the viewpoint of the history of the Flame is that the bar was only slightly related to that activist sphere of gay life. The Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Movement had its meetings at Larry Glover’s apartment, and a few months later, they had them in the Michigan Union. But it never occurred to them that they could meet at the bar. The Union was for politics and the Flame was for socializing.

Interviewer: You never had the idea that you could meet at the Flame?

Jim: No, it wouldn’t have been congenial….

In fact, as Jim recalls, the crowd of the Gay Liberation Movement and that of the Flame were quite distinct. He did not go to the bar with the people with whom he was advocating for gay rights. There was a clear separation between these two spheres of his life. In fact, many of those activists were not gay identified in the first place. And among those who were, some were radicals and refused to patronize a bar that was not gay owned. As a result, as Jim noted, “There were a few activists, not many, and a lot of customers at the bar.” From a gay male perspective, the Flame in those years was mainly patronized by pre-movement gays. Jim interestingly compares it to today’s only gay bar in town: “Now today there are a few activists, and lots and lots of customers at the Aut Bar.”

Lesbians’ experiences of the Flame, however, demonstrate important differences. In a 1981 article, “The Leather Menace,” Gayle Rubin relates her own “coming out into the gay world” that happened at the Flame. Just like Jim, it is not the bar itself that enabled her to identify as gay, rather the bar is the place where she began socializing with gays:

I came out as a lesbian in a small college town that had no visible lesbian community. A group of us formed a radical lesbian feminist group which eventually grew into a fairly large, albeit young, public lesbian community. The nearest pre-movement lesbian community was thirty miles away, where there were actually a couple of lesbian bars. There was one mostly male gay bar called the Flame. I had heard for years that it was the kind of place you wanted to stay away from. There were vague implications that if you went there, something bad would happen. But it was the only gay bar in town, and I was drawn to it. I finally screwed up my courage and walked in. The minute I got past the front door I relaxed. It was full of very innocuous looking gay men and a couple of lesbians. I instantly realized that these were my people, and that I was one of the people I had been warned against.

Before I walked into the Flame, I still thought that gay people were rare and scarce. Going through that door was like going through the looking glass. On the other side of that taboo entrance is not a place of terror, but a huge, populous, prosperous, bustling world of homosexuals. (217)

Unlike Jim Toy, Gayle did not experience a separation between her political activism and her social life at the Flame. To launch their radical lesbian feminist group, she recalls, in 1970 or 1971, they posted an ad in the Union and 10 to 15 dykes began to meet regularly. “And we would, five or six 21-year-old dykes, go to the Flame together. There were spider plants in the window. We would sit near the front window. And it felt like home. Even though we were not welcomed or talked to. That was the place where we could go and feel ok about being queer.”

There are a few differences with gay men’s experiences that are worth noting in Gayle’s account. First, the lesbians of Gayle’s group were students, both undergraduate and relatively young. As Gayle recalled to us: “Older dykes did not go to the Flame.” This is in sharp contrast to what we know about the gay male clientele of the bar, which was older. Second, contrary to Jim, Gayle did go to the bar with her fellow activists: “There was no social life for lesbians here, so we could not have a place for politics and a place for socializing.” Gayle further explained in an interview with us that the lesbian population was too small to have a division between the political and social spheres. Finally, there were no interactions between these female patrons and the male clientele. “But they were not hostile either,” Gayle recalls. “They were older men and they were seeing a bunch of twenty year old dykes coming to the bar.” Sadly, interactions between these two groups were made impossible both by gender and generational dynamics. Jim Toy confirmed the lack of interaction:

Interviewer: Was there, was there a lot of overlap between gay male and lesbian populations?

Jim: No.

Interviewer: You went to the same bar, but it was two worlds.

Jim: Oh absolutely, oh yes.

Interviewer: No interactions?

Jim: Very little. Very little.

However, there was indeed one moment in which gay men and women banded together at the Flame. According to Nancy Achilles, “If there is one particular issue which calls forth a unified protest from the homosexual Community, it is that of police activity. . . . The greatest sense of group cohesion in the homosexual Community is expressed in reaction to the police” (177-8). The Flame, based on all our reports, was never raided by the police. From our research, it seems as if the Ann Arbor police during the 1960s and 70s was far more concerned with public sex than with an innocuous gay bar. While there were (multiple) police raids at and harassment of the adult book stores on Fourth Avenue and the restrooms of Mason Hall, the Flame was generally left alone.

It was, then, not the police who occasioned this once-in-a-lifetime solidarity between gay men and women; rather it was the bar itself. On September 16, 1972, from 30 to 60 demonstrators picketed the Flame to protest the exclusion (or perceived exclusion) of trans-persons and drag queens (although the press reports use those two terms as if they were interchangeable) from the bar. A flyer for the protest, held in Michigan’s Bentley Library, is signed by the “Gay Awareness Women’s Kollective” (GAWK) and by the Gay Liberation Front, and lists three demands:

1. No dress restriction;

2. Improvement of the physical environment of the Flame;

3. No selective harassment of or discrimination against people by Harvey or other employees.

These disparate demands probably reflect the various motivations of different protestors. In fact, as the press accounts suggests, the demands of the protesters were far from unified and not all demonstrators were Flame patrons. The protest apparently was composed of gays and lesbians whose gayness was primarily pre-movement (that is bar-defined); gays and lesbians whose gayness was political; and straight activists from SDS who (as was not uncommon) were members of the Gay Liberation Front.

It seems probable that the members of the coalition who were advocating for the improvement of the environment, the creation of room to dance, and better music were most likely patrons of the bar. There were also demands for no dress restriction and no discrimination against drag queens, which may have been demands shared by political activists and patrons alike. It seems clear that this aspect of the action was directly tied to the election in 1972 of Jerry DeGrieck and Nancy Wechsler to the Ann Arbor city council on the Human Rights Party (HRP) ticket. (Both Jerry and Nancy would come out while still serving on the council in 1973; making them and not Harvey Milk the first out politicians in the US.) In July 1972, as a result of the HRP’s victory, the council amended the city’s human rights code to prohibit discrimination against gays in employment, housing, and public accommodations. This decision occasioned a great deal of debate in local and regional gay communities. The Detroit-based The Gay Liberator described the measure as “a major failure to the commitment for full human rights,” since the council “purposely excludes transvestites and transsexuals from its equal rights guarantees.” In the wake of this new law, other contemporary press accounts suggest, Harvey Blanchard decided to ban “drag queens” from the Flame. Reports, however, are conflicting on this point.

While these anti-discrimination demands may well originate in the Flame’s population, The Gay Liberator also contrasted the demands “aimed at improving the conditions and atmosphere of the existing bar” with the “many demonstrators” who “called for a total abolition of the bar itself.” These are unlikely to have been Flame patrons. The Michigan Daily, in an article published on September 19, 1972, also quotes a Gay Liberation Front member by the name of Harry Kevorkian, who complained that Harvey Blanchard was harassing gay women and… straight people! Harry Kevorkian blames Harvey for discriminating against people both on the basis of their class and their sexual orientation: “Harvey wants a white middle class straight gay bar” (note the use of the word “straight” here). Harvey, on the contrary, swears to the journalist that “he bars people because of behavior. It has nothing to do with whether they’re gay or straight.”

It is not easy, 37 years later, to know if Harvey Blanchard barred straight people from the bar or not. Harry suggests that his straight friends would hang out at the bar on a regular basis. However that may be, as documented by Barbara A. Weightman, it was often critical for gay bars to discourage straight people from coming in. Therefore, it might have been critical for Harvey to bar some of them, if he wanted to retain his gay clientele. Under these circumstances, it seems very unlikely that gay patrons would have advocated for the acceptance of straight people into the bar. This demand sounds more like a demand originating in politicized groups like the Gay Liberation Front, successor of the Gay Liberation Movement whose members, as Jim recalls, were not overwhelmingly gay.

What, then, was the result of this one moment of Flame-based solidarity among gay men, lesbians, and straights? As far as the demands of the patrons are concerned, Harvey did not satisfy them. Jim Toy recalled: “I think he might have painted the ceiling, but that’s as far as it went.”

What the protest demonstrates, however, is that there were tensions at the Flame, some of them specific to the bar management, but some of which reflected broader political or social fault lines within the city and society at large. However, these tensions inside and around the bar did not prevent people from having a good time there and from retaining (mostly) fond memories of the bar. Many of our interviewees’ fondest memories were of moments when celebrities were found at the Flame. Writer Allen Ginsberg once dropped in, as did renowned pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Jim Toy recalls an exhilarating night when Horowitz came to the bar and he met Sunshine, Harvey Blanchard’s longtime bohemian, former runaway girlfriend, who was a pillar of the Flame.

Jim: Horowitz used to come here to give recitals on his tours. As you may know he was married to Toscanini’s daughter. And sometimes she’d tour with him and sometimes not. And when she was not with him, after his recital he would come to the bar.

Interviewer: No way!

Jim: Yeah. With his manager. I don’t know if the manager was gay. And the manager would call up the bar and say, “Mr. Horowitz is playing a recital tomorrow at Hill Auditorium at 4:00. After the recital he will visit your establishment.” So Harvey said to Sunshine, the girlfriend, “Sunshine, Vladimir Horowitz is gonna be here tomorrow. He’s the most famous pianist in the world.” And she said, “Yeah.” Horowitz and his manager came in and sat down. Sunshine is over there. So Harvey went over to Sunshine and said, “Come and meet Mr. Horowitz.” “Sunshine, this is Mr. Horowitz.” And she said, “Oh, they tell me you play the piano.”

This story seems to have left an impression on many people; a 1984 article in the Observer gives a similar account. There is another story that still makes Jim laugh some 30 years later. When asked if Harvey was thought to be gay, Jim recalled this story “that proves nothing about this.”

Jim: Most evenings Sunshine would be at the bar, sitting in a booth to the side. How can I explain this. Here is the bar. Right. Here are booths (showing them along the bar) and when the bar stopped these booths continued and then there were booths on that side as well and Sunshine would sit back there.

Interviewer: Okay.

Jim: Yeah. So one day, Harvey who was soft spoken and Sunshine who was louder were having an argument. (Imitating their voices) “Give me ten dollars Harvey.” “I don’t have ten dollars.” “Give me ten dollars Harvey!” (Laughter) “I don’t have ten dollars.” “God damn it! Will you give me ten dollars Harvey, or I’m going home and coming back here with those photos of you with a lampshade on your head!” And he pulled out ten dollars. (Laughter.) But that proves nothing about this." (Laughter)

The Flame Burns Out

For decades, problems or not, the Flame was the only game in town. This began to change in the mid-1970s, however, when another bar, the Rubayiat, located on First Avenue and Huron, which was larger, cleaner, and equipped with a DJ booth and modern sound system began to tolerate same-sex dancing, and therefore to attract part of the gay population. “They had one gay night a week,” Gayle Rubin recalls. “And that quickly became the major place.” Jim Toy also remembers the emergence of the Rubayiat on the Ann Arbor scene: “Lesbians began going there, because Iris Bell, the musician and her ensemble were really popular. And lesbians began going there and dancing with each other. I think the dancing became a newspaper article. And then gay men began dancing as well.”

Just like the Flame, the Rubayiat was run by a straight man, and here again, different people have different memories and experiences of its meaning and position within the community. Gayle Rubin enjoyed the place very much. She was so enthusiastic that in 1978, after she left Ann Arbor to do her fieldwork in San Francisco, the first time she came back, she ran to the Rubayiat… and broke her ankle! Jim Toy on the other hand says “it was not a friendly place.” In a 1984 article in the Observer, the journalist cites one Dan Byrne saying that “gays never had the sense that they were as genuinely welcome there as they were at the Flame.” Whether this difference of experiences should be attributed to generational, or gender, differences, we do not know. However, it seems safe to say that older gay men were more comfortable than younger lesbians at the Flame; it is therefore not surprising that younger lesbians should have found the Rubayiat more attractive.

The Rubaiyat also had its moments and generated its good memories. Even though he was not a big fan of the place, Jim, who never misses an opportunity to laugh, recalled a story that involved another major musician:

Jim: Leonard Bernstein used to go to the Rubaiyat when he was here. With whoever orchestra. And so, one evening, I was not there. People said he was drunk under the table. He was cruising up one student, one male student, drunk under the table. Well I did go to the open rehearsal. I think it was the Vienna Philharmonic the next morning. Well, he didn’t show. And somebody came on stage and said: “Mr. Bernstein’s indisposed. He sends his apologies.” (Laughter.) Well that night he just bounced out and you know did his thing. And it was apparently that evening as he was leaving a friend of mine was coming in and he pinched my friend on the cheek and said he’s the one. And my friend said, I beg your pardon. Who do you think you are. He didn’t recognize him. So his buddies said: “That’s Leonard Bernstein.” “I don’t give a fuck who he is, people don’t pinch me on my cheek and tell me that I’m the one.”

The Golden Age of the Flame came to an end in August 1983, when Harvey Blanchard died of a stroke. Helmut Puff, who now teaches German and History at the University of Michigan, remembers that day. A young student from Germany, he was visiting Ann Arbor for the first time. He had checked a guidebook and read about the Flame as the only gay bar in town. He went there the very first day of his very first visit, which was the very day of Harvey’s death. In the aftermath of Harvey’s death, the bar was closed for about a year and a half. Many gay patrons missed the bar and wanted it to be reopened. Harry Tselios recalls gay patrons offering to buy the bar: “I had that guy had two, two gay guys. One of them was a doctor, and they were gays, professionals though from university. They offered me to buy it. . . . So they offered me the money to buy the bar to keep it a gay bar.” Harry, however, wanted to buy the bar himself. He tried to do it with his Greek friend Nick Manikas, who owned a restaurant on Main Street, but it didn’t work out, and the bar was purchased by local businessman Andy Gulvezan. Patrons were disappointed. The Observer quotes John, a musician who frequented the Flame, saying: “He [Harry] would have done it right. . . . Andy’s just obviously in it for the money.” Andy Gulvezan is indeed a successful local businessman who, in addition to the Flame, has owned at various times the Full Moon, the One-Eyed Moose, the Crow Bar and who currently owns two upscale Ann Arbor establishments: the Jolly Pumpkin Café and Brewery and the Melting Pot (both located on Main Street).

Andy Gulvezan and Harry seemed to get along well, and Andy’s management of the bar worked in two directions. On the one hand, in keeping with the patrons’ feelings, he acknowledged more than Harvey had ever done the role of the bartender, honoring Harry. By the end 1980s, Andy had created Harry’s beers, bottled outside Detroit, which were the only beers served at the Flame. He also created Harry t-shirts; one of which was sown into the AIDS quilt on the panel of David Stidwill, a Flame patron. In his house, Harry has a picture of this panel hanging on the wall, together with a postcard addressed to this patron, who, sadly, will never receive it. Andy also introduced some changes that Flame patrons did not like. He fixed the bar a little bit and added colored lights. The patrons complained that it was not the Flame anymore, and they started missing the dark, dingy atmosphere. Andy also considered adding a dance floor. But the most dramatic change Andy introduced was still to come. In the early 1990s, he moved the bar to 112 W. Liberty Street. All that had made the old Flame the Flame was then left behind: no plants in the window, no old barstools, no antediluvian leaflets in the window, no dirt, no darkness. The old Flame was gone.

In 1997, after 44 years of unstinting devotion, Harry decided to retire at the age of 67. Andy set up a huge party at the new Flame. According to all accounts, the party was packed. They served food for the first time in that bar, and it was a memorable night for all. Jim recalls: “The last night that Harry was there, when he, quote, retired. We went down to say goodbye and thank him. You know, for being such a good friend.” Harry in fact did really retire: “Since I retired I haven’t been to one bar.” One year later, on April 11, 1998, the Flame poured its last beer, almost 45 years to the day after a young sailor decided to make it his only port of call.