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Cabarets and Revues  
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Prohibition (1920-1933) radically transformed nightclubs and cabarets, as club owners sought out ever more outlandish acts in order to draw in patrons to their now alcohol-less environments. Beginning in Greenwich Village as gay-oriented entertainment for a gay audience, "pansy shows" moved to Times Square nightspots, attracting heterosexual tourists and locals intrigued with homosexual exotica.

While some of the entertainers were gay, others were straight and performed the gender equivalent of blackface, coarsely broadening what they perceived to be the low camp and effeminacy that epitomized the gay male.

Nightspots in Harlem between the wars were a vital component of the Harlem Renaissance as African-American writers and performers energized each other while exploring the possibilities of being black in America. These journeys were often led by lesbians, gay men, and bisexual performers such as Phil Black, Mabel Hampton, George Hanna, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Jackson, Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Bessie Smith, and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey.

Among the most famous lesbian entertainers to emerge was Gladys Bentley, a large, masculine, dark-skinned woman who performed in a white tuxedo and top hat at Harlem's Clam House and Edmond's Cellar.

White patrons not only "slummed" in Harlem clubs to experience hot jazz, impassioned singing, and sensuous dancing, but also to participate in interracial drag costume balls at the Savoy Ballroom and the Manhattan Casino.

Gay-themed entertainment also found a supportive home in speakeasies, the private clubs that appeared during Prohibition, quasi-legal places where alcohol could be served because they were ostensibly membership-only establishments. Undoubtedly, the transgressive aura of homosexuality was seen as an acceptable element in the netherworld in which speakeasies operated.

Small Bars and Intimate Cabarets

With the repeal of Prohibition and the influx of military personnel to large urban areas during World War II, an enormous number of small bars and cabarets sprang up. The standard bill of fare in a bar or nightclub that provided live entertainment was the female singer. Accompanied by a single piano player or small combo, her material might be all comic, all cry-in-your-beer ballads, or a mixture of the two.

From chic nightclubs to the rankest coffeehouse, the intimate cabaret (fewer than 100 seats), also permitted a wide class range to attend, since admission was often covered by the price of a single drink. Famous New York nightspots that attracted gay customers included the Blue Angel (1943-1964) and the Mafia-owned Bon Soir at 40 West Eighth Street, which ruled New York City's cabaret circuit from 1949 to 1967.

While female impressionists Lynne Carter, T.C. (Thomas Craig) Jones, and Charles Pierce were staples on the cabaret circuit during the 1950s and 1960s, many American cities had ordinances against cross dressing, which obviously directly impacted the inclusion of travesti in revues and cabaret acts.

Thus, openly gay performers who performed flagrantly (or even veiled) gay material were often censored by nervous cabaret owners or through police intervention. Instead of hiring outrageous performers such as Gladys Bentley, post-World War II clubs most often featured a glamorous chanteuse whose set consisted of standards from the golden age of movie musicals.

The absence of gay performers or gay material did not mean that gay audiences abandoned nightclubs, however. Indeed, several performers were particularly known for attracting gay audiences despite the absence of overtly gay material. As the maître d' at New York City's Upstairs at the Downstairs, and Downstairs at the Upstairs told author James Gavin, "I mean, who could have a gayer following than Mabel Mercer? Every old queen with four days to live came to see her."

When Ben Bagley arrived at the same club in 1962, he was told he had free rein to create the types of revues he wanted, with the exception of hiring Kaye Ballard, since according to owner Irving Haber, "she brings in the fags."

The 1960s

With increasing competition from television, and uncertain how to incorporate the new sexual frankness of the 1960s, many clubs that featured live entertainment began to close. Two women who appeared in the 1960s extended the life of cabaret, not only as a result of their extraordinary talent, but also because of the support of their gay fans.

When Barbra Streisand made her cabaret debut in 1961, the nineteen-year-old performer dealt a death knell to the icy café chanteuse. From 1961 to 1963 she alternated between New York City's Bon Soir and Blue Angel, Chicago's Mister Kelly's, and San Francisco's hungry i.

Bette Midler played at the Downstairs in 1967, and then, in a pathbreaking move that cemented her fame to a gay following, Midler and Barry Manilow played the Continental Baths in 1971.

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