Jesse's Journal: Broward’s Gay History - Gay Social Life before Wilton Manors

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The Marlin Beach Hotel.

This two-part article first appeared in 1994 as part of a series about South Florida LGBT history that was published in Miami’s The Weekly News (TWN). Part one is about Broward County’s queer social life and part two is about the rise of LGBT activism in this county. Many of the people I interviewed, friends and fellow-activists, are no longer with us. This article is dedicated to their memory. Two decades later, during LGBT History Month, we look back in time to the days before we had groups like the Pride Center or communities like Wilton Manors, Oakland Park, or Palm-Aire.

When Jerry Mitchell came out in 1962, Broward County was not the trendy gay resort that it is today. “There was the Wine n’ Stein and the Zanzibar and a couple of others but way back then those were the two bars. And there was one in Hollywood, Garth.” It was a time of frequent bar raids, like the one on Oakland Park’s “Val’s Catering Service,” which Mitchell witnessed from a distance. “The police raided it, around 1965 or 1966, with TV cameras, TV coverage, the whole bit, and they showed pictures of people entering and leaving the club on TV. They showed the negatives but people were recognized. And people were arrested for no reason.”

In spite of all that, Mitchell, now deceased, remembered the gay sixties and seventies as a simpler and friendlier time. “People stuck together a lot more than they do now because they were more closeted. Because there wasn’t this much night life there was much at-home entertaining.” The late Buddy Markwell, who arrived in Broward in 1962, agreed. “It was different. It was nice and it was interesting. And the people here all had names and were a large family.”

By the late 70’s, Mitchell’s quiet community had undergone a transformation. Spring Break was in its heyday and “Fort Liquordale” was known as a place to go and be wild. Those of us who lived in Miami at the time went “up to Lauderdale” to have fun and let our hair down. Joe Baker, writing for The Advocate in 1979, called Fort Lauderdale “a ‘B’ city: bars, beaches, boys, broads, beer, boobs, bronze bodies, baths and boogying.” Gay men from all over the world came to Lauderdale to be “where the boys are.”

Broward’s gay bar scene multiplied accordingly. John Francis Hunter, writing in The Gay Insider USA (1972), listed the Everglades, the Gallery, the Gym Steam Baths, Odds & Ends, Pat’s Odds & Ends II, Ruthie’s Golden Garter, the Saloon, and the Venture Inn. The Marlin Beach Hotel, on Fort Lauderdale Beach, was Broward’s leading gay spot during this pre-AIDS “golden age.” Made famous by the 1960 film “Where the Boys Are,” the “Marlena” turned gay in the early 70’s when owner Bill Hovan realized the marketing potential of the LGBT community. The home of “the nationally known Poop Deck restaurant and disco,” the hotel was conveniently located across the street from what was then the gay section of Fort Lauderdale Beach. Author Edmund White, in his classic study “States of Desire” (1980), described a “typical” day at the Marlin Beach:

“By day the gay guests lounge by the pool or cross the highway and sun on the gay beach. Around three in the afternoon a tea dance is held poolside; drinks are served by youths in shorts, the Poopettes. Inside is a bar, the Poop Deck Disco and a restaurant. In the basement is yet another dance floor, the Lower Deck Disco, and a sound-proofed piano bar. Late at night, after the disco shuts down, the guests stand around the dark courtyard, rattle their ice and cruise each other. Everything is suddenly quiet and sinister, as though this were a prison yard and those men the guards on patrol.”

Locals have their own fond memories of the “Marlena.” The late Tom Bradshaw, speaking before the Stonewall Library in 1989 (and preserved on tape), called the Marlin Beach Hotel “the center of entertainment and cultural life and my home away from home.” Richard Sedlak, who came out in 1973, told me that the community “was pretty well centered around the Marlin Beach Hotel.” “I had some happy memories of the Marlin Beach, agreed Mark Silber, who was just a teenager when he first went there. “It seemed the whole strip was turning gay.”

The combination of Spring Break and gay resort made Fort Lauderdale Beach in its raucous heyday a center of male prostitution. “Ft. Lauderdale is a short, angry strip across the ocean, crawling with teens drugged or drunk or both,” Edmund White wrote in States of Desire. “The two most common ages are sixteen and sixty - the latter buys the former. ... In Ft. Lauderdale many gays make the assumption that all older men want adolescents and are willing to pay for them.” Ed White was not the only observer to notice, as we shall soon see.

Other clubs competed with the Marlin Beach Hotel (and the hustlers) for the gay buck. Activist Bob Bernacki, who owned the Oasis Motel in 1977, noted that “the destination for people coming from around the world was the Copa,” which opened in 1975. Sedlak remembered the Zanzibar and Ruthie’s Golden Garter. I myself recall catching Wayland Flowers and Madame at the Venture Inn on New Year’s Eve 1975, cruising at Tacky’s and its adjacent adult bookstore, and partying at the short-lived Tangerine disco, on Federal Highway near Oakland Park Boulevard.

Gay life seemed to revolve around the clock. Fort Lauderdale’s 2 a.m. closing hours did not bother bar flies, who simply drove down to Hollywood and Hallandale, where clubs remained open till six. According to Silber, who lived in Hollywood at the time, “the most popular bar in South Broward was Keith’s Cruise Room in Hallandale. In spite of its name, it wasn’t the cruisiest bar in town. But it was very famous. People who did not know any bar in the area knew Keith’s Cruise Room. It opened in 1969 and it closed for a while and it opened for a while before it closed for good.” Silber also remembered T.J.’ s, the Silver Fox in Hollywood Boulevard, Odds and Ends Executive Lounge on Dixie Highway and Tops, “the most famous lesbian bar in Broward County.” Those were the days.

 

This is a part of our LGBT History Month special package. Check out sfgn.com/2017historymonth daily for new stories. 

 

 


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