Column: 40 Years of the Parliament House

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As part of the Parliament House Orlando’s 40th anniversary celebrations, David Bains of the GLBT History Museum of Central Florida (GLBTHistoryMuseum.com) premiered a documentary, “40 Years of Parliament House,” which told the story of the resort and its place in Florida’s LGBT history. Though I could not make it to Orlando for the festivities, I had the opportunity to view “40 Years of Parliament House” online.

All in all, “40 Years of Parliament House” is both interesting and informative, even if it was a bit too kind to Don Granatstein and Susan Unger, the Canadian couple who now own the place. Even I, who thought I knew everything about the Parliament House, learned something from this documentary. For example, I learned that the P-House began its career in 1962 as the Parliament House Motor Inn. It was not until 1975, when the area around Orange Blossom Trail had become rather seedy (it still is) that Michael Hodge and Bill Miller bought the House and turned it into Central Florida’s premier gay resort. It still is.

I first stayed at the Parliament House in Orlando in the summer of 1976, just a year after Hodge and Miller turned the place gay. Like other lodgings up and down Orange Blossom Trail, the rooms at the Parliament House left much to be desired, certainly in comparison to the big hotel chains that had begun to pop up along International Drive.

However, if the P-House was a dump, it was our dump. It hosted a wild pool party every day; the five bars and disco catered to every segment of our community; and the Footlight Theater presented a series of memorable shows, hosted by the immortal “Miss P” (Paul Wegman). Most notorious of all was “balcony bingo:” a never-ending parade of men of every age, color and lifestyle who cruised their way around the resort, peeking into rooms for potential tricks, even after the bars closed. Those were the days.

Though the Parliament House has had more comebacks than Cher, its glory days are behind it. Several factors contributed to the P-House’s decline. The first one, of course, is AIDS, the complications of which killed Miss P, Hodge, Miller, and countless other entertainers, employees and patrons.

And while the Parliament House has not changed much, the community around it did. In fact, Orlando’s LGBT community has grown to such an extent that the House is no longer the only gay game in town. Queer tourists no longer have to stay there in order to be gay, as Orlando’s theme parks and world class hotels now court the lavender dollar.

Most tourists who flock to Orlando for the annual Gay Days do not stay at the Parliament House. Rather, they stay at mainstream lodgings, even at the Disney and Universal resorts. Marriage equality has made many of us respectable: Loud disco music and a nightlong game of “balcony bingo” do not attract married couples with children, even gay ones. Finally, unwise business decisions on the part of the Granatsteins, who bought the P-House in 1999 from Hodge’s heirs, took the P-House to the brink of bankruptcy.

The last time I visited the Parliament House was in the summer of 2012. The rooms were a bit run-down, and “balcony bingo” was not what it used to be. But the pool parties were still hot; the bars and disco still attracted crowds of all genders and sexual orientations; and the fierce Darcel Stevens now ruled over the drag shows at the Footlight Theater and Cabaret where Miss P once reigned supreme.

I won a trivia contest; tried my voice at karaoke; enjoyed a conversation with a friendly go-go boy (working his way through college); and even met Susan Unger (though she surely does not remember me), sitting at the pool side bar, surrounded by her gay guests.

As a gay man with an interest in LGBT history, I believe there are certain places that need to be preserved as community landmarks. For LGBT Floridians, Orlando’s Parliament House is a community landmark that served us well for forty years, improving the lives of several generations of queer tourists and locals.

In 2013 OUT.com placed the Parliament House on its list of “200 of the Greatest Gay Bars in the World,” describing it as “less a bar and more an entertainment complex. Seven bars on ten acres provide visitors to the Parliament House almost any experience they want, be it sporty, campy, grimy or glam.” For all its shortcomings, the Parliament House was and is Florida’s “gay kingdom;” a queer oasis in the middle of the Bible Belt. I congratulate “La Casa del Parlamento” on its “Phenomenal Phorty” year anniversary and pray that it continues to serve and thrill and please us for many years to come.

The Parliament House is located at 410 North Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando.

Visit ParliamentHouse.com for more information.


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