Before Drag There Was Jewel Box Revue

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There are probably only a handful of people still alive today that remember Danny and Doc’s Club Jewel Box. One of South Florida’s earliest known gay bar/club, it was only around from the late 1940s until around the mid-1950s when it was demolished to make way for the Jordan Marsh department store at NE 15th street and Biscayne Blvd in Miami.

The club originally opened inside the Embassy Hotel in South Beach in 1946. Danny Brown and Doc Brenner, a gay couple 7 years apart in age, brought the concept to Miami from Tampa, where they operated a similar venue for a decade before.

Initially the club operated as a known Miami gay establishment, but in obscurity from everyday people as such. It did have a brief touch with the law in 1947 when the club was raided by the Dade County Sheriff’s office during a show featuring male dancers. Men only were arrested for allegedly consuming alcohol after hours, and for a short time the club was shut down.

After the raid the club started up again to find a lot of success. Despite what has been described in numerous accounts as a "mostly gay staff" it was significant for its time because it was not only a major destination for gay men who faced homosexuality in a homosexual repressed world, but the club was frequented by straight couples as well.

In fact, during its height, straight couples often outnumbered the gay men in attendance. This was due in part to its popular “female impersonator” shows, advertised heavily throughout mainstream media and were aptly titled “Call Me Sir,” “Jackie White & the Darlings,” and performed by the, “Jewel Box Revue.”

Despite the club’s popularity, the people living around the club didn’t like the unwanted crowds it created in the area. It was soon brought to the city’s planning board’s attention that the area was not even properly zoned for the club. Despite a forceful fight by Brenner and Brown, the city refused to budge in allowing the club to remain open and it was closed for good by around 1952.

The closure, however, was not the end of the Jewel Box Revue, it was just the beginning. As they say, the show must go on, and it did, traveling all over to major cities in the U.S., Canada, and even Mexico. While there were other female impersonation shows in large cities throughout the country, at this time they were mostly recognized as a novelty performance, and often times did not have more than a brief appearance apart of a larger performance.

The Jewel Box Revue performance was a complete show featuring “twenty five men and a real girl” – a gimmick the audience was supposed to figure out. They performed original music, dance routines, comedy sketches, and burlesque style strip teases. There was no lip syncing in those days however. Its popularity and impact can easily be summed up in this quote from “Variety Magazine” that was often featured on the back of a Jewel Box Revue program, “Doc and Danny’s Miami Beach ‘Jewel Box Revue’ at Balconades in Pittsburgh, has prompted a flock of other niteries around there to go in for female impersonator shows in effort to boost drooping trade. Biz has been terrific right from the beginning of the Jewel Box engagement, and has shown no let up in the more than eight weeks. If anything, it’s building every stanza.”

The show was also unique in that it was the only one completely gay owned and operated. Despite owning, what basically was a traveling drag show, Brown and Brenner were not flamboyant as some might assume. They knew how to handle themselves in rough environments and were very protective over their group. Their mothers also allegedly traveled with the show. They had enough sense to know that while their show did cater to a gay audience, they had to gear it towards a straight audience and by doing so it would be viewed as permissible entertainment, allowing it to expand. Brown and Brenner separated the show from a homosexual link by claiming the show was really an evolvement of theater in Shakespearian times when it was quite normal for men to dress as women as part of a performance.

The revue continued to perform well into the 1960s…and some of its performers gained notoriety later during the night the Stonewall Inn in New York City was raided for fighting back.

Brenner and Brown retired to Hallandale where they both died a couple months apart in 1976.   Both men can certainly take a lot of credit for making female impersonation, a respected art form. Their financial backing, their discipline, assertiveness, and connections to many venues throughout the country gave it the notoriety others were unsuccessful in doing. Today drag shows continue to be a major focal point of many gay bars and clubs as well as an art that continues to evolve.


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