For a decade, the Pittsburgh Queer History Project has provided a keyhole into a private world of the past

In the 1950s, people spending their night out at the American Veterans Association on Sixth Street in Downtown may have been surprised by what met them inside: same-sex couples pressed together on the dance floor.

“It was like being in a zoo,” one patron recalled, according to the Pittsburgh Queer History Project. “The straight couples would stand along the mezzanine just to watch you.”

It’s possible that those gawking people may have seen Robert “Lucky” Johns, a regular visitor to the AVA who would become one of the most influential people in the history of queer nightlife in Pittsburgh.

Robert “Lucky” Johns, left, poses for a photo at a picnic in North Side Park. (Pittsburgh Queer History Project)

Harrison Apple, co-director of the Pittsburgh Queer History Project, described Lucky as a “charismatic socialite” who was “interested in keeping the night going at any cost.”

Since starting 10 years ago, the PQHP has now amassed more than 1,000 items creating a mosaic of the city’s bars, after hours and social clubs — the lifeblood of queer culture in a city defined at that time by the declining steel industry and the working-class ethos that surrounded it.

The photos and other items offer a view into what Apple called a “private world” of the past, bringing new attention to people like Lucky, whose influence is still felt in Pittsburgh’s queer bar culture.

Lucky got his start as a skilled bartender who was close with regional crime families. He built a crowd of regulars while working in various bars and clubs in the city, establishing a dedicated crowd that would follow him wherever he went.

“It was like being in a zoo. The straight couples would stand along the mezzanine just to watch you.”

“He started to appear as this almost mythological figure,” said Apple, who is nonbinary and uses the pronoun “they.” “He was sort of everywhere all the time. Few people could tell me how old he really was. He started to sound like he was either 50 or 1,000. It turned out, by the time I met him, he was about 66.”

Among other things, Lucky was known to post bail for gay men who were arrested in police raids at the bar — only to be detained again after bringing them back to the AVA for more partying.

A 1952 grand jury investigation revealing several Pittsburgh police officers, known as the “morals squad,” were not only involved in corruption but also homosexual behavior — thus leading to the group’s disbandment — set the stage for Lucky to establish a foothold in nightlife, according to the project.

He opened The Transportation Club on the corner of Van Braam Street and Boulevard of the Allies in 1964.

“Lucky and his partners moved from the stunted position of the gay patron to the gay owner,” the PQHP’s “Lucky After Dark” catalog reads. “He synthesized a new kind of character, a kind of charismatic mafia queen, whose access to power and protection was extended to his card carrying members.”

The crowd grew exponentially; by 1970, the year the club closed, membership reached over 1,000. He would open two more clubs — The House of Tilden on Penn Avenue in East Liberty, which closed around 1980, and The Travelers Social Club on Hamilton Avenue in Larimer, which closed in approximately 1990.

Photos from the PQHP archive give a peek into what queer nightlife looked like. One series shows the 1977 Inaugural Ball at the House of Tilden, with attendees dressed in tuxedos, dresses and crowns, many of them posing for pictures in an ornate throne.

“Lucky was a shutterbug, and he took thousands of pictures inside of these series of clubs he owned over time,” Tim Haggerty, the PQHP’s other co-director, explained.

Some of the pictures give the impression of a raucous and raunchy scene; in one, someone appears to be sniffing what appears to be a bottle of alkyl nitrite, known colloquially as the party drug “poppers.” Other images show performers in little clothing.

But many of the photos in the catalog also show tenderness and playfulness. Pictures of a Valentine’s Day party depict patrons, clad in red outfits, embracing and kissing. Friends and lovers grab, hug and tease one another at Lucky’s picnic. There’s documentation showing a fashion show, a performance with puppets and numerous drag shows and balls.

Lucky died in 2014, but his influence still permeates Pittsburgh nightlife. The Real Luck Cafe — a raunchy bar affectionately known by its patrons as “Lucky’s” — remains a Strip District staple even when other neighborhood landmarks, such as the Wholey’s warehouse, have fallen, although it wasn’t owned by him at the time of his death.

Lucky’s clubs also served as the model for a number of gay bars that would follow. Some of those who became his competitors were former employees, who learned the tools of the trade by working in his social clubs.

Apple said Lucky was known for saying, “If in 10 years of working for me, you haven’t stolen enough to open your own place, you’re doing it wrong.”

He became what Haggerty described as the “godfather” of a syndicate of bar owners that opened up most of the LGBTQ clubs in the city in the later half of the 20th century.

“Lucky had to make sure your club could exist without directly competing with his interests,” said Haggerty.

Their research on Lucky led the PQHP to reach out to Scott Noxon to ask what he knew about the nightclub magnate.

Starting your own place

Noxon, the former owner of The Pittsburgh Eagle and other bars, came to Pittsburgh from Arkansas in 1978 and was a prolific barfly before getting into the business himself.

“I used to go out to the different bars, and I met one guy that I sort of clicked with,” Noxon said in an interview. “He said, ‘Listen, you’re not going to get hung up with me or anybody else. What you need to do is go to every bar and see what kind of bar you like and the kind of people you like to hang around with.”

They met in Downtown at Pegasus before going to Zack’s on Fourth Avenue, where Noxon was “cut loose” by his new friend, a Pittsburgh native who wanted the 24-year-old to visit every bar he could in the next few hours as a kind of crash course in gay nightlife.

“He said, ‘Go out everywhere. Here, there and everywhere. And I’ll meet you at … the Norreh. I’ll meet you there at 2 a.m.,’” Noxon recalled.

“I said, ‘I thought the bars closed at 2 a.m.,’” he continued with a laugh. “And he says, ‘Oh, not here.’”

Once at the afterhours, things became more exciting. He met his friend at Norreh and went into the basement bar, where there was nothing but a five-watt lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. As his eyes slowly adjusted, the bodies and promiscuity surrounding him came into focus.

Scott Noxon poses on the second-floor dance area of the Eagle, in 2015. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)

“Whatever they were doing, they were doing it right there,” Mr. Noxon said. “My god, if this is gay life, let me at it. It was one of those things, just— this is crazy fun. And back in those days, I was 100 pounds lighter than I am now, and I had a lot of friends that I made down there. It was a lot of fun.”

The fun wouldn’t last in the outside world, as Mr. Noxon remembered leaving bars in groups of three or four to ensure safety against any homophobic attacks that might happen on the way to the next watering hole.

Gay bashings, while they didn’t happen regularly, were brutal and frequent enough to make queer people worried, Noxon said. One of the worst he could recall hearing about involved a man who was left with stab wounds in a Strip District warehouse.

“The old days, when I was young, we used to come out of Pegasus and wait for people to come out,” he said. “Where are you going? Where are you going?’ And you would find, OK, here’s a group that’s going over to Zack’s.”

Groups of four were usually preferred, he said, and they would hold hands as they made their way to the next bar.

“You’d get to know these people, you’d hold hands, and you fast-walked or ran from Pegasus to Zack’s,” he said. “Everybody did that back then, because you didn’t want to get swiped off the street or something.”

Noxon met Lucky at one of the picnics thrown by the bar managers and their friends at North Park.

As Noxon saw it, many of the gay bars in Pittsburgh in the 1980s were suffering from mismanagement. He recalled watching patrons at Jazi’s cover their drinks while walking through the bar’s basement because the location was known to have a sewage pipe that leaked from the ceiling.

“I can do better,” he said. “That was my whole thing, like, ‘Guys, I can do better. I don’t know how big of a bar I want to have or how small, but I’m going to look for properties.’”

His first club, The Pittsburgh Eagle, was a hit. He bought the building for under $100,000 and opened it one floor at a time, eventually making it a four-story enterprise that brought in customers from all over the tri-state area, as well as nationally recognized DJs, drag performers, porn stars and other entertainers.

The Eagle in 2015. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)

He also bought Pegasus, another popular bar, and ran it until it closed in 2009 and merged into the Eagle. The business remained open in a building in Pittsburgh’s North Side until 2012.

Since the closing of Pegasus and the Eagle, Noxon has lamented the decline of Pittsburgh’s gay nightlife, placing much of the blame on the internet’s ability to connect people who would have otherwise had to venture out to bars to meet one another and cruise.

Handwritten notes scanned into the PQHP archive show the impact of that in-person connection. The missives, signed when the unassuming red brick bar closed in 2007 after 40 years, recall the variety of priceless memories that were made in these spaces.

A few are pithy. “My career in stripping included this place,” reads one unsigned note. “I’ve met many people here, both sexually and personally. There will never be another Holiday.”

Some of them look back the then-commonplace discrimination against gay bars with with humor, such as one person who recalls her last visit to the Holiday ending when the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board “came in and took me away!” (Being removed from the bar was “too funny,” the writer recalls).

Others are solemn reminders of the personal toll of the HIV/AIDS crisis. One note, signed by “K.B.”, describes meeting a man who “walked up to me where I stood by myself against the wall and asked me with a grin, ‘And who are you supposed to be?’”

The note continues to say that man, “the sweetest of men, brave and smart, beautiful of person, was the passion of my life. He’s gone now, died of AIDS in 1993 at age 33. I miss him and am sad that one of the places that I associate with him will disappear. Thank you for the introduction.”

Documenting queer history

Apple began the PQHP as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University when they were helping to clear out an old building on Penn Avenue in East Liberty. The location used to be an after hours club.

They found materials that once belonged to people in the ballroom scene, the queer subculture centered around competitions in drag, voguing and appearance.

Among the items left in the building were old membership cards, records, CDs, drug paraphernalia and membership rolls, all things that made up the daily life of an after hours club, Apple said.

“That was really the focus of my research, was trying to understand something that’s sort of a Pittsburgh open secret,” they said. “That a membership society — a fraternal organization or a hobby society or an ethnic club — can double as a really popular bar or dance club or venue.”

Apple was struck by how similar Pittsburgh’s early queer underground was to the heterosexual mainstream. Neighborhood social clubs — such as the VFW, church halls and various ethnic clubs — provided a safe haven for the afterhours scene.

Historically, social clubs in Pittsburgh sprouted up in the 19th century and helped foster a sense of kinship among single, male immigrants coming to the city in search of labor, Apple explained. The organizations offered a space where working-class men could congregate and drink to get away from tight boarding houses or single-room occupancy hotels.

In the mid-20th century, some clubs, such as the AVA, began to develop a reputation for sexual deviancy as men also sought to escape the confines of a society in which being gay was still strictly taboo.

Apple started following threads that led specifically to these buildings being used as spaces for LGBTQ people, and they reached out to Haggerty, who is also the director of the humanities scholars program at CMU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Haggerty was CMU’s go-to expert for researching gay Pittsburgh.

“Harrison had already collected all of this work,” Haggerty recalled. “And, to be honest, my jaw dropped open, because it was an enormous amount of work. It was very unusual to have this much visual information about any kind of gay club or bar, let alone in Pittsburgh.”

Beginning in earnest, the collaboration has now amassed more than 1,000 items creating a mosaic of the city’s bars, after hours and social clubs — the lifeblood of queer culture in a city defined at that time by the declining steel industry and the working-class ethos that surrounded it.

The photos provided some of the most valuable visual data available for the project, giving a view into what Apple called a “private world” of the past.

But with that privacy came sensitivity, and Apple and Haggerty had to consider that many of the people featured in these pictures may not want to be publicly identified, despite how public discourse about queerness has changed over time.

“This was certainly a period of time where this was receding, but many people, when they went out, particularly to a private club — particularly to an after hours club — had a different persona than the one they had during the day,” Haggerty said.

“I think that the clubs, especially the stories I would hear about them, are very much about the desire to do something, the willingness to try it out– and it didn’t really matter if it lasted forever.”

Although the PQHP’s archive contains materials featuring lesbians and transgender people, many of the club owners and personalities documented in the archive depict an “elite, gay, almost exclusively male and white” crowd, Haggerty said. They were the type of people who would leave for the summer to relax in New York City’s Fire Island or Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.

“Certainly there were women at these clubs, and there were women in many of these organizations,” he said. “But they were kind of male-inflected spaces.”

In many ways, Noxon sees the shrinking of Pittsburgh’s gay underground as a bad thing, especially at a time when anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and laws are on the rise in the U.S.

While the internet has provided queer people with endless ways to connect, chat and hook up, the decline of LGBTQ bars has meant fewer spaces for queer people to congregate together.

“You can’t underestimate the power of a club like Pegasus,” said Noxon. He noted that the Pitt Men’s Study, an ongoing confidential research project on HIV and AIDS, used Pegasus and other bars to find queer subjects when it started in the 1980s.

Apple said nightlife has “amnesia” as new owners and performers come through. They recalled coming back to Pittsburgh and being shocked that P Town in North Oakland had changed owners, only to be excited with how the space has been shaped by events like the monthly dance party Jellyfish and regular drag shows.

The clubs as they were may not exist anymore, Apple said, but there is still a capacity to build a community with which queer people can identify.

“I think that the clubs, especially the stories I would hear about them, are very much about the desire to do something, the willingness to try it out– and it didn’t really matter if it lasted forever,” Apple said. “Although a lot of people really wanted it to.”

Mick Stinelli: