Thursday, 3 August 2017

Club 82 Exhibit at The Horse Hospital

Typical drag revue at Club 82 in the fifties. All that bamboo! Tiki heaven! /

"The Horse Hospital is proud to present an installation of rare photographs, brochures and related documents from the notorious Club 82, an outrageous drag club that operated exclusively in New York East Village from 1953 until the mid 1970s. The basement club was home to a host of famous female impersonators and gained a reputation for vivid and extravagant live shows, celebrity clientele and raucous soirees.
Before the Stonewall riots of 1969, openly gay bars and clubs were illegal. Club 82, like many other “gay” establishments of the time who sought impunity from the authorities, was reportedly owned and operated by the mafia. Slipping through the grasp of the law, the club’s popularity grew with both heterosexual and gay clientele.
As Club 82 flourished, the USA’s top female impersonators flocked to the club in search of employment, some holding jobs there for decades. The Revue – the clubs in-house stage show – was directed by Kitt Russell, a US Navy veteran revered as “America’s top femme mimic”. Their live-shows were complex and labour intensive productions combining innovative stagecraft, scored music, and complex choreographies. They were known for their dazzling costume design and high production values – one theatre programme stating: “The skillful design of our underwater scenes is the work of Terry Lane. They are all quite beautiful, but actually it would have been much less expensive to flood the club.”
However the burgeoning LGBT rights movement of the 1970’s would see laws and public opinion change, consequently elicit drag clubs like Club 82 either closed their doors or adapted into more conventional venues. By 1974 the New York Dolls, and other Punk bands had played there in an effort to keep its doors open, but sadly it remained a relic of a different time, and in the end nothing could save it. This exhibition uncovers an important and little known chapter of queer culture and history in New York at that time."

I went to the opening vernissage of the Club 82 exhibit at London's Horse Hospital on 14 July 2017. (Sadly, by the time I post this the exhibit will have closed – it finishes on 5 August. Sorry! )

It offers a fascinating queer social history of the “lost world” of the famous New York drag club, which from 1953 until the early seventies was the reigning “unique nite spot” for “late nite rendez-vous” and “late nite diversion-seekers!” In the realm of Club 82 the performers were called things like “femme impersonators” or “femme mimics” rather than drag queens. The trend for these old-school fifties queens was to be lady-like and ultra femme, with the main aim of convincingly “passing” via bouffant wigs, sequinned cocktail sheaths or showgirl outfits. Later in the sixties and early seventies the Warhol drag superstars, the Cockettes and then Divine would well and truly rip up that template for something punkier and freakier – but it’s a sweetly nostalgic pre-Stonewall image to re-visit and appreciate. (Club 82 also boasted tuxedoed waiters and bartenders with Brylcreemed hair – who were in fact butch drag kings). Interestingly, from what I can gather Club 82’s clientele was mixed. In those days straight people liked to prove how cosmopolitan and daring they were by visiting taboo, exotic and “forbidden” clubs like this for a taste of La Dolce Vita decadence! 

/ I'm assuming Kim August was Club 82's pouty and sultry blonde Brigitte Bardot or Jayne Mansfield equivalent /

The Horse Hospital exhibit is tiny but dense with information. The walls are lined with a display of rare brochures, photos and magazine articles. The highlight is the amazing slideshow of images of the Club 82’s elaborate drag stage productions. This is accompanied by a great soundtrack of actual recordings from Club 82 drag revues: you hear snatches of risqué “blue” comedians doing their routines alongside smoky jazz and lounge music. It’s very atmospheric and creates a sleazy nightclub ambiance. 

Here's a few photos I snatched at the opening preview:

For a treasure trove of more info and photos pertaining to Club 82, visit here

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