Recovering from the Great Depression, the United States went through a fascinating post-World War II era that marked an acceptance of new identities and consumer-cultures. As the U.S. was undergoing a “transition from a national war economy to an international consumer society”, Greenwich Village became popular for a new type of go-to-spot: lesbian bars and nightclubs run by the Mafia.
During the 30s through the 50s, wearing a suit was illegal for women in the United States. However, in the Village, butch women and drag kings thrived in gay bars. Clustered with the hottest underground night-scenes, Greenwich Village became a prime destination for the lesbian community to move freely, under the protection of the Mafia. Given gay bars were illegal at the time; Mafia-bosses would pay off cops to “look the other way.”
The main exchange for this Lesbian-Mafia partnership was profit. Since the Mafia were the only people brave enough (and with enough money) to operate illegal gay businesses, they were generating intense revenue in an uncommon market, not yet established. While the Mafia gave the queer community opportunities to cash from their avant-garde drag performances and places to express themselves without restriction, these nightspots rolled in the big money. One such example in the 1950’s was the Moroccan Village at 23 West 8th Street, a prime drag-hub with performances by trailblazing drag kings like Buddy/Bubbles Kent, Gail Williams and Blackie Dennis. Moroccan Village was even an attraction to many heterosexuals looking to watch others pass as the “other sex.”
Additionally, Bubbles Kent took part in Kicky Hall’s Review, a touring drag extravaganza that played at the Moroccan Village, as well as Club 181 and the Sullivan Street Playhouse. She was a “chorus boy/waiter” who performed a strip-act. Starting in a top hat and tails, she would end in her “attractive skeevies” which was a big crowd-pleaser. Bubbles later partnered with Kicky Hall to become co-owners of their own club, Page Three, a hit-success from the first week they opened.
Unfortunately, business began to slow as television and the new disco-trend stole crowds away. In addition, attacks on the Mafia in the 1950s put these nightspots out of business, as they no longer received Mafia protection leading to increased police raids. However, in the 60s, Buddy Kent continued her legacy in the gay rights movement as one of the starting-members of Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE).
Since Buddy was so heavily involved in the club-scene, she managed the social sphere of SAGE. In the pre-internet era, SAGE was a “freewheeling family reunion” and became a meeting ground for reconnecting queer people in the city. To this day, SAGE still exists; now known as Services & Advocacy for LGBTQ Elders.
Image courtesy of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.