The Knickerbocker Hotel
The Knickerbocker Hotel 1466 Broadway at 42nd Street, opened in 1906 – two years after the first NY subway line, the IRT, reached Times Square. It was "a Fifth Avenue Hotel at Broadway prices" - $3.25 a day (<1% of today’s rates).
It was owned by John Jacob Astor IV until he went down with the Titanic in 1912. Legend has it that the martini drink was invented at the Knickerbocker and named after the house bartender. World-famous tenor Enrico Caruso and his family lived in the hotel (until his death in 1921).
After that the hotel was closed and converted to commercial use. The same building was reopened as the Hotel Knickerbocker in 2015. However in-between, the brand name Knickerbocker was free for others to use, and in the 1960s the name was taken by a down-market hotel located at 128 West 45th Street.
The Peppermint Lounge
The ground floor premises at128 West 45th Street had been licensed on numerous occasions since 1934. Over the years there had been numerous arrests of gay men, and citations for disorderly premises and Administrative Code violations. The NY State Liquor Authority had stated that no renewal was to be issued for 1959 until a bona fide buyer took over. It was then rented to 128 Restaurant Inc, and the owners of record were Ralph Saggesse and Orlando Grippo. In reality they were employed by Sam Konwiser who ran businesses for Johnny Biello, a capo in the Genovese crime family.
The Peppermint Lounge opened in 1958. It had a lengthy mahogany bar running along one side, lots of mirrors and a dance floor at the back, a capacity of just 178 people. There was a back door into the Knickerbocker Hotel Lobby. Johnson et al describe the hotel at that time: it “rented as many rooms by the hour as they did to the luckless out-of-towners, the unemployed and those only a week away from living on the streets”.
The Peppermint Lounge was mainly a gay bar. The major dance craze 1960-1 was the Twist. Much to the surprise of Johnny Biello, this became associated with the Peppermint Lounge, and celebrities, especially Hollywood stars, flocked there to do the dance, and to be photographed doing it. The house band was Joey Dee and the Starlighters. Jackie Kennedy arranged for a temporary ‘Peppermint Lounge’ in the White House. A sister club was opened in Miami Beach. Gays and lesbians liked the dance because it did not necessarily require a partner, and if dancing with a same-sex partner when the police raided, one could spin around to face a partner of the other gender. It is said that (female) go-go dancing (alone on a raised platform for others to watch) originated at the Peppermint Lounge.
Proprietor Ralph Saggesse appeared as a contestant on the popular television program What's My Line?
- Greg Garrison (dir) Hey, Lets Twist, with Joey Dee and the Starlighters. US BW mono 79 mins 1961. IMDB. EN.Wikipedia. A fictionalized story of the Peppermint Lounge, partially filmed there.
- The Starlighters. “Peppermint Twist”. 45 rpm single. Three weeks at number 1 in January.
- Sam Cooke. “Twistin’ the Night Away”. 45 rpm single. "a place/Somewhere up a New York way/Where the people are so gay".
The Beatles were filmed at the club. Many musicians of the period performed there including the Beach Boys, the Crystals, Chubby Checker, Liza Minelli, the Four Seasons etc.
The State Liquor Authority decided to revoke the Peppermint liquor licence. This was upheld in the state Supreme Court. The club closed in December. Within two months Matty Ianniello on behalf of the Genovese family had arranged a new front company to purchase the club. Mar-Jear Restaurant paid $20,000 and received a liquor licence at the end of June 1966. A September 1966 FBI memo stated:
“On 08/29/66 the informant advised that Matty Ianiello whom the informant has previously met had recently bought a piece of the Peppermint Lounge Nite club on West 45th St. NYC. He continued that Matty has an interest in a number of ‘Fag Joints’ in NYC and that the Peppermint Lounge is now a ‘Fag Joint.’ ” (Crawford:113).
The designated owner was Abraham Margorgolies (the ‘mar' in Mar-Jear) who also owned a jewelry business on 135th Street, a factory in Puerto Rico and was co-producer of a Broadway show. The manager was John Mink, who had just retired as a police captain in the 10th Precinct. He had been an army buddy of Ianniello – they had been in combat together in the South Pacific.
Initially the place opened as a topless bar. Geri Miller who had been in the Warhol/Morrissey films Flesh, Trash and Women in Revolt, IMDB, and had been one of the Peppermint Twisters and had dated Ringo Star, was one of the performers.
Johnny Biello was whacked in 1967 in a Miami Beach parking lot on orders from Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno.
The topless bar was not too successful, and the place reverted to being a gay bar, The Turntable. Later it was called the Hollywood. Richie Kaczor was the DJ, and Abe Glanstein was the manager. It was popular with Puerto Ricans. By 1977 Disco music was the craze. That was also the year that Studio 54 opened, and Kaczor took his skills there.
The GG Kickerbocker Barnum Room
When the Gilded Grape closed, most of the staff went to the Hollywood. Glanstein’s mainly Puerto Rican clientele had pretty well moved on and he needed a new crowd. He changed the name of the club to GG Knickerbocker – the GG was a signal to the Gilded Grape crowd that they were welcome. The new club was a moderate success from its opening in May 1977. Police harassment was way down in that the hookers were off 8th Avenue. Also being on the south side of 45th Street, the policing was done by the Midtown South Precinct – who were less uptight than their colleagues to the north.
Most of the Knickerbocker Hotel was being converted into condos – the Knickerbocker hotel was no longer so down-market. Ianniello arranged for the remodeling of the ground floor incorporating the hotel lobby into the new version of the club. Jerry Cohen’s design company got the contract. The new club could hold 400 comfortably, nearly three times as many as the Peppermint Lounge. The big innovation was the circus theme: a trapeze and a net were put up and aerialists performed. Some of them were trans. All this to a disco beat. As had the Peppermint Lounge, this had a long bar with seating in the front, and a dance floor in the rear, Caraballo from the Gilded Grape was still the doorman. The GG Knickerbocker P T Barnum Room (named after PT Barnum the 19th century circus entrepreneur) opened July 20, 1978. The name was quickly shortened. Jerry Cohen was now the manager.
Generally admission was $5, $10 after 11pm.
Not only trans women from the Gilded Grape started coming: also Truman Capote, Robert Redford and Andy Warhol. Cohen commented:
“A celebrity is no more to us than the average transvestite. Besides they are the cheapest people around. They don’t spend any money.”
Three Italian television journalists making a documentary on the state of US women came and filmed in the Barnum room.
Victoria Cruz did sex work out of the GG Knickerbocker, and the Grapevine.
Timmy Scott had been the show co-ordinator at both the Gilded Grape and at the Barnum Room. He made a point of using regular customers in the show. A regular talent show packed the club every Monday night. He also selected themes for the Sunday shows. He kept things moving and the crowds jumping, and his comebacks on the microphone quieted unruly customers. He died in 1978 age 42.
“GG’s Barnum Room wasn’t exempt from providing us girls with the opportunity to make some extra cash. The clientele from the old Gilded Grape soon discovered this new location and men were continuously on the prowl for some action. Another way you could make some money there was by doing some lip-synching performances. As the reigning Miss 220, I got to perform there and was paid a hundred bucks a night. It was easy money. While I wasn’t comfortable with lip-synching, I rose to the challenge.” (p 106)
“The club had a circus trapeze on the roof of the club, Salvador Dali and many celebrities would come through the Barnum Room, at the time celebs would mix with people and it wasn’t such a big deal like it is today. Ava Hollywood was a great beauty and a great friend of Dali. I remember seeing them coming out of a large limo with ‘Hollywood’ on the limo’s number plate entering The GG’s Barnum Room. Grace Jones did a show there as well and Taxi, a beautiful girl did the show with her, it was history for Taxi, Grace Jones was her idol and became mine after that!”
Rosalyne Blumenstein mentions that Ava Hollywood was also a hit at Studio 54. She also says:
“I worked in the Barnum Room as a coat-check girl. … It was right around the corner from my old school. Down the block there was a restaurant where all the thugs hung out. I was always scared to go there but because I worked in the bars and I was friends with some of the thugetts, the women who hung out in the restaurant, I would never get jumped or ripped off. The Barnum Room was as hip as studio 54, Zenon’s and the Limelight. But the Barnum Room catered to a more eclectic, shall we say common and perverse, clientele. Trans women and non-trans women who were working girls working out of the Barnum Room would sometimes take their tricks past the restaurant on 45th and Sixth and then their boyfriends would come out and rip the johns off or beat them up. This was the cultural norm in my life.”
In September 1980, New York Magazine, in its True Tales of New York retold an anecdote from August the previous year. Two housewives from Litchfield County, Connecticut, in town for the day, having had an all-day pampering at a 5th Avenue beauty salon, and a meal in an expensive restaurant, all put on their husbands’ credit cards, decided that they would go slumming, to the notorious GG Barnum’s that they had seen on television. Inside they were even daring enough to strike up conversation with a ‘tasteful’ black trans woman sitting nearby. “This your first time here?” she said. “Then lemme give you some advice. You two ain’t never gonna score. Shit, you guys look like dogs. You’re made up like hookers, and frankly, you’re both much too butch!.” The ladies quickly left, and in their hotel scrubbed off the effect of the expensive pampering. They returned early to Litchfield County the next morning.
In 1980 the Barnum Room hosted a Miss Gay NY contest. Blumenstein:
“I entered the contest not even thinking the word ‘gay’ had anything to do with me or the contest. … And gay just meant that women who were not TS could not participate”.It was judged by gay men. The winner was Mara Devau from Cuba, the reigning champion. The first runner up was Sugar Belane. Blumenstein, under the name ‘Roe’ was third runner up.
Chicky died while working at the Barnum Room. His eldest daughter had become a cashier at the club.
In 1980 Motown singer Diana Ross had her second hit single with “I’m Coming Out”. Writer Nile Rodgers got the idea after seeing three different Diana Ross impersonators at GG Barnum Room. For Ross the lyrics had an additional meaning in that she was about to leave - that is to come out from - Motown Records. The song became a sort-of gay pride anthem.
Finally, later that year, after complaints from surrounding businesses, complaints about pickpockets, of johns getting rolled, and finally a pair of murders, the GG Barnum Room lost its liquor licence. It closed November 1980.
Some went back to the Grapevine, although that was a letdown after the Barnum room. A new club for trans women with new owners was the Casa Dario on 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. The hostess was Edie Lane, back from completion surgery with Dr Biber in Colorado. She was found stabbed to death in her apartment on the upper East Side – apparently she had taken the wrong man home.
Jim Fouratt was a gay activist who had been at Stonewall but was critical of trans women as reinforcing gender stereotypes. In the late 1970s, in partnership with Rudolf Pieper, he was running the rock music nightclub Danceteria, which was closed by the police and fire department 4 October 1980 in that they did not actually have any licences. As the Barnum Room was about to be closed, Fouratt investigated the site. In the basement he found the old signage for the Peppermint Lounge. Fouratt and Pieper reopened the place as the Peppermint Lounge, this time as a cutting edge rock club with acts such as Black Flag and British bands such Gang of Four. However they did not get on with what Fourett referred to as the Italian ‘uncles’ in the back room, who were asking for a bigger cut. After threats of violence, the two of them left. The Peppermint Lounge continued at the same address until May 1982 when the building was condemned. The club moved to 100 Fifth Ave. as the New Peppermint Lounge, where it continued until 1985.
The building at 128 West 45th Street was torn down in the mid-1980s.
GG Barnum Room was not the first New York nightclub with live circus performers. That credit goes to Jerry Brandt who opened the Electric Circus at 23 St Marks Place in the East Village back in 1967.
Was the Barnum Room the first to have go-go boys? For a nightclub, perhaps yes. However go-go boys had been noticed at the GLF dances several years before.
Some source documents talk as if there were two moves, with GG Knickerbocker being in the hotel on 42nd Street for a short while. This threw me off initially, and I had to read the better sources carefully to establish that this was not so.
Apparently Ava Hollywood was somewhat of a legend in the New York party scene from the late 1970s through to the 1990s. She must be at least 60 now. Google gives me an Ava Hollywood who is a porn star. This cannot be the same person who was dating Salvador Dali in 1978? Somebody else must have taken the name.
I could not find any details about the two murders that happened at the Barnum Room.
The building was converted to condos in 1978 and then condemned and pulled down in the mid 1980s. Bad luck if you bought one.
The building was converted to condos in 1978 and then condemned and pulled down in the mid 1980s. Bad luck if you bought one.
There is no mention at all of the Gilded Grape or the Barnum Room in Julian Fleisher's The Drag Queens of New York, 1996. There is no mention at all of them in Laurence Senelick's The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre, 2000,
- “GG Changes Name / Location”. Drag, 7, 25, 1977: 9. Online.
- “Gilded Grape’s Timmy Scott … Gone”. Drag, 7, 26, 1978: 9. Online.
- Orde Coombs. “Le Freak, C’est Chic on 45th Street”. New York Magazine, 8 Jan 1979:47-50. Online.
- John P French. “Drag” in True Tales of the City, New York Magazine, 1 September 1980. Online.
- Rosalyne Blumenstein. Branded T. 1st Books, 2003: 99, 101, 104-6, 112-3, 117, 144, 177.
- Jim Fouratt. “Studio 54, 1982”. RudolfPiper.Com, 2008. Online.
- John Johnson, Joel Selvin & Dick Cami. Peppermint Twist: The Mob, the Music, and the Most Famous Dance Club of the '60s. Thomas Dunne Books, 2012: chp 23.
- Paul Vitello. “Matthew Ianniello, the Mafia Boss Known as ‘Matty the Horse,’ Dies at 92”. New York Times, Aug 22, 2012. Online.
- Carmen Xtravaganza. “The Late 70s”. carmenxtravaganza.biz, February 4th, 2013. Online.
- Phillip Crawford Jr. The Mafia and the Gays. 2015: 23, 40, 50, 51, 58.
- Martin Aston. Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out. Constable, 2016: 104, 134-5.
- Tim Laurence. Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor 1980-1983. Duke University Press, 2016: 58.
- Ric Tennenbaum interviews Melissa Sklarz. New York City Trans Oral History Project, July 5, 2017. Online.
- Duncan Osborne. “Feds Tracked Mob Control of Gay Bars into the 1980s”. Gay City News, August 30, 2018. Online.
- Brian Belovich. Trans Figured: My Journey from Boy to Girl to Woman to Man. Skyhorse, 2018: 106.
- “GG’s Barnum Room”. DiscoMusic.Com. No Longer available.
- Victoria Cruz. Where Love is Illegal: A Witness Change Project. Online.