Thursday, March 20, 2014

Canyon Club

Topanga Canyon (1950s)
Canyon Club

Location: Topanga Canyon between Malibu and Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California, USA

Opened/Closed: 1940s -1960s

From Remembering LA’s Earliest Lesbian Bars:

Canyon Club – Located in Topanga Canyon between Malibu and Pacific Palisades, this was a private membership club complete with a swimming pool that attracted “women who looked like women” (which today would be known as “lipstick lesbians”). Drawing a more professional crowd who couldn’t risk being arrested in a police raid, women gladly paid the $20 yearly membership fee. If the police did drive up, management would flash the lights, indicating women dancing with women should trade partners with the men dancing with men. Same-sex dancing was illegal in Los Angeles County until the 1970s.

But if you look at other sources, it not necessarily clear that the Canyon Club was exclusively (or even predominantly) lesbian. From an  LA Gay History site:

Canyon Club

Located in Los Angeles' Topanga Canyon area, mixed gay and lesbian club (c.1940's-50-s) who, if they saw the Vice Squad pulling up, would flash the lights which was the signal to swap dance partners to someone of the opposite sex.

Martin Turnbull says something similar:

Canyon Club – in Topanga Canyon, mixed gay and lesbian club (1940s? 1950s?) who, if they saw the Vice Squad pulling up, would flash the lights which was the signal to swap dance partners to someone of the opposite sex. (60/83)

Here is some of one gay man's recollection of the Canyon Club:

Los Angeles, when I moved there in 1968, was a vastly different city for gays and lesbians. We had our own bars and restaurants, but they were subject to frequent, random, and unprovoked harassment under the cold, beady eyes of our rabidly homophobic police chief. The routine (and often mass) arrest of gays for various trumped up charges--most often "lewd and lascivious conduct" was a lucrative source of income for the city and did not end until a gay man was beaten to death by the police in a routine bar raid.

One of the things gays were forbidden to do was to touch while dancing. I don't mean "grope" or "fondle"...I mean touch. We were allowed to disco (only in our own bars, of course), but slow dancing, where we actually held our partner, would result in arrest. As a result I and several of my friends joined the Canyon Club...a members-only club located 15 or so miles from my home, high up in a remote and rugged canyon, and reached only by a narrow, winding road. That more people were not killed coming down from the club after Last Call was a miracle.

The club was owned by a former L.A. policeman confined to a wheelchair for some reason, who disliked gays but overlooked his prejudice because of the money he made from us. It was a large, sprawling place with a couple of bar areas, a huge dance floor, and a swimming pool open only during the day on weekends. You entered the club through a small vestibule, where you showed your membership at the desk, and were then buzzed through a locked door into the club itself.

As part of the police department's equal-opportunity discrimination policy, not even the Canyon Club was safe from occasional harassment, but because the owner was an ex-cop, it was more for show than anything else. Whenever the police would arrive, the person at the reception desk would press a button which flashed a red light throughout the interior of the club. Immediately, dancing gay and lesbian couples would switch partners with their opposite-sex counterparts, and by the time the police meandered through the door to look around, all they saw was men dancing with women. I somehow suspect they were not fooled, but they had done their duty in letting the faggots and dykes know who had the power. 'Ya gotta let those queers and perverts know who's boss, 'ya know.

But the Canyon Club, whatever its inconveniences, was a safe place for us to go, and to be able to actually touch one another while dancing. I am a lousy dancer, and always avoid it whenever possible, but I would try it at the Canyon Club, especially with my friend Larry Couch, who always let me lead. I  always had a crush on Larry, but because his partner, Arnold, was also my close friend, holding him while dancing was about as close as I could hope to get.

Of course Lillian Faderman mentions the Canyon Club in her work. In Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, a number of her narrators mention the "flashing red-light signal."

However, one woman who went often to the Canyon Club says, "The guy who owned it was a cop, and the police never showed up"; she speculates, "Maybe he flashed the lights to add atmosphere. Maybe it was just a game."

But Jinx Beers in Memoirs of an Old Dyke doesn't recall that Canyon Club was much of a lesbian place at all:

Then came the Canyon Club located up in the hills off Topanga Canyon. I never actually attended the club myself, but understand it was mostly for the boys with one night a week for women-only.

So take your pick: lesbian, mixed, or gay men. Without a time machine, it's hard to tell....

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