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Monday, Dec 09, 2019
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Seattle Gay History - The Spinning Wheel Cabaret
Seattle Gay History - The Spinning Wheel Cabaret
by Don Paulson - SGN Contributing Writer

The Spinning Wheel Cabaret was a Speakeasy in the 1920s but drifted into honky tonk during the Depression and sailors in the 1940s (where you could always find Gay men). The doors swung wide, floorshows with female impersonators and an out Gay crowd following, anything to survive the acute scarcity of hot cash. It was a Gay-friendly, straight-owned tavern, but for one year was co-owned by Seattle's earliest known Gay entrepreneur, Fred Coleman. The Spinning Wheel (after the 1923 song) was in many ways a prototype for Seattle's first Gay-owned Gay bar, the Garden of Allah. Seaman Ole Buerge remembers, in 1934, "We'd been on that ship a long time and were anxious to have a little fun. We walked up the street to the Spinning Wheel where they had a floor show going on so we watched this good-looking gal Billy Richards sing her song. Then we found out she was a female impersonator. She was made up in gowns and jewelry and all that crap. We just looked at each other and said, 'to hell with those Queers!' and went down to the Garden of Allah. I'll be damned, we saw some female impersonators down there! But what the hell, we had a good time anyway."

An ad in the 1936 Seattle arts and events magazine, the Town Crier, reads: "Spinning Wheel, 2nd and Union. Has female impersonators." Jimmy Kelly remembers being there in 1937 when he turned 17. "It was still the Depression, so if you had the money & At the time there couldn't have been more than 40 out Gays in Seattle who hung out there. It was known in straight circles as 'the place where strange men dress as women.' A put-down, but for the Gay art crowd it was us, our only identity at the time. You could go in for a dime glass of beer, see a floorshow and dance, all for 10 cents. There was space for a small orchestra. I remember Billy, who came around to all the clubs, selling corsages and later he got into photography, took shots of customers and delivered them back an hour later. Billy was the sweetest guy and had a beautiful voice. Once in awhile the house would ask him to sing 'Ole Man Mo.' He always brought the house down. He was Gay but the Army took him anyway and was killed in the war. There was a blind man who patronized the Wheel. A man took him home one night and put his wallet in the light fixture for safekeeping. The blind man heard the sounds and the next morning when the man checked his wallet it was gone. The blind man took it."

In 1939, Gay-friendly Seattle artists Lubin Petric and William Cummings sat and sketched an "array of strippers, dancers and singers. The entertainment is actually good, very professional" (Such as Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers, who sang and waited tables there).

From Cummings' book, Sketchbook, "One transvestite was nationally famous for his rendition of, 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,' and during the late show the vice squad and the whole audience joined the star in his show-closing rendition of 'A Hard Man is Good to Find.' The show closes in a raucous babble of catcalls, screams, giggles, snorts and general hilarity as we stumble up the stairs into the night air. Our sketchbooks bulging."

Without a doubt, Seattle's own superstar at the Wheel was female impersonator Francis Blair. National gossip columnist Walter Winchell wrote Francis was "the boy with the million-dollar legs." But when Jackie Starr blew into town, all eyes were suddenly on him. Walter Winchel wrote Jackie was "the most beautiful man in America." They were both good singers, dancers, strippers and actors with a flair for comedy, but Jackie had the charisma and the looks. It must have hurt but Francis had enough confidence in herself to know she was damn good. She had it up on Jackie because she could organize the shows at the Wheel and later at the Garden and could play the pipe organ at the clubs including the Rivoli Burlesque Theater. She was also an officer in the Entertainment Union.

"Perhaps the most unusual act at the Wheel was Violet and Daisy Hilton, Siamese twins joined at the hip who sang and danced in the floorshow. They were born in England, sold at an early age to circus people who put them in a freak show and treated them like animals. A booking agent saw them, bought them and brought them to the U.S. He educated them, gave them singing and dancing lessons and booked them all over the country." Kitty King, singer at the Spinning Wheel, remembers; "They were very nice but opposite personalities. Violet was the wild one and Daisy was the quiet one. Violet loved to play the slot machines, so while she played them Daisy read her books. My husband Bob was leading the orchestra at the Wheel at the time and his accordion player fell in love with Daisy, married her, and the three left town. Years later they opened a restaurant on the east coast. The twins were a good act and always well-received."

To be continued.
 

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