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Gay History: The Spinning Wheel, part 2
Gay History: The Spinning Wheel, part 2
by Don Paulson - SGN Contributing Writer

The Spinning Wheel, like the Garden of Allah, was a speakeasy in the 1920s, but both slid into honky-tonk taverns during the Depression in the 1930s - floorshows featuring female impersonators helped bring in customers and provided a place for early out Gays. In the 1940s and 1950s it became a hot sailor bar and, in the 1960s, a rock 'n' roll venue called The Vault (a large vault on the premises was converted into dressing rooms for the impersonators and held Alaska gold during the Gold Rush). The following is a conversation with vaudevillian Kitty King.

'On June 27, 1910, a maid at the first-class Stevens Hotel heard a baby cry in one of the rooms. She let herself in and found a two-day-old, two-pound baby. That baby was me. I had been abandoned. Fortunately, I was raised by loving parents and was destined for show business. Beginning at age three, Father would say to Mother, 'Well, I'm taking the little girl to Sunday school,' but would take me to the vaudeville theater, give an usher five dollars to look after me so he could chase his girlfriend. So there I was, a tiny little girl watching all these great vaudevillians - so what happens, I got into it. I remember seeing all these beautiful women do their act, not knowing that some of them were men. My favorite personality was straight comedian, Eva Tanquay. At home I did her routine. Alexander Pantages saw me and offered me a contract for 36 summer shows on his west coast vaudeville circuit. I was six years old and a star was born! I didn't even have a chaperone. Those were the old days of vaudeville. I'm telling you, those old vaudevillians and female impersonators were some of the most wonderful people. Everyone sort of looked after me. I was in vaudeville song and dance for over 10 years, then stock companies with George Arliss and Ethel Barrymore in School for Scandal. I don't know what came over me - I felt devilish, but while playing one of the kids I started picking my nose during her big speech. The audience started roaring with laughter. After the show Ethel was livid, but I left before she could kill me. Then Hollywood called but wanted me do have major work done on my teeth. I said 'forget it!' and continued my show business career on my own, finding work in singing and dancing on the chorus line and even had my own stock company traveling the USA. For a while I taught acting lessons to Francis Farmer, but she was so stiff I never thought she'd make it. I kept busy and spent some time on the chorus line at Seattle's Rivoli Burlesque theater with female impersonator [Seattle's own] Francis Blair.

"I always had to wear so much fluff in my life that I envied tailored men's clothes. One day I bought this expensive men's suit and Francis Blair asked if he could borrow it to wear on this date. I let him. I don't know what happened, but the date got funny with him and seriously ripped it. Francis almost had tears in his eyes when he returned it, said he'd pay for it, but I felt sorry for him and said no. He was only making $25 a week.

"When Prohibition ended, cabarets got big and a lot of vaudevillians went over to the cabaret circuit. I did too. In Seattle you could choose from dozens of cabarets such as the Showbox, which is still there. Blacks were welcome, but they had to sit in the balcony. That's so awful when you think about it, but that's the way it was then. Cabarets provided a venue for all kinds of music and variety acts, but television killed them eventually. The Lyons Music Hall [98 Union] was gigantic with five bars and booked some big names like Paul Whitman, Duke Ellington, and occasionally a female impersonator and burlesque star Sally Rand. She was a pain in the ass, a chorus girl gone fancy. She bitched about everything.

"When vaudeville began to die and movies got big, singing waiters were common. At Lyons Music Hall I was given two dollars in change and a tray - that was my wage. The rest of my money came from singing requests. My average take for the night was $150. Eddy Clifford accompanied me on the pipe organ. One place called The Blue Danube specialized in classical music. One day I caught the owner of Lyons going through my purse, not to steal but being nosy. I was furious. I quit and went up to the Spinning Wheel, who hired me for their floor show where female impersonator Val Ray was emcee. I wanted to make an impression, so, for laughs I sang 'Un beld di Vedremo' from Madame Butterfly in Japanese. As I sang I touched certain body parts and literally stopped the show. I liked working at the Wheel for a couple years even though it had a scandalous reputation because of its homosexuality.

"When the Wheel booked Val Ray, he stated in his contract that he wanted to use the women's bathroom because he'd been attacked too many times in the men's room. Val Ray was so blatantly feminine, you would have thought he was a woman in men's clothes. At closing time, he wanted to walk home to get some fresh air, but had to take the streetcar because thugs would be waiting to beat him up.

"I worked with a Gay dancing team, 'Biff and Larry', who owned six beauty shops and lived next door to me on Vashon Island after I retired. On a trip to Los Angeles they brought back a baby lion and had me raise it. It was gentle as a kitten and I taught him to take a piece of cake from my mouth. But he was shot by someone who thought his 535 pounds of affection was a threat. Biff and Larry were lovers for 40 years, but Larry shot himself because of poor health. Biff was very depressed and said, 'Kitty, I can't live without Larry' and shot himself a few days later.

"One night in 1938, the staff and kids on the show at the Wheel had a baby shower for Jerry's son, born a few days earlier. Jerry and his showbiz partner were comedians in drag on the show. It was two in the morning, and Jerry brought in his darling baby, he was so proud of him. We all gave toasts to the baby. It was a lovely evening. Forty-five years later, I was working at a Bar on Vashon Island and the telephone rang and a man said, 'Are you the Kitty King who used to be in show business?' Well, it was Jerry. He asked, 'Does my son come in there?' I realized it was a fellow who came in who was called 'Jagg.'

"'Yes,' I said, 'would you like to leave a message?' 'No,' he replied. His voice sounded so frail. 'Kitty, my son & because I was a female impersonator, he doesn't call me, write me, or send me a Christmas card. He has disowned me and wants nothing to do with me. When I call him on the phone he hangs up on me. I'm grieving, Kitty, I'm grieving for my son. Could I call you once a week just to tell me he's all right?' I said, 'Of course.'

It was so good to hear from Jerry. He'd ask, 'How's my boy doing?' I'd say, 'He looks good, not drinking too much, made an investment in property behind the Presbyterian church.' I made the old guy very happy for about a year, then Jerry stopped calling.

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