by Jim Pitts
On Jan. 11, 1978, I was hiding in a ladies bathroom in a gay bar called The Sun Tavern. It was Salt Lake City’s first openly gay bar.
There had been other bars before it, most notably Radio City Lounge, which had boasted to be the first gay bar west of Missouri. But Radio City Lounge, with its location right across the street from the Promised Valley Playhouse, a turn-of-the-century Mormon owned theater, required complete discretion. I was told that back in the 1940s, when it opened, you were to wear a certain color of neck tie to indicate you were a friend of Dorothy. Men met for companionship, all under the radar that way. Sometimes men danced together, but that came to an abrupt halt when vice came through on their frequent sweeps.
Vice came through at The Sun, but not for dancing, and you would get a “heads up” from one of the patrons, so you could high tail it over the back patio wall and run like hell, if you were underage, as I was then.
Waiting until nightfall in a ladies bathroom stall was a safe bet, since no ladies ever came in and it remained pretty much empty until dark, at which point, someone who was looking out for you would come in and yell, “Okay, Chickens! It’s all clear!” That’s when you knew you could mix freely without being carded, which is what would have happened if I entered the front door after dark.
But walking through that front door during daylight hours was a scary experience as a young gay Mormon boy. You see, The Sun derived its name from the Sun Stone that once supported at least one corner of the Nauvoo Temple that Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church, had built in Illinois, only to see it burned to the ground when the Mormon Saints were driven from their land.
A Sun Stone replica hung over the front door of this gay bar. The first time I dared go in, I thought that God would send it crashing on my head for punishment. When it didn’t happen, I came back, but always during daylight hours, as the entrance was a dangerous place. We all learned to be dropped off at that door and high tail it in before some “basher” took a baseball bat to your head.
Cars near the entrance where frequently broken into and a few of the patrons lost their lives right outside the door, their murders never investigated by a police department that seemed only too happy that the world was rid of one more homosexual.
Gay bars back then, and gay people in general, seemed to flock to the worst parts of town that most considered derelict. The Sun was located where it was because it faced an abandoned mansion surrounded by barbed wire, which was used as a car dump for people looking for cheap parts. It sat at the end of a street known for drunks, drugs, crime, prostitutes and cheap motels.
As I made my way through the club as it filled up, I scanned the crowd hesitantly for anyone I worked with. That had happened before and it was a real dilemma. If we recognized each other, it was a confirmation you were there. If either party had a moment of repentance for their homosexuality, you could be “outed” as part of a plea bargain with the LDS hierarchy, most certainly resulting in your termination, so it was best to pretend you didn’t see each other.
Fortunately, I had never been fingered, even at Brigham Young University; the Mormon owned school located in “Happy Valley,” home to the new Osmond Studio where Donny and Marie’s show was being taped for ABC.
Donny and Marie were at the height of popularity when they decided to leave California and come back home to Utah. The decision came about as a way to keep their family in a wholesome, LDS community, and their belief that a studio in Utah would bring other film work to the community. When the studio was opened and dedicated by then President of the Church Spencer W. Kimball it didn’t appear there was any way it could fail.
Prophet Kimball had written a book about that time entitled “Miracle of Forgiveness,” that all young Mormon men (who thought they may have homosexual tendencies) were encouraged to read. I finished it quickly, but in its three hundred or so pages I couldn’t find a word about forgiveness as the title implied. I did learn that I was something called a “Son of Perdition,” and my sexual deviancy was a heavenly crime second only to murder in eternal punishment points. It was a huge let down.
When the Osmond Studio opened, I and a few school chums headed to The Ice House, a large disco in Provo and circled the parking garage in search of Marie Osmond’s car. We knew if she was there, Donny would be there, since she was not allowed to go out unchaperoned. We spotted it – a bright orange Mercedes Benz with personalized plates that read “OMO.” Marie was named after her mother Olive, and Marie was her middle name, but not many people knew that.
Once inside I glimpsed her in the shadows, being rather standoffish, dressed in a fabulous pant suit with her hair cut in “shag,” but it wasn’t hard to spot the object of our desires. Donny was out in the center of the dance floor surrounded by girls and flooded in light, making his smooth moves while flashing his famous Osmond smile. God was he adorable.
Well, back to The Sun, where I was now seated at the bar, sipping a soda, when the front door opened. Based on the crowd’s reaction I realized that someone outstanding had just entered.
It turned out to be Paul Lynde, who was a new regular on “The Donny and Marie Show.”
He had played Uncle Arthur on “Bewitched.” He would pop in from time to time and surprise Samantha with his “Hello Sammie” and just those two words spoken by him could cause me to nearly bust a gut.
When he occupied the center square on “Hollywood Squares,” I would run to the TV when he was asked a question by host Peter Marshall, since his perfectly delivered response could send me into hysterics.
Now we all speculated that he might be gay, but it was never confirmed or openly talked about. But there he was, Paul Lynde in a gay bar in Salt Lake City.
Once he came inside, he sat at the very same bar, directly to my right. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted so bad to say something clever or witty, something that he might remember me for. He ordered some sort of amber alcohol in a high ball, downed it and ordered another. In the time it took him to guzzle the second, a group of gawkers had already gathered nearby.
I opened with, “I bet you get tired of people always staring at you,” to which he replied in that funny voice of his, “Wouldn’t you?”
I laughed. He returned my laughter with a fake staccato “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha” as he motioned for another drink, his face drawn and his eyes sad.
I immediately apologized, and his demeanor changed, becoming immediately warm and engaging. He asked about what I was doing, I told him I was in school; he asked how I liked Salt Lake. He told me he hated Hollywood and that he would love to live somewhere else, possibly Florida; he talked about how much his mom meant to him, how much he enjoyed his college days, and how he had hoped one day he could work in his profession without living in Los Angeles, which prompted him to take a job with the Osmond’s in Utah.
As the crowd of onlookers grew, he became uncomfortable and excused himself to the east room which was fairly empty at the time. I went about my way in search of a boy to dance with, maybe kiss and hopefully take home.
Right before closing, The Sun played, “Last Dance,” by Donna Summer, the cue to hook up quickly or leave. I was doing a final scour of the place, when I found Paul Lynde seated at a large table alone, encircled by a large group of boys around my age, being mercilessly interrogated: “Is Donny gay? Come on! Tell us! Is Donny Osmond queer?”
This proved too much for him, and he very angrily and fairly drunkenly got to his feet and made his way through the club to the front door, all the while being hounded by the curious. That was the last I saw of him.
The next day I heard the news that he had been arrested right outside the door by waiting cops who would charge you for public intoxication as soon as you exited. We locals knew to have a car waiting to quickly pick you up as soon as you were out, but Paul didn’t know that. He had a black limousine parked in front which had been broken into and valuables stolen, a sitting duck. When he belligerently demanded the police stop messing with patrons and come to his aid, he ended up in jail.
His emergency contact was known only as Olive, no verification as to which Olive he was referring. The public intoxication charges were eventually dropped, at the same time he was dropped from “The Donny and Marie Show,” he being not wholesome and all, and a son of perdition and such.
A short time later he was back on “Hollywood Squares,” occupying his center square. When it came time for Paul to answer a question, who’s response had left me nearly peeing myself in the past, I instead turned the sound off and studied his face as he delivered his quip.
His face was drawn and his eyes were sad.