“In This Part of the City, All the Fellows Are Gay:” Exploring the History of LGBTQ Nightlife at St. Louis’s Grand and Olive [2/3]

[CONTINUED FROM PART 1]

Several factors probably played a part in the appearance of an LGBTQ nightlife venue near Grand and Olive in the 1930s.

The social makeup of the neighborhood had been changing. In earlier decades, the part of the city to the west of Grand—the West End—had been a relatively well-to-do residential district, populated in large part by families who aspired to respectability and lived in their own homes. Increasingly, however, single-family homes in the area had been converted into rooming houses, and apartment buildings had become more common. The population in the area surrounding Grand and Olive consisted more and more of transients, renters, and unmarried and childless adults. These sorts of people would have tended to have been less concerned about there being a gay bar in their neighborhood than married homeowners with children would have been. Some of the residents of these rooming houses and apartments were LGBTQ themselves and were among Dante’s Inferno’s employees and customers .

Image 4: An aerial view of the eastern half of St. Louis’s Central Corridor, probably taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The Continental Life Building and the 3500 block of Olive are visible in the lower left corner. This photograph illustrates how close the 3500 block of Olive was to the Mill Creek Valley. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

An aerial view of the eastern half of St. Louis’s Central Corridor, probably taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The Continental Life Building and the 3500 block of Olive are visible in the lower left corner. This photograph illustrates how close the 3500 block of Olive was to the Mill Creek Valley. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

It is also important to note that the 3500 block of Olive stood near the northwestern corner of the Mill Creek Valley, a predominantly poor and working-class African-American neighborhood.

St. Louis’s elites regarded the Mill Creek Valley as a “slum,” and respectable white people generally avoided it. As complaints from the neighborhood’s residents carried little weight at City Hall, the police were more willing to tolerate prostitution and other illicit activities there than in other parts of the city.

Despite being located in a relatively hospitable area for a gay bar to operate, Dante’s Inferno did sometimes have trouble with the police. In 1943, for example, the bar was raided and its license temporarily suspended because the manager had been “permitting undesirable persons to congregate on the premises.” The Missouri General Assembly had recently passed legislation forbidding liquor license holders from serving customers who were “degenerates.” This language was used to justify the suppression of gay bars.

Images 5: Dante’s Inferno ran this help wanted ad for female impersonators in the August 10, 1940 issue of Billboard, a nationally distributed magazine for entertainment professionals.

Dante’s Inferno ran this help wanted ad for female impersonators in the August 10, 1940 issue of Billboard, a nationally distributed magazine for entertainment professionals.

Dante’s Inferno remained in business until 1952, when brothers Fred and Jay Landesman bought the business and converted it into the Crystal Palace, a mostly straight but bohemian nightspot and performance venue. Several years later, the Crystal Palace moved seven blocks west down Olive to the then burgeoning Gaslight Square entertainment district.

Image 6: The 3500 block of Olive looking west toward Grand in the early 1960s. Shelley’s Midway Bar and the Golden Gate Bar are visible on the left side of the street. The Onyx Room is where the Schlitz sign can be seen farther down the street on the left. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

The 3500 block of Olive looking west toward Grand in the early 1960s. Shelley’s Midway Bar and the Golden Gate Bar are visible on the left side of the street. The Onyx Room is where the Schlitz sign can be seen farther down the street on the left. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

Image 7: An aerial view of the 3500 block of Olive and its environs in the early 1960s, taken from the Continental Life Building looking toward the southeast. The mostly empty, grass-covered lots in the upper-right portion of the photograph were part of the Mill Creek Valley slum clearance area. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

An aerial view of the 3500 block of Olive and its environs in the early 1960s, taken from the Continental Life Building looking toward the southeast. The mostly empty, grass-covered lots in the upper-right portion of the photograph were part of the Mill Creek Valley slum clearance area. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

[updated December 2017]


“In This Part of the City, All the Fellows Are Gay,” a three part essay about the history of LGBTQ nightlife at St. Louis’s Grand and Olive.   Title quote from a 1969 police report, when a man arrested for “masquerading” (i.e., dressing in drag) reportedly told a vice officer that “in this part of the city [i.e., the 3500 block of Olive and vicinity] all of the fellows are Gay.”

[ PART 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.