If you were an adventurous visitor to New York City in the 1950s or 1960s, you might have found your way to the 82 Club. A basement nightclub at 82 East Fourth Street, it wasn’t much to look at from the outside. Located in what was then a remote edge of the Lower East Side, it was not far off the Bowery, back when the Bowery was more skid row than Standard Hotel.
But once you made it there, you’d descend the steep stairs into an elegant, transporting nightclub decked out in the height of mid-century kitsch: mirrored columns, plastic palm fronds, elaborate banquettes, and white tablecloths. On the tables would be souvenir knockers, a small wooden ball on the end of a stick emblazoned with the club’s name, which patrons would tap on the table when they were pleased with a performance or wanted to call a waiter. Knockers had one benefit over clapping: You didn’t have to put down your drink to use them.
The 82 Club was a trendy place to be. If you were lucky, celebrities like Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, or Salvador Dalí might be in attendance on any given night. A club photographer would circulate among the tables, snapping keepsake photos for a $1.50 or $2 fee of audience members, who were decked out in suits and cocktail dresses and would get an 8″ by 10″ print to take home at the end of the night. There wasn’t a cover to get in, but there was a drink minimum and an extensive cocktail menu to hit your required mark. And of course, there was the stage, which was the main reason you would’ve come to 82 Club in the first place. The club was known for its elaborate live shows that ran three times a night into the wee hours of the morning.
What made 82 Club unique was that it was an early bastion of drag and gender impersonation: Almost all of the performers in the floor show were men dressed as women, and most of the wait staff were women dressed as dashing young men in tuxedos. “You were going to see this type of titillating, exciting, risqué entertainment in a neighborhood that was equally titillating, exciting, and risqué,” says Joe E. Jeffreys, a scholar of drag history who’s long been fascinated by the 82 Club. “It was a type of entertainment that was harder to see in that era. We did not have RuPaul’s Drag Race on television coming into people’s houses.”
Jeffreys teaches theater studies at New York University and the New School—including, not coincidentally, a popular class on Drag Race and its cultural impact. He provided background for New-York Historical’s current exhibition, Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall (on view until Sept. 22) and loaned the Museum two of the many artifacts he’s collected over the years: a souvenir audience photo from the 82 Club and one of those aforementioned knockers.
Like many bars and nightclubs of the era, 82 Club was run by organized crime, in this case, members of the Genovese family. (Boss Vito Genovese’s wife, Anna, often worked the door.) Club management ran a tight ship: Inside, audiences were treated to an eclectic array of entertainment in a traditional nightclub format. Each show had an opening, middle, and closing production number organized around a theme—”Holidays from Hell,” for instance—which would stay the same for about a year. In between the big numbers were the specialty acts that depended on who was in the lineup that night. Was the performer a singer? A juggler? A contortionist? All were possible on the 82 Club’s stage. For instance, Adrian, a former dancer at the club, performed a Salome-inspired “Dance of the Seven Veils” with a fake head of John the Baptist. “It was kind of the strip tease of removing the veils,” says Jeffreys. “And the moves would get more scandalous as the night wore on.”
For all of the club’s trappings, it was pointedly not a club for LGBTQ patrons. Many of the performers and wait staff were gay, but the club catered to heterosexual tourists looking for an exotic good time. At a time when cross-dressing was illegal, management didn’t want any trouble on the street outside that could disrupt the experience. “The performers had to walk in as gentlemen, go into the dressing room, and transform into the female persona they were going to present on stage,” says Jeffreys. “And then when they left the club, they had to leave as gentlemen.” The same was true for the women waiters, who were expected to arrive in skirts before changing into their tuxes. The clientele and the staff were also overwhelmingly white—something Jeffreys says was the intention of management, according to what he’s heard from performers. Among the exceptions were African American drag legend Mel Michaels who’d later become famous as Angie Stardust. As Jeffreys notes, it was a measure of how talented Michaels was that she momentarily overcame the entrenched racism to perform at the club.
After the Stonewall uprising in 1969, the club lingered on in various incarnations, even becoming a punk rock venue in the 1970s, when musicians were drawn by its late hours and liberal liquor policy. (Bands like Television and the New York Dolls performed, and superstars like David Bowie and Mick Jagger were known to pass through.) The 82 Club finally had its last gasp sometime in the mid-1980s. Jeffreys happened to be walking by when crews were finally taking down the old signs several years later, and he persuaded them to let him buy one, an 8′ by 4′ sheet of hard plastic that he has in his apartment.
The 82 Club and other nightclubs like it have mostly passed into memory. But for Jeffreys, their existence was a subtle, subversive form of consciousness-raising in the years before LGBTQ people won legal rights and social capital. “It offered totally entertaining live performances, but it also showed people that hey, the gender lines are not as rigid and tight as we think they are—there is a more fluid spectrum and people can cross over,” he says. The 82 Club also offered a place for the art of drag to flourish. “I always say that drag is the indigenous queer performance form,” he says. “Of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Check out more about the bars, clubs, and dance halls of LGBTQ nightlife in New-York Historical’s Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall, on view until Sept. 22.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor