Drag Kings of Village Nightlife: Before and Way Before Stonewall

The story of how Greenwich Village entrepreneurs rose to the occasion

By Google Arts & Culture

Once upon a time, there was a place called Greenwich Village, for decades a refuge for unconventional people of all sorts—artists, writers, theatre people (like the Provincetown Players), political radicals, and early feminists (like the suffragists). The Village was also an early hangout for lesbians, in neighborhood bars on 3rd and 4th Streets, and Bleecker, down Thompson or Sullivan, like Ernie’s, Tony Pastor’s, L’s, the Welcome Inn, Macdougal’s, and Ptown Landing, to name a few. But the 1930s introduced a new element. A sweeping clean-up of New York—for the sake of modesty, decency, or whatever the latest excuse was—closed burlesque houses that had flourished in midtown, and sent drag kings and queens, strippers and their fans, downtown.

Toni Bennett, performer at the 181
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Village entrepreneurs rose to the occasion. Early examples include the Howdy Club, which opened in 1935 at 47 West 3rd Street, where vocalist Blackie Dennis, strikingly handsome in her tux and slicked-back short hair, was a featured performer. Her followers were many among straight and gay patrons. Meanwhile, the boys in the show chose feathers, sequins, satin and lace, and might come out looking like Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, or some other contemporary idol. The mid-1940s saw the closing of the Howdy Club for some on-stage action the authorities judged too provocative, and the performers moved on. Blackie Dennis played the Moroccan Village, 23 West 8th Street, and welcomed Buddy Kent and her revue for an engagement.

Wait staff at the Howdy Club, 1935-45
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Blackie Dennis, when she played the Moroccan Village, 1950s
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Buddy also played that most famous of Village gay cabarets—the 181 Club, at 181 Second Avenue, at the downtown end of the building that presently houses the Village East Cinema. So elegant and plush was the 181, that its tuxedoed girl wait staff called it “the homosexual Copacabana,” after the uptown (East 60th) nightclub managed by the mob—as were all the Village nightspots that featured gay entertainers. Everyone was on stage for the opening chorus and the grand finale, with a few singles acts in between.

For three shows a night, six nights a week, the kids were paid a token salary, but the tips from uptown swells, the Wall Street crowd, mobsters and out-of-towners were generous. Lesbians identified with the 181 Club – Gail Williams and Toni Bennett (stage names) – had started out at the Howdy, and Toni had come all the way from Kansas City years before to learn to strip on 42nd Street. That training and drop-dead blonde good looks kept her in the spotlight at the 181 until it closed down in 1953. Meanwhile, Buddy Kent put together her own strip act and became Bubbles Kent, Exotic Dancer, at Jimmy Kelly’s nightclub on Sullivan Street, future home to “The Fantastiks” from 1960-2002.

Announcing the Club 181
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The decline of the 181 gave way to the rise of the Club 82, 82 East 4th Street, several blocks down Second Avenue. Anna Genovese, wife of the capo Vito Genovese, was the force behind both clubs, and lingered on in the Village long after the husband she had divorced in sensational proceedings was incarcerated in the Atlanta Federal Pen. The 82 also lingered into the 1970s, with audiences old and new clamoring for a sight of their favorite drag performer. It was a time, too long past, when rents were low, protection was provided, and everybody had fun.

Gail Williams, a performer at the 181
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Credits: Story

Words by Lisa E Davis

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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