Lucky After Dark: Pittsburgh’s Gay and Lesbian Social Clubs 1960-1990

Lucky After Dark, the Pittsburgh Queer History Project’s inaugural exhibit, featured a cross-section of ephemera from our growing archives. The PQHP archives hold over 12,000 items ranging from photographs to clothing, video, and realia. For the month of June 2014, the Future Tenant Gallery at 819 Penn Avenue, was transformed into a darkened members-only nightclub, illuminated by the turn of slide projectors featuring 640 original images from gay night clubs owned by Robert “Lucky” Johns: “The Pope of Gay Pittsburgh.”

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Lucky played a large part in shaping the gay social world of post-World War II Pittsburgh. In a period when homosexuality’s relationship to the state was precarious and violent, Lucky and his peers opened covert spaces using the charters of working-men’s fraternal clubs.

Pittsburgh has been called many things since it’s naming in 1758, from “hell with the lid off” to the “steel city.” But its lesser known moniker is “the city of joiners” – indicative of residents’  abnormal enthusiasm for social clubs. A two-page spread in the 1967 publication “The New Pennsylvania,” featured Pittsburgh with an image of blasting furnaces and the names of over 60 fraternal orders that had built clubhouses across the city. Mixing a history of welfare and reciprocity with the can-do sentiment of the American Steelworker, “the New Pennsylvania” was drawing a picture of the keystone state as an attractive home for the New American Family, supported by a tradition of steel and stone, and oriented to the promise of a lucrative future. This rebranding of Pittsburgh was necessary to scrape away the literal grime which had attached itself the city’s reputation . The Pittsburgh that was once a powerful industrial metropolis, was transforming through the slow collapse of the American steel industry, further eroding the city’s public image.  As the region’s economy sank, Pittsburgh’s population sought employment and promise elsewhere.

Blast furnace flare tower at night By- Robert S. Dorsett

But what of the people who stayed behind? Even in such a well-crafted image of the Steel City, there are bound to be cracks. The Pittsburgh Queer History Project was formed along the fault lines of Pittsburgh’s social world. Beginning as an examination of after-hours bars licensed as social clubs, the project’s founder and co-director, Harrison Apple, began collecting materials which traced a rich history of criminality and liminality, ultimately focusing on the sexually fluid night clubs open from dusk until dawn. Social clubs have been a staple institution in Pittsburgh, from the settlements of immigrant workers to their use as Prohibition Blind-Pigs, and they have consistently offered some semi-public space for the lives of Pittsburghers.

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Lucky After Dark offers a visual expedition through the prominent gay social clubs between 1960 and 1990. Beginning with the career of Lucky himself, and spreading to a landscape of gay and lesbian commercial leisure that covered the city from end to end.

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As the clock struck 2 a.m. and the bars emptied, the social clubs began to swell. In concert with the explosion of disco, glittered and glamoured socialites performed, danced, and otherwise let loose at Lucky’s Transportation Club (T.C.), House of Tilden, and Travelers Social Club.

Lucky After Dark begins at the door. After signing into the record book, you pass through the heavy black out curtain, and enter the foyer, dimly lit by alternating projectors. A table littered with matchbooks, bar rags, and golf pencils equip you with the social accessories to explore the main gallery.

Reprinted to film for the first time in over 50 years, 640 images from the Robert “Lucky” Johns collection illustrated the vivid world of gay Pittsburgh in living color. 8 carousels lead you on a path of public memory through the clubs, the picnics, and the pageantry. As the projectors whirl, mixtapes from the DJ’s fill the room, and images cover the gallery walls.

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As June came to a close, over 1,000 visitors poured through the doors to remember and reimagine a lesser told life of the American rust belt. Rummaging through membership cards, magazines, and t-shirts, former patrons of the clubs became reacquainted with the ephemera that had unassumingly made up a night at Lucky’s. Often with artifacts of their own in hand, visitors came prepared to contribute their side of the story. Speaking alongside the rotating carousels, their memories illuminated an obscure history. As each story identified a different perspective, the 2-dimensional record of life after dark, became a rich and complex history of a Pittsburgh institution. In particular, narration by transgender club patrons fleshed out the barebones record of slides labeled “Drag Show.”

Just as Lucky’s camera had a physically limited lens, his representation of gay Pittsburgh nightlife was limited in scope. Throughout the exhibition, the absence of people of color in his slide collection – with the exception of African-American performers – was conspicuous. African-American visitors who experienced the segregated geography of Pittsburgh first hand were able to articulate how various social circles weaved in and out frame.

Out of the exhibition, we’ve developed new perspectives on Pittsburgh’s twilight world, as well as the means to ensure its preservation. Through an exhibition catalog available in print and online, we’re continuing to re-inscribe Pittsburgh with a queer history.

Sadly, Lucky had been ill leading up to the exhibition, and two weeks into it’s run, he passed away, having never seen the show. The impact of his death was felt across the city, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a full news obituary on his life’s work. As a paternalistic figure in the city’s ‘gay world,’ his passing asks how and if LGBTQ Pittsburghers are remembered. He had offered so much to his patrons, whom he loving called “the largest and strangest family in the world.” Membership to Lucky’s clubs was truly familial, sharing the city through devastation and resilience. Lucky’s identity, like his patrons, was entrenched in the city’s history. His sexuality, though never a matter of apology, was emphasized alongside his experience as an Italian, as a Northsider, and as a working-class man.

In an early interview, Lucky shared his fondest memory. On the stoop outside the T.C. – his first club – he laid against the cement and stared across the river into the glow of the steel mill’s furnaces. He loved the warm glow of the fires at night, an image he shared with hundreds of thousands of Pittsburghers. Decades since the close of the mills, that view of the warm fire glowing at night is a cherished memory. Now, Lucky is too.

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Credits:

Pittsburgh Queer History Project: Harrison Apple, Dr. Tim Haggerty (co-directors), Dani Lamorte (associate director)
Exhibition help: Sara Faradji, Steve Gurysh
Future Tenant Staff
A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation
The Scott Noxon Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation
Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University
The Humanities Scholars Program at Carnegie Mellon University
Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon University