Over the years I've interviewed hundreds of people about their experiences in Chicago's gay bars going back to the 1930s. Here are a few random stories about Chicago's premiere leather bar, the Gold Coast, in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s.
My first leather bar was ...
'The old Gold Coast down on Clark Street. I was panic-stricken, because I'd heard all about the sadomasochism that went on, and how everybody had attitude, and nice guys did not go in that bar. We walked in the bar and it was jam-packed, nobody said anything. Not too many people even looked at us. We made one circle around the bar, and got back to the front, and my friend said, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'I love this bar, I got my ass patted 12 times, just walking around.' — David H.
'It was huge. It was an island bar with a lot of space behind it. It was a leather and S&M bar, and a lot of people didn't understand that and would refer to it as an S&S bar ... Stand and Stare ... because so many guys would go in there trying to be butch; they would buy a beer and lean against the wall showing off their crotch, until you get them home and find out they've got a dildo in their pants.
'My first trip to the Gold Coast, I had no idea where I was going. I was cruising this guy at the Trip, and I heard him tell someone that he was going to the Gold Coast. I had become friends with Michael ______, so I asked him, 'Where's the Gold Coast?' He said, 'You don't want to go there.' I said 'Why not?' He said 'It's a leather bar.'
'I said, 'What does that mean?' I'm just a kid, I'm new to the gay scene, I don't know nothing. He goes, 'They beat people there.' I'm thinking, 'Well, that could be fun ... to watch, or do, but not have done to you.' Then he said, 'It's at 501 N. Clark Street.'
'It was totally unmarked, no big signs like bars have now. The only marking was a sign on the building that said 'Gold Coast,' with a 7-1/2 watt bulb above it. I couldn't find it that night, but that's how I found Sundays. I started walking around the area and I happened on Sundays, and I asked someone, 'Do you know where the Gold Coast is?'
'That was how I met Chuck Rodocker. He was one of the bartenders at Sundays. He said to me, 'Let me tell you something, honey, you're not dressed for the Gold Coast.' So I said, 'How do you have to be dressed?' I had come from work at the Sears Tower, and I was still wearing my ribbon clerk tie and all that.
'Chuck explained to me what a leather bar was. He said, 'If you're out tomorrow night and wearing Levi's and a flannel shirt, then go to the Gold Coast, but don't bother tonight, because they probably won't even let you through the door.' — Wally
'It was the Gold Coast at 501 N. Clark. I had recently come home from dropping out of college in Los Angeles, and somebody out there had given me a black llama coat. So, I had this full-length coat, and I walked in and went down these stairs, turned right, didn't see the steps, and fell into the pit on my butt. Everybody turned and looked at me. 'Who the hell is this twink?' I was 21 or 22 at the time.' — Tim C.
'I was going to a bookstore called the Machine Shop, which used to be at Clark and Hubbard down in River North. That was an infamous gay bookstore, and right across the street was the Gold Coast, and I thought that was the evil empire of bookstores, because I saw motorcycles parked around it all the time. It was a real biker bar, and then I got it straight in my mind that it was a gay leather bar.
'At the time I thought they were real tough guys, tough gay bruisers. So one day I thought, 'You know, I'm sick of cruising with all these nellies in here, I'm going across to that bar and get myself a real man.' Not to get a man, but at least to meet and talk with someone who's tough. I went in, I got a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. By this time I was 21 or 22, and this real tough guy was standing along the wall, wearing leather and looking masculine and tough. We we're making eye contact and he came over and he said (in a sissy voice) 'So what's your name?' ... my heart just dropped, what is this, a hairy woman? So that was my first big awakening, that queens come in all sizes and appearances.' — Scott
'I wasn't into leather and I was careful about where I went. I really was a little bit innocent. I wanted to go to the Gold Coast, and the first time I went there I was still very young and I walked in, and I remember it was crowded. I worked my way to the back of the room, leaned up against the wall and the next thing I knew I had a cock in my right hand and a cock in my left hand.' — Allen
The birth of the Gold Coast in the 1950s …
'Omar's was right across the street from the Clark Theater. Omar's is where the group started that eventually developed Gold Coast. Omar's was a Black and white bar, probably the only one in Chicago, and a small group of six or eight leather boys started hanging out there, before the Gold Coast opened up.
'The first time I saw leather was in New York, but here in Chicago it was around 1957, or '58 at Omar's. I went in Omar's because it was very open, and there were a lot of very handsome Black guys, and it was convenient, because it was near the Clark movie theater and the Monroe movie theater. If you didn't make out there, you'd go to the bar afterwards. It was a great time. I've never met Chuck Renslow in my life; may have seen him. I still don't know what he looks like.
'I heard a lot about Chuck, and I think he was the one who started the Gold Coast, so he had to be one of the people at Omar's. The Gold Coast was on Clark, about three doors north of Madison on the west side of the street.' — William R.
Memories of the Gold Coast …
'I remember I took some older friends into the Gold Coast one night. They were in town for a business meeting. I met them downtown and they had coats and ties on. They wanted to go to the Gold Coast, and I said, 'Well, I'm happy to go, but you really are not dressed for the Gold Coast.' We go in and the place is very crowded, and who is standing just inside the door but Chuck Renslow. He looked at these guys, who had their coats and ties on and he made the tacky comment, 'Kitty Sheon's is over there.' They didn't catch the significance of that, but I did and it embarrassed me for them, and of course, one of them felt real intimidated and said, 'Let's get out of here.' And the other one was more adventurous and said 'Let's stay!' ... I think we left.' — Anonymous Man
'The movies and the pool table on Sunday afternoons at the Gold Coast, when it was downtown. They showed movies on Sunday afternoon, that was the thing. Guys would gather in and they would just degenerate into a fuckfest on the pool table, and everything else.' — Anonymous Man
'Oh boy! Oh boy! I had a bunch of boyfriends take me in there. They looked like they were going to fucking eat me alive. I was this little high school girl and they took me in there. I liked it. I liked the surroundings. I've always been into the leather scene, but then they took me downstairs into that pit, that dungeon. Holy smokes, my hair was probably standing on end. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. It was funny, it was pretty funny.' — Paté
'I was there when that was raided. I was sitting at the bar by myself, upstairs in the main floor bar, and this not bad looking guy came up behind me and put his hand in the back of my pants, and I like to be in charge, right ... and I didn't like that, and I pulled his hand out, and he went away and about half an hour later the lights came up and it was a raid, and he was one of the cops. I think he was trying to trap me.' — Charlie 'Tuna.'
'I did go to the Gold Coast in the '60s, and that was when it was located on Clark Street, south of Division. The original one was on the east side of the street, and this was the second one that was on the west side of the street. I did go in there and I was in every Gold Coast after that. The couple of times I went to that second one, it was in the late afternoon, so I cant say whether people actually went there in leather. I remember I was going over to Kalamazoo, Mich., and I met some guy on the train coming back and got talking and so forth, and he said, 'Well, why don't we have a drink,' and we stopped off at the Gold Coast on our way home.' — Bob Egan
'It was very much a blue jeans place, I was real aware of that. I don't even know if I was that aware of the leather. I had an interest in leather that I didn't admit to myself. For me, it just seemed like a blue jeans type of place, until I started to hone in more on the leather and admit to myself that yes, I'm interested in this. I remember seeing All About Eve in there ... wonderful, the whole thing.' — Mark
'Everybody thought it was so intimidating, and Edward had told me he was there the opening night, when it opened on 501 (N. Clark St.). He and a group of friends walked in, and he said there was the bar and all they had was one bottle of scotch, one bottle of bourbon, one bottle of gin, I think, and the mixes, and that was it, that was opening night of the Gold Coast.' — Dennis
'Sunday movies at 5 and 10 o'clock and, of course, there was more action at the 10 o'clock showing than the 5 o'clock. It was like at Bushes on Halsted, which is now Gentry North ... Bushes movies were Tuesday, so you went there Tuesday, and Gold Coast movies were Sunday 5 and 10 and they rented them, probably at the public library, because they were 16mm film, 16mm projectors and Carol's had movies too, the same thing. I showed them how to thread a projector once because I went to Columbia College. It was great, you went to a movie and every time there was a reel change … because each 16mm film was probably half an hour or so … all the guys knew it and they would eye whoever it was they wanted across the bar.
'A reel change took maybe 10, 15 minutes, cruise the bar, maybe go downstairs, come back in time for the rest of the movie. And for a long movie it was two or three reel changes. It was a lot of fun.' — David Plomin
Working at the Gold Coast ...
'At the time I was teaching physics and we were running at Great Lakes on three shifts at the time because of Vietnam. I was working the second shift and it was boring, so I got a job in the morning as a full-time sub teaching 7th and 8th grade. In the end I went to work for Chuck (Renslow); so I would get up early in the morning, drive to Round Lake and teach school until three, go back and do my thing for Uncle Sam, and then I'd hop in my car and go zooming down to Chuck, and in the end I made myself ill doing that.
'It certainly did in any desires I might have been harboring to work with the public. I'll tell you one funny incident. There were two dykes that used to come into the Gold Coast when it was on Lincoln. They were neighborhood girls, and they came in every day after work. And one of them looked like she'd just got out of the Budweiser truck and the other one was petite, a cute secretary type. They'd come in and they'd have a couple of beers and then they'd go home.
'One day they were sitting at my bar and in walked this guy I'd never seen before, and he checked out the bar which was nearly empty, and sat down beside the cute one and tried to strike up a conversation with her. She kind of ignored him. At one point her large friend got up to go to the convenience and as soon as she was gone he really went after her. She told him to piss off, and he got a little bit indignant. The next thing I know the big one storms from the back of the bar and on her way she grabbed her bottle and whacked him on the head. Of course, he went down and I, in my bartender style, leapt over the bar and proceeded to escort her out the door, and her little friend came up behind me and rabbit-punched me so skillfully that she knocked me right to the ground.
'I lost my temper, and I grabbed the big one and I threw her through the air out into the street where she landed on her face. The little one went scooting out after her screaming and hollering. Just at that point Renslow walks in. He said, 'Don't worry about it. This has happened two or three times before and the ambulance will be here and they'll take her away. She'll be back in another week.' And I said, 'If the cops come is this a problem?' That was when I told him I was a Naval officer. He shook his head and muttered 'Fucking idiot! Why don't you go home.'' — Charlie 'Tuna.'