Scan of a Club Flamingo program provided by JD Doyle at Queer Music Heritage.

The Rarest of Birds

Club Flamingo was the rarest of birds in mid-century West Hollywood – a drag bar that operated so openly that it advertised in the Los Angeles Times.

It opened in 1941 in a converted commercial building at 1027 N. La Brea Ave. in a dingy, light-industrial area about two miles southeast of the bright lights of the Sunset Strip. (On today’s map, there’s a Best Buy there now.) 

Newspaper ad for Club Flamingo
Ad for Club Flamingo in the L.A. Times

The Flamingo advertised itself as “Hollywood’s most unique show” with “continuous entertainment” seven nights a week. The show featured drag performers styled with the glamorous look of screen queens of the golden age. Some shows included drag king acts, women who performed in male attire, as well as  songs from popular lesbian singers.

Cross-dressing  acts were popular in speakeasies during Prohibition as part of what was known as the  “Pansy Craze.” Typically there would be a drag act on the bill with straight acts like striptease shows and musical numbers.

After Prohibition, “Panse” acts appeared in the newly legit nightspots. Exposure in the mainstream brought the flamboyant gender bending to the attention of moral arbiters around the country. Cross-dressing was banned, as were striptease acts.

The City of Los Angeles was among the first to ban “lewd acts.” But West Hollywood was a county district then, and because L.A. County did not enact a similar ban, nightclubs in the district, which included the Strip, were free to book both the pansy acts and the strip shows.

In 1933, East Coast Pansy star Karyl Norman, “the Creole Fashionplate” (aka George Peduzzi) moved his act to Cafe La Boheme on the Strip and played to sold-out houses.

The shift away from mainstream acceptance of drag shows was A decade later, when Club Flamingo opened, audiences for drag shows were predominantly gay. While the shows were legal, being gay was not.

Across the country, laws prohibited homosexuals from associating with each other. This lent a sense of danger to the drag shows. 

The Flamingo’s location between Hollywood and Beverly Hills likely attracted a mixed crowd of sophisticates that sometimes included a movie star or two.

At least one famous name took in a show at the Flamingo. Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, was spotted there during the “lost week” in January 1947 before her mutilated body was found in a vacant lot a few miles south of Hollywood.


The Flamingo survived two morality purges during the decade it was business. The U.S. military temporarily shuttered it during World War II, and a California legislature public morals commission investigated it in 1948.

Variety notice about military placing nightclubs off limits in Los Angeles, including Club Flamingo, from June 8, 1942
Variety notice about military placing nightclubs off limits in Los Angeles, including Club Flamingo, from June 8, 1942

WWII: In June 1942, six months after the United States entered World War II, the Flamingo was among 62 bars in Los Angeles that the military put off limits to enlistees. These were mostly young men who’d been drafted from across the United States and were enjoying one last fling before mustering out of Los Angeles to the hellholes of the Pacific.

The military closed two other West Hollywood bars:  Café Internationale, a  lesbian club in high-end Sunset Plaza, and Chez Boheme, a drag bar near the western end the Sunset Strip.

The ban put the other two clubs out of business, but the Flamingo soon reopened and remained in business through the rest of the war.

In 1947, at the dawn of America’s descent into the McCarthyism, the California legislature set up an Interim Subcommittee on Public Morals and charged it with investigating nightspots frequented by “narcotic addicts, ex-convicts and sexual degenerates” and “perverts”  in Hollywood and the adjacent county district, meaning West Hollywood.  The entertainment in these clubs was said to be  “lewd, lascivious and foul.”

The committee issued subpoenas to ten of the worst offenders. Hearings convened in January 1948. Club Flamingo and two other clubs were subpoenaed: The Greenwich Village at 8852 Sunset on the Strip (it’s the Viper Room now) and Café Continental at 7823 Santa Monica Boulevard. (Still there and houses a gym.)

Answering the subpoena for Club Flamingo was a corporate lawyer, Robert F. Shippee. He was a Harvard graduate, aviator, leader of a historic exploration of the Peruvian wilderness and bona fide Beverly Hills society.

“Shippee, who said he was a minor shareholder in a corporation owning several entertainment centers,” the Times reported, “refused to tell the committee the name of the actual owner of majority stock.”

He freely admitted that owner’s identity was masked by layers of shell companies. “Shippee identified himself as secretary-treasurer of the corporation,” said the Times, “adding that the corporative articles had been signed by ‘three dummies,’ so that real owners’ names did not appear on public records.” Later reports identified the corporation as Johnnies Cafe Corporation, Inc.

Mobsters used dummy companies to hide real-estate investments. Similarly, owner of gay bars used them to hide their identities from law enforcement.

So who owned the Flamingo?

Continental at 7823 Santa Monica Blvd. in July 1949; right: 7823 Santa Monica Blvd. as it appeared recently
Left: Agent Harry Cooper from the California Attorney General’s office and Mickey Cohen (in hat) leaving the Continental at 7823 Santa Monica Blvd. in July 1949; right: 7823 Santa Monica Blvd. as it appeared recently

Mickey Cohen didn’t hide the fact that he owned Café Contintentale. It’s less certain but assumed that, with others, he  owned the Greenwich Village bar on the Strip.

Cohen was allegedly a financier of the original Slapsie Maxie’s Café on Beverly Boulevard. He also controlled back-room gambling in clubs around the area.

At the end of its investigation, the morals commission issued a report criticizing owners of “certain establishments which are staging indecent, lewd and lascivious entertainment and in which tavern managers were permitting their premises to be used as the gathering place for perverts and other immoral persons.”

The commissioners recommended closing eight clubs described as “rendezvous for immoral persons.” They also called for prohibiting sale of liquor to unescorted women, a practice they called “obnoxious to good morals.”

Th commission had look into ten clubs and closed eight, including  the Greenwich Village. The two that remained open were Mickey Cohen’s Continental Café and the Flamingo Club.

In 1951, nearly 20 years after the city of Los Angeles banned strip clubs and cross-dressing acts, Los Angeles County followed suit.

Entertainment licenses were revoked for the Last Call, at 8852 Sunset on the Strip – former home of the Greenwich Village – and Club Flamingo.

In testimony to a review board on April 5, Sheriff’s Capt. P.L. Sutton described the Flamingo as a gathering place for “undesirables.”

The board cancelled the Flamingo’s license on the same day that the Mickey Cohen was indicted for tax evasion. He owed the IRS $300,000, which would be more than $3 million today.

Mickey’s trial took twelve days. It only took the jury took four hours to find him guilty on all charges. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison, fined $200,000 on the charges and $100,000 in court costs.