The Rarest of Birds
Club Flamingo was the rarest of birds in mid-century West Hollywood – a gay bar that operated so openly that it advertised in the Times. It was located off the beaten path in a rather dingy area about two miles southeast of the bright lights of gay nightlife on the Sunset Strip.
It opened in 1941 in a converted commercial building at 1027 N. La Brea Ave. (It was located roughly where the main entrance to the Best Buy is now.) Other than that, information about its origins is lost.
The Flamingo’s ads said it offered “Hollywood’s most unique show” and “continuous entertainment” seven nights a week. The performers’ styles were glamorous movie-star look, although a few acts played their gender bending for laughs. Shows also included drag king acts, women who performed in male attire, as well as numbers by popular lesbian singers.
Cross-dressing is as old as theatre itself. In ancient times, women in most European cultures were forbidden from public performances, so female roles were played by boys or men. In the 19th century, “female impersonators” became popular in vaudeville, a nationwide network of theatres that presented traveling variety shows. During Prohibition, cross-dressing became wildly popular in mainstream speakeasies, creating what was known then as the “Pansy Craze.”
After Prohibition, Pansy Craze performers transitioned from speakeasies into the nascent nightclub culture, but as the mainstream became aware of cross dressing, its flamboyant gender fluidity proved too brazen for moral arbiters. Cross-dressing was banned, along with striptease acts, another speakeasy byproduct, in cities around the country.
Los Angeles passed an anti-cross-dressing ordinance in the mid-1930s. Los Angeles County, which included West Hollywood, did not follow suit, and at least one East Coast Pansy star – Karyl Norman, “the Creole Fashionplate” (aka George Peduzzi) – moved his act to the Sunset Strip where he played to sold-out houses.
A decade later, around the time Club Flamingo opened, cross dressing acts remained popular but had lost some of their mainstream appeal. The Flamingo likely attracted a mixed crowd of sophisticates and, given its location, maybe including a movie star or two.
However, the only famous person associated with the Flamingo was Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. She took in a show at the Flamingo during the “lost week” before she was killed.
The Flamingo flourished for the better part of a decade, surviving two morality purges – one in 1942 by the U.S. military and another in 1948 by a California legislature public morals commission.
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.
Club Flamingo was one of three bars placed off limits in West Hollywood. The others were Café Internationale, a Sunset Plaza club that catered to lesbians, and Chez Boheme, a drag bar near the western end the Sunset Strip.
Both bars on the Strip closed after the ban. The Flamingo quickly reopened and remained in business through the rest of the war.
In late 1947, at the dawn of America’s descent into the McCarthy era, conservatives in the California legislature grew frustrated with the inability of local law enforcement to curb the nefarious goings-on in Hollywood nightclubs. Using a Victorian-era parliamentary relic called the Interim Assembly Subcommittee on Public Morals, a group of assemblymen launched an inquiry of their own.
The mission of the morals commission was to investigate reports that certain night spots in Hollywood and the adjacent county district – meaning, West Hollywood – were gathering places for “narcotic addicts, ex-convicts and sexual degenerates” and “perverts.” These clubs were said to present live entertainment that was “lewd, lascivious and foul.”
The committee issued subpoenas to the operators of ten or so nightclubs deemed to be the worst offenders. Hearings convened in Los Angeles in mid-January 1948. In addition to Club Flamingo, two other West Hollywood 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.
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 a member in good standing of Beverly Hills society.
The Times reported that “Shippee, who said he was a minor shareholder in a corporation owning several entertainment centers, refused to tell the committee the name of the actual owner of majority stock.”
He freely admitted that owner’s identity was masked behind shell companies. “Shippee identified himself as secretary-treasurer of the corporation,” the Times reported, “adding that the corporative articles had been signed by ‘three dummies,’ so that real owners’ names did not appear on public records.” Subsequent reports identified the corporation as Johnnies Cafe Corporation, Inc.
The use of dummy companies to conceal ownership was a standard practice used by mobsters to hide real-estate investments. It was also used by owners of gay bars, who themselves may have been gay, to hide their identities in an era when it was just as illegal to own a gay bar as it was to congregate in one.
So who owned the Flamingo?
It was no secret that local mob baron Mickey Cohen owned Café Contintentale, and it was believed that his associates owned the Sunset Strip building that housed the Greenwich Village.
Cohen, whose criminal domain was based in West Hollywood, was allegedly a financier of the original Slapsie Maxie’s Café on Beverly Boulevard. He also controlled back-room illegal gambling in a 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 of the 10 clubs, which their report 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.”
The Greenwich Village was one of the eight that closed. 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 finally followed suit.
As a result entertainment licenses were revoked for two clubs in West Hollywood: The Last Call, at 8852 Sunset on the Strip – the same building that housed the Greenwich Village – and Club Flamingo. At the hearing on April 5 after which the licenses were pulled, Capt. P.L. Sutton of the Sheriff’s Department told the review board that the Flamingo was a gathering place for “undesirables.
That same day, as a result of an in-depth investigation by the IRS, Mickey Cohen was indicted on allegations of tax evasion. The agency had identified $300,000 in unpaid taxes (more than $3 million today).
Despite having been targeted by the LAPD for years, Mickey Cohen had managed to stay out of prison. Now, as had happened to his hero, Chicago mob boss Al Capone, the IRS finally brought him down.
Cohen’s trial in June lasted twelve days, but jury deliberations lasted just four hours. The jury found him guilty on all four charges. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison, fined $200,000 on the charges and $100,000 in court costs.
The fact that Club Flamingo lost its license on the same day Mickey Cohen was indicted is, at the very least, a stunning coincidence.