In the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, Downtown, Silver Lake and Hollywood were the great meccas of the LA gay scene. The bars were aplenty and often the huge nightclubs and hotels held small bars that were frequented by the gay crowd.
“The bars in Hollywood were mostly all ‘men,'” says entertainment reporter from the 1940s and 50s, Duncan Donovan, “attached were the nightclubs that were all movie stars.” At the same time, LAPD Vice caught on and attempted to shut down the bars and the scene.
Gay life in Los Angeles became a nightmare when straight police officers dressed and acted gay to evoke a sexual advance. Such “entrapment” resulted in thousands of arrests and ruined lives for many gay men.
In the mid-60s, the gay scene quietly moved west to the then unincorporated West Hollywood where the LA Sheriffs Department did not use such harsh tactics. There, the gay community began to set-up shop without the aggressive LAPD interfering.
Such entrapment is the subject of “The Other Side: A Queer History,” I directed over the past year containing a little known story of the bar scene in Los Angeles that, through default, would eventually help create the first gay city in the world, that of West Hollywood, California.
The Other Side is the name of this old gay piano bar in Silver Lake and it is the backdrop for this moving 50 minute documentary—a place where these men still feel safe while waxing poetic of the good old/bad old days, the days where even at this quiet location, a casual touch with the wrong person could land you in jail.
For the last 45 years and under many incarnations, this piano bar was the place to meet and sing old standards with friends while knocking back a few drinks. I would see all of these older gentlemen slip into this hidden little piano bar on Hyperion Avenue, and I became fascinated by this seemingly secret society.
At first they did not welcome me. In the mostly “men only” atmosphere, I was ignored at the bar. I had the cooperation of the owner and manager, but the regulars really resented my being there with a camera. Strangely enough, many of these men, elderly men in their 70s and 80s, were still closeted.
Slowly they began to trust me, as I’d occasionally get up and belt out a few standards at the piano bar. I met so many men with the same story – entrapment by the LAPD, so I decided to make entrapment the focal point of the film, specifically about the early scene of LAPD vice.
So many people know about the Stonewall riots back east, so few know about what went on in Hollywood – it is quite shocking that these men suffered so much at the hands of the police.”
The Other Side has always been one of those places where gay men have sought out and found comradeship, a safe place in a turbulent society where being hidden is often safer than being one’s self. The bar, long a refuge for te “elder” set, now rocks with a great many younger gay men who enjoy the rollicking piano music and occasional sing-a-longs.
Featuring performances at the piano bar from West Hollywood’s young virtuoso James Lent (every Friday at the Other Side), the film weaves show tunes with moving stories. Young men in the 1950s would move out here from places in the Midwest, thinking they were coming to the sexually liberated Tinseltown, only to find it an ultra conservative, no tolerance police state.
“I thought it was going to be very free,” says Charles Edwards, one of the older gentlemen in the film, “but [LA] was the most repressive [place] I could of ever thought of when I moved out here from Chicago.”
In my film the camera pans through the bar while young and old sing tunes together in the absence of middle-aged men. I lost so many friends to AIDS in the 80s and 90s; I love meeting these men who survived, they have so much teach us about growing old, and it’s like meeting those old friends again, because I’m sure if they had survived into the golden years they would have been just as witty and fabulous as these fellows.
They are all so clever, yet candid, about what they have lived through. Oddly enough, bitterness is at a minimum with my subjects, the denizens of the Other Side. They are so lovable. And oh, there are some great performances at the piano, too.
The film premiered at the recent Silver Lake Film Festival to a standing ovation and is seeking distribution. The following is the LA Times’ reviews of Ms. Cantillon’s film.
Closer to home, Jane Cantillon’s poignant “The Other Side: Back in the Gay” looks at a Silver Lake piano bar that has existed under a variety of names since the 1960s. The patrons of the Other Side, particularly men in their 60s, 70s and 80s, recall the social codes and police raids of pre-AIDS gay life in Los Angeles.
The funny, sweet and sometimes sad recollections are intensely personal. Photos of the men when they were young, along with stock period footage and music, evocatively render a slice of L.A. history. Cantillon and her subjects emphasize the importance of the bar as a gathering place and its appeal to a younger crowd drawn to the nostalgia of show tunes and standards.