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Whatever happened to ... the Radio City Lounge, Utah’s oldest gay bar?

First Published      Last Updated Apr 11 2017 07:56 am

Radio City Lounge was a refuge for LGBT community, especially men, before the gay liberation movement.

Editor's note • In this regular series, The Salt Lake Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail.

Salt Lake City's Radio City Lounge was known as the oldest gay bar west of the Mississippi.

In the first decade after it opened in 1948, most of Radio City's gay and straight clientele (as well as the bar's moniker) came from the radio and TV stations headquartered along Social Hall Avenue, just north of the building's address at 147 S. State.

By the late 1950s, an evolution had begun.

"It was a straight bar during the day, then at 7, the gay community started coming in," says Rose Carrier, who started pouring pints at Radio City in 1960. She had been working at another bar when owners Elvin Gerrard and Lee Caputo — both straight — offered her a job at Radio City, her first exposure to people many at the time considered deviant, even mentally ill.

"I started serving them, and I thought, These are really great people," says Carrier. "I felt the love from them."

During the day, gay customers began coming into the bar — where Carrier would greet them with a kiss on a cheek — which the bar's straight customers thought "was terrible," Carrier says. "They stopped coming in at all."

But the bar's welcoming atmosphere and relative safety made it a refuge for gay men in the pre-Stonewall era.

Carrier says she could sense the nervousness of people who had mustered the courage to walk in the door for the first time.

"I would introduce everybody to each other," says Carrier. "If somebody was sitting alone at the end of the bar, I would make him come up and join us. You couldn't just sit there and be by yourself."

Displays of same-sex affection were illegal in the 1960s, and police would occasionally raid Radio City, looking for hand-holding, kissing and dancing.

It was also illegal for men to dress as women. One night during a drag show, the police showed up, handcuffs ready.

Carrier was one of those arrested — "Maybe they thought I was a drag queen," she says.

But over time, Carrier says, she got to know the police and was able to get advance notice of their raids — in time to warn everyone to run out the back.

The back entrance was one of Radio City's key features, a clandestine passage through which closeted men could avoid being seen walking into the bar.

"That whole area was kind of the red light district," says Utah LGBT historian Ben Williams. "Radio City didn't have a sign out front, and you would hardly know it was a bar unless you'd been inside. Back in the 1950s and 1960s in Utah, nobody wanted to be seen going into a bar, much less a gay bar."

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