Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Menjo's is making a museum of Detroit's gay history

Posted By on Tue, Mar 3, 2015 at 4:16 PM

When business partners Mike Shannon and Tim Mckee took over managing Palmer Park gay nightclub Menjo's last November, they realized they would have to do something different in the age of hookup smartphone apps.

"We're much more widely accepted," says Shannon, which he believes has led to the demise of many of Detroit's gay bars. "We're accepted in the mainstream. I can go to a Detroit bar that isn't gay but is very gay-friendly. I can go to Ferndale or Royal Oak — I don't have to come to the bar to cruise. You can pick up people right from your phone, so that's not a good enough reason to come to bars anymore."

Shannon says they've aimed to make Menjo's more than just a gay club by hosting straight-friendly events and offering up sex-positive retail spaces. But he says they also want to stay true to the club's gay roots. Shortly after taking over the space, Shannon got in touch with a historian who brought in some old artifacts from the time when Palmer Park was Detroit's gayborhood — before the gay community moved north to Ferndale and beyond. That's when Shannon realized there wasn't anyone else cataloging Detroit's gay history, and decided to start collecting memorabilia from bars and businesses that helped move the gay culture in Detroit forward.

Shannon says the idea took off, and former employees of various bars started coming to him with stuff they had collected. Now they're in the process of acquiring artifacts from bars that are still operating, such as Gigi's and the Woodward. (And if anyone out there has any artifacts collecting dust in their garages or basements, Shannon says they can email him to donate to the exhibit.)

"We're trying to preserve our history so that we can help the younger generation," he says. "I'm 50 — there's a generation between Generation X and me that died from the AIDS epidemic. All those historians and all those mentors are gone. Now it's my age group — we have to become the mentors."

Here's a look at a sampling of the items Menjo's has acquired:

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Old Menjo's logo

The original logo for Menjo's in the '70s was this silver "no" symbol — a kind of cheeky response to homophobia of the time. "They thought they'd spit in the straight peoples' face — if you want to call it that," Shannon says.

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Sign from Diamond Jim's Saloon

(Diamond Jim's) was the only country and western gay bar," says Shannon of this metal horse-shaped sign. "The owner of that building founded MIGRA, which is the Michigan International Gay Rodeo Association. He brought country to the gay community here. There was line dancing there. I actually worked there a little bit right before the end. It closed six or seven years ago."

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Display case from the R & R Saloon

This display case features a variety of items, including a whip owned by the R & R Saloon's late owner Ruby Niphoratos. It also features items from leather club the Tribe, the Eagle, and the Gas Station. "(The Gas Station) was a huge gay club," Shannon says. "Their claim to fame was the 'wet jockey' contest — 'Lady T Tempest and the Wet Jockey Contest.' We brought her back here, too. Four times a year she does the 'Gas Station Wet Jockey Contest' the same way she did it back then."

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The Glass House's stained glass window

The end building on the Menjo's Complex used to be the Glass House, which was more of a tea room. Shannon says they found this window while cleaning out the adjacent Olympus Hall. While they're wrapping up renovations for Olympus Hall right now (Macho City's sixth year anniversary in March will serve as the space's kick-off party), Shannon says the next project is to reopen the Glass House and turn it into a brunch spot. "Our goal is to get this whole complex open," he says. 

Shannon says the Glass House was infamous for hosting "tea dances." "They did that many moons ago when you couldn't drink alcohol on Sundays," he says. "So what the gay bars would do is they would have a tea dance. They'd have tea cups, so it looked like you were drinking tea, but it was alcohol."

Shannon says Menjo's was one of the originators of the tea dance in Detroit, so the new management brought back the tradition. "It's all disco music, so it's all music from that era," he says, noting that they've been drawing a diverse audience. "It's great to see the younger generation appreciating the older music," he says. "To them, it's new. You see that intermingling now. Sometimes, especially in this electronic age, people tend not to mingle. They tend to be on their phones or staying very close to what they're comfortable with. In the past, you'd come in here and there would be a straight person, a drag queen, a leather man, a bear, all sitting next to each other, having a good time. We're starting to see that come back. It's not about the pick-up anymore. 

"I mean, gay men are gay men," he adds. "You still have people trying to pick people up. C'mon, that's always fun. But technology's supposed to enhance our life, not become our life."

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Palmer Park map

Shannon says this map of Palmer Park is the artifact that started the whole exhibition. "The historian, when he came in he gave me copies of this," he says. Shannon says that's when he learned why Menjo's has such an odd-shaped bar. "What we didn't know is the shape of our bar is Palmer Park," he says. "That's what the bar is designed that way. People say, 'Why is this bar shaped so funny?' Well, that's why." 

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"Michigan's Gayest Square Mile" map

Shannon describes this map showing various places to cruise in Palmer Park from 1972 as his pièce de résistance. "Palmer Park used to be full of gays," he says. "This actually used to be handed out at the gay bars around here. This was known as 'Michigan's gayest square mile.' It would show you where you could get certain things. You could get ... well, exactly what it looks like. This shows where people are cruising. It told you where to find the bathhouses, and transgender people. These maps were handed out to gay people so they knew where to find what they wanted in Palmer Park. You just pick up one of these and you knew where to go."

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Menjo's old disco ball

Shannon shows us a beat-up disco ball, missing some of its glass tiles (if someone could photograph it properly, it would make an awesome album cover). "That's the original 1976 disco ball that Madonna used to dance under here at Menjo's. She was 16 years old," Shannon says.

One of the things that attracted Madonna to the old Menjo's was its notoriety as a music hotspot, which Shannon says they're trying to continue. "One day we play disco, the next day we're playing hip-hop, and the next day we're playing top 40," he says. "It used to be there was never anything played anywhere until it was played at Menjo's. Menjo's was the leader of new music and new dance music in Detroit."

As we look at the disco ball, Shannon can't help but wax poetic. "Another reason we really love this idea is the stories that these things have — sort of like, 'if these walls could talk,'" he says. "Could you imagine how many loves were found under this disco ball?"

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