The Letros and St. Charles Taverns
Letros Tavern opened in the 1940’s after liquor laws changed in Canada, allowing restaurants to serve alcohol. It was located on King Street, directly across the King Edward Hotel and was Toronto’s first exclusively gay and lesbian bar. Rumour has it that it attracted a queer clientele by luring the openly gay bartender from the King Edward hotel in the 1960s. (Rowlson, 2005, p. 9).
Jim Egan, a Toronto based gay rights activist, recalled that in the 1950s, tabloids such as Hush Free Press would review early gay bars such as the Letros Tavern. They would liberally make homophobic comments like the following: “On any Friday or Saturday night you could fire off a load of buckshot and very probably not hit a normal person. (Rowlson, 2005, p. 15)”
While the straight centred tabloids found the tavern undignified, TWO Magazine raved about the bar and reported that the Letros Tavern’s drag shows were a spectacle to behold. Before its’ closing in 1972, it was home to some of the city’s first drag queens, especially on Halloween.
Crowds of hundreds of onlookers would cheer on or boo the queens. To paint an image of what someone would see at Letros in 1965 included outrageous and marvelous costumes for gay and straight onlookers alike. Examples of what queens could be spotted in included flamboyant ostrich plumes and sparkling rhinestones, which TWO reported 90% of these accessories could be found on Gigi Mills, the 1964 winner of the Miss Letros title. On the night of Halloween 1965, a team of cheerleaders, followed by a strip tease, made crowds so excited that police threatened to arrest the cheer squad on the grounds of causing a disturbance (TWO, 1966, pp. 22-25). This shows that while these performances were celebrated by many in the queer community, the law was quick to enforce strict rules around what was considered appropriate.
After the owner outlawed costumes in the bar due to a constant unwanted police presence, the drag community moved to the St. Charles Tavern on Yonge Street (Rowlson, 2005, p. 15).
Beginning as a firehall, the St. Charles Tavern has had many identities including housing a Chinese restaurant in the '50s, before it became the iconic gay bar in the mid '60s. In the time of its founding, the Letros Tavern was declining in popularity, making the St. Charles Tavern the most popular bar for Toronto gay men in the ‘60s, and ‘70s. The iconic drag performances of Letros also moved to Yonge Street, where the St. Charles quickly became infamous for its’ Halloween drag balls.While there are photos and videos of drag queens of colour participating in the drag shows, it is unclear what the demographics of the clientele was.
While the drag shows at Letros only attracted small audiences of onlookers, at its peak, the St. Charles attracted crowds that reached 2000 (Berwick, 1994, p. 19; Wheeler, 2016). Some members of these crowds threw eggs, ink, and yelled homophobic slurs at the drag queens as they entered the bar, turning it into a dangerous and unfortunate Halloween tradition (Berwick, 1994, p. 19; Wheeler, 2016).