Aug. 24 2016 12:03 AM

The ghosts of Olsen's Bar whisper Lansing's gay history

Lansing Community College faculty and staff park their cars in a nondescript parking lot on Washington Square near Shiawassee Street.

What they probably don’t know is that this was once home to Olsen’s, which during the 1950s was one the few Lansing bars serving the region’s persecuted and underground homosexual community.

It’s a footnote in a slice of Lansing culture largely lost in time, though slowly being resurrected by Tim Retzloff, an assistant professor of history and LGBTQ studies at MSU.

Retzloff, working with archive staff at the MSU Archives, uncovered a Feb 25, 1957, “sex deviation” report compiled by Ralph Ryal with the Michigan State University Police Department. The report reveals the oldest reference to a bar — Olsen’s — where gay men gathered to socialize.

An archival image of the Palador Cafe, 325 N. Washington Ave., in the late '30s or early '40s. This location turned into Olsen's Bar in the mid-'50s and by the end of the decade had become the Clique Lounge, according to Heidi Butler, local history librarian at the Capital Area District Library.
Photo Courtesy of the Capital Area District Library
“He (the unidentified student) stated that most of his contacts had been made at Olsen’s Bar, 325 N. Washington Ave. Lansing,” Ryal wrote in a police report forwarded to the Office of the Dean of Students and command staff in the MSU Department of Public Safety nearly 60 years ago.

The unnamed student was being investigated after another student secretly recorded him discussing his own homosexuality as well as that of other MSU students. The recording was turned over the MSU Police and led to the investigation.

The two-page report is shedding light on early LGBTQ experiences in Lansing, particularly gathering places like gay bars. Retzloff has helped City Pulse identify 16 locations in Lansing, East Lansing and Meridian Township that served as gay bars. The list was compiled from various gay publications and archival research.

Some of those bars are long gone now like Olsen’s and Town Pump, which was located across the street from Olsen’s and was a hot spot in the ‘60s. The first gay owned bar, Trammpp’s Disco, and Joe Covello’s, which opened in the ‘70s, were demolished in the ‘90s to make way for the baseball stadium. Stober’s, which was known as Rustic Village in the late ‘60s, was listed in gay travel guides as a gay bar.

Despite Lansing’s history as a hotbed of lesbian activism and thought, and its nationally recognized women’s community, no bar catering to lesbians and bisexual women in the area has been identified before the 1990s opening of Club 505, at the corner of Shiwassee and Cedar streets. That bar closed years ago when developer Pat Gillespie purchased the location. The bar sits empty today.

“Part of why it’s hidden is it was forced to be hidden,” Retzloff said of the uncovered history. “This shows that as hard as they tried to eradicate homosexual establishments from society, they couldn’t even erase them. Granted, it’s fragmented, but it’s very telling.”

Retzloff said the uncovered report reflects the 1950s, when law enforcement launched “savage, savage, savage crackdowns” on gays. It was a time when men at the University of Michigan were arrested in sting operations and paraded before the media. It remains unclear if the gay MSU student in the police report was ever prosecuted, or if his story was ever revealed publicly.

“But it shows that there was this interrogation. This push to name names,” Retzloff said, was “frightening.”

Indeed, the report shows Ryal hauled the student into an interview and pressed him for the identity of other homosexuals. He said this was at the end of the Mc- Carthy’ era’s witchhunt for Communists, which historians call the Lavender Scare. U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his allies often used the sexuality of opponents to target them for investigation, firing and harassment.

Until 1979 it was illegal for a bar to be “frequented by or to become the meeting place, hangout, or rendezvous for known... homosexuals,” Retzloff wrote in the introduction to a 2010 historical directory of gay and lesbian bars in metro Detroit.

This 1975 image from the personal collection of Tim Retzloff shows the exterior of Stober's bar in Lansing. The location was listed in the late '60s as a gay bar in gay travel guides. It was owned by Rudy Stober but was named the Rustic Village Inn.
Photo Courtesy Tim Retzloff

“It wasn’t until after the war that we saw bars specifically catering to the gay community,” Retzloff said. “Before that there were places, but it was not commercialized.”

But even then, gay bars were owned by straight people and in larger cities often times organized crime.

“Some of those owners did not want to be known as a gay bar, they didn’t like it all, but it was lucrative,” Retzloff said.

Bill Castanier, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, called the discovery “important.”

“It gives legitimacy to a different culture that people didn’t even want to admit to existing,” he said by phone. “It’s an incredibly important project.”

He said the discovery and the list of bars reveals an “amazing story” about a hidden culture.

“I don’t think a lot of straight people knew that there were so many gay bars,” he said.

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