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Chicago Whispers
A Very Personal Gay and Lesbian History
by Sukie de la Croix
2000-04-05

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Talking to Nancy Reiff

Punchinello's ...

"The first bar I worked in was in 1973 and that was Punchinello's. I started working there over the Gold Coast Art Fair weekend 1973, and it was on a fluke. I was in there, and they were so busy it was unbelievable. So they said to me, 'Have you ever waited on tables?' I said, 'No.' And they said, 'Well, you're going to now. We need help.' I said, 'Fine.' I made a ton of money that day, for 1973, like $100 was a lot of money. So I started working there.

"That was owned by an Austrian by the name of Pierre Wimmer. He didn't bill it as a gay bar, he said it was a theater bar. All the entertainers who were appearing at the different theaters would come into Punchinello's. They had entertainment in the bar; a gentlemen by the name of Bruce Robbins was the piano player. It was spontaneous; if Carol Channing was there, she'd get up and do a song, if Della Reese was there, she would get up and do a song. Barry Manilow would come in, Bette Midler would come in. It was a wonderful, wonderful time.

"Punchinello's finally closed and I don't remember what year it was, but I wasn't there at the end. The owner was always on the premises, he was a screaming queen and an entertainer beyond belief. He was extremely flamboyant, very entertaining, loved the whole social scene. Zsa Zsa Gabor would come in, and one day I served her a blue cheeseburger, and she just looked at me and said, 'Darling, french fries are not chic.'"

Sunday's ...

"Sundays was fabulous. Allan collected antiques, so there was a lot of church type of stuff, huge light fixtures hanging down that were out of churches, church pews, and the ceilings were very high and almost cavernous over the bar. It's hard to explain. Chuck Rodocker worked there and Crazy Jack worked there. I was coat-check, and then a waitress ... Karen Ross from Gay Chicago also worked there."

Inner Circle ...

"I worked at the Inner Circle [ on Erie ] . That was the second Inner Circle bar, and then there was the Inner Circle on Clark that Ben Allen opened. I worked at the one on Ontario for the whole time it was open. I can't remember who owned it, but he also owned a jewelry store on Rush Street. ... Billy something ... Billy and two attorney's. Then the place burned down and all the records burned too. The bar was wonderful; a huge bar, huge stage area/dancefloor area, and tiered seating with booths and tables all around. Craig Russell, who was an illusionist, performed there. In fact, I think he was performing the night the place burned. I wasn't there when the fire started. I think they said the fire started in the dressing room, but I'm not quite sure."

Tavern Guild ...

"I joined about 1974, and we used to have some of the meetings at Marilyn's bar. It was set up by bar employees. All the bartenders would network and talk about what was going on in the community, trying to build a sense of cohesiveness between all of us. I think what they were trying to do was unionize without the formality of unionizing, trying to push for benefits and employee rights and things like that."

Mama Peaches ...

"I used to go to Mama Peaches all the time. That was the closest I got to radical lesbian separatists. I got on OK with them. Just OK. When I had Marilyn's, I was always trying to do things, to get community involvement, get the women involved, and when I would do dance contests, the feminists would be up in arms, 'Who was I to try and judge my sisters?' They were always upset about dance contests, so I was never really involved with them. Their politics and mine were completely different."

Gay Chicago ...

"I used to write for Gay Chicago, Dan ( Di Leo ) and I did a column together, and Ralph and I did a column together. When I left the Lady Bug I actually started working for Gay Chicago. I was writing a gossip column, just what was going on in the city. That was about 1980. My job was sales and sales manager for a while, but I was doing a column and I did photography for them. I left Gay Chicago in 1983."

Memory check:

In Gay Life October 19, 1979, The Polish Princess ( Ron Helizon ) wrote in his column: "Too bad Punchinello's ( 936 N. Rush St. ) is closed. It was a nice place, and Pierre could tell some of the juiciest gossip in town. Hope these good folks turn up again at another location." The bar was later listed at 7 E. Chestnut.

An article from the June 1975 Chicago Gay Crusader reads: "The Inner Circle, a recently opened gay show bar at 233 E. Erie was gutted by fire May 10 in what investigators suspect was arson. Impressionist Craig Russell had just begun an engagement at the bar, and a long list of other well-known entertainers on the gay circuit had been lined up for future engagements, including Gotham, Michael Greer, Daphne Davis, Liz Torres, and others. Fire officials reported that they found a safe open and empty and that four 5-gallon plastic bags filled with gasoline were discovered. However, the Chicago Tribune quoted employee Bradley Carlsen as saying that the bar had a cashbox, not a safe, and that he and the manager saved it with the previous night's receipts."

Questions:

A reader recently wrote in saying, "From 1979-1993 I lived in Wicker Park. At that time there was a closed women's bar that had been called the Silver Slipper. The location was on the southwest corner of North and Wood, which now houses a laundromat. Anybody around that can validate this?"

Can anyone remember their favorite soul/rock tunes that were played at the first citywide Gay-In ( & 3rd Gay Lib dance ) at the Coliseum in April 1970?

Future historians take note: The memory section in this column contains just that—Memories!—and are only to be used as a starting point for your research. Send your stories to Sukie de la Croix at Outlines. He also interviews over the phone or by e-mail sukiedelacroix@iname.coy

What a Difference A Gay Makes

The Gay/Lesbian Movement, 5, 10, 15 & 20 Years Ago

April 30-May 6

1995: 5 Years Ago

U.S.: Lea DeLaria says: "Lesbians rarely, if ever, partake in casual sex, preferring to play softball instead. I try to get laid anyway. I am hormonally propelled to try. Not because I'm Italian, but because I'm a 36-year-woman in her sexual peak. That means that my vagina is like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. It is constantly growing and saying, "Feed me, FEED ME." t China: With the Chinese government blocking groups that represent lesbians, women from Tibet and Taiwan and other groups, lesbian activists are fighting to increase their visibility at the non-government organization forum being held in conjunction with the United National Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. t Britain: George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, dismisses suggestions that the Church of England is moving toward accepting homosexual relationships as equal to marriage. t Germany: The Green party demand that the government apologize to gays arrested between 1935 and 1969 under a Nazi-era law that banned homosexuality. t Canada: An Ontario Court clears the way for four lesbian couples to adopt children, in what may be a landmark decision in Canada. Judge Paul Nevins said the definition of "spouse" was discriminatory. Each case involved couples in which one of the women was the biological parent of the children. t West Bank: Three Palestinian men kidnap a 51 year old man from his shop and shoot him in the legs six times because they believe he is gay.

1990: 10 Years Ago

U.S.: Fitness trainer and former Colt model Paul Barresi "outs" John Travolta in an interview with the National Enquirer. t Janis Ian heads out on tour to promote her new album, "Revenge." t Lesbians in the Washington D.C. area form a group called the Mautner Project for Lesbians with Cancer. The group takes its name from attorney and activist Mary-Helen Mautner, who died of cancer in 1989. Mautner urged before her death that a support system be established for lesbians with cancer like those available to people with AIDS. t Harvey Gantt, a Black pro-gay Democrat wins the Democratic primary in North Carolina and will oppose Republican Senator Jesse Helms in the November elections.

1985: 15 Years Ago

U.S.: Karen Thompson continues her battle to retain visitation rights to lover Sharon Kowalski, who was paralyzed in a car accident. In order to keep visitation rights, Thompson first had to prove there has been a sexual relationship between the two, weathering charges of molestation from Kowalski's parents. t Congress approves $10.4 million for HTLV-III testing sites away from blood centers. t Penthouse Forum buy the rights to publish part of the book, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. t Belle Glade, Fla., reportedly has the highest rate of AIDS in the world—at the time 31 cases per 20,000 people. t Quarantine is discussed by California health officials for a man who continues to have sex since he was diagnosed with AIDS.

1980: 20 Years Ago

U.S.: In Newport, Va., a Ft. Eustis soldier, Sgt. Mony Ali, 25, is charged with oral sodomy on two men in his platoon while they were sleeping. t In Providence, R.I., U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Pettine overrules the objections of Cumberland High school officials and states that 18-year-old Aaron Fricke should be allowed to take a male date to his senior prom. t William Oliver, 38, of Tyson's Corner, Va., commits suicide after being arrested for engaging in a sexual act in a men's room in a department store.


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