Jim Flint arrived in the city in 1965 and for the next few years worked as a bartender at several establishments including the Chesterfield, 2831 N. Clark St., and the Annex, 2865 N. Clark St. By 1968, Clark and Division had become the place to be for gay nightlife, with half a dozen gay taverns nearby. Flint by that year was tending bar at one of the most popular gay establishments in the area, Sam's, 1205 N. Clark St.
NOTE: In this special issue devoted to 1968 see personal stories of the year at the links below.
He was first arrested in 1965 in a raid at the Annex, so by 1968, he was no stranger to police harassment. Flint recalled, "Raids were terrible all through the 1960s. Sometimes the police would hit two or three bars a night. I think overall I was arrested 15 times, usually for being the keeper of a disorderly house or for soliciting for prostitution. All the charges were false, of course. If the police saw a man touching another man, they would arrest both of them for public indecency. But in all those arrests, never once was I found guilty. I remember one time I was arrested the police officer said, 'I can't believe there's an Irish queer' and I told him, 'Yes I'm Irish and I'm gay.'"
Flint was working at Sam's and living nearby during the riots following the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"The riots lasted about four nights," he recalled. "There were National Guardsmen on the street. I lived at 1100 North LaSalle on the first floor. I was so scared. There was looting and violence. No one knew what was going to happen. Molotov cocktails were being thrown on the street. I nailed wire over my first floor windows so no one could throw a bomb inside. I had some friends over and we just ended up playing cards because we couldn't go out. We even had to play them on the floor and crawl around inside my apartment because we were afraid to stand up in case a stray bullet came through a window."
The violence was a prelude to the rioting that came four months later, during the Democratic National Convention.
Flint said, "One Monday night in August of the same year, police officers came into Sam's to collect their monthly donation. A few days later, the police came in and said we had to close. I said, 'What do you mean we have to close? You got your money.' They said that the order came from downtown; the gay bars had to close during the convention."
Mayor Richard J. Daley was determined to clean up the city for the convention, Flint added. "So we had to close for the duration. I think we were actually closed for a week."
During those tumultuous days in late August 1968, the country and the entire world were shocked at the hatred and violence that erupted on the city's streets and the brutality displayed by the Chicago Police Department. The gay community would not ultimately be a source of shame for Daley, who wanted to showcase the glory of Chicago during the convention; rather, his own police force would.
Shortly thereafter Sam's closed for good. The closure of the bar had nothing to do with the violence or with police harassment; the building had been slated for demolition as part of the property needed for the Sandburg Village development. After the closing, Flint began bartending at the Normandy Inn, 744 N. Rush St., also owned by the Fleischmann brothers, the proprietors of Sam's. "The Normandy was where I started twirling the baton full time at the bar. It was so much fun. Being behind the bar was my stage."
However, Flint's career at the Normandy was relatively short-lived.
"I asked the Fleischmann brothers for a raise at the Normandy because we were only making $55 a week," he recalled. "Of course, we got most of our money in tips. I thought I deserved more money. Like earlier at Sam's, I was the setup man. I always had the highest ring on my register. I was doing the training, the ordering, and the decorating. I spent money for the holiday decorations out of my own pocket. Two of the three owners wanted to give me a raise, but not the third, so I decided that was it."
Flint decided to open his own bar. Although the Baton opened in March of 1969, the wheels were set in motion several months before. When the Baton was first opened, it was at 430 N. Clark Street, in the commercial space just south of its current location at 436 N. Clark.
"The place was cheap," Flint recalled. "The gentleman [Julius Friedman] who I was going to rent the space from was a friend of the Fleischmann brothers, the owners of the Normandy. When my old bosses heard about me looking at the space, they called the landlord and asked why he was renting to me. They said, 'You know he's one of our bartenders. He's going to try and take our business.' And Mr. Friedman said, 'He has the right to make it just like you and I did.' And he ended up renting the space to me."
For the past 49 years, the Baton Show Lounge has been known as one of the leading female impersonation bars in the country, but Flint said that wasn't part of his original business plan, adding, "I wasn't thinking about opening a drag bar. I figured I was just going to open a regular old tavern. But it was so shady down here in the River North area at the time that nobody would come down here. So I figured to get people to come down, we'd have a drag show. We got 16 beer cases and a piece of plywood and a spotlight and we did the show. The drag shows were popular from the start and, from there, it just took off."
The neighborhood has gone through enormous changes in the past decades. "The first year down here almost every night there was a fistfight with the winos and the rough street people. One night coming in to work, a guy pulled a gun on me so I hit him with my bag and ran inside. It was very rough down here back then. Eventually the Gold Coast and the Bistro moved in, then New Flight, and many others."
In less than five years and throughout the '70s, the River North area became the popular neighborhood for gay bars.
When asked about the changes he has seen in the community in the past 50 years Flint reflected, "In those days many of us were closeted and the social conditions weren't as good. Maybe it was because of feeling people were against us, or maybe not, but we were more unified than we are today. We looked after each other. We had to do that if we were going to survive. We let one another know about bar raids and where the police were headed. We banded together and that was why things changed."
View the entire 1968 feature series at these links: