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05 August 2013

The Cabin Inn, Chicago

The (Cozy) Cabin Inn opened in 1933 at 3119 Cottage Grove Avenue in Bronzeville, in Chicago's South Side, at the southern side of the Century of Progress fairgrounds. Impersonator Gilda Gray was the hostess, and did an imitation of the fan dance made famous by Sally Rand at the just finished World's Fair. It was owned by Jack Hardy and Nathan "Big" Ivy, who hailed from Arkansas and was a successful entrepreneur friendly with Chicago Negro politicians.

In Summer 1934 the show featured impersonator/blues singer Luzetta Hall and the dance team of Blue and Jean, The Lady and Gentleman of the Carioca. The star was the Brown Mae West (Dick Barrow) – not to be confused with the Sepia Mae West. Nat Ivy placed advertisements in the local newspapers: "When you have seen our Floor Show ... you have seen Chicago at its Best".

In late 1934 and early 1935 Mayor Joseph Kelly had the police clamp down on pansy and lesbian bars in the Near North Side but left Bronzeville alone. White patrons who enjoyed this type of entertainment started going to Bronzeville.
In October 1935 the Cabin Inn hosted a double wedding: that of midget dancer "Bullfrog Shorty” to Muriel Borsack, and that of impersonator Jean Acker and Vernon Long. Luzetta Hall was Jean's bridesmaid and guests came from as far away as Philadelphia and Indianapolis. It is said that Alfred Finnie took inspiration from this event in founding the Finnie's Balls which started that year. However the police came and closed the club. The impersonators were given a choice: "put on your pants or go to jail with the management".

The Inn was open again within a week, allegedly having paid bribes. The police returned in December and cited the Cabin Inn for violating its entertainment license. Barrow had a gig in Los Angeles and quickly went to it.

The Chicago Defender reported December 21 that twelve had been arrested: the two owners, two bartenders, the floodlight operator and seven female impersonators, three working at the Cabin Inn and four guests. In South State Street Court Judge Eugene McGarry dismissed all the charges: "The testimony does not show any specific violations of ordinance ... It appears that these men were dressed in female clothes. The testimony shows that it was a masquerade party. Female impersonators appear on stage every day. In the absence of any such testimony I have no choice but to find the defendants not guilty and that will be the order."

The Cabin Inn re-opened with Varieties of 1935, featuring a team of impersonators led by Valda Gray. In 1938 The Cabin Inn relocated to 3520 South State Street, still with Valda Gray.

By 1940 Nat Ivy had run out of influential friends and lost his entertainment licence.
  • Chad C Heap. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2007: 94-6.
  • St. Sukie De la Croix. Chicago Whispers A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012: 146-8, 152.
  • Tristan Cabello. "Queer Bronzeville: African American LGBTs on Chicago's South Side, 1900-1985: The emergence of African-American queer cultures on Chicago's South Side, 1920-1940". Windy City Times, 2012-02-29. www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Queer-Bronzeville-African-American-LGBTs-on-Chicagos-South-Side-1900-1985/36389.html.
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Heap says that the Inn was originally called the Cozy Cabin Inn and changed its name in 1935 when it relocated to South State Street.  De la Croix says nothing about ‘Cozy’ and has the move to South State Street in 1938.   De la Croix says that the December trial was re the October wedding;  Heap implies that it was re the December raid.

De la Croix makes some odd stylistic choices for a gay man.  He describes Bullfrog Shorty’s wedding as genuine without any quotes, but does put quotes around Luzetta being Jean’s “bridesmaid”.

We are not told if the marriage of "Bullfrog Shorty” to Muriel Borsack was registered with the State of Illinois. 

1 comment:

genevieve said...

I enjoyed reading this post. Chicago was a progressive place for TGLB people and is ahead of my city here in New York.