The Wonderful World of Wanzie: A brief history of Orlando’s queer nightlife

Miniver was her actual first name but she went by her middle name, Sue. All the way back in 1983 the woman known to most as Sue Hanna opened Orlando’s first lesbian bar called Faces.

Faces was situated in the Lee Rd.-Edgewater Dr. area just a stone’s throw from the currently operating Hank’s. Sue would later open a much larger, multi-level, multi-bar entertainment complex known as Key Largo which was situated way up the Orange Blossom Trail just south of Apopka. Both of Sue’s bars operated primarily as gathering spots for queer women. For years men were routinely barred from entering Faces while Key Largo provided a more welcoming space for all members of Orlando’s burgeoning gay community. Actor-producer David Lee as well as Theater Downtown proprietor Frank Hilgenberg presented many fully produced shows in the barn-shaped Key Largo.

I have many fond memories connected with both of Sue’s spaces — neither of which are operational today — and it strikes me how few people who currently enjoy mingling with a healthy mix of persons represented by every letter of the LGBTQ+ moniker — at one of the very few remaining specifically gay bars remaining in town — have no knowledge of so many of our once many gay and lesbian establishments which were simultaneously operating throughout the greater Orlando area.

For persons of a certain age this column may serve as a walk down memory lane while younger readers may find it to be more of a tutorial on Orlando gay bar history. In either case, with our annual Come Out With Pride celebration fast approaching, I was struck with a wisp of nostalgia for a time when venturing out in O-Town for an evening of queer nightlife was filled with options and those options were scattered all over the greater Orlando landscape.

While not making any attempt to present a historically or chronologically accurate timeline with regards to when these places operated it is my hope that these random recollections of the many gay watering holes which I was privileged to patronize back in the day, might be of some interest to my readers.

As is the case with most people my age, my first foray into gay Orlando nightlife was the Parliament House. But to the best of my recollection the first gay bar in Orlando was a second-floor, hole-in-the-wall drag bar located at Pine St. and Magnolia Ave. in downtown Orlando known as the Diamond Head.

Diamond Head ceased to operate once Bill Miller and Michael Hodge converted a failed mainstream Motor Inn complex known as The Parliament House into “The world’s largest all gay entertainment complex” round about 1975.

I first came upon PH in the late ‘70s and it was not uncommon in subsequent years to follow up an evening at PH with a short drive south down the trail to the “After Hours Bottle Club” known as the Palace. Here one could bring in your own bottle of liquor and hand it over to the bartender who put your name on it, and thus when you ordered a drink it was being poured from your own previously purchased bottle and as such you were not making an illegal after-hours purchase of alcohol but rather you were being charged for the bar-provided mixers.

In that same complex was a men’s leather bar called the Loading Dock and in time it would also host the first location of Wylde’s, which would later move to two different addresses on Orange Ave. just south of downtown Orlando.

In the Winter Park/Aloma area there was the Phoenix Club and later Flamingo Lounge. Both were rather nondescript intimate spaces which offered dancing and drag shows.

In a strip plaza in the Rosemont area of town was a small neighborhood gay bar called Little Orphan Andy’s which became popular for its underwear nights and the occasional foot fetish party.

In the Fern Park area was a spacious dance club created from several freight train boxcars known as Plantation Station. It was one the first bars to put an emphasis on music videos and featured over-the-dance-floor projection screens which showed homo erotic movie clips, movie musical production numbers and occasionally Bugs Bunny in drag.

Down the street and around the corner from the Parliament House on Colonial Dr. — where a Dollar General store now operates — there was a large gay dance club known as Port Au Prince. It had previously been The Dancing Waters Restaurant and would go on to become a Sizzler Steakhouse for a time.

North of PH on OBT was a tiny dive bar, Connections, situated along the railroad tracks just south of Fairvilla Megastore but on the opposite side of the street. Patrons were treated to free shots whenever a train passed by.

Further up the trail, in the space now occupied by Griller’s, was a very popular gay bar that catered to the raver crowd. Empire Club offered lots of comfy sofa seating adjacent to the dance floor, with state-of-the-art lighting and a steady stream of techno, trance and house music of the gay anthem sort.

There was another bar called Connection (Not associated with the aforementioned Connections on the Trail) which operated not far from what would eventually become Pulse nightclub. Connection was unique at the time because they offered a food menu and although it was a gay bar it enjoyed a loyal following of straight medical professionals looking to let their hair down after a shift at one of the area hospitals or doctor offices.

For quite some time The Full Moon Saloon, a bar with a dedicated country western flair, operated next door to PH. The independently-owned Saloon was connected to PH via an off-the-trail walkway, maintained for years as a courtesy to the patrons of both establishments. This facilitated easy and safe passage between the two places. Full moon was famous for its outdoor on-the-deck line dancing and also for the tiny hole in it’s high rustic-beamed roof above the main bar which acted as a sun-dial, beaming a tight circle of happy hour light onto the bar top where, based on its position, the more seasoned bartenders could tell you the time.

A few blocks to the East on Orange Ave. was Club Firestone, situated in the historic Firestone building which now operates as Vanguard. Club Firestone was significant if for no other reason than this was where Orlando’s LGBTQ+ community was first introduced to Miss Sammy. Sam and Mary Singhaus created Miss Sammy with just a few hours’ notice when Sam was asked at the 11th hour to sub in for Frito Lay who couldn’t make it to host her weekly Drag Race competition. Sam showed up as Miss Sammy for that one night and was so loved by the audience, they demanded her return, and thus an enduring drag legend was born.

Most unique and daring for the time was Peter Scott’s. This was a very nice upscale fine dining establishment situated in the Longwood Village on SR 434 at I-4. In addition to a gay owner-operator who played table-hoping host who happily explained the “specials” on the al a carte menu of steaks, chops and seafood, there was often an added entertainment charge as the establishment routinely operated as a super club featuring nationally renowned gay entertainers ranging from recording artists and celebrity impersonators to popular gay puppeteer Jay and His Hollywood Hopefuls.

Long before my decade-plus long stint as theatrical manager of the Footlight Theater at the Parliament House I served as the entertainment director and emcee of the weekly weekend variety shows offered at Uncle Walt’s.

Uncle Walt’s was the first ever gay bar to operate in the tourist corridor situated at the north factory outlets end of International Dr. “The Kitchen Queen,” as the cook was affectionally called, was one of my first connections to the trans community. The club featured a dance floor, food available at all times, a daily piano bar happy hour and the very popular weekend variety shows, which in addition to a featured singer with live accompaniment also included a novelty act or two such as a gay improv group or an Uncle Walt’s favorite: comedic magician Bev Bergeron, who had been a beloved regular cast member of the then recently defunct Diamond Horseshoe Revue at Disney’s Magic Kingdom park.

Finally, the historic San Juan Hotel, located on Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando, was converted into to gay hotel in the late ‘70s I believe. This presented the first real head-to-head competition to the Parliament House at that time. In addition to overnight accommodations the hotel featured a disco, a restaurant and a lower-level conversation bar called “P’s Parlor” where patrons were welcome to simply sit and visit with “Miss P” of Parliament House fame. Yes, for a short time, the grand damme of the Parliament House (predecessor to Darcel Stevens) had been lured away by the competition. That is until the thriving new venue fell victim to an arson’s match and burned down to the ground under mysterious circumstances and amid widespread speculation that the fire had been arranged by the owners of the Parliament House. Those allegations were never proved, but the post-fire result was the return of Miss P to the Parliament House along with all her fans – including me.

I have no idea who set that fire – or at least that is my official stance. But I remain grateful that the Parliament House thrived for as long as it did as its Footlight Theater played host to my theatrical productions through three sets of owners spanning nearly 40 years.

Of course, Studz on Edgewater has survived, along with my beloved Savoy Orlando and serval incarnations of Southern Nights. And I remember when Saint Matthews on Mills originated as the Silver Hammer complete with a bar top decoupaged with photos of men fucking and sucking one another, which would often come as a rather unpleasant surprise to unsuspecting truckers — who stopped in to avoid rush hour traffic — once their eyes adjusted to the dim lighting after walking in from the mid-afternoon sun.

Fun times.

Michael Wanzie is an Orlando-based playwright, actor and ordained minister. He is most recognized for his direction of productions in the Central Florida area.

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