I celebrated my 21st birthday in 1957 with my first partner Ernie Gilbert at the Flame Show Baron Brush Street, in the heart of Detroit’s thriving Negro community.
The Flame was “a black and tan club,” allowing for the mingling of races; “tan” being a euphemism for white. The attraction that memorable coming-of-age evening was the famed Jewel Box Review.
The Jewel Box Review, an internationally known drag show of 30 female impersonators – including the notorious Rae Bourbon, and one drag king, black Stormy Devereau – kicked off its high heels in 1939.
Ernie and I had corresponded for months, and he returned from Miami, when I told him the New York Central Railroad was hiring. (Back then its building housed 14 floors of busy thriving offices. Today it’s Matty Moroun’s skeletal legacy to Detroit).
I left Harper Hospital along with several other OR Techs for more money, more benefits, seniority opportunities. (After Ernie was hired, we’d occasionally meet on the 13th floor, exchange physical pleasantries – chaste kisses – among the ten thousands of dusty freight waybills sequestered for storage and retrieval.)
With Ernie my gay life changed dramatically. For the three years we were together we were Mutt-and-Jeff inseparable. We didn’t frequent gay bars and I gradually stopped going to the Hub Grill and Mama’s where gay teenagers hung out.
Truth be known, I wasn’t comfortable hanging around with “flamers” – Estralita, The Empress, Marshmallow, Miss Bruce, Greta Go-Get-it!, Miss Dumplin’ – who were flagrant, middle-finger, swishes. (Looking back: their no-choice flamboyance provided cover for us closeted sissies.)
Ernie was Jewish, 23, shorter than me. His head of curly black hair measured up to my skinny shoulder. His father, Sam, was a physician. His mother, who lived to be 100, from Poland. (A cousin survived the Holocaust, bearing a tattooed concentration camp number on his arm.) I -longah lutche – “long noodle” – quickly learned Yiddish phrases of endearment.
Ernie had been a ballet dancer, studying with Detroit’s Sandra Severo Ballet Company, a company that placed many dancers in American Ballet Theater. He was also a classically trained pianist, soon resuming lessons with Evelyn Gervitch, who had studied with famous French concert pianist Robert Casadesus.
Ernie took me to a variety of cultural events. I saw my first foreign film (somehow managing to keep up with the subtitles), attended symphony concerts, ballets (delighting to see male dancers in tights), started listening to his classical 33-1/3 LP record collection. (My first favorite: Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto.)
My own music taste (if it might be called that) had been Country & Western (“When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again”), Rhythm & Blues (“Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Clawdy”). As for dance rhythms: as a teen I roller skated three nights weekly at the Arcadia Roller Rink, including Sunday’s mostly black, fast-paced sessions. I was benny hip on wheels.
Things changed further when Ernie became Wayne University Collegian music critic, seen with – hush, hush, rumored younger, same-sex love interest. It was a freebie education for me. I listened. I learned. It became a saving grace for me in the long run.