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For five dynamic years — 1940 to 1945 — Detroit was America’s Arsenal of Democracy, a vital source of war materials and weapons. First for England’s defense. Later, for our own.
Automotive factories focused on round-the-clock, nonstop production of bombers, tanks, jeeps, planes. Plumb and popular vocalist Kate Smith kept patriotically singing “God Bless America!”
Soldiers, sailors, marines, WACs — Women’s Army Corps — passed through Detroit before shipping out overseas. Many had been inducted and processed in Quonset huts on Wayne University’s campus. (I took my first English 101 course in 1960 in one of them.)
A result of wartime migration to a big city like Detroit (population 1.3 million) was the unexpected popularity of gay bars. Detroit had four downtown near Old City Hall. (And the First Police Precinct Jail!)
Many small town inductees, stopping off briefly in the Arsenal of Democracy, found to their naive surprise — and secretly, happy relief — that they weren’t the only ones who were “hush, hush” gay! For them it was a golden opportunity. Who knows? We might not be alive tomorrow.
Older gays were quite willing to play host, provide weekend housing, food, drinks, conversation, hugs and — at a time when good gals just didn’t give head — provide friendly lip service to straight servicemen.
As the Allies began to beat the Axis, a mood of cautious celebration took hold in Detroit’s gay bar clubs. Downtown side streets Farmer and Bates, home to Rio Grand, Silver Dollar and LaRosa’s bars, became less secretive. More carefree obvious. (Nearby Palais bar was dyke heaven.)
When Halloween 1944 swished around, the Grand Night of Enchantment became an opportunity for celebration. Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, getting in drag was accomplished without too much hoopla for once a year.
During the war years, Detroit’s non-military gays — those 40 or older, or those classified 4F with “homosexual tendencies” — along with straights who had flat feet (not necessarily because of high heels) kept the home fires burning and factories going 24/7.
These service rejects — no relation to recent biblical “left behinders” — were in a party mood. The war in Europe was winding down. Finally! So, why not celebrate?
What better time than the only day when cross dressing is permitted without penalty, threat of incarceration, or, if your makeup’s thick enough, likelihood of recognition.
The first Halloween display of queens numbered 25 or 30. Those in other costumes, about 50. Some wore rhinestone tiaras and sequin embroidered titles across their ample, canary-seed-filled boobies.
Miss Victory Garden. Red Cross Rita’s Revenge. Rosey Rivet Me. Miss Harry James’s Trumpet (pin-up Betty Grable’s band leader husband). It was great fun. War-relieved and weary cops looked the other way.
Each year after World War II’s end, Halloween was planned to outdo the last. Gatherings grew large. More flamboyant. Sometime in the early ’50s, streets were cordoned off. Hundreds came to see and applaud. “Ooo!” and “Ahh!” at the queens who arrived in convertibles and on roller skates. Everybody behaved.
In 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots, things got out of hand. Rednecks threw rocks. Tossed bottles. Shouted, “FAGS!” Ripped gowns. The party was over. Insulted — and very, very smart — gays moved northward to seemingly safer Diplomat and Woodward bars.
Once home to the Motor City’s first Gay Pride Halloween “Parades,” Farmer and Bates Streets are now bare-assed naked. Silent. Haunted.