TagTess Wheeler

Sunset Strip Nightclub Owner Jane Jones in 1938 B-Movie, ‘Port of Missing Girls’

Jane Jones singing in "Port of Missing Girls"

Jane Jones singing in “Port of Missing Girls”

This blurry still is from the video of the B movie “Port of Lost Girls,” from 1938 — see the video below the fold. The film offers a rare view of Jane Jones, proprietor of Jane Jones’ Little Club at 8740 Sunset Blvd., one of two lesbian-centric nightclubs on the Sunset Strip — the other was Cafe Internationale, at 8711 Sunset Blvd., owned by Elmer and Tess Wheeler — mentioned in Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons.

Faderman and Timmons describe the womens’ nightclubs on the as “in the tradition of the upscale nightclub, and they promoted an exotic glamour, much like the lesbian bars of Weimar Berlin.” Jones, they said, “was a big woman with a basso profundo voice who’d been a signer in movie musicals.”

(Read more about Jane Jones’ Little Club here and the closing of Tess Wheeler’s Cafe Internationale by the Navy during World War II here.)

Here’s the movie:

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Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons

Before World War II, there were quite a few nightclubs on the Sunset Strip where gay people were welcomed and accepted — which is not to say these were gay bars as we know them today. There are quite a few references to the presence of gays and lesbians on the Strip back then in Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons — including performers Bruz Fletcher and Rae Bourbon and club owners Jane Jones and Tess Wheeler.

Kirkus Review:

An exceptionally literate, overstuffed chronicle of gay Tinseltown.
In alternating sections on Los Angeles lesbians and gay men, historian Faderman (Naked in the Promised Land, 2003, etc.) and freelance journalist Timmons, respectively, deliver an exhaustive account. Beginning in the 1880s, both groups migrated in droves from less liberal locales to freewheeling, anonymous Southern California, and a supportive, unified community emerged even as laws against sodomy and “masquerading” (i.e., cross-dressing) kept guard over the city’s bedrooms. These enterprising pioneers were soon followed by vaudeville exiles who flocked to Hollywood and built its entertainment foundation. Post-Prohibition nightclubs catered to such “sexually flexible” entertainers as Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney and Mae West…
Vital intellectual fare brimming with fascinating history.

Publisher’s Description:

The exhortation to “Go West!” has always sparked the American imagination. But for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people, the City of Angels provided a special home and gave rise to one of the most influential gay cultures in the world. Drawing on rare archives and photographs as well as more than three hundred interviews, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons chart L.A.’s unique gay history, from the first missionary encounters with Native American cross-gendered “two spirits” to cross-dressing frontier women in search of their fortunes; from the bohemian freedom of early Hollywood to the explosion of gay life during World War II to the underground radicalism set off by the 1950s blacklist; and from the 1960s gay liberation movement to the creation of gay marketing in the 1990s.

For more info: University of California Press

1942: Navy Bans Gay Clubs

Building at 8711 Sunset Blvd, site of Cafe Internationale, as it appears today; inset: Rae Bourbon

Building at 8711 Sunset Blvd, site of Cafe Internationale, as it appears today; inset: Rae Bourbon

During World War II, thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen on their way to the Pacific theater were granted their last stateside leaves in Los Angeles. Many of them headed out to the local bars to blow off steam, of course. But in June 1942, the Navy took the unusual action of placing about 30 bars and nightclubs across the city off limits to sailors.

“These taverns and bars are not safe or proper places for servicemen to patronize,” a Naval commander told the Times. “Firm handling is necessary to eliminate that undesirable fringe of the industry.” The precise nature of the unsafe and improper activities going on in these night spots was left unstated — but it must have been pretty bad if the Navy felt the need to protect sailors from it, especially since the Navy was sending these same men off to risk their lives in the Midway, Guadalcanal and other death traps in the Pacific.

There is one possible clue, however. Two of the clubs were on the Sunset Strip — Chez Boheme at 8950 Sunset Blvd. [map] and Cafe Internationale at 8711 Sunset Blvd. [map] — both of which were, using today’s term, “gay friendly.” (Gay bars as we know them today — clubs that cater to gay men or women — were a post-war phenomenon.)

The star attraction at Chez Boheme that summer was Rae Bourbon, a female impersonator and one of the last big stars of the Prohibition era “Pansy Craze.” Cafe Internationale, on the other hand, was owned and operated by Elmer and Tess Wheeler and catered to women. As the 1940 guidebook, “How to Sin in Hollywood” put it:

When Your Urge’s Mauve, [go to] the Café International on Sunset Boulevard. The location offered supper, drinks, and the ability to watch boy-girls who necked and sulked and little girl customers who… look like boys.

Like Chez Boheme, Cafe Internationale offered cross-dressing performers, but these singers were women dressed in male drag — two who were quite well-known then were billed as Tommy Williams and Jimmy Renard. According to historian Lillian Faderman, co-author with Stuart Timmons of Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians, Marlene Dietrich was in the crowd at Cafe Internationale when Tommy Williams performed one night.

As a result of the Navy ban, state authorities revoked the liquor licenses for Chez Boheme and Cafe Internationale. A new club, the Starlit Room, opened in the Chez Boheme space three years later, and Rae Bourbon returned there for a six-month run. Cafe Internationale owner Elmer Wheeler sued in 1942 to have the license reinstated, but he died that December and the club closed for good. His widow Tess opened another club later and became a fixture, along with her partner Sylvia Reiff (who was said to look like Radclyffe Hall), in the burgeoning Los Angeles lesbian scene after the war.

1936: Upscale Lesbian Nightclub

Jane Jones as she appeared in "Port of Lost Girls" in 1938; inset: newspaper ad for her nightclub on the Sunset Strip

Jane Jones as she appeared in “Port of Lost Girls” in 1938; inset: newspaper ad for her nightclub on the Sunset Strip

Bars catering to gay women were rare in the first half of the 20th century, but there were at least two on the Sunset Strip that were open in tandem for a while — Jane Jones’ Little Club, at 8730 Sunset Blvd. [map showing approximate site], which operated from 1936 to 1939, and Cafe Internationale, across the street at 8711 Sunset [map], which opened around 1936 and closed in 1942. (Read more about Cafe Internationale and its owner, Tess Wheeler, here.) Both clubs were shut down by the state liquor board, although for different reasons.

According to GAY LA: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, “The eponymous Jane Jones was a big woman with a basso profundo voice who’d been a singer in movie musicals.” (See Jones’ performance acting and singing in “The Port of Missing Girls, from 1938, here.)

Jane Jones was born in Pennsylvania, made her singing debut at age five in Colorado, and moved to Los Angeles in 1916, at age 27. The next year, she married Lloyd A. MacBeth. She later joined the Orpheum Circuit and was soon a popular vaudeville act. In the 1920s, Jones left the circuit and began appearing nightly at the famous Vernon Country Club, south of Downtown Los Angeles. Jones, a large woman, appeared on the same bill with two male comic singers, advertised collectively as “the half ton of melody.” A news release from the club read, “In keeping with [club manager] Bill Paine’s theory of gaiety that entertainment should carry some ‘weight,’ Miss Jones tops the scales at 235 pounds of personality and harmony…”

After Jane Jones’s Little Club opened on the Strip in May 1936, an item in the Times noted that “Jane Jones’ new night spot is getting a big play from the film colonites.” Although there’s no online record of her divorce from Lloyd MacBeth, around this time, if not before, Jane apparently married the club’s co-owner, Raymond P. Babcock.

In September 1939, the club was raided by the sheriff’s vice squad. According to the Times, “Quietly entering the cafe with five deputies, Capt. George Contreras, head of the sheriff’s vice squad, dispersed the orchestra and 50 well-dressed guests before making the arrests. Capt. Contreras reported that liquor assertedly was being sold after legal hours.” The club’s liquor license was revoked two months later.

Jones never ventured into the nightclub business again. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, she appeared in 12 films, according to IMDB.com, including the 1938 “Port of Missing Girls,” which can be viewed here online. Jones also continued to perform in nightclubs, including the Melody Room on the Strip and many other venues around town.

When she died in January 1962 at age 73, the Times identified her as Jane Jones Babcock and said she “sang for many years on the Orpheum and Pantages vaudeville circuits and appeared in a number of motion picture musicals”–and that she had been the proprietor of Jane Jones’ Little Club on the Sunset Strip. The obituary said she had been ill for five months and died at the home she shared with her aunt, Mrs. Sally Hadler, at 327 N. Sycamore Ave.