Pre-Punk History of Bookie’s Club 870

From Cliff Bell’s to Beauchamp’s

Cliff Bell’s Six-Mile Want Ad in the February 26th, 1943 of the Detroit Free Press

After success with several venues stretching back to the Prohibition era in Detroit, Cliff Bell opened his namesake jazz supper club on Park Avenue near Grand Circus Park in July 1935. In September 1941, “Bell has broken ground for a new place to be build in the North End”, the Detroit Free Press reported. At some point in Spring 1942, the second location dubbed “Cliff Bell’s Six-Mile” due to its location at 870 W. McNichols.

In August 1942, the Free Press notes that zoot suit wearing manager Joe Beauchamp “…carries it with aplomb, savoir faire and je ne sais quoi.” By July 1946, the manager had purchased the place from his boss naming it Beauchamp’s.

Enter The “Gagen” 

By the time the Detroit Free Press wrote about Frank Gagen and his orchestra in 1935 it was noted his band had already been a popular draw in the city since the late 1920s. Born in 1903, the West Burlington, Iowa native, Frank Gahegan started with nine-piece bands in his teens playing on cruise ships on the Mississippi River. By 1928, he was playing in Detroit on the Tashmoo excursion steamer and, at the urging of a friend, simplified his last name from Gahegan to Gagen.

During this period in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gagen and his band played shows at various bars and supper clubs throughout the city as well as interesting alternative venues such as the Bob-Lo boat.

Frank Gagen
Frank Gagen backs up a Trained Seal – January 18th, 1937 ad (Detroit Free Press)

Among the notable shows during his time, Gagen even backed up a trained seal named “Buddy” in 1937. By the mid/late-1930s, Gagen would often play for Cliff Bell at the proprietor’s Commodore Club as well as Bell’s later namesake club near Grand Circus Park. Gagen eventually became the bandleader at Cliff Bell’s, starting a business relationship with the club owner that would last over 20 years.

Frank Gagen's Opens
Frank Gagen opens his own club – December 22nd, 1958 ad (Detroit Free Press)

In late September 1958, the Detroit Free Press reported Gagen and Bell were to become business partners in the downtown club. Less than two months later, November 1958, the Detroit Free Press updated the story. Whatever happened around talk of a partnership was not reported, but Gagan and his wife, “with no other partners” the paper noted, purchased Joe Beauchamp’s spot at 870 W. McNichols. Since there is no additional reporting available, and is mostly likely lost to time, one can speculate that either the discussions between the bar owner and his long time band leader didn’t go well or Gagen simply decided he’s rather own his own club. Either way, the sale was still connected to Cliff Bell’s history since Gagen’s new club was Bell’s old one on Six Mile and was owned, at the time of sale, by Bell’s former club manager.

Frank Gagen’s club opened on December 22nd, 1958.

The band leader/proprietor ran the club until 1966.

“Don’t anyone feel sorry me when I die – I had a great life.” – opening text of Gagen’s Detroit Free Press obit published February 14th, 1966.

His obituary noted Gagen had been ill with an undisclosed condition for about two years before he died, although he still managed to run his namesake club with the vigor of someone “desperate to make the track team.” Gagen died on February 13th, 1966 at the age of 63.

Detroit Free Press Ad for Frank Gagen’s – May 1959

Following his death, the long time manager at Cliff Bell’s, Hank Young, took over management duties at Frank Gagen’s until the club was eventually sold.

Bookie Before Bookie’s Club 870

After managing and owning a series of bars that catered to the gay community in Detroit since the 1940s, Samuel “Bookie” Stewart purchased Frank Gagen’s in 1970. While he kept the sign out front, the matchbooks on the bar said “Bookie’s Club 870”.

Samuel "Bookie" Stewart
Samuel “Bookie” Stewart (circa 1979) – Photo by Joe Sposita

“Gagen’s”, as some regulars called it, catered to the area’s gay population. By the 1970s, Palmer Park was something of a “gayborhood” but it never reached the density of Chicago’s “Boy’s Town”, New York’s “Chelsea” or San Francisco’s “Castro” neighborhoods. The working class houses and apartment blocks of Palmer Park proved to be a stop for many in Detroit’s gay community before heading a few miles north up Woodward Avenue to the neighboring suburbs of Ferndale and Royal Oak in the 1980s.

According to some who knew him well, Samuel Stewart received his nickname, “Bookie”, because he had been an illegal bookmaker during Prohibition. But by 1942, Stewart was a legitimate businessman. He bought a bar with his brother-in-law called “The Silver Dollar” on Farmer Street just northeast of where Detroit’s Campus Martius Park is today. Much like “Gagen’s” 30 years later, “The Silver Dollar” became a meeting place for Detroit’s gay community.

This was a time when gay people not only faced harassment by police, but often faced prosecution. The same was also possible for bar owners.  A 1948 state law made it illegal for anyone to knowingly make their establishment “a rendezvous for homosexuals”. The law remained on the books until 1979. There are stories in the mid-1960s that some bar owners paid off the Detroit Police in order to operate and keep serving their gay customers.

If you’d like to hear more about the evolution of the gay bar scene and the gay community in Detroit, take a listen to the interview clips below with Tim Retzloff, PhD – Associate Professor at Michigan State University in LGBTQ Studies and History. Retzloff has done extensive interviews and study into gay life in Detroit throughout the post-WWII period.

By 1962 Stewart would open another bar, “The Diplomat”. Located on Second Avenue near the Fisher Building in the New Center, “The Diplomat” would also cater to the gay community. By the late 1950s, Stewart was offering entertainment for his customers. Female impersonator shows featuring elegant performances by dolled up men were brought in from New York City. Those would be among the first drag shows in Detroit. By the late 1960s, “The Diplomat” was burned, Bookie’s partner in the business was arrested for arson but the charges were dropped. It reopened briefly, without Bookie’s partner, and closed by 1970 opening the way for Stewart to buy Frank Gagen’s in Palmer Park.

In the early-mid 1970s, Frank Gagen’s was known as a place where men could dress in drag without concern. Also, like most gay bars through the decades, it became a place were straight women would often frequent to dance and have fun without having to worry about men tying to pick them up all night. A story told by regulars at the time was that Freddie Mercury stopped in when Queen played in Detroit.

“Godfather of Gay Detroit”

Upon his retirement from the bar business 1982, Bookie was called the “Godfather of Gay Detroit” by those interviewed in “CRUISE”, a local gay magazine. Stewart was acknowledged for his importance to gay Detroit because he was seen as someone who welcomed their business, offered entertainment and became an intermediary at times between the community and the police. During the pre-Stonewall era, it was not uncommon for gays to be arrested, beaten and mistreated by the authorities.

If you’d like to hear more about Samuel “Bookie” Stewart and his career as a bar owner, take a listen to the interview clips below. They are from a conversation in 2018 with Tim Retzloff, PhD – Associate Professor at Michigan State University in LGBTQ Studies and History. Retzloff has done extensive interviews and study into gay life in Detroit throughout the post-WWII period.

Gary Mamrot, a 15-year employee of Stewart’s, told “CRUISE” that “There are a lot of people in this town who owe him a lot, in more ways than one. He respects each customer, sits and talks with them. He honestly doesn’t consider himself above them like some bar people can sometimes. You really can’t name names, but he has bailed a lot of people out with advice, and when they needed it, cash.” Bookie is also credited with training up the next era of club owners who would also cater the gay community in Palmer Park and beyond.

In the article, Stewart says he decided to retire from the bar business at the age of 72 at the urging of his wife of 50 years, Betty. The pair planned to travel and enjoy their golden years together.

One can understand that retirement took on added importance following Stewart’s batter with cancer a few years earlier. That’s when throat cancer claimed his larynx, led to a tracheotomy, and caused him to speak in a gruff “Donald Duck”-like way.

Samuel “Bookie” Stewart passed away on March 19th, 1984 at the age of 74.

Punk Rock Arrives at 870 W. McNichols

While The Ramones (first album – April 1976), The Damned (“New Rose” single – October 1976), and The Sex Pistols (“Anarchy in the U.K.” single – November 1976) announced something new was dawning, it would take until early 1977 for the first Detroit punk bands to get their footing and early 1978 before a scene started to coalesce around a stable venue allowing for creative expression of the bands.

When the punk rock kids showed up at Stewart’s door in early 1978 his main focus was on the bar he christened after his nickname “Bookie’s Club 870”. “Frank Gagen’s” had once been an elegant 1930s art deco supper club and a destination for a fashionable dining and entertainment experience. By the late 1970s some of the original fixtures were still intact, although a bit worn and showing their age. Along on wall of the room was the bar. At the rear, a raised dance floor and a stage. Over the seating area was a recessed gold leaf ceiling shimmering in the light and throughout the room circular red leather booths offered elegant seating although many of the cushions were held together with tape.

Meanwhile, in 1977 there were few places for up and coming bands to play original music according to Scott Campbell.

The founder of the Detroit punk band The Sillies says if he wanted to play original music he could sometimes get a one-night only, often one-time only, gig at a shady bar that didn’t often have signage, regular business hours or front doors. There was also places like the Red Carpet on Detroit’s east side and the Second Chance in Ann Arbor offering some opportunities for young plans to play their own music. But, it was still very limited. Campbell says the situation was frustrating and unsustainable for anyone trying to do original music.

Following a few local bands that were booked in for late February/early March, including the Motor City Revue featuring The Traitors, Campbell was able to get his band into Bookie’s Club 870 in late March 1978. Vince Bannon, Campbell’s bandmate in The Sillies, says Andy Peabody of Coldcock and himself approached Bookie about booking the venue. Through Bannon, Peabody, and Campbell’s efforts, the Detroit Punk scene began to develop around the venue on West McNichols.

At first Bookie allowed Campbell and Bannon to book music just a few nights a week. But, within a year, once he saw how profitable it was, Bookie expanded the calendar to cover Wednesday through Sunday. By 1980, Bookie’s Club 870 would have a band on its stage almost every night of the week, showcasing local and internationally known acts on the rise.

The roster of local bands included The Sillies, The Denizens, The Pigs, The Mutants, Flirt, RUR, Nikki and The Corvettes, Cinecyde, The Ramrods, Coldcock, The 27, Sirius Trixton and The Motor City Bad Boys, Destroy All Monsters, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, Algebra Mothers, The Seatbelts, The Cult Heroes, The Boners, The Romantics, and more.

The roster of national and international acts included Iggy Pop, Pere Ubu, Ultravox, The Police, John Cale, The Dead Boys, The Cramps, 999, The Damned, Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers, J. Geils, to name a few.

Campbell and Bannon booked the shows at Bookie’s Club 870 together until they had a falling out late 1979. At that time, Bannon took over booking at the club until New Years Eve 1982 when he started Clutch Cargo’s at the Women’s City Club near Grand Circus Park. Then in later in 1982, Bannon moved his booking operations to St. Andrew’s Hall.

The changes at Bookie’s Club 870 coincided with several changes in music, culture and, even, the law at the time as the drinking age nationally went from 18 to 21 making it harder for younger people, without a fake ID, to get into clubs.

Bookie’s Calendar – September 1981 (Courtesy of Kevin Knapp)

By 1980-1981, punk was mutating. One division often dubbed “new wave” which incorporated more pop and electronic sounds. Also around the same time, another sound of punk music started to bubble up from the underground called hardcore. Hardcore was faster, louder, and more striped down, distilled version of the first wave of punk rock. Bands like Minor Threat, The Necros, Black Flag, Bad Brains, The Misfits, Negative Approach, The Meatmen, and others often wrote songs that were not as melodic as the first wave punks but they were rhythmically intense and short. It was not uncommon for hardcore songs to be under two minutes and, at times, even less than a minute. By 1981, many hardcore acts started to appear at Bookie’s Club 870 as the original bands on the scene started to move to Clutch Cargo’s, Todd’s and other clubs around Detroit that saw the value of booking bands playing original music.

As the scene changed, some in the Bookie’s Club 870’s scene also pointed to the change in drug use for its possible demise. As marijuana and alcohol gave way to cocaine and heroin, for some people, the focus seemed to shift away from partying and having a good time to how behavior changed as some on the scene developed serious dependency issues.

After Bookie retired in 1982, and died in 1984, the club continued to limp along booking mostly hardcore bands and other rock acts.

In 1990, the art deco supper club that became a mecca for the gay community and Detroit’s punk rock version of CBGB’s burned in a fire. Today, like many well-known places in Detroit, Bookie’s Club 870 it’s a parking lot.

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