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 built 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.

Beauchamp’s Match Book c.1950s (Courtesy of TM Caldwell)

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.

Ad for the Cliff Bell’s with Frank Gagen listed from Guest August 1958 (Courtesy of Dave Toorongian)

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.

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.

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.

Ad for Bookie’s Diplomat from Guest November 1962 (Courtesy of Dave Toorongian)

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.

[Detroit-area underground comic book “Nucleus” created a story about a Punch puppet named “Punkinello” who becomes a punk rock singer at “Ooky’s” in its Issue #1.5 published in 1979. Story by Tim Caldwell, Art by Bill Bryan.]

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.

Bootsey X.mp4 from Terry Murphy on Vimeo.

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.

Heartbreakers.mp4 from Terry Murphy on Vimeo.

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. For a short time in the late 1980s the club was known as “The Alcove at Bookie’s” until the concept, featuring several DJs, moved to Todd’s.

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.

Have a story or information to share about Bookie’s Club 870? You can do that here.

15 thoughts on “Bookie’s Club 870

  1. Hello! Interesting memory of coming through in October 1980 while working as Road Manager/sound tech/keyboard tech for The Tremblers who were on the tail end of a East Coast tour of mostly rich kids college mega clubs, or places like The Ritz in NYC. We were a few days behind the Plasmatics and Iggy, who we later did shows with on a West Coast tour a few months later. I rem. the keyboard player and myself who traveled in the band gear van had to circle the block about 4 times before we finally figured out where the club was, there was no signage that actually said “Bookies”, which was what our itinerary/contact routing info had listed. I think we ended up finding it by going down the alley and seeing some graffiti with the name Bookies painted on the back door. The rest of the band in two other vehicles had the same problem and we ended up loading in about an hour late due to everyone being lost! The show went well considering we were all tired. The band was kinda a power pop thing, probably not as hard core as the crowd expected. It was kinda a strange crowd, half seemed to be kinda punk white kids, then a large group of young black guys dressed all in black suits with young white girls on their arms dressed up equally as well came in, and for whatever reason for the rest of the night it felt like a fight was about to break out, but thankfully didn’t. Was a fun gig all around for what I remember, we had to be in the Chicago the next day so no time to hang out after the gig.

  2. I can’t believe there aren’t more stories about Bookies. Anyway this is one of mine that I have told many times. I had heard about Bookies somehow and saw a show listed somewhere about the Deadboys playing there Sunday and Monday. I did know the Deadboys were at the top of the real punk heap so I gathered a couple friends and went on Monday. not realizing that there was no Sunday show. Lots of stories as to why not. Anyway we headed down and saw a crowd in front of the place and decided to have a drink at the corner. I don’t remember the name but it was something nautical., maybe someone here would know. So after a drink (funny story about that place) we walked down to Bookies. The crowd was already in so we just paid the $5 and walked in. I loved it from the moment I walked in. The DJ, who I later learned was Scott was saying funny crazy things and the music was blasting. I remember Shattered being played and everyone singing along. First up was the Denizens. Not sure what they opened with but Route66 was amazing. And they were funny too with them making fun of one guitarist coming in mid set because he had to work. They were followed by the Sillies with all their craziness. The the Deadboys. Insane! Stiv grabbed some power from someone standing next to the stage and snorted it. The reast of the band was a powerhouse with Cheetah leading the way. I loved all of it. I was a semi regular after that and became quasi-friends with some of the band members and Scott and Vince. Damn those were good times. I do have a few pictures if anyone cares.

    1. Ron – Thanks for sharing the stories. They matter. If you have pics, I’d love to see them and maybe add them to the site. Thanks!

    2. Hi Ron:

      I’m a documentary filmmaker making a film about an artist from the Cass Corridor who used to hang out at Bookies. If you have any pics from Bookie’s back in the 70s or 80s, I’d love to see them. Perhaps one or two would fit in the film.

      Bill Lynch
      Bill Lynch Films on YouTube

  3. I played there around 1980. The place was always packed! I would go to see a lot of bands there. One night, I went there to see Heaven 17. As I was walking up to the club from the east by the gas station, I saw a couple in their car getting hot and heavy. I chuckled and kept going. When I got in the club, I went up to the bar near the front and got a drink. As I started to talk to someone, the girl that was in the car came running in covered in blood. A guy went up to the car and attempted to rob them and shot her boyfriend. He ended up dying. That was the last time I went there because as much as I loved going there, I loved living more.

    P.S. Tried loading the posters for 3 shows but was unable to

  4. Back in the late 1970’s, Michigan created the bottle deposit law. Bookies had thousands of empty beer bottles in crates, and they were encouraging people to throw them against the wall in this long narrow room in the basement. There was a 5′ tall pile of broken glass at the end of the room. The Bookie’s rage room.

  5. Every weekend and sometimes week nights of 1979-80 were spent at bookies. The Mutants(my fave) Art Lyzak(my crush), Coldcock, the Cramps(also my fave), an entire week of Iggy! It was the best. The basement was a good spot to regain some of your hearing and deep conversation with Iggy in the women’s bathroom is also quite memorable. I’m glad I was part of that scene. I do remember when it started to change. The music was getting a little too mainstream and the crowd was getting a little too suburban. It was time to move on to Todd’s.

  6. This is Reno Richards Bass Playa for The Nigger’s we played The Club in 1978…. What ah Blast , and I’m still jammin on my Bass 🎸✌🏼

  7. I have 75% of the bands that played there on super 8 sound film. The reason I ever went to Bookies is I had some friends (Craig Peters, Steve McGuire and Terry Fox) who were in The Traitors. They played in that Motor City Review. The bill was The Niggers, The Pigs and The Traitors. This was my first time in a ”Punk” Club The crowd was 60-40 old drag show patrons to punk rockers. What I remember most is The Niggers doing a song called “”The Niggers Are Coming.” I really thought there was gonna be a riot. After the show I was talking to Craig and I said ”The Niggers scared the shit out of me.” He just laughed and said ”it’s all an act.” I was hooked! All three bands rocked. You can see the Pigs footage and many more local punks in ”Face The 80’s” a movie of the scene. The one regret is I didn’t get more than a minute of The Niggers. That was the case more than not. Worrying about when and how much film to use up. Too bad video wasn’t a great option back then,
    Another story is from the night The Damned played on the 4th of July. There was a pinball machine between the bar and the stage against the right wall. It was so packed I had to get up on it for a better vantage point. Right next to me is a guy with a cassette tape recorder. A while into the set Dave Vanian stops and someone in the band says in a very thick British accent ”the guy with the tape recorder gets it.” Right away I think he is talking about me perched up there in plain sight. I start to hide all my reels in my Montreal Canadian hockey jersey. A minute later someone comes up and takes the cassette from the guy next to me.
    We would go to Bookies almost every weekend. The first stop always on the way was K-Mart to buy film.
    Years later and this is a true story, I saw The Damned at The City Club, I was at the bar upstairs standing in a hallway off to the left. Rat Scabies comes out of the dressing room and starts to talk to someone next to me. The guy says to Scabies ”you guys took my cassette tape when I saw you at Bookies.” What are the chances? Rat says something to him along the lines of we just act tough… more or less, it’s just an act. GODBLESSBOOKIES!

  8. I have super 8 sound movies of 75% of the bands that played there. The reels are in an old egg carton box in my basement. I first went to Bookies because friends from my neighborhood (Craig Peters, Steve McGuire and Terry Fox were in The Traitors. The bill was The Niggers, The Pigs and The Traitors. This was my first time in a (Punk bar) and probably
    wouldn’t have ever gone if it weren’t for Craig, Steve and Terry being involved. What I remember most is The Niggers song ”The Niggers Are Coming” I really had thoughts of a riot breaking out. After the show I told Craig ”The Niggers scarred the shit out of me.” He laughed and said it’s all an act. I was hooked.
    I would take my girlfriend Debra down there every weekend. On Friday we would all get in the car stop at K-Mart for super 8 film and off we would go.
    Another story is from the night The Damned played on the Forth of July. There was a pinball machine between the bar and the stage. It was so packed I had to get up on the pinball machine for a better vantage point. There was also a guy right next to me with a cassette recorder. After they were playing for a while Dave Vanian stopped and someone in the band said ”the guy with the cassette recorder gets it.” I thought they saw me, up on the machine. Someone came up and took the tape from him. I just remember hiding all my rolls of film in my shirt. They never said anything to me. Years later and this is the truth, I saw them at The City Club. I was upstairs by the bar in a hallway. I think the dressing room was right there. Rat Scabies came out of the dressing room and started to talk to some guy standing next to me. The guy starts telling Rat how he saw them at Bookies and they took a cassette tape from him… what are the chances? Scabies was real cool and had the same attitude towards the situation as Craig did with me and The Niggers, It’s just an act.

  9. I lived in Palmer Park in a $125.00 a month studio in a run down apartment building overrun with roaches at 6 mile and 3rd Avenue around the corner from Bookies from 1979 to 1981. I would sometimes walk over to the club in the afternoon and listen to sound checks of touring bands including The Selector, Plasmatics and The Police.

  10. Gay Bookies facts:
    1. The older gay men original Bookies clientele would drink at the bar during day and usually leave before the shows started in the evening.
    2. Susie was a trans waitress in the early Bookies days.
    3. Gay musician Tom Robinson played Bookies with his band.
    4. The Glory Hole was a gay sex private club located in a building across the parking lot from Bookies.

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