By Mehmed Ali and Beth Brassel
Between 1950 and 1970, Lowell, Mass., saw its status as an industrial dynamo erode. The textile industry shrank to almost nothing and many residents quit on the city, moving to the suburbs or leaving the area entirely in search of good jobs. In 1950, native son Jack Kerouac published his coming-of-age novel “The Town and the City,” set partly in a fictional Lowell, and followed it in 1957 with the best-seller “On the Road,” a book that altered the national culture. During these two decades Lowell also saw its first Greek-American mayor, its first Polish-American mayor, and, in 1964, Mayor Ellen Sampson became the first woman to hold that office in Lowell. Meanwhile, during these years the early seeds of what was to become a national civil-rights movement were being sown at a small bar on Moody Street.
In 1933, a restaurant license was issued to Frank Dondero and Henri St. George to operate a bar at 294 Moody Street. Both men were son-in-laws of Louis Berube. The Moody Gardens bar stayed in the Berube family until its closing in 1964. From the start, the owners were often at odds with the City’s license commission. In 1936, the bar’s license was suspended for opening before 1 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day. A year later, according to the Lowell Sun, a complaint was made against Dondero for distributing “paper matches containing ‘double meaning’ pictures of a lewd nature.” The complaint was dismissed when Dondero convinced the commission that he realized the matchbooks were “a big mistake.” By the 1950’s, the Moody Gardens was what one narrator described as “at rock bottom.” In 1957, the bar’s fortunes changed. Eugene Berube, the manager, invited an all-women’s Country & Western band to play at the Moody Gardens. The band had been performing across the street at the Silver Star and was drawing a crowd of gay and lesbian patrons. When the gay crowd was, as a former member of the band put it, “pushed aside,” Berube invited the band to play at the Moody Gardens. Along with the band came lesbians from not only Lowell, but also from Lawrence, Wilmington, Chelmsford, Dracut, and even Worcester. The women began staking out a place for themselves in Lowell and, ultimately, a presence in the larger society.
In a 2004 interview obtained from Boston’s History Project archives, a lesbian who was a Moody Gardens regular described the experience of being gay in the 1950’s: “Everyone who I have talked to said that they thought they were the only one who was gay.” As another Moody Gardens regular wrote in a letter housed at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, “You were an ugly duckling in a world of swans.” Without a place to gather, it was difficult for gay people to meet and gain a sense of community. When gay people did meet at a bar, there was always “that fear of being asked to leave or physically being hurt when you left at night.” By hiring the band and welcoming its gay and lesbian fans, Berube created the conditions for a community to form. Describing the importance of the Moody Gardens to the lesbians who called it home, a former patron wrote, “It was our world, yes a small world, but if you’re starving you don’t refuse a slice of bread, and we were starving.”
Despite the continual police vice squad and the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission aggressively monitoring the Moody Gardens, Berube ran the bar as the haven that it had become for area lesbians. Describing police surveillance of the bar, one woman said:
“The vice squad used to come in like two and three times a night. … They’d come in the bar side and look all around and they’d walk in the other side and look all around, and they’d go out. You’d figure, well they’re gone. Fifteen minutes later, there’s three paddy wagons at both doors and they’d throw us all in the paddy wagon, . . . take everybody, clean the whole place right out.”
When asked if the police would pick up the straight patrons, the woman said, “No.” After being arrested, the lesbian patrons would be held for three hours and then allowed to bail themselves out for ten dollars each. The charge was usually “being drunk” regardless of whether or not an individual had even had an alcoholic drink. If there is doubt as to why the vice squad was targeting the Moody Gardens, minutes from a City license commission meeting make it clear that the presence of lesbian clientele brought the police attention. The August 3, 1964, minutes include a statement read to the commission by Superintendent of Police Peter D. Guduras. Objecting to a request by Berube to transfer the bar’s license to a different location, Guduras notes:
“. . . on diverse dates between October 1962 and July 1964, despite many warnings from members of the Liquor and Vice Squad and other police officers, the manager, Mr. Berube, has allowed persons of dubious character, whose actions while on the premises indicated a suggestion of sexual promiscuity between persons of the female gender….”
Among the complainants at the 1964 hearing were Father Conroy representing Father Horgan of St. Patrick’s Church and a host of Acre neighborhood residents. In 1964, the bar closed, and Berube invested in another establishment, The Lantern, in Tyngsboro, Mass.
Fifteen years after the Moody Gardens closed, 175 women gathered at the Pulaski Club in Lowell for the first reunion of what would come to be known as the Old Moody Gardens Gang. In the days prior to email and Facebook, a handful of former Moody Gardens patrons scoured New England looking for lesbians who had been a part of the bar’s community. The gathering at the Pulaski Club would be the first of several reunions. These women understood that their willingness to endure routine harassment and arrests by the police paved the way for future generations of gays and lesbians to claim an identity and a place in society.
There are other pieces of Lowell’s gay community history that have yet to be uncovered. In 1950, Manny Dias, a well-known local entertainer, was barred from performing in Lowell as a result of previous appearances as a female impersonator. Dias’ case was taken up by Bernard Morris, a local lawyer who would go on to become a state legislator. After multiple hearings before the license commission, Dias won back his right to perform in Lowell. Although his case did not repeal the commission’s “no female impersonator” rule, he was able to continue performing. In 1958, he performed at Happy Helen’s, billed as “Chiquita, the Cuban Bombshell.”
The history of Lowell is a tapestry of smaller, diverse pieces: immigrant, working-class, industrial, and women’s history. The story of the Moody Gardens and the role the bar played in the shaping of the identity of many people, an emerging community, and a larger social movement has been well documented in the canon of gay community history. However, it is important to understand the place stories such as those of the Moody Gardens Gang and Manny Dias have in Lowell’s history. Lowell Historian Mehmed Ali and I want to begin the process of uncovering more pieces of this important history. If you have stories to share or to contribute please contact either Mehmed Ali firstname.lastname@example.org or Beth Brassel at email@example.com.