On Redwood Road at the outer western limit of Salt Lake City, a new bar opened in July 1975. Far from the emerging gay nightlife of downtown, three business partners, Jim Beverage, Paul Douglas and Mack Hunt, opened a tavern called the Rusty Bell. It was to play an important role in the foundation of Utah’s gay communities.
This watering hole was located at 996 S. Redwood Rd., but was not the first bar in Salt Lake City to cater specifically to gay men and women. The Sun Tavern, opened by Joe Redburn, has that distinction when he turned the old Railroad Exchange saloon, located on the northwest corner of South Temple and 400 West, into an exclusively gay bar in February 1973.
The Rusty Bell was an immediate sensation with the non-clubbing gay crowd, where both men and women felt comfortable to socialize, have a drink and escape the pressures of a hostile world. Whereas the mid 1970s were the zenith of the disco era, the Rusty Bell had its own less-pulsating ambience. There, one was as likely to hear country as Donna Summers tunes.
Lesbians especially found themselves at home in the bar. The Rusty Bell sponsored a women’s organization called “The Western Rustlers” which held fundraisers for such charities as the Grace Christian Church and Sub-for-Santa programs. In fact, the Rusty Bell hosted the first public gay wedding in Utah when Shirley Price and Camille Tartagila held a double-ring ceremony there in November 1975.
However, the most important legacy of the Rusty Bell is that it was where the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire originated. Shortly after the tavern held a 1950s party to raise building funds for the Grace Christian Church, more than 20 people, straight, lesbian, drag queen, activist, and businessman, met over the Veteran’s Day weekend to create a Founders Council to organize an Imperial Court system for Utah.
The tradition of the Imperial Court systems was started in 1965 when Jose Sarria, a legendary San Francisco drag performer and political activist, put a crown on his head and proclaimed himself by his own powers, “Dowager Widow of the Emperor Norton, Empress of San Francisco and Protectress of Mexico.” All courts systems received their charters from organizations authorized by Jose Sarria, and the court system has since become the largest charitable and philanthropic gay organization in the world.
It was 10 years after Sarria created the system that some gay Utah folks decided to create a social and charitable organization. These folks were friends and lovers, mostly in their 20s, and gathered to discuss forming a community-based organization after the Imperial Court models in San Francisco and Portland. Henry Bender, a man from Washington had participated in the fledgling organizations of Washington and Oregon and encouraged the creation of a court in Utah.
In late October, this eclectic group agreed to meet at the Rusty Bell to hammer out Utah’s first gay nonprofit organization for charitable fundraisers. The group, the Founders Council, included three straight women, Rose Carrier, Thelma Ensign and Carole Martindale, who loved the gay community and were like surrogate mothers to a lot of gays. Two lesbians, Chad Herinborg, and Pepper Prespente also joined the group. The gay men in the Founders Council included drag performers Henry Bender (Deanna), Jay Bradley (Tiffany Dawn), Gordon Winklekotter (Joanie Lynn), Larry Kasper (Lois Lane), Marty Pollock (Marita Gayle), as well as gay activists Bruce Allred, Earl Ashley, Terry Jones, Len Mathesen, and Bob Mandrake.
The owners of the Rusty Bell supported the idea of a charitable nonprofit and joined the Founders Council, as well as the bar’s popular disc jockey, Dennis Felix. One additional member, who never had his name published, was probably Ron, who was Jones’ lover.
The Founders Council was responsible for the creation of the first Court system’s charter, choosing the name of the organization and picking its first empress, who would act as president. The name chosen was the “Imperial Court of the Wasatch Empire of Utah.” This moniker was later shortened to the Imperial Court of Utah and only after the crisis in leadership of 1980 did the name change to the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire.
Next, Henry Bender was selected by a panel of five judges to be the first empress of the organization. He, in turn, picked Pepper Prespente as his vice president and first emperor. They chose members to serve in the court and be responsible for helping sponsor charity shows. Role reversals continued in the first court with Terry Jones, a gay man, chosen as Princess Royale I and Lesbian Chad Herinborg as Prince Royale I. Other members were Gordon “Gordie” Winklekotter (Joanie Lynn) as czarina, Kasper as czar, Bradley as grand duchess, Ron as grand duke, Marty Pollock (Marita Gayle) as queen of the realm and Bruce Allred, a tall, handsome, red-headed man from Ogden as prime minister. Bob Mandrake was chosen as treasurer, a position he held for nine years.
To promote the formation of Utah’s court, in the late fall of 1975, Empress I, Deanna, made several visits to the Courts of the Pacific Northwest. While still registered in the state of Washington, Deanna entered the Miss Gay Washington Contest and received awards for Miss Congeniality and Best Performance. He also met with the Imperial Court of the Emerald Empire of Eugene Oregon who agreed to sponsor Utah’s court. Eugene’s court, which later changed the name to the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Emerald Empire, is still the “mother court” for Utah.
In December 1975, Empress Deanna, while visiting Denver’s Court for their Snowball, made arrangements to have the Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire, officiate a coronation in Utah. Thus, it was a very busy time preparing for Utah’s first coronation.
On Sunday, Feb. 22 1976, the ICWE of Utah held their coronation at the Rusty Bell. In attendance were Empresses Cherisse of the Emerald Court of Eugene, Oregon and Scotti Carlyle of the Imperial Court of The Rocky Mountain Empire of Denver who crowned Deanna as Empress I of the Wasatch Court. Empress Cherisse was there to grant Utah’s court its official charter. Nearly 100 people were in attendance.
The first reign of the Imperial Court served for 14 months, February, 1976 to April, 1977, the longest of any reign. It was called “The Salt and Pepper Court” a play on Deanna’s blondness and Pepper, well, being Pepper! Empress I Deanna’s title was “The Origin of the Spike” and Emperor I Pepper Prespente’s was “The Spice of the Spike, The Genesis Emperor.”
Empress Deanna traveled extensively during her reign to court functions in Seattle, Spokane, Denver and Nevada to represent Utah. The entire court visited Denver on April 24 for its coronation.
The new reign hosted Salt Lake City’s first official gay awards banquet called the Salt Lick Seagull Awards Banquet. It was held April 1976 in the East Room of the Sun Tavern where approximately 30 awards were given out; including “Best Baths Attendants,” “Judy Garland Comeback of the Year” and “Best Advise Bitch of the Year.”
The first reign of the Imperial Court was a time of excitement and possibilities for an emerging gay community. The court, being primarily a social group, provided fun activities and sparked curiosity and interest. The dedication of its small membership and their new monarchs ignited possibilities for young gay men and women emerging from the dominant rigid Utah culture.
On Saturday, April 30, 1977 Empress Deanna and Emperor Pepper stepped down after a long and successful reign. The foundation laid by the Founders Council at the Rusty Bell in 1975 has endured for 37 years. A remarkable organization, it changed Salt Lake City. It changed Utah. It made us all a little more fabulous.
(Marty Pollock contributed to this column)