The Letros Tavern, located on King Street East across from the King Edward Hotel, opened in the late 1940s following the 1947 passage of the Liquor Licence Act which allowed taverns to serve alcohol. Prior to 1947 liquor was only available in hotels. The Nile Room, an Egyptian themed bar in the basement of the Letros, had walls adorned with imitation snakeskin and was affectionately referred to as the ‘Vile Room’ or the ‘Snake Pit’. In the 1950s several beer parlours in the city had gay sections – usually relegated in the corner of the bar – but the Nile Room was Toronto’s only exclusive queer cocktail bar and was well know for their famous Halloween drag balls where Queens performed in their finest, original creations.
The annual Miss Letros/Gay Toronto drag pageants attracted thousands of spectators who gathered on King Street East to take in the glitz and glamour. The increasing queer visibility emerging from the Letros drew the attention of Toronto’s tabloid press. They were full of reports on Toronto’s gay scene—mostly scandalous, homophobic and sensational stories with headlines such as ‘King Edward Hotel Declares WAR ON LETROS QUEERS!’ and ‘Fags In Drag!’ Ironically, these tabloids – which are in the holdings of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives – became a source for gay men and lesbians to find one another as the stories revealed the places and spaces where queers rendezvoused. Despite these sensationalised and sometimes erroneous stories, the tabloids have proven to be a valuable resource – when decoded – for queer historians and researchers.
In the 1960s, the mainstream press caught on and the Toronto Telegram sent reporters and photographers to cover the annual drag balls. A fabulous collection of Ray McFadden’s photos of Miss Letros Pageant Queens gathering on King Street – Halloween 1967 – are included in the Toronto Telegram Fonds at York University Archives.
The growing notoriety of the Letros/Nile Room as the epicentre of Toronto’s queer culture attracted the scrutiny of the Addiction Research Foundation. Their undercover researchers infiltrated the bar and conducted a sociological study published as ‘Working Papers on the Tavern; notes on the gay bar’. One section of the study attempted to decode ‘the distinctive language of its patrons’ and noted terms like ‘bitching’, ‘camping’ and ‘cruising’ amongst others. It was also recorded that ‘no instances of drunkenness was observer and, indeed, consumption overall appeared to be rather moderate’.
The Letros Tavern and The Nile Room closed in 1972 and the Halloween drag balls migrated up Yonge Street to the St. Charles Tavern.
Michael Alstad’s Snake Pit installation – Included in the Nuit Blanche Memory Lane exhibition – reconstructs & deconstructs the glamorous Nile Room bar in a hidden laneway behind Beaver Hall Gallery. The installation will feature a cozy ‘dirty martini’ bar alongside a series of short video docs exploring Toronto’s early gay bar history from storied drinking establishments the St. Charles Tavern, the Municipal, the Manatee, the Continental and others. The videos are a curated selection from Queerstory – a free walking tour app and interactive documentary that leads the audience through 37 intriguing sites that uncover the political, cultural and social history of Toronto’s LGBT community. Performance artist Keith Cole will be your fabulous host and vintage mixologist.
Beaver Hall Gallery
29 McCaul Street
October 3, 2015 from 7PM-7AM
Isaac Applebaum, Michael Alstad, Yvonne Whelan, Camille Turner, Addi “Mindbender” Stewart, KD Thornton, Barbara Greczny, Sharron McLeod, Graham Roach, Albert Li, and Peter Brickell
Michael Alstad thanks the Ontario Arts Council for their support of The Snake Pit and the following individuals for their contributions and assistance:
Carolyn Hurren, Janet Hethrington, Jim Ruxton, KD Thornton, Keith Cole, Camille Turner, Bartley Harnett, Kohei Nagano, Sasha Wentges, Chonghye So, Alan Miller and the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives.
Special thanks to drag legends Sacha Mackenzie and Michelle Dubarry for sharing their stories and memories about the Nile Room.