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Last Call at Juanita's

The untold story of Nashville's oldest gay bar



Last week Nashville’s gays and lesbians celebrated National Coming Out Day. Posters around the Vanderbilt campus advertised a speech by Margarethe Cammermeyer, the openly lesbian Air Force nurse currently involved in a legal challenge to the military’s policies concerning homosexuals. The Nashville Lesbian and Gay Coalition for Justice ran a series of Benetton-style ads in local newspapers. At a happy-hour reception at the World’s End on Church Street, lesbians and gays gathered to demonstrate their solidarity. A Thunder 94 drivetime deejay impishly played Josie Cotton’s early-’80s cult hit “Johnny, Are You Queer?”

Just weeks before, on Sept. 11, however, a milestone in Nashville’s gay and lesbian history passed with little notice. An obituary notice in The Tennessean had described Juanita Bruce Brazier simply as “a retired lounge owner,” and a small memorial service at a Hermitage cemetery attracted only a few close friends and family members. Some of Brazier’s friends hadn’t learned about the service in time to attend. Some were too old. There was even talk that—even with plans for National Coming Out Day in the air—some were afraid to risk exposure.

And yet, to generations of gay Nashvillians, “Miss Juanita”—as she was known both to loyal customers and people who knew her only by reputation—was a legend. The hole-in-the-wall Commerce Street bar that bore her name was an institution in the international gay underground. Except for the regular instances when her patrons were being busted by the police, Miss Juanita and her bar were at the center of a subculture ignored by the rest of the city. At a time when homosexuals were feared, harassed and persecuted—at work, at leisure, in their beds—she defended her devoted clientele, offering them protection from the outside world’s abuse and contempt.

Juanita Brazier was a born fighter. If a lout heaved a brick through her window, she simply picked the brick up, dusted it off, and displayed it on the shelf over the bar. On occasions when police officers stormed in and hauled all of her customers away to the hoosegow, sometimes because one man had been seen touching another man’s shoulder, Miss Juanita would storm down to the police station and post bail for the entire gang.

“She’d always say something like, ‘They’re not running us out,’ ” recalls “Jason,” a friend, confidant and employee of Brazier’s during the final years of her bar. “Gay men needed to hear that—we’re not fighters by nature.” (Like the other men identified only by first names in this article, Jason asked that his identity not be revealed.)

In her heyday in the 1950s, friends say, Miss Juanita could stare down a saloon full of rowdies, dance on a table and still have enough energy left to close down every bar in Commerce Street’s infamous red-light district. Nevertheless, according to her patrons, she was generous, good-hearted, and willing to help out anyone she considered an underdog. She was often the first person a gay man would look up when he hit town.

When Brazier died a month ago, after more than 35 years in the bar business, she took with her the last vestiges of a neglected chapter in the history of Nashville, a colorful world of dandies, drinkers and divas. She took with her a first-person account of the ways in which life has changed for gay men and lesbians over the past four decades, from the justifiable paranoia of the 1950s to the flowering of gay liberation in the 1970s to the relative openness of the ’90s. She also lived to see the specter of AIDS decimate an entire generation. By the time Miss Juanita passed away, she had seen too many young men fade slowly, painfully, into the night.

On a breezy, cloudless Saturday afternoon the week before National Coming Out Day, a group of men—Marvin, Jeff, Lee, Wilson, Ronnie and Kent—gathered at The Jungle, a legendary gay watering hole on Fourth Avenue, to swap stories and share reminiscences of the woman who ran the city’s oldest exclusively gay bar. They are among the last of Miss Juanita’s boys, the survivors of a time when being gay was considered a crime, and gay men spent their lives under suspicion.

They are a fascinating bunch. Some of them have known each other for decades, from a time when Peggy Lee played on the jukebox and no man had ever set foot on the moon. Their memories—along with an empty Commerce Street parking lot, some scattered memorabilia, and a few other recollections—are all that remain of Nashville’s secret history.

They recall Miss Juanita in 1953, a strong, husky woman striding down the sidewalk in front of the old Sam Davis Hotel toward Commerce Street. Her fiery red hair gave her the look of a lighted powder keg. In 1953 she had just taken over the tiny lounge that bore her name. Before that, it had been known as the Leopard Room, an adjunct to the Jungle next door.

There was nothing glamorous about Juanita’s. There was a chrome cigarette machine next to the bar. The lights of a pinball machine blinked from the back wall. Beer cost a quarter, and it cost a nickel to play a song on the jukebox, six for 25 cents. The selections included showtunes from Dinah Shore, Judy Garland, Mario Lanza and Carmen Miranda. Across from the bar, there were tables, the most infamous of which was the “round table” or “69 booth,” the bar’s designated pick-up spot.

Juanita’s window looked out on one of the sleaziest sections of Nashville. The stretch from Commerce Street over to Broadway and from Fourth to Eighth Avenue had been frustrating police and downtown reformers for decades. The root of the problem, however, was neither a bar nor a gambling den. It was the Greyhound bus station that occupied the block of Commerce between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Every day the bus station sent forth a stream of transients, hustlers, runaways, and Fort Campbell soldiers looking for a good time. Commerce Street welcomed them with bars, restaurants and flophouse hotels.

Among the throngs spilling from the depot, it was not uncommon to find young gay men, arriving from rural towns and hoping to find excitement and anonymity in the city. “A lot of boys came right off the buses,” recalls Miss Juanita’s daughter, Joyce Riley, who worked at her mother’s bar for years. “A lot of ’em knew right where to find us.” They had to. Because of the risks involved in making contacts in an unfamiliar city, gay men had developed a network of safe havens known only to other gays.

According to the crowd at the Jungle, Arlene Kirby had opened Nashville’s first gay bar, Arlene’s, at the corner of Fourth and Commerce in the late 1940s. Like the other gay bars that followed it in the 1950s, Arlene’s initially served a straight clientele. But the first Commerce Street bar to become a true mecca for gays was The Jungle, opened by Warren Jett at 715 Commerce in the early 1950s. A combination piano lounge and restaurant, The Jungle attracted a straight downtown lunch and dinner crowd, gaining a reputation for its hamburgers and steaks. Jerry Thompson, who covered the Commerce Street scene for The Tennessean in the 1960s, recalls that The Jungle had “the best baked potatoes in the world.” In the late hours, though, The Jungle’s side-door lounge, the Leopard Room, which sported a leopard-skin and palm-tree motif, would become the most popular gay hangout in town.

At the time gay men were starting to prowl The Jungle, Juanita Brazier was just beginning to learn about the bar business. Brazier was born in Nashville on Jan. 1, 1909, and a failed early marriage had left her with a daughter to support. She took a job working as a weaver at the Werthan Bag Mill, spinning sackcloth into grocery money. As her daughter grew older, however, Brazier took a second job, working weekends as a nightclub hostess near the Hwy. 70-Hwy. 100 intersection. Later, she worked at Powell’s, a gin mill that operated directly across from the Greyhound station on Commerce. Powell’s was known as a “mixed bar,” since, like The Jungle, it was frequented by both gays and straights. Some of the men who would become regulars at Juanita’s recall meeting her first at Powell’s.

In 1953, Warren Jett walled off the Leopard Room and sold it to Brazier, who had every intention of running a straight bar. Shortly after Juanita’s opened, however, a former Leopard Room patron nervously drew Brazier aside one night to ask her a question. “Miss Juanita,” he is said to have asked, “would you have any problem with me bringing in some gay men?”

“Why, no!” Brazier supposedly responded, laughing. “I like everyone to be happy!” And thus Juanita’s became Nashville’s best-known haven for gay men—and, Nashville being a Southern city, Juanita Brazier was rechristened “Miss Juanita.”

In the 1950s, the immediate challenge of operating a gay bar was dealing with the law. “If you weren’t around then, you have no idea what it was like,” says Marvin, who has vivid memories of the Commerce Street scene. If two men were caught holding hands in public, he recalls, the consequences were, at best, humiliating. The men would be handcuffed on the spot by officers and hustled downtown, where, if no one made their bail, they would spend the night in jail. The next day, the men’s names, along with a description of their conduct, would appear in a police report in the daily newspapers. And everybody would know. Everybody. On the morning after one such notice appeared, Marvin recalls, the respected designer for a downtown department store was abruptly called into his supervisor’s office. We’re making some cutbacks, the supervisor said. Please clear your things out immediately. The morning paper sat on the boss’s desk.

Some of the men at The Jungle recall seeing police surveillance cameras trained on the front door of Juanita’s from atop Herschel’s Tic Toc Restaurant, now the site of Hewgley’s Music Co. Marvin and his fellow club-crawlers argue that the police’s harshness toward gays actually increased crime downtown. Jeff, who frequented Nashville’s gay bars from the days of Arlene’s, says muggers and robbers would prey on gay men because they knew the men wouldn’t dare go to the police for justice. “If a gay man was killed,” Lee adds bitterly, “the police would just say, ‘Lost one more queer.’ ”

Meanwhile, police officers routinely swept through suspected gay bars, searching for evidence of moral misconduct. The Jungle tended not to have many run-ins with the law. Not only was it a mixed bar, but the owner’s brother, Leslie Jett, was Davidson County sheriff. For Miss Juanita, however, the periodic raids were a nuisance. Bail was only $5 a head, and Joyce remembers that, whenever the cops hauled the entire Juanita’s clientele off to jail, Brazier would simply go down to the police station, peel off a roll of bills and lead the whole gang back to Commerce Street—where she’d coolly reopen the bar.

Miss Juanita’s bravado delighted her customers, who weren’t used to the notion that they had as much right as anyone else to flirt and have a few beers. Riley recalls, however, that relations between the bar and the police deteriorated to the point at which, on one night, police officers dragged in every man in the bar. As usual, Miss Juanita went down to the police station and dragged them all back. They paraded back to Commerce and set up another round of beers. An hour later the cops crashed in, found someone else’s hand on someone else’s thigh, and loaded up the paddywagon once again. Miss Juanita was not amused. When she bailed a customer out, she expected him to stay out. So she marched down to the station, threw down the cash, and whisked her boys right back to Commerce. In came the cops. Out went Miss Juanita. Back came the boys. And so it went, all night long.

Miss Juanita had reached the end of her tether. So she went down to see Nashville’s police chief, Hubert Kemp, and explained the situation. Her boys weren’t hurting anyone, she argued, and they were better off in her bar than out on the street somewhere. Couldn’t she reach some kind of understanding with the police department? Chief Kemp was not unsympathetic. He even agreed to visit the bar and check it out. If he was convinced that Juanita’s operation was above board, he would call off the dogs.

At Juanita’s, Kemp found all the licenses in order. Well before his visit, Brazier had posted a sign on the bathroom door—“ONE AT A TIME IN MEN’S ROOM”—and she meant it. One Juanita’s patron recalls her banging on the door with a yardstick and shouting, “One at a time! One at a time!”

“It was enough to make you give up sex altogether,” he recalls.

Kemp was impressed. In a rare meeting of the minds, he and Miss Juanita made an informal agreement. The police chief pledged to reduce the number of raids on the bar. In return, Miss Juanita agreed to make her boys keep their hands above the table at all times, and she declared an absolute moratorium on short-shorts. From that point on, she would depart for the evening with a cheery, “Have a good time, and keep your hands above the bar!” And so it was that Juanita’s survived the repressive 1950s and early 1960s in blazing Technicolor.

Jason recalls Brazier as “a good Samaritan. She never worried about helping an underdog.” At the same time, her clientele became her extended family. “She got a divorce when I was 3 years old,” recalls Joyce Riley, “and from that point on it was like she married the bar.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, Juanita’s played host to a wide variety of colorful characters, both in front of and behind the bar. “Back then, you never told your real name in a gay bar,” Wilson recalls. “If your boss got a phone call from somebody, you’d be fired.” Therefore, many of Juanita’s patrons were known simply by one-word handles. There was “Fluffy,” who pumped the jukebox full of coins and played Peggy Lee’s depressing “Is That All There Is?” until the entire room sat in a pastel funk. There was “Trudy,” who greeted potential conquests at the bar with a swoony come-on, “Little boy, you’re the one I love.” There was the bartender, “Happy,” an outrageous flirt who continually challenged Miss Juanita’s hands-off-the-customers policy. In addition, there were lesbian customers who occasionally, and to no avail, hit on Miss Juanita herself. “This friend of mine tried to pick up this pretty little gal in there one time,” recalls Jerry Thompson. “Her gay lover nearly beat the piss out of him.”

A parade of prominent—and extremely closeted—gay Nashvillians reportedly came to Juanita’s to seek refuge from the straight world. Riley says the head of a large retail chain (“a household name”) frequently dropped by. Wilson remembers seeing a legendary country crooner make several visits to Juanita’s. Another famous name from the Grand Ole Opry, he says, would sneak in from the Ryman after showtime. “There’d be attorneys, bankers,” Riley says. “They’d have these two lives—a wife and family at home, and some boy they were meeting at the bar on the side.”

Miss Juanita was a cousin of Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley, but, apparently, she never capitalized on the connection. “He never came in,” Riley muses. “He would’ve been a good customer, though. He drank a lot.”

All the while, Miss Juanita was establishing her own traditions. One year, on the Fourth of July, she decided to put up a Christmas tree, and “Christmas in July” was born. Halloween was even more festive. Nashville had strict rules about men wearing women’s clothes; sometimes even parties in private homes would be busted on Halloween night. To prevent trouble, Miss Juanita worked out a deal with the police commissioner: Her boys would be permitted to dress up without fear of reprisals “as long as they behaved like ladies.” Some credit that agreement with paving the way for later drag bars such as The Cabaret and Victor/Victoria’s.

The biggest event at Juanita’s every year, however, was the celebration of Miss Juanita’s birthday, which fell on New Year’s Day. Capacity crowds jammed the Jungle and Juanita’s, where the customers would bring in cakes and offerings of jewelry, perfume and clothes. Both bars rocked all night long. The Yellow Cab drivers who regularly picked up Miss Juanita would stick around to help her load and unload her presents.

At the center of every occasion was Juanita herself. After closing time, she would round up her boys and hit Commerce Street’s infamous nightclub circuit. Stories about her stamina—and her temper—became legendary. One night, friends recall, she led her boys up to the Hyatt and ordered several rounds of her favorite drink: a stout blend of VO and 7-Up, doctored with a lemon she would beat and stab mercilessly. As she grew progressively rowdier, a waiter tiptoed over and announced that the bar would not serve her any more drinks. With a theatrical flourish, Brazier swept the table clear of every ashtray, dish and highball glass, announcing to the room, “If I can’t drink here, neither can my friends!” Another round of drinks was dispatched posthaste.

“She was a little woman,” remembers Doug Brewington, who now manages Wynonna’s, a Fourth Avenue bar and restaurant, “but she had this tone in her voice that said watch out.” Nevertheless, associates also tell stories of her generosity. If a penniless kid found his way from the bus station to Juanita’s, Brazier would provide him with money for a room in the Sam Davis across the street. “I can’t tell you how many boys she did that for,” Riley says.

When police arrested 59 gay men in a Centennial Park sting operation in 1962, Miss Juanita bailed many of them out. When an entertainer dared to make a wisecrack about Juanita’s boys during a show at a Printers’ Alley nightclub, Brazier marched right up to the bandstand in front of the flabbergasted audience and doused him with the contents of her cocktail glass.

Apparently, threats and vandalism did not daunt her. Arriving at work one afternoon, Brazier discovered that her window had been shattered. A hammer lay in the middle of the floor. Miss Juanita spray-painted it gold and had it set in a frame. From then on, it hung on her wall, right alongside the first dollar she ever made.

As the years passed, Juanita’s renown spread far beyond Nashville. “I came here from New Orleans in 1962,” Wilson says, “and, before I left, all my friends told me I had to go to Juanita’s.” You could be in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, Marvin says, and the minute you said you were from Nashville someone would ask, “Do you know Juanita’s?” Early handbooks for gay men touted the bar as a vacation spot for out-of-towners, and numerous visiting businessmen and entertainers stopped by while on the road. Even though it was smaller than many of Nashville’s other bars, Juanita’s sold such a mind-boggling volume of beer that, one year, Budweiser honored Brazier with a wood carving of the company’s signature horse-drawn beerwagon, now preserved in Larry “Blu” Burgett’s Crazy Cowboy II nightspot on Franklin Road.

As the 1960s segued into the 1970s, the first shock waves from the explosion of gay liberation began to ripple through Nashville. The size of the openly gay community grew exponentially, and other clubs and hangouts began to compete with Juanita’s. There was the Other Side at Fifth and Lee, and the drag club The Cabaret, on Hayes Street. There was Malone’s, the First Avenue eatery run by the irrepressible Aaron Powers, a piano-bar entertainer noted for his routine of reworking straight pop songs with gay lyrics. (To “Baby Face,” he would sing, “Baby Face/I’d like to stick it in your baby face....”) Malone’s had two primary claims to fame: It stayed open all hours of the night, so that queens in full drag would charge in at 3 a.m. for a cheap plate of steak and eggs, and it boasted perhaps the surliest waitress in Nashville history, a wizened crone nick-named Granny.

Juanita’s business was dented somewhat by the arrival of the Warehouse II and The Chute, the two extraordinarily popular gay nightspots that opened in Berry Hill in the 1970s and ’80s. Despite the competition, however, Juanita’s remained an institution. Doug Brewington came to Juanita’s in 1979, when he was stationed as a soldier at Fort Campbell. Like many other gay men in the military, he arranged a marriage as a cover. He learned of Juanita’s, as did other closeted soldiers at the base, from a bulletin-board listing of off-limits places. “The little notice said ‘homosexual bar,’ ” Brewington recalls with a laugh, “and I thought, ‘I can’t wait to go there!’ ”

He traveled to Nashville—cautiously, since anyone suspected of being homosexual was put under surveillance. “I met Juanita and Joyce and hit it off well,” Brewington says—so well that Miss Juanita asked him to stay on at the bar. Eventually, Miss Juanita helped put him through beauty school. In exchange, Brewington concocted a special dye combination that would produce the fire-ant-red hair color she desired.

Several factors conspired to bring about the eventual decline of Juanita’s. Increasingly, Commerce Street was being labeled as a public nuisance. In the 1960s, the downtown area from Printers’ Alley to Eighth Avenue North was the focus of a well-publicized police crackdown. By the 1970s, the street had earned its reputation as a homegrown Sodom. The sidewalks would be lined with hundreds of footloose hustlers, grifters and revelers. A Friday night might attract as many as 400 people jockeying for parking spaces. Among the Juanita’s crowd, the strip was nicknamed “one-park shopping”—if you couldn’t find a date on Commerce, they explain, you might as well join a convent.

When Metro began eyeing potential spots for a downtown convention center in the late 1970s, the space on Commerce between Fifth and Eighth Avenues seemed a perfect spot for urban renewal. Juanita’s and The Jungle were both forced to relocate, and some patrons of the bars still insist that the site was chosen specifically to drive them away. Juanita’s moved for a brief time to Capitol Boulevard in the early 1980s before relocating to a location near the fairgrounds, now occupied by Wynonna’s.

Juanita’s, however, could not survive the double-barreled onslaughts of AIDS and the natural process of aging. Some of the older generation of Juanita’s boys may have escaped the virus, but, for the younger men who arrived in the 1970s, the effect was catastrophic. Meanwhile, Juanita’s boys were rapidly becoming old men, and Miss Juanita herself was in her 70s. She had a Pacemaker, and although she had stopped drinking and smoking, her health was plainly beginning to deteriorate. “She couldn’t remember my name after a while,” says Jason, who tended bar during Brazier’s final year at Juanita’s. “She would just call me ‘Doohickey.’ ”

Finally, after more than three decades as operator of Juanita’s, Juanita Bruce Brazier decided to call it quits. In 1987, she sold the bar to two investors, who continued to operate Juanita’s under her name. A few years later, Juanita’s moved briefly to a location at the corner of Wedgewood and Raines, but without Miss Juanita, it wasn’t Juanita’s. Almost exactly a year ago, a fire razed the building. After 40 years, the fire had done what the cops, the vandals, the authorities and the competition could not do. It had shut Juanita’s down.

For years after Brazier’s retirement, the Jungle continued to host birthday celebrations in Miss Juanita’s honor. A couple of years ago, on New Year’s Day, one final blowout was thrown in her honor. Juanita herself, however, had been confined to a nursing home, and her spirits were low. But Marvin and Lee and their friends at the Jungle recall the way she perked up once she saw how everyone had turned out for her. “There were people there you hadn’t seen in five years,” Marvin says. Gifts were presented, along with a cake and a peculiar dessert consisting of a peach half garnished with a radish where a cherry might have been. “Cherries were hard to find,” Ronnie says slyly. It was the last time many of her boys ever saw Miss Juanita.

On Sept. 11, 1995, Juanita Bruce Brazier, the woman who had filled Commerce Street with such life, such love, and such force of will, died at a Goodlettsville convalescent center. She was 86 years old, and the better part of the century had passed before her. A quiet memorial service was held at her grave site in Hermitage Memorial Gardens. Very few of her boys were on hand.

“She was a hell of a lady,” Marvin says, and the Jungle is hushed for a moment. Suddenly, Kent, who has sat quietly for most of the afternoon, speaks up. “She always stood up for us,” he insists. “She thought we done no wrong. She once said she’d never seen me drunk once, and there must’ve been a dozen nights when I couldn’t hit my ass with both hands.”

“We went from harassment to into the closet to out of the closet,” Lee says. “These young ones, they aren’t afraid to come out. If you don’t accept them for what they are, they say, ‘To hell with you.’ ” There is an obvious note of admiration in his voice, maybe even awe.

“I always say I was born 30 years too soon,” adds Ronnie, and the men all laugh. “We’ve been meeting like this every Saturday now for 20 years,” Wilson says. “We may be getting old, but we still just patch ourselves up.”

Then the conversation turns to other topics, and the men gather in close. They are smiling. Their arms are touching just above the bar.

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