May, 2012 / Author:

Thirty years ago, on March 4, 1982, Giovanni’s Room opened its doors to patrons.  Today, as Gio’s Club and Bar, it remains the “heart of the GLBT community” of the Prairies.

While there is less fear of and within the GLBT community today, this milestone anniversary gives pause for thought.  Laws protecting GLBT people’s rights and freedoms have been enacted, and attitudes have become more informed.  However, the relatively small group of  acutely brave gay men and women who founded non-profit, community-based social clubs such as Happenings, Gio’s, and Ms. Purdy’s, had much oppression to overcome in order to create safe spaces for GLBT people.

The entire concept of Giovanni’s Room as a meeting place/cabaret was created by Richard (Rich) North, a long-time Winnipeg GLBT community leader, who was ably assisted by his husband, Christopher (Chris) Vogel.

Just as Giovanni’s was North’s dream, so was its original name.  He gleaned “Giovanni’s Room” from the title of the controversial and profoundly influential gay classic by African-American novelist James Baldwin.  It is the story of an American who, during a visit to Paris, has a gay relationship with an Italian named Giovanni.  North felt that the community could identify with the name because, in the novel, Giovanni’s bedroom “becomes a symbol of the struggle to make a place for homosexuality in the hostile, heterosexist culture.”

North founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Society, Inc., which was duly incorporated in September 1980.  In a detailed, pioneering report to Winnipeg’s Project Lambda Inc., an organization dedicated to opening a community centre, North outlined his vision for a centre in which members would be welcomed, safe, and validated.

“At the time when Baldwin wrote the novel [Giovanni’s Room], it was inconceivable that a place could be made for gay people in the dominant culture…There is room for Giovanni’s room now, and it is up to us to realize that possibility,” North wrote.  The request was approved, Lambda joined with the OWMS and the Winnipeg Gay Centre was born.

As initial fundraising efforts and as a means of socializing, the groups obtained special occasion permits and held licensed monthly socials.  In January 1982, a lease was signed for the centre to be located at 277 Sherbrook St. in the Sildor Ballroom building, which had been constructed in 1905 as the Normandie Ballroom.

Landlords Sylvia and Edward Posner rented the entire second floor for $1,650 per month.  The location merged existing educational and social-service organizations such as a GLBT lending library, resource centre and telephone line.  A constitution was written and plans were soon underway for a licensed clubroom. Altogether, the second floor of that aged structure provided an open meeting space, built community spirit and reinforced a positive GLBT identity.

After much renovation of one of the rooms (formerly Maharajah’s, Roggi’s, and Hunter’s restaurants) on the second floor, Giovanni’s Room, which included a restaurant, opened on March 4, 1982.  Hearty and inexpensive meals were prepared by a professional chef, and served until late.  While the café consistently lost money and was eventually closed, the then-legal sales of poppers was a tremendous money-maker.

The stuccoed walls were painted in a soft coral-rose colour, and an ivory grand piano sat near a narrow, curved stage.  Live music and, occasionally, fashion shows, lectures and drag acts took place.

Some of the well-known drag entertainers in that era were John Cumming (Jennifur Coates), Justin Keyes (Jackie Duncan), and Jonathan Carrington (Shauna-Raye).  Additionally, aboriginal men occasionally performed in drag during the Sunday socials which Gio’s hosted for the Nichiwakan Native Youth Group.  Since 1985, there have been Ms. Gio’s contests and, in recent years, occasional Mr. Gio’s. The Winnipeg Gay Youth group was also given a safe meeting place.

The patrons ranged in age from late teens to senior citizens, but the majority was in the 20-35 group.  During the first 18 months of operation, the annual membership fee was $2 (as was non-member admission), and there were 1,200 members.

Naysayers were quick to deride the enterprise and predict its financial failure.  However, as Chris Vogel notes today, “The first few months were hell, but within its first three years of operation, Giovanni’s Room made and spent $1 million, which was a great deal of money in the early 1980s.”

One of the early controversies at the first location was the exterior signage. City officials refused to allow the word “community” to be used (so as to allegedly not confuse the place with other community centres).  The sign then read “Winnipeg Gay Centre” until the membership so hated the word “gay” in the name that Vogel painted over it.  North painted a large, three-sheet signboard on the front exterior wall of the first club with a number of gay themes and messages.

Many have served on the board of directors.  At the opening of Giovanni’s Room in 1982, its board consisted of: Glenn Fewster (vice-president/membership secretary), David Hosking, Patricia McGowan, Rod Neufeld (secretary), Doug Nicholson, Richard North, Shane Rice, Murray Speer, Chris Vogel, Robert F.W. Wilson (president) and Donn Yuen.  In an age when an outing could mean a loss of a job, rented premises, or family conflagrations, many of them boldly and generously allowed their names to appear on official documents.

Several of its early board members still live in Winnipeg; Doug Nicholson, for his part, was for 25 years the society’s accountant.  From June 1982 through March 1989, Chris Vogel was the longest-serving president, having been elected at seven annual general meetings. In an effort to keep the community informed, Vogel edited and published Wilde Times magazine, and there were later subsequent efforts at a Gio’s newsletter.

Bob Wilson, an accountant, was both the first president and the first general manager of Giovanni’s Room, from March through June 1982.  Succeeding managers in the early years were Christopher Labram and Veronica Trowski.

When the Posners decided to sell the land and demolish the Sildor building, Giovanni’s Room had to find a new home.  The board searched for a location at which rain water did not pour through the light fixtures, as it had in the Sildor.  A 1952 one-storey commercial building at 616 Broadway became the second home of Giovanni’s Room and the resource centre/library in August 1986. It had been a medical clinic and, later, a wicker store.

As he had done at the first location, Richard North extensively renovated 616 Broadway.  He and two other carpenters also built its magnificent oak bar.  Opposite the bar, tropical fish and a resident turtle peered out of an old aquarium.  This was the first location at which Gio’s hosted strippers.  Its first dancer was Wesley Kent, a member of the community whose stage name was “Brave Denim.”

In November 1994, the club (rechristened Gio’s Club and Bar) opened at 272 Sherbrook St. (across from its inaugural location) in the basement level of the two-storey, 1955 Happenings building.  The fourth home of Gio’s has, for the past 10 years, been 155 Smith St. in a building formerly occupied by East Side Mario’s and The Storm restaurants.

The move to and renovations of each location was done with the tireless assistance of many volunteers.  Today, Gio’s is co-managed by volunteers.  The OWMS continues to give back to the community.  Its registered charity, Gio’s Cares, was founded by Ray Lewis and Aimé Olivier, and provides assistance to people living with HIV and AIDS.

A memorial list holds a place of honour at Gio’s so that members, former employees, supporters and friends who died from all causes, may be remembered.  Since its founding, Gio’s has awarded 29 honourary life memberships (including to Vogel and North) to those who have given outstanding volunteer service to the OWMS.

– Jay Richthammer is in his second term as president of the OWMS, Inc.  Previously, he served on its executive since 2006.  He is also a director of Gio’s Cares, Artemis Housing Co-op, and the GLBT Sexual Health Coalition.

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