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How the Garden and Gun Club upended Charleston’s starched social order in just a few short years

The Last Best Party

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Where rows of white-cloth tables now sit, a dance floor once pulsed euphoric from the amped-up hits of Patti LaBelle, the Weather Girls, and Chic. A sea of Barbour jackets and cashmere has replaced the bedazzled gowns of drag queens. The well-swept varnished wood floor was decades ago strewn with emptied little baggies bearing traces of a certain white powder. A hostess station stacked with lavish menus was the turf of seen-it-all doormen with the power to make or break your Saturday night.

After all, everyone wanted to get into the Garden and Gun Club.

Walk into Hank's Seafood Restaurant today and you'll likely get an immediate hit of high-end comfort, emanating from casually chic diners settled in to savor top-notch local crabcakes and oysters. Along wood-paneled walls accented with lush oil paintings of the angler's life, patrons beam grandly before seafood towers, sipping contentedly on craft cocktails. They slide credit cards with scant hesitation between the covers of restaurant check folders.

At a quick glance, the crowd might call to mind the swells associated with Garden & Gun, the luxe Southern glossy that has so masterfully and slickly branded Southeastern affluence that it has achieved a cult status among devoted and rarefied readers. On the magazine's website, they are billed as having an average household income of $370,800 and a net worth of $2,615,000.

Whatever the similarities to the much-lauded magazine, Hank's location at 10 Hayne Street is more directly connected with the building's former tenant, which also happens to be the publication's namesake. It was the second home of the famed Garden and Gun Club, the glamorous, outre, and curiously utopian private dance club of the 1970s and '80s known both for its effusive, no-holds-barred disco beat and its equally unrestrained social derring-do.

From its Hayne Street locale to its original home two blocks away on King Street, the always-teeming, ever-joyous nightclub once reverberated so strongly throughout the city that it dramatically altered Charleston's cultural and social landscape. It did so by encouraging a party-hardy, wildly convivial commingling of demographics that in Charleston cut an unprecedented swath through race, sexual orientation, social status, and income level — and tolerated nothing less than harmony throughout.

Even G and G’s promo jewelry was a cut above - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Even G and G’s promo jewelry was a cut above

At the Garden and Gun Club, differences were checked at the door, so that Spoleto artists, Broad Street lawyers, freshly-out young gay men, Charlestonians of all races, and taffeta-wrapped socialites could get down, get down with anyone and everyone, on the frenetic dance floor. Side by side, they could belly up and raise a glass at the well-stocked, hard-liquor-fueled bar. They could costume up to great effect for the legendary Halloween party. From wall to flashing, flesh-pressing wall, they could express anything and everything — that is, except for judgment.

"It was deliberately nonjudgmental," says Harlan Greene, scholar-in-residence at the College of Charleston, who manages the Documenting LGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry Project (go.cofc.edu/lgbtqstory), an initiative that focuses its efforts on collecting oral histories and archival materials, which has been funded by a two-year $200,000 grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation to enable the collection and processing of related documents, photographs, and ephemera. This includes those related to Garden and Gun Club, and Greene continues to comb the city in search of extant artifacts, from matchbooks to membership documents, and gather oral histories.

membership_2.jpg

"It was moderne, with white walls I think," says Terry Fox, who was a bartender at the King Street club and who now heads up the Charleston Arts Festival. He recalls that the club retained the mid-century retail swank of the previous J.C. Penney store, with a large dance floor defining the main level and stairs leading to a side mezzanine that offered views of the action below.

"They jokingly called it J.C. Penney Disco," says Tom Lamme, who patronized the King Street venue and later worked at the Hayne Street club. He recalls palmetto trees and a long bar with about four bartenders working it. "It was sparsely decorated with that horrible bamboo furniture that everybody seemed to have on their back porch."

A sign at the entrance detailed the club's rules, which underscored its acceptance of all, and was said to include a specific word of caution intended for Citadel cadets. The subsequent Hayne Street location replicated much of the layout and all of the ethos, accented by an outsized indoor thrust of large palmetto trees and a glass entryway aviary of somewhat testy parrots.

Robison, pictured in recent years - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Robison, pictured in recent years

Richard Robison, known as Dick, was the alchemist of it all, swirling place and opportunity together into night club magic. Well-spoken, chain-smoking, and sporting a signature single loop earring, the elegant Indiana native came to town to serve as the box office manager at the launch of Spoleto Festival USA. He was known to hold court on a vintage yacht and host Sunday brunches for handsome young men in a home rich with antiques, the artwork of friends, an exotic menagerie of Persian cats, and those aforementioned parrots.

"He was bigger than life," says Lamme, who was a longtime friend of Robison, adding that Marlon Brando-esque, he had apparently cut quite a figure in his youth. "He was not wealthy," he adds, but was well-connected and possessed an air Lamme coined as "Notre Dame gay." It served him well while coming up with the seed money to start a Spoleto Bar in 1977.

Robison's mission was to offer visiting artists a place to recreate after performances, initially only intending to keep it open during festival season. And come they did, a stunning sweep of dancers, choreographers, singers, playwrights, and others, the likes of Jerome Robbins, Tennessee Williams, Joshua Logan, and Robert Indiana.The maestro himself, festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti, would stop by in a show of support, often bringing with him festival heavy-hitters such as the Countess Alicia Spaulding Paolozzi.

"A lot of South of Broad people went there because it was Spoleto-connected," says Lamme. "It was a respectable place to go to," even with the vastly varying backgrounds on premise. Before the club, he says, "nobody mixed publicly."

Terry Fox, who now helps run Charleston arts Festival and Pecha Kucha, tended bar at Garden and Gun - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Terry Fox, who now helps run Charleston arts Festival and Pecha Kucha, tended bar at Garden and Gun

Local interest exploded, and the club was anointed the King Street Garden and Gun Club. Other stars followed, including model Lauren Hutton, who according to Fox made her way downtown during a stay on Kiawah. Mitchell Crosby, who volunteered for Spoleto in the box office while attending college, recalls how it had become such a de rigueur destination that a prominent local attorney used it as a cautionary tale in a guest lecture for a class on life lessons, warning impressionable students to avoid after-hours illicit substances in the parking lot, which would flag lurking patrol cars, upend their date nights, upset their parents, and make him get out of bed to deal with it.

Given the rave response, Robison elected to keep it open year-round, and partied his way to the bank in doing so. The windfall allowed him to indulge his expensive tastes, and when not cruising about in his boat, he was known to drive around in a Cadillac limousine, wearing pricey Cuban-type shirts whose buttons strained ever so slightly over his growing midriff.

A CofC archivist, Harlan Greene manages the Documenting LGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry Project - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • A CofC archivist, Harlan Greene manages the Documenting LGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry Project

Robison died last January at the age of 85 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and his passing underscores Greene's aim to get those stories while the getting is good. There are some records. Greene has researched the club's membership bylaws, which explicitly stated its aim to be a "mixed club," meant to be enjoyed by everyone. Dues were inexpensive, and nonmembers paid a nominal cover charge.

The exact dates of its operation can prove difficult to pin down, though it first appears in the 1978 city directory as the King Street Garden and Gun on 242 King Street, located across the street from what's today Old Towne restaurant, with subsequent listings through 1981. Club matchbooks list it as 240 King. By 1982, it appears to have moved out of that building, which was likely by that time slated for demolition, as it was on the site earmarked for the controversial Omni hotel, turned Charleston Place, now Belmond. The 1982-1983 directory lists the club as 14 Hayne Street, though the building housing Hank's is currently listed as number 10. According to Lamme, the club closed around 1985 or 1986.

Tom Lamme says Garden and Gun’s inclusivity stood out from other Charleston hot spots - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Tom Lamme says Garden and Gun’s inclusivity stood out from other Charleston hot spots

So what was up with this late night love fest that softened social barriers in a small and often starchy town? You could take a cue from the 1978 Jacksons hit, and blame it on the boogie, as the live-and-let-live late 1970s freed up the nation's collective consciousness, even in conservative enclaves like Charleston. But you might also blame it on the blue laws, those Prohibition-era hangovers of restrictions on the sale of hard liquor that until 2006 manifested in local curiosities like mandatory mini bottles, rules against metal bars on convenience store beer coolers, and a hard stop for bars and clubs at the stroke of midnight on Saturday.

Enterprising proprietors and drinkers alike found a loophole through which the libations could flow. Private establishments could continue to ply their trade and their customers until 2 a.m. The convergence of supply and demand demonstrated that, in Charleston, the chance to imbibe until the cows came home was far more compelling than whether one opted for Spandex or seersucker. Liquor, it seems, was the great equalizer.

Keith Grey was an early adaptor to the G and G, as it was affectionately called, having started going there from the second evening it opened, during the inaugural 1977 festival, when it was called the Spoleto Bar. Newly in town from Aiken, S.C. to attend College of Charleston, Grey quickly shifted his focus to the razzle and dazzle of the city's nightlife. A defining moment in his life was on the Garden and Gun dance floor, to the tune of Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park."

"I remember hearing that song, and realizing that this was where I wanted to be for the rest of my life," says Grey, who has lived in Charleston ever since. While he already knew that he was gay, he had not yet become fully comfortable with his identity, and the club's liberating celebration of individuality was transformative. "It was a free zone."

There were standout characters populating both sides of the bar. There was a deejay named Rabbi, coined as such because he was Jewish and from New York. There were identical twin brothers, one gay and the other straight, whose differing sexual orientations were the cause of many hijinks with those confusing their identities. There were tricked-out Saturday Night Fever wannabes and Broad Street lawyers in rumpled Oxford cloth.

Photographer Greg Day captured Ms. Africa for an exhibit in the late ’70s - COURTESY GREG DAY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Courtesy Greg Day Photography
  • Photographer Greg Day captured Ms. Africa for an exhibit in the late ’70s

There was Ms. Africa. In many ways the club's satin-draped poster child, the slim peninsular African-American Charlestonian and drag queen, whose birth name was Brian Seabrook, was a shimmering study in self-created regality and noblesse oblige. In materials for a photography exhibit featuring Ms. Africa, photographer Greg Day describes the performer's 1978 win as the first African-American Ms. Gay Charleston, in the very presence of racist resistance:

"Ms. Africa, age 19, ignored them all and gave a stellar performance as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, dancing and singing the score. His mother, who made his dresses, was present as were many fans. His performance brought the entire audience both black and white to their feet screaming. Africa won the title by popular vote and the City that had once championed slavery and started the Civil War was forever changed."

Another time, while performing a Diana Ross number at a club, Ms. Africa slowly, provocatively untied the ankle strap of an open-toe espadrille from the dangling foot of an awkward, red-faced college girl perched on a ledge. While lip-synching, the diva demurely smiled, then languidly poured a flute full of Champagne through it. That espadrille belonged to me, at another club. I knew Ms. Africa from my own time spent at the Garden and Gun, and in hindsight the sweet, naughty ease of this exchange was most certainly a byproduct of its gentle erosion of centuries-old social barriers.

"Everyone was let in, but you had to have proper ID," says Lamme.

Marcus Giddens, a downtown private high school student, was similarly on the scene, though one year shy of the drinking age then of 18 for beer and wine, 21 for hard liquor. "My first try getting in with a heavily doctored ID was rebuffed. I was 17 years old and looked 12," he says. However, an attempt a few weeks later using a friend's fake ID was more auspicious.

"All was going well, although it was the same doorman and he was giving me the eye," says Giddens, who thus became flustered and signed his own name rather than the one on the ID. "I looked up at the doorman. He rolled his eyes and shook his head slowly, but took the cover money from my hand and motioned me to go in! He kept the ID however."

Once inside, those young clubbers traveled miles beyond their insular Charleston settings. Elizabeth McDermott was in her teens when a member got her in after her brother's wedding. "It was my first 'disco, gay' bar," says McDermott. "It was so much fun to go from proper Charlestonian wedding to a New York experience."

Blowing off some steam with Garden and Gun Club staff members - PHOTOS COURTESY TOM LAMME
  • Photos courtesy Tom Lamme
  • Blowing off some steam with Garden and Gun Club staff members

So was it the Studio 54 of Charleston? Yes and no. Yes, like the club in New York City known to host the likes of Andy Warhol and Brooke Shields, it delivered an extravaganza of people-watching. And, yes, it was energized by full-force '70s disco, blasting out The Pointer Sisters, The Village People, Michael Jackson. And, yes, it saw its share of cocaine and marijuana, if on the downlow. But more openly it saw poppers, the ubiquitous little brown bottles of amyl nitrate inhalant that were meant to be opened and sniffed, thus inducing an instant head rush that intensified the pulsing disco beat. "One sniff of poppers and I thought I was John Travolta out on that dance floor," recalls Grey.

But no, velvet ropes and cherry-picked lines were anathema to Robison's intentionally curated and sternly enforced culture of inclusion. "It was glamorous like Charleston's Studio 54, but Studio 54 was all on snobbery, waiting in line," says Greene. "Garden and Gun was completely different, because it was the village square. Everyone was welcome, as long as you didn't have an attitude."

"Everyone wanted to go there," says Grey, who recalls that the selection process was based more on flash and fun than on exclusion, though potential troublemakers seldom gained clearance. "And those who didn't get in tried to peek through the windows."

Even at last call, Garden and Gun was blithe, ushering customers out the door with the final song of "Carolina in the Morning." However, all in all, by the mid-1980s, it was the last call for the club. Greene connects its demise to the increased police raids likely prompted by pressure from a Baptist church who owned a proximate property.

Lamme remembers that the gentrification of Ansonborough ushered in new neighbors who were far less noise-tolerant, as well as an unwelcome on-site uptick of opportunistic drug dealers. Also another private club, Les Jardins, had opened up on Market Street. Created explicitly for the gay community, it pulled away many who had grown weary of the spotlight of gawkers. "It went out with a whimper, not a bang," says Lamme.

Today, of course, it may take some stretching for those not around during Charleston's seedier, leaner days to imagine a modestly-financed club commanding a sprawling retail space on lower King Street and then an outsized warehouse right off Market. In today's more integrated world, it may seem less than striking that one spot could draw every sector of the compressed yet siloed community, many of whose inhabitants were until that moment light years apart on the social divide.

With that in mind, it's also hard not to consider another Charleston club bearing firearms in its moniker, the Charleston Rifle Club, which is currently involved in a highly-publicized flap for blackballing an esteemed African-American applicant, with many citing race as the reason.

And, of course, it's hard not to search for insight into the mega-franchised magazine, whose 12-year run has now well-surpassed that of its namesake. In means and mindset, the publication boasts far more of the trademark trappings of a private club. It now also touts a brick-and-mortar outpost near the Atlanta Braves' gleaming SunTrust Park, the Garden & Gun Club. Leveraging the unapologetic cheek of that name, that mashup of flora and firepower, seems to have thrown down the gauntlet for the beautiful and the armed.

Participants in the Miss Garden and Mr. Gun Club beauty pageant - PHOTOS COURTESY TOM LAMME
  • Photos courtesy Tom Lamme
  • Participants in the Miss Garden and Mr. Gun Club beauty pageant

The name of Robison's late, great, strobe-lit social experiment now represents an altogether different moment in a bigger, shinier Charleston.

Greene observes that since the Garden and Gun Club was private, it legally had every right to exclude whoever it wanted. Yet even with the risks involved in commandeering potentially clashing cultures, Robison and company opted for inclusivity, which turned out to be good both for Charleston and for business. And today, it can offer a lens on the city's gentrification, which would now render null and void such a scrappy and audacious scheme on prime real estate.

"It's a yardstick we can use to look back and see how much we've lost," says Greene. To borrow from the Donna Summer song that so spoke to a tender-aged Keith Grey, we may never have that recipe again.

For Grey, however, the memories have abided well past the shuttering of that glorious, high-flying mix that was Charleston when the stars lined up. "Think about the best party you have ever been to," he says. "For me, that party was Garden and Gun."

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