In 1967, two years before the Stonewall Riots in New York that propelled the modern gay liberation movement, Robert Johns opened the Transportation Club in the Hill District. The next year, he opened the Holiday Bar in Oakland. They were among the first gay social clubs in Pittsburgh, and they operated at a time when fraternizing with other gay men was done discreetly, and serving them liquor could be a criminal offense.
Mr. Johns — “Fortunato” to his Italian mother, “Lucky” to his friends — died Wednesday at age 78. He leaves behind a lasting social network of Pittsburgh bartenders and bar owners who worked with him from the 1960s through the late 1980s. He also leaves behind one bar: The Real Luck Cafe — the Strip District spot with the shamrock-shaped shingle advertising its Penn Avenue location — was no longer under his ownership at the time of his death, but it still operates, and it still bears his nickname (many patrons simply call it “Lucky's”).
He was “the pivotal figure in the development of a Pittsburgh gay world,” and was, in many ways, “the pope of gay Pittsburgh,” said Tim Haggerty, director of the humanities scholars program at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Mr. Haggerty is curating an art exhibit that uses Mr. Johns’ photos and other memorabilia from his clubs, titled “Lucky After Dark.”
Mr. Johns’ clubs were not the first bars to serve gay men (but generally not women, or minorities — the scene, at the time, was primarily male and white). But bars that did serve gays in the 1960s did not often cater to that audience exclusively, or sympathetically, said Harrison Apple, who did much of the research for the archival project.
Mr. Johns, he said, was one of the first Pittsburgh bar owners to utilize the after-hours club license — as opposed to a standard bar license — to attract gay clientele.
He was also one of the first openly gay club owners, at a time when the Mafia or racketeers ran many Pittsburgh bars and social clubs.
Mr. Johns, after leaving the city for a stint in the military, returned here and worked bartending jobs around the city. As a result, “Lucky already had his own following” when he finally ventured out on his own, Mr. Apple said. “People followed him from bar to bar,” and those people eventually became the locus of Pittsburgh’s early LGBT social scene, he said.
Mr. Apple notes that, because of Mr. Johns’ reputation and influence, local liquor authorities rarely hounded his clubs, and the clubs eventually wove into the larger quilt of late-night social and bottle clubs that served drinks well into the morning hours. They were a relic of Pittsburgh’s mill town heyday, when the factories were open 24-7 and so were the bars.
“These were less gay bars than a part of [Pittsburgh's] after-hours life,” Mr. Apple said.
Mr. Johns later opened the The House of Tilden and the Travelers club, all of which — just like a Polish club or an Elks club — carried private membership rolls. His clubs had as many as 30,000 private members at their collective height.
By the 1980s, Mr. Johns was selling his clubs or closing them. Not only was the AIDS scare peaking, but Pennsylvania was changing the way it licensed and punished after-hours clubs, shifting enforcement away from the city and into the hands of the state Liquor Control Board.
In 1988, the Travelers club in East Liberty shut down after a Valentine's Day raid by state police. State police said the club was raided for serving alcohol to minors, but the club sued, saying that police were targeting Pittsburgh’s gay community, trying to “chill and deter the patrons from associating with other homosexuals,” according to the Pittsburgh Press account.
Mr. Haggerty said the raid “was abrupt and turned very ugly,” but while the club would ultimately close, “the gay community was not going to walk away with its tail between its legs” this time. His after-hours clubs might have disappeared, but gay bars and dance clubs — the kind that are open to the public, operating under normal license hours — soon began to populate the city. (His Oakland Holiday Bar remained open, under different ownership, through 2007.)
Besides his bars, Mr. Johns was active in the LGBT community, organizing picnics and seeding the Lambda Foundation and the Tavern Guild.
A memorial celebration is scheduled for 5 p.m. July 16 at Donny’s Place at 1226 Herron Ave. in the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625.