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As Charleston area gay bars vanish, historian seeks help documenting their heyday

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LGBTQ nightlife_2.JPG

College of Charleston professor Harlan Greene (not pictured) is working with other researchers to document LGBTQ history in Charleston. Pictured is various paraphernalia from old, extinct gay bars in Charleston: T-shirts, pamphlets, membership cards and matchbooks from former nightlife businesses. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

For an unknown number of years in the middle of the past century, there stood a bar on the marshes out by Folly Beach, an unlicensed establishment popular with gay men known as the Tiltin’ Hilton.

“The story ran that, when they were raided, staff would just open a trap door in the floor and dump all the booze into the marsh,” Terry Fox, the co-founder and associate director of the Charleston Arts Festival, told me. He’s pretty sure the bar was real, but never saw it himself. By the time he came to town in 1968, the Tiltin’ Hilton was gone — maybe torn down or allowed to be taken by the tides.

“All hearsay, but a great tale!” said Fox.

Of course, hearsay is good, but not the stuff upon which newspaper columns ought to be built. So I went looking for more information. 

Harlan Greene (copy)

Harlan Greene, head of special collections at the College of Charleston, has launched an LGBTQ archive project. Adam Parker/Staff

A quick Google search for “Tiltin’ Hilton” returns results for a lakeside hotel in Minnesota and the Tilton Hilton, a restaurant in northwestern Ohio. A jaunt through The Post and Courier’s own archives yields little besides old wire coverage of a same-named naval submersible mission that apparently rated ongoing attention for its exploits in the Pacific Ocean in the mid-'60s.

But nothing about a gay bar out by the Atlantic, perched on pilings above the pluff mud and serving drinks to the Lowcountry’s LGBTQ community over half a century ago. If there was a Folly Beach bar called the Tiltin’ Hilton, there’s little trace of it today. 

Which is why Harlan Greene needs help.

The College of Charleston archivist, head of the school's Special Collections, has been hard at work collecting oral histories and documentation on queer life in the Charleston area through the decades for the Documenting LGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry Project he launched in 2018.

The work is going well, Greene told me. Along with a small team, he’s collected more than 50 oral histories and over 50 linear feet of material.

But when it comes to LGBTQ nightlife in particular, he and his research team are coming up short. “We’d love to get more info from folks,” he told me — gay, lesbian, bisexual, and beyond. 

Some of the Lowcountry nightlife spaces that have come up in the Documenting LGBT Life in the Lowcountry team’s chronicling efforts thus far include:

  • Arcade
  • The Backroom
  • Dudley’s
  • Garden and Gun Club
  • Les Jardins
  • Pantheon
  • Streetcar
  • Tango
  • Treehouse Nightclub

In addition to its appearance in the Special Collection’s oral histories and archival materials, Garden and Gun Club has been immortalized in local media, as well.

Maura Hogan, now The Post and Courier's art critic, published a sprawling yarn of that bar’s late '70s/early '80s run in downtown Charleston. Greene himself wrote a story about the G&G (for which the eponymous glossy was named in homage), too.

"It worked because of the members, because they wanted it to work," the bar's erstwhile owner told Greene. "The members of the club, gay and straight, white and black, made it."

But there’s very little journalistic or scholastic documentation of most of these bars ever existing in Charleston, possibly because LGBTQ nightlife coverage was not then considered purview or priority at the area's general-interest outlets. (Keep in mind that, until 1987, the New York Times wouldn't even print the word "gay" as synonymous with homosexuality.)

And most of the bars don’t exist anymore, with the exception of Dudley’s, which in 2001 moved from 348 King St. to its current location at 42 Ann St. 

Now that they’re gone, it makes it that much harder to retrieve memories from their respective heydays, said Greene. “Some people give us a lot of information, some people give us a little information,” he said. “We've heard about bars by talking to people and actually doing research. ... We(‘ve) found bars that were kind of 'mixie' back in the '40s, '50s and '60s.”

Greene and his team have compiled a list of those locations, and specifically name-check those establishments during interviews to see if their interviewees can provide more information about them. It's all about getting a fuller, more detailed picture of the spaces in which LGBTQ people once cut loose.

"Can you describe it? Were men and women there? Were black and white people there? What was it like?" said Greene, ticking through his typical follow-ups when the mention of a bygone bar name sparks a memory in a subject.

Many interviewees, especially those older ones who were partying in the bygone era when South Carolina joints wanting to serve liquor had to issue their patrons club membership cards, have also shared valuable old paraphernalia from those days.

Among the "tangential materials:" A brochure advertising a campy ripoff performance of Mommy Dearest; a T-shirt heralding a special event at the now-shuttered Les Jardins; and a matchbook heralding Dudley's former King Street address as "the gayest spot in town!"

Still, the researchers don’t know what they don’t know. While scouring old copies of area LGBTQ publications has yielded clues (on a recent research trip to Columbia, Greene discovered full-page ads for a women-only bar named Franny’s), their resources are finite, and they rely on the Lowcountry’s queer community to surface spots for the record.

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A Les Jardins Meets Dragon Lady T-shirt along with other paraphernalia from LGBTQ nightlife in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Which creates another predicament: Participants so far have not mirrored the Lowcountry's cultural and racial diversity. By Greene's own admission, most of their subjects so far have been gay white men. "We want to reach out more into the trans community more into people of color, and, basically, more women,” he said.

And he hopes people from those communities will reach out to the documentation project, too. Otherwise, their histories will remain unpreserved in readily accessible form, and among other things, the bars and dance clubs where they socialized may be lost to the sands of time.

“Things have changed so much, so fast,” continued Greene. “Young people today don’t even think they need a gay bar. … It’s so easy to forget that, within one’s lifetime, people didn’t always have it this way.”

Theoretically, this is at least partly positive: Society has gotten more equitable and inclusive for LGBTQ people, and bars along with it.

As Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt, reflecting on the publication’s mini-documentary about the evolving hospitality industry in Chicago’s gayborhood, put it, “gay lifestyle and culture is so readily accepted now, so part of the mainstream, that the gay community doesn’t need carved out spaces in order to feel safe, meet one another, or be themselves.”

Of course, as Kludt and others have pointed out, there are other forces at play, and not all of them benign. The rise of LGBTQ-specific dating apps has rendered bar-going (not to mention cruising) less of a necessity for finding hook-ups; gentrification has remade one-time gay neighborhoods wholesale, driving rent up and gay bars out; and so on.

Charleston’s LGBTQ nightlife is not exempt from these macro forces, making Greene’s mission to safeguard its past all the more urgent.

"I'm very fond of that George Orwell quote, 'Who controls the past, controls the future,'" said the historian. Preserving this history, he continued, is a way to show future generations of Lowcountry LGBTQ people that they've always had a rightful place in Charleston's vibrant scene. "You're not a Johnny come lately. ... You have paid your dues," said Greene, speaking to today's LGBTQ partygoers.

To that end, anyone with a tale to tell about being out and going out to Charleston’s gay bars and mixed clubs of yesteryear (or any other aspect of queer life in the Lowcountry that they'd like to share) can get in touch with him to get more information or make an oral history appointment via the project website:

As for the Tiltin' Hilton, Greene and his team are on the trail of the legendary Folly Beach bar. It's come up in two separate oral histories lately (one with Fox), and they're honing in on a basic location: on the far end of Folly, the area that "had the reputation for being the cruise-y end of the beach," said Greene.

Now they'll cross-reference old city directories of the area in hopes of pinpointing exactly where it once stood, and whether it had another, more official name. Can you help them fill in the blanks?

Reach Dave Infante at 843-937-5320. Follow him on Twitter @dinfontay.

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