Grandfathers of Pride

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June 21, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// The Saloon owners Jim Anderson and 
John Moore gear up 
for their 30th 
Pride block party //

It’s a stormy afternoon, and the back office of the Saloon is looking a little threadbare. Rainwater leaks through the ceiling, plunking noisily into a pair of plastic tubs set out on the floor. The phone rings about every 10 minutes, and daytime manager Tim Balfanz, a strapping young guy in a fitted polo, scoots his rolling chair from computer monitor to telephone in a quiet flurry of administrative assistance.

At a table nearby sit two men, each at least 30 years Balfanz’s senior. Jim Anderson and John Moore own the place. Together with Balfanz, they’re deep into the project they’ve undertaken every June since 1980: preparing for the Saloon’s annual block party, a screaming beast of a celebration that has become the unofficial closing ceremony for the Twin Cities Pride festival.

For the 30th year in a row now, the Saloon will block off Hennepin Avenue at 9th Street on the last Sunday night of Pride. It is the longest-running outdoor party in the history of the Twin Cities festival, which this year celebrates its 38th anniversary. This time around, Anderson and Moore are expecting about 3,000 guests. It’s the biggest event of the year for the Downtown gay bar — “Like New Year’s Eve times a thousand,” says Anderson.

With their daytime manager taking the reins for an afternoon, Anderson and Moore have time to talk a little history. While the Saloon isn’t the oldest gay bar in the city — the 19 Bar, just off of Loring Park, holds that title, having welcomed homosexuals since the 50s — its owners lay claim to another, perhaps more significant, first. Anderson and Moore are amongst the area’s first openly gay, gay bar owners.

The two bought the Saloon in 1980, after having tended bar there since the club opened in 1977. In 1980, the prior owner, Ron Pesis, was sent to federal prison after getting caught bribing a city council member — business as usual back then, when owners of gay bars regularly paid kickbacks to city, police, fire and health officials to avoid raids and shut-downs.

In fact, at the time, gay bars were synonymous with corruption, according to Jean Tretter, curator of the University of Minnesota’s Tretter Collection, the world’s foremost historical archive of international GLBT materials.

In the ’60s and ’70s, “gay bars were extremely profitable,” says Tretter. “And they were run by organized crime.” Homosexuals of the period were so drawn to secrecy — their lives literally depended on it — that they were susceptible to blackmail and extortion. Customers and management were frequently squeezed for money, and everyone wanted a cut.

So when Moore and Anderson instituted a no-bribe policy at the Saloon, the consequences were swift.

“The first New Year’s Eve that we owned the bar, [police] raided the club and beat up our doorman so severely that he went to the hospital,” Anderson remembers.

Anderson and Moore sought legal protection, hiring a young lawyer just a few years out of school: Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul-based attorney known around the world today as the lead attack dog in the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.

Anderson was a pioneering gay rights advocate in the ’70s and early ’80s. The Saloon and its staff were some of his first clients.

But Jeff Anderson was just one of several high-profile activists that Moore and Anderson befriended in the early days. The two got their bartending start in 1971 — back when the Gay 90s was still a straight bar, back when patrons danced on boxes set out on the floor, as it was illegal for two men to dance together on a dance floor — at a gay bar called Sutton Place, located where the Target Center is today.

A young radical ran the coat check: Steve Endean, who would later go on to found the Human Rights Campaign, currently the nation’s largest GLBT advocacy group.

Not that Moore and Anderson needed any prodding to get politically engaged. As undergraduates at the University of Minnesota, the two witnessed a young gay man get murdered in Loring Park. Seeking help at a nearby White Castle, where police officers often sat and drank coffee, Moore and Anderson were met with indifference.

“The response was sort of, ‘it’s some faggot who got what he deserved,’” Anderson says. The 1972 murder, and the local response to it, has become an infamous event in Twin Cities gay history. It galvanized Moore and Anderson.

“When you see someone murdered in a park when you’re 19 or 20 years old, and you  think this is your life, this is what you have to look forward to, you kind of set your jaw,” Anderson says. “And you realize you’re in for the fight of your life.”

Anderson and Moore began their political activism in the University of Minnesota’s chapter of an organization called Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE). FREE was one of the seminal GLBT activist groups in the nation.

By 1980, Anderson and Moore had long been out of the closet. But the Saloon wasn’t fully. It still maintained a low, secretive profile. So an outdoor block party seemed like a good way to announce its presence Downtown.

“For a lot of people it was very hard to be seen out in public, outside the safety of these bars where there aren’t any windows,” said Moore. “There was no sign outside that said ‘Saloon.’”

That first block party, in 1980, was a success, if a nerve-racking one. In 1983, recognizing the Saloon as a hub for the local gay lib movement, Anderson and Moore were asked to be the Grand Marshalls of the Pride parade.

Then, as the AIDS epidemic shook the gay community nationwide, Moore and Anderson experienced renewed vigor, both in terms of their business and their activism.

Nearly three decades later, Moore and Anderson still get giddy around Pride time, although Anderson sometimes regards the commercialization of the Loring Park festivities as “a bit of a disappointment.” (“There needs to be some shake ‘em up,” he says.)

Summing up the years, Moore says: “I find myself on New Year’s Eve standing up by the DJ watching people dancing  and my mind just kind of flips over the last 30 years. I think it’s wonderful to see people celebrating who they are. It’s just a good feeling.”

Anderson adds: “You can slice it and dice it, but there’s nothing like seeing a sea of humanity jumping up and down and hugging and kissing.”