This year the Central West End – a neighborhood steeped in local queer history – will again play host to its annual Halloween street party. But did you know that the event was born from an exceptionally crowded Halloween night in 1977 at Herbies’ (now the Drunken Fish) at the corner of Euclid and Maryland?
Indeed, the iconic gay nightclub was St. Louis’ own Studio 54 where the beautiful people boogied late into the night atop the trademark dance floor suspended from the ceiling.
Herbies’ was an award winning restaurant from 4:30 til 9 p.m. and destination-disco from 9 til 1:30 a.m. and owned by the colorful Herb Balaban (of Balaban’s Restaurant fame) and managed by his wife, the irrepressible and equally lovely Adalaide. The latter held court at the door complete with large, street-level windows. The glass and chrome hot spot located at the corner of Euclid and Maryland was the queer haunt of choice throughout the 1970s and early 1980s and ground zero for the Central West End Halloween celebration.
The two story complex was the prettiest, the smartest and the most up-to-date facility in St. Louis and stood in marked contrast to the majority of LGBT bars. In short—people wanted to be seen there.
The Central West End was St. Louis’ undisputed gayborhood in the 1960s and 70s until heterosexual awareness and Mayor A.J. Cervantes and his Maryland Plaza Redevelopment Corporation priced a majority of our community out.
But Halloween 1977 was the zenith for LGBT life at Herbies’ and the capacity crowd soon spilled out into the street. For the next seven years, costumed revelers by the tens of thousands would pack the Central West End.
According to Central West End business owner Gregory Smith, it was a magical time with creative costumes of both size and scope. But things quickly grew out of hand.
The once predominantly gay party had grown in popularity – much like today’s Soulard Mardi Gras – and drew an influx of crowds from the county and across the river. Folks could be seen crawling up the ornate light fixtures, throwing beer bottles at Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, Jr., who was one of the costume judges – and even trying to punch a horse out from under a mounted policeman.
Much of the foolishness could be blamed on overcrowding and revelers bringing coolers with alcohol and drinking to excess.
By 1984, residents had endured enough and the festivities were halted. More than a decade would pass before the celebration would be revived (albeit with stricter rules and regulations) to once again become the diverse destination event for Halloween revelers across the region.
Still, the LGBT community would miss the creative outlet of the street party in the shadow of their beloved Herbies’ and after a couple of years sans celebration, The Late Knights of Pythias was born and would hold its annual Halloween Ball late into the night.
The Pythians, as they were known, were a cadre of creative and artistic types (mostly gay) who would come together and create a magical space out of vacant, unique buildings. Creative costumes were a must and each year thousands of area LGBTers would wait to see what the group had up its creative sleeve. The parties operated through 1996 when the group disbanded. The Pythians will be remembered as a philanthropic organization that entertained a generation and donated thousands of dollars to area LGBT and HIV/AIDS charities.
It’s little wonder that our tribe loves Halloween. It offers the perfect opportunity for self expression, revelry and utter fabulousness. It was also safe harbor for our community when the world was a far less accepting place.
Have a safe and festive holiday. And watch out for the ghosts.