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A grope in the dark

A grope in the dark

Steambaths, darkrooms and unadorned orgies of 1970s Vancouver
I have to admit that it was with some amusement that I recently watched the lads of Vancouver Men in Leather get their cockrings in a twist over their fraught relationship with Five Sixty.

Ah, I thought to myself. So we’re still at it!

Of course we’re still at it. It’s just that most of the “still at it” going on these days is well past this old queer’s bedtime, so it’s off my radar. But backroom and darkroom sex has been a fixture for as long as anyone can remember.

Steambaths are the natural home of such accommodations, inhabited as they are by hordes of naked and near-naked men looking for a dark corner, any dark corner, to act out their passions. There were even rumours in the 1970s that an earlier generation had enjoyed themselves lasciviously in the darker corners of the old Montreal Club, later the site of the definitely non-orgiastic Basin Street Cabaret.

It was in 1970 or ’71, during my first ever visit to a bathhouse, when Walter and Brooks opened the Taurus Spa on Hornby Street, just south of Davie, that I caught my first glimpse of the possibilities.

B&B Club owner Keith Rotsey dragged my bathhouse-virgin ass off to the opening party after we’d closed his bottle-club establishment for the night.

At the top of a rickety wooden ramp on a mezzanine level at the back of the establishment, they had created a large, unlit space with a waterbed smack in the middle. I know it sounds odd today, but waterbeds were all the rage in the ’70s and seemed an exciting accessory to what quickly became known as “The Ballroom.”

And ball we did! Well, some of us anyway.

Walter and Brooks were pretty creative with the use of the nooks and crannies of their converted warehouse space, and several corners of the floorplan ended up with such descriptive names as “The Prayer Room” (complete with pew).

But the most memorable darkroom action that the Taurus, or any other establishment in my memory, offered was up a flight of stairs to a storage space above the front entrance, coffee bar and pool table. There you’d find a truly dark room, unlit except for a faint spill of light from the doorway, which was just the reflection from the light at the bottom of the stairs. About 15 feet square, with benches built against three walls, this was a completely unadorned and unvarnished orgy room, without even the dignity of a stained and tattered mattress. Four walls, a floor, three ledges, all painted flat black. Near-total darkness.

Party on, boys!

But it got worse, or better, depending on your outlook. Certainly sleazier.

For if you worked your way through the 15 or 20 undulating bodies that could be found enjoying the big darkroom, against the furthest wall you’d find the almost undetectable hole-in-the-wall entry to an even darker space. So dark nobody was ever sure how big it was. I don’t think a six-footer could stand upright in the space. If six or eight bodies found their way to that cubbyhole at one time, and they often did, that was pretty much a full house.

It was dark, it was sweaty, it reeked of poppers, and nobody was ever sure who they’d had or who had had them.

Now that, you Five Sixty amateurs, was an orgy!

The Taurus was my first bathhouse experience, and my only for a couple of years, though Vancouver enjoyed the services of at least six steamers in the early ’70s. But while the action was mostly gay in most of them by that decade, all but the Richards Street Service Club had evolved from long-standing public steambaths that catered to mixed clienteles. So the “amenities” weren’t anywhere near as clearly geared to queer group-sex needs as those of the dear old Taurus.

Our clubs were all bottle clubs at the time, operating on the thin edge of the law at the best of times, so the owners weren’t taking any more chances than they had to. Not, that is, until Keith’s B&B became Jim and John’s Playpen (later the Playpen South) and we were treated to our first semi-official “backroom” experience.

Others followed, but very few. The Corral on Seymour Street had a space at the rear for those who could find it, but no effort was made to make it comfortable. There was some dark-corner groping in the former August Club after it became the Shaggy Horse, but that never quite got traction.

So just for the record, the current crop of leathermen and circuit party queens didn’t exactly invent the idea of the backroom orgy. And, not to be too much of a nag about it, keep in mind that in the ’80s and ’90s my generation paid dearly for the wretched excesses of the ’70s, and many are still paying down that tab today.

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