Hi everyone — greetings from the History Dept.
The Elks built their grand downtown Tacoma building in 1915-16. After fifty years, the organization decided to move across Commencement Bay to the suburbs in a brand-new, modernized building. The lovely old Elks building on Broadway then sat empty for six years until 1971. And then, for a decade and a half, it enjoyed a resurgence of life and vibrancy as a multi-use building called the 565 Broadway – at various points, it contained a theater, a non-profit, a restaurant, piano bar and other small businesses.
The fantastic spaces within the 565 Broadway were also rented out to community groups; the property served as an important gathering spot for those who were unable to find suitable (or even welcoming) venues elsewhere in the city.
Read on about Joe Cowan (stage name: DeLorean Snow), an important figure to Tacoma’s then-underground LGBTQ community.
“It was kind of showing wear and tear, but…it was cool. It was grand. It was majestic.” – Joe Cowan, describing the former Tacoma Elks Lodge in the 1980s, then known as the 565 Broadway Building.
Cool. Grand. Majestic. These same words also aptly describe the gay community’s events taking place in the former Elks’ Lodge during the 1970s and ’80s, of which Joe played a pivotal role. And add to that: “historically significant” – prior to this period, Tacoma’s gay residents were still effectively closeted, with nowhere in the city for them to gather as a group and no real sense of community.
Joe Cowan arrived in Tacoma from Aberdeen, WA, in 1980. He’d seen his first drag queen in Tacoma years earlier and had been captivated by the glamour and artistry of the drag lifestyle. As a statuesque performer with huge clouds of platinum-blonde hair, reminiscent of ’80s actress Loni Anderson, Joe (who went by DeLorean Snow, shown here at the top of the Spanish Steps in 1985) quickly became a pageant regular, a popular presence at gay events around town and a leader within the community. As his friend Doug Gonzalez recalls, “Joe would walk into a room and people would take note. He could still walk into a room today, and people know DeLorean Snow. It’s a name people know. So, he is probably the most highly regarded drag queen in Tacoma.”
Tacoma in the late 1970s and 1980s was a different place from the town we know today. During this period, the small gay community was unwelcome by the city at large. Gay men were frequently harassed or even beaten up by locals and police alike, often because of their attire. So, the drag community was routinely stopped by police, where they were forced to endure humiliation and harassment including the “three article rule,” an arcane law that said men must be wearing at least three items of male clothing in public. Never one to shy away from speaking up for his community, Joe Cowan and a few friends opted to use male tights as their third article, making a point but opening themselves up to even greater harassment.
And during these difficult, early years, Tacoma – unlike Portland and Seattle – had no designated gay bars. Sure, there were a few local clubs that were willing to turn a blind eye and open their dance floors to gay clientele one or two nights a week, but it was extremely difficult to find venues that would rent event space to the gay community.
Then the old Elks Lodge came into the picture. The fraternal group had relocated to a new lodge and the aging old place was revived under new ownership as a venue for catered events, named for its address: The 565 Broadway Building. Its house manager, an older Scandinavian gentleman, was unfazed by a group of 300 drag queens and friends partying until 4 o’clock in the morning, exploring and having fun (sometimes too much fun) throughout the massive building. “As a matter of fact,” Joe remembers, “the guy’s only rule was, he says, ‘I don’t care what you do, you just have to buy our liquor. Or our food, one of the two.’” As long as the bill was paid at the end of the night, everyone was happy.
From the outset, these were grand affairs, and they brought more cohesion to the larger gay “courts” from around the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The Barony Ball held by the Tacoma Court in November 1975 was almost certainly the first openly gay social event in the city’s history. Costumes were of utmost importance, massive, handcrafted confections that brought characters out of the pages of novels, revisited historical figures or simply let an active imagination run free. The music and dance numbers were likewise dramatic. But nothing was quite so spectacular as the Coronation opening ceremonies themselves, when each court would strut their stuff in a bid to win over the crowd. Out-of-town guests were expected to one-up each other, every glitzy, spangled costume and exuberant walk more elaborate than the next. Being carried in on a chaise lounge was considered highly suitable transportation for the evening. The parties were long, raucous and often punctuated by impromptu drag performances.
Such colorful, festive and safe offerings at the 565 Broadway provided a much-needed release and refuge and some sense of hope going forward. But this was also the time when, throughout the country, AIDS was decimating whole communities while the government looked the other way.
Thus, these events held at the 565 Broadway Building had a second critical purpose: to generate financial assistance for those in need. Joe Cowan and other Tacoma drag performers participated in benefits to help defray the medical expenses of friends and family members coping with AIDS. In 1985, Joe and a few hundred friends attended the last pageant at the 565 before the building closed and was sold, marking the end of a very significant time in the city’s history.
The old Elks Temple remains a powerful place for Joe and others who lived through this period. Remembering their history here helps shine a light on the injustices they endured. And in 2013, Tacoma was celebrated by The Advocate magazine as America’s Gayest City, a recognition that deserves to be heralded. As Joe Cowan says today, “Things are very much changed in Tacoma for the gay community. Much for the better.”
With thanks to history contributor Kathleen Mingus