This article was written by Harlan Greene and appeared in Charleston Magazine in an edited form.
On a sultry night in May 1978, people gathered in front of an empty JC Penny Department Store on King Street. Folks in jeans stared at those in black tie; jeweled ladies with swept-up hair looked askance at a men with long hair and earrings. Few of those pouring in, when the doors opened, could have realized they were witnessing a sea change in Charleston’s social history, or that the rush was similar to the storming of the Bastille. For on that night and the thousands that followed, folks had too much of a good time to note the fall of the Old Regime. The opening of the disco the Garden and Gun Club ushered in a new democratic era in the city; beforehand, blue bloods went to the Yacht Club; college kids went to noisy bars on George; African Americans, navy base employees, and gay men and women all went their separate ways to drink and meet. Now there was place to cross the class, gender and racial lines that previously had seemed as fixed as the traffic lanes on Broad Street, or as immutable as the laws of physics that kept the planets (and people in Charleston) in their place. Suddenly all bets were off, all orbits mixed.
The genius behind the place, the ring leader who dared mix all social classes of Charleston just as his dozens of handsome bartenders would serve up drinks, was Dick Robison. A native of South Bend, Indiana, Dick had been managing the box office at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. The Potomac had frozen two winters in a row; this sent Dick south “in search of palm trees.” His yacht entered Charleston harbor in March 1977. Seeing only palmettos, he stayed nevertheless, having accepting the management of Spoleto Box office, and having been assured there’d be no riot due to his one ear-ring – one of the very first, if not the first, to be seen in a man’s ear, since pirates had walked the streets
After working all day, and attending performances at night, Dick and the diva of Spoleto’s first operatic production wanted to dance; the only disco nearby was a dank bar called the Lion’s Head, in Hasell Street. The corners were dark, and something of a self preservation impulse told you not to peer into them too closely. The dance floor swayed like a Pawley’s Island hammock, and jumped like a joggling board or trampoline; Dick looked around and saw world class performers in seedy dives, and that triggered the idea.
With eleven thousand dollars “burning a hole in my pocket,” access via realtor Vic Brandt to the old JC Penny’s department store building, where now Charleston Place stands, (and with half the block conveniently empty for a parking lot), Dick had a place. And he had friends; with their help, the whole job assumed the “can do” feeling of an old Mickey Rooney Judy Garland film, when someone says, “Hey kids, I’ve got a barn full of costumes; let’s put on a show!”
Volunteer carpenters were still hammering the dance floor five minutes before the grand opening; and Terry Fox, pressed into a service as bartender, got through the first few weeks, he says, cheating with a drink guide in hand. But improbably, the club, set only to be open just for Spoleto, was suddenly where everyone in Charleston had to be seen; and unlike Studio 54 in New York, there was no snobbery at the door; anyone could get into this inclusive, friendly, happening night spot.
South Carolina’s antiquated liquor laws dictated that the only restaurants could serve liquor; so if you wanted to pour gin and tonics, and not just beer and wine, without kitchen staff, you had to go through a loophole, and become a private club. There were more clubs then in Charleston than families claiming old pedigrees, more dues paying members than those tithing churches in the Holy City. The Garden and Gun Club, or “the G and G” as it was soon affectionately called, was the grandest of them all.
The difference was not in name only. (The name came from Dick’s aim to appeal to the garden club ladies and the gun toting men). “This is a mixed club,” began the membership rules one had to sign; it was your pledge of allegiance to enter this brand new zone of equal opportunity. Black and white, rich, poor straight and gay were welcome; if you don’t like it, the bylaws, read, don’t join and don’t come in. People came in droves, the club membership swelling to 4,000 eventually. On some weekends it seemed they were all there – and had brought a friend. But the G and G, like a gracious Charleston hostess, made room for everyone in its 14,000 square feet — a huge ground floor with dancing and an upper mezzanine. The whole building hummed and sent out good vibrations like a holy man mediating. Caught up in the place’s lights and music, you knew life was good, you would always be young and the truth was as easy to follow as a throbbing disco beat.
During the week, you might have cleaned a house for a lady down south of Broad, but you could dance with her at the Gun Club after sundown; doctors saw their patients; royalty chatted with drag queens. One wonders how many twenty to thirty something Charlestonians were conceived after their parents left at the 2 a.m. closing. Nor is there a possible totaling up to the economic losses to the city as bankers, merchants and construction workers, called out the morning after, nursing hangovers, vowing to return to the club, and their alternate lives, that same evening. All Spoleto performers were issued memberships; I remember seeing my sister kiss Tennessee Williams, a noted violinist enslaved to the disco beat; and ballerinas line dancing. If dancing was not your thing, there were wicker chairs, later replaced with leather, to watch from, or you could peer from the mezzanine. There were Spoleto posters everywhere, potted palms, an occasional waiter on roller skates, some Sunday brunches, a periodic drag show or appearance of the Chippendales, but mostly people just went to mingle and meet in a place of equality; other bars and places appealed to one group only.
“The G and G freed us from all that,” novelist Julian Gabriel Colado wrote in Hiding Among the Palmettos. “It symbolized the new open mind of the city. Corpses had shed their hundred years of dust, donned their capes and gowns, and had gone to the ball. People felt free to float in a bar without any boundaries, both in the literal and figurative sense. Here inhibitions had been purged by the rituals of drink and dance all to a beat toasted by a nose full of poppers.”
The G and G club lasted for three years — without a single incident of violence; but just as club founder/ philosopher Dick Robison had torn down the walls of separation, so the walls of the Gun Club themselves tumbled. The building was torn down and replaced by the Omni Hotel, now Charleston Place – where in the area northeast of the King Street doorway, people danced till the distinctive last song –a medley of The Charleston and Carolina in the Morning — signaled the end of revelry.
With financial backing, the club moved to Hayne and Church, the current location of Hank’s Restaurant. But there was opposition. A church owned property nearby and protested the bar, though the site was really a gym. The club soon became a target of the vice squad, raiding it again and again, arresting the manager on trumped up technicalities. Private clubs could pour from open bottles at private parties – the club had private parties for its members; but the police would rush in later, finding open bottles, not mini bottles, locked up, but still on the premises. It was almost as if the hole in history was closing; and forces did not want the free mingling anymore, but desired the rigid old codes restored. Dick read the handwriting on the wall when the chief of police told him that he had no trouble per se with people “of the homosexual persuasion.” The vice squad kept coming. “Enough was enough,” reminiscences Robeson, “I decided to go out with bang.” When the police came in one night in 1984, Dick said. “OK, arrest me,” and they did.
An era was over; the G and G closed its doors, to become nothing but a memory, and Dick Robison went to find his palm trees; he now lives in Ft. Lauderdale.
When asked about the success of the place, he takes no credit. “It worked because of the members, because they wanted it to work; the members of the club, gay and straight, white and black, made it.” It was more than a club –the opening and closing of it marked the opening and closing of an era.
The changes wrought by that place and that time are still with us; Charleston is more tolerant city than it used to be. You can search fruitlessly for The Garden and Gun Club in Google, or look without success for proof of its existence in archives and libraries; but it existed nonetheless, and is remembered as a fabled palace in dreams and memories. Just ask anyone who was in town in the late seventies and early eighties about the Garden and Gun, and ten to one, you’ll be flashed a grin as someone remembers a specific golden moment, or just the swirl of intensity that throbbed there each evening. It was glamorous, it was fun; it was our touch of the big city. For many of us, it was our youth and now it is our history.
The novelist Colado wrote the club’s epitaph: “ It seemed that for one brief instant the city was deluded into believing that race, gender, social standing, religion, politics, sexual orientation and money did not matter” — no small accomplishment in a city that had been stratified as geological layers for 300 years.