Club Carousel cabaret celebrates queer history

Famed Calgary club comes back to life for one night only

“Club Carousel was the genesis of the queer culture in Calgary” says Paul Welch Third Street Theatre’s artistic director.

Calgary’s gay theatre company is bringing the famed historical club back to life for one night only. Audiences can expect a cabaret-styled show featuring everything from drag to burlesque spoken word and musical performances. There’s also a bit of cultural commentary thrown in for good measure.

Club Carousel was a private members club located downtown on First Street S.W. It opened its doors in 1969 right after homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada but that doesn’t mean being queer was suddenly safe or accepted says Welch.

“I was assaulted on 17th Ave. myself a couple years ago” he says. “For Club Carousel to exist at that time is remarkable.”

Welch says it wasn’t a political group but a social club for the queer community. “It was a safe place to dance have a drink and watch a show” he says.

The club was open three nights a week and if you wanted to join you needed a sponsor. Members were known on a first-name basis only.

The club existed for 12 years and was active in the community doing charity work for the Calgary Police Service and Foothills Hospital among others. Welch says they also aided United Church ministers seeking advice in talking to queer members of their congregations. They even had a health clinic where members could get tested for Sexually Transmitted Infections.

Welch says the cabaret show was partly inspired by Kevin Allen’s Calgary Gay History Project which works to archive Calgary’s queer past. After meeting the owner of Club Carousel Welch says he felt he was finally learning about Calgary’s queer history something he says many in the community don’t learn until later in life.

“It’s not taught in school there’s a huge political backlash against that” he says. “Most people need to pursue graduate studies in university to learn about it.”

Welch says he went with a cabaret performance in keeping with the spirit of the original club. “I want it to have a social lounge energy to it” he says. “The club itself wasn’t a huge political machine — it was a place where people could go and feel like themselves.”

The show also includes a panel discussion about the issues facing Calgary’s queer community today. One of Club Carousel’s founders Lois Szabo will be taking part.

“In my experience young members of the queer community are often apathetic” Welch says. “Their friends came out when they were 12 so they assume it’s that easy for everyone else.”

He adds that the challenges of building and maintaining a Calgary gay club culture haven’t gotten easier since Club Carousel.

“People think it’s just Twisted Element getting drunk and hooking up with strangers” he says. “But there’s much more than that: there are book and sports clubs theatre and Fairy Tales. The challenge is getting the community together to thrive and prosper.”