Gay and night: Putting Toronto's queer nightlife back in shadows — shadow puppetry, that is

The early history of public gay life doesn't often come to light, but these Toronto filmmakers are bringing some of it out of the shadows through animation.

New exhibit explores the city's LGBTQ history through shadow puppet animation

A still from Meet Me Under The Clock. (Myseum Intersections)

The early history of public gay life doesn't often come to light, but Toronto filmmakers MidKnife Films are bringing some of this history out of the shadows — through shadow puppet animation.

The series of three short films, exploring the history of gay and lesbian nightlife in Toronto between the 1950s and 1970s, will screen at the Glad Day Bookshop as part of Myseum Intersections, a festival of exhibits exploring different perspectives of the city's cultural and historical diversity.

Depicting three standalone stories, the films use animation through shadow puppets created on overhead projectors — "the kind you would have had in your classroom," filmmaker Lauren Hortie explains — alongside archival material. Hortie, an illustrator and schoolteacher by trade, makes up MidKnife Films together with filmmaker Sonya Reynolds. For this project, the duo worked with different collaborators on the three films.

A still from Meet Me Under The Clock. (Myseum Intersections)

"We use this technique because the queer community was so marginalized and even criminalized in that time that there's not a ton of documentation," Hortie explains. "It wasn't like people were going out to gay bars and taking photos." They're inspired by the work of artists like Daniel Barrow and Shary Boyle, who also work with projector animation.

MidKnife's newest film "Meet Me Under the Clock" will have its debut at the festival. It focuses around a Yonge Street gay bar, the St. Charles Tavern, in the era from the 1970s until 1980. So named for the bar's distinctive clocktower (it's now a Curry's art supply store), the bar hosted well-known Halloween costume contests in the 1970s.

"Basically, thousands of people would show up to watch the drag queens enter for this Halloween contest, and a lot of them would throw eggs and bricks," Reynolds says.

Activism is really important, but we also like looking at bar culture — which is how people built communities, and socialized in a way that wasn't as overtly political, but was still really important to our culture.- Lauren Hortie

Hortie positions it as a counterpoint to contemporary parties that unfold close by today on Church Street. "For a lot of people, this was the first time they would have seen gay people publicly positioning themselves as gay people in front of an audience in the '70s, when that was really quite risky. And so a lot of people did experience a lot of violence."

For this film, they collaborated with presenting partner Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA), researcher Kate Zieman and Keith Cole, who worked with Hortie and Reynolds on the story. They interviewed men who had gone to the St. Charles in the 1970s, including Cole, who was in his teens at the time.

The other two short films focus on earlier history. "Whatever Happened to Jackie Shane?" starts off the trio, prompted by a record Hortie discovered at a record sale. Jackie Shane was a gay black performer Reynolds describes as "genderqueer" — though Shane was referred to as a drag queen at the time — who had a single at the top of Toronto's mainstream CHUM Chart in 1962 but subsequently disappeared from the public eye.

A still from Meet Me Under The Clock. (Myseum Intersections)

Up next, "Midnight at the Continental" looks at the history of The Continental, "the first long-standing gay and lesbian bar in Toronto." In the early 1960s, The Continental was located in the low-income neighbourhood known as The Ward, where Toronto City Hall stands today. The same neighbourhood was also home to many Chinese newcomer men who were brought to Canada as labourers and barred from bringing over spouses or families.

"You have these two marginalized communities that ended up side by side and ended up forming a lot of bonds, so they had relationships, they had friendships, they started businesses together — and then they were displaced for similar reasons," Reynolds says.

The research process for all of the films involved interviews and researching documents at the CLGA, including newspaper clippings from both mainstream and queer publications, and archival images, many of which show up to set scenes in all three films.

The pair chose to focus on the era from the 1960s and 1970s, "just before mainstream gay liberation and the [1981 Toronto] bathhouse riots," Hortie explains, "so we want to examine some of the history that came before that, because a lot of that activism is much better documented."

"Activism is really important, but we also like looking at bar culture — which is how people built communities and socialized in a way that wasn't as overtly political, but was still really important to our culture."

Gay and Night. Glad Day Bookshop, Toronto. Until April 3 with opening screening and party on March 24, 8pm. www.myseumoftoronto.com

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