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Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015 12:01 am

Raising a last toast to Smokey, friend of gay Springfield

MARY LOU SCHNEIDER Dec. 29, 1928-Jan. 1, 2015


At 2 p.m. on Jan. 11 the faithful gathered to celebrate the life and passing of a V.I.P. to the Springfield gay and lesbian community. After all these years, the memorial was held in the last location of “Smokey’s Den,” which closed in 2003. The gathering was in a bar now called “The Elixir,” on Washington between Fourth and Fifth Streets.

Mary Lou Schneider died Jan. 1, 2015. Born in 1928, a native of Jacksonville, she owned and operated “Smokey’s Den” in three locations over the years, beginning in 1966. This was during a time when in large cities gay bars were often owned by organized crime and the police raided the bars routinely. The Stonewall riots in New York City took place in June of 1969, and most mark that date as the beginning of the gay rights movement. So The Den opened three years before Stonewall, and if things were bad in a big city, the prejudices and violence here in the Midwest made an openly gay bar a testament to Smokey’s courage and savvy. Because each patron had much to lose if outed – important things including jobs, housing, families and sometimes their lives – she deliberately cultivated good relations with the Springfield police. Even then, when the police came into the bar, the practice was for someone to yell “Switch” and the boys would dance with the girls and the girls would dance with boys. She also told patrons that the police probably would come in, and when they did, patrons were to show their identification and say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” There may not have been protection for gays outside of the bar, but inside Smokey kept a safe place.

Smokey’s Den was the first in Springfield to be openly referred to as a gay bar. By the time it closed, it was the oldest gay bar in Illinois. It provided a place where lesbians and gay men could meet, dance, drink and party without fear. Smokey’s was one of the first bars in the state to marquee professional drag shows in 1967, and queens gravitated from all over the state to the little bar. During the early days, drag queens used to come from St. Louis up to Springfield. A bar owner actually chartered buses that took his patrons up to Smokey’s Den because cross-dressing was illegal in Missouri. Smokey was the promoter of the Miss Gay Illinois America pageant. For years she operated the spotlight for the shows. From time to time, she also participated in them.

On Jan. 11 the bar was packed, almost as crowded as it would have been on a Saturday night in 1990. The crowd was made up of people who remembered what it was like when they were young. The people who talked about her said she was a diehard Cubs fan, she had a dog that spent nights in the Fifth Street bar and she kept a gun behind the bar. Smokey had a big heart and would help anyone. She supported local GLBT organizations, but she always kept an eye toward the profit. She had her rules and one was no violence. Fighting got you banned for two weeks. It didn’t matter who threw the first punch, both of you were out.

Before the bar opened in Springfield, she played fast pitch baseball and was elected to the Illinois Women’s Softball Hall of Fame, so it was natural that when she also hosted get-togethers outside the bar they would include softball. Someone told a story about a softball game with Smokey’s Den against Helen’s Gee-I (another bar on North Fifth Street in the 1960s). Miss Pauline (a notorious and colorful drag queen) was all dressed out in a fur. She was the catcher. One of the balls hit her smack in the face and knocked her out cold. Someone splashed water on her face to bring her out of it, and the first thing she said when she woke up was, “Are my eyelashes still on?”

Today’s young people are protected by laws that were not in existence in 1966 and they will never know the difficulties of living gay in an earlier time. They will also never comprehend how close gays all became. Many were disowned by their own families and at Smokey’s they became a new and strange kind of family; they took care of their own. This crowd gathered to remember the good times and to lament the passing of Mary Schneider. “Smokey” was a woman who made a difference in the lives of these people. And they came to raise a toast to Smokey, for all she meant to them.

As someone said, “She made a place for us when there was no place for us.”

Martha Miller is the author of Tales from the Levee and Buff Carmichael is the former publisher of The Prairie Flame.


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