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Herbies' History

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By Steven Brawley

October 30, 2016: St. Louis' Herbies' was legendary. No account of St. Louis' LGBT history is completed without the wild stories of the bar, its staff, and patrons. Herbies' was the epicenter of St. Louis' CWE and its early 1970s Halloween celebrations.

During 2016, a group of former Herbies' staff and patrons began a Facebook group to recall remembrances of the storied bar. The following history was posted to the group along with several memories from Herbies' staff. Thanks to the entire group for sharing their recollections.

Herbies’ History: Edited by Richard Schulte

Having successfully opened Balaban's in 1972. Herbie Balaban Carp (he later dropped the Carp on the death of his stepfather I.L.Carp) felt he had more to achieve. What he had set out to do was restoring the Central West End, a once tony area with shops, tea rooms, luxury housing, and tons of fading charm.

With Saks, Montaldo's, Peck and Peck, and other stores leaving Maryland Plaza, the popular Woman's Exchange, a charming lunch and retail business at the corner of Maryland and Euclid, also made the exodus and this opened up a huge opportunity to the ambitious developer.The impressive Art Deco building would make a top rate restaurant with great style and panache as only Herbie could do.

Along with his bar manager from Balaban's, Herb Glazier, they would open Herbies’. Employing former St. Louisan Jimmy Miller, a designer and artist, Patsy Degener, and a full gamut of additional St. Louis talent - including Sam Langley who designed and painted the iconic Art Deco penguin windows, their project grew into probably the most unique eatery in the country.

The publicity was instantaneous.The menu items included New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, Steak Diane, and Bananas Foster. The wait staff wore pleated grey striped trousers, pale green shirts, and burgundy sweater vests. The hostess was the stunning African American model Carmen Davis and Ernst Trova style planters were placed along brushed chrome railings and brimmed with fresh flowers.

No expenses were spared. The reception locally was mixed with people expecting a new Balaban’s. Herb Glazier installed top of the line bar equipment including a drink "gun" that gave a one ounce shot of liquor, the proper amount, but locals were used to a good full hand poured shots, and the place got a reputation as an expensive bar with weak drinks.

The food while interesting, but wasn’t as drop dead over the top wonderful as Adalaide Balaban and Lady Charles had down the street at Balaban’s, and the crowds thinned.

Glazier, a well intentioned man was no Herbie, and as a host had no panache. He would never buy anyone a drink, and all this fantasia seemed hopelessly wasted. Things went from bad to worse when it was found that a Herbies' waiter had hepatitis and died. The place was dying on the vine. Glazier got antsy and wanted to be bought out within the first year and a half of business.

Herbie’s wife Adalaide, who didn't want the place at all initially, was thrown in as Herbie was needed full-time at the ever booming, ever expanding Balaban’s. New dining rooms could not be opened fast enough. Adalaide was close friends with employee John Sullivan, a young gay man, delighted with the world of grown ups and his very open sexuality. He had traveled to San Francisco and New York and was thrilled with the disco bars and the in your face openness of Castro Street and Greenwich Village.

Several adventurous St. Louis businessmen hoping to capture that type of excitement opened a bar (the Bijou) at the very East end of Maryland Avenue at Boyle in a loft warehouse space with a disco booth featuring a big personality DJ named Byron Boone, a young beautiful black drag queen who had worked worked at Helen Schrader's in East St Louis.

The St Louis gay bar scene was monopolized by some Greek brothers and their girlfriends, and they still had that dark Grand and Olive bar feeling.The Gate an alcohol free "chicken" bar was opened after the bars closed at 1:30 am, and brought the guys from the other dated bars like the Onyx Room, Martin's,The Potpourri, and several lesbian bars that were on the South side with a very rough and tough reputation.

The nearby Bijou, the new Chicago style disco, was getting very popular. Then a fire closed Bijou, of course everyone thought it was a turf war, and an arson attack. Probably, none of which was true. So Adalaide Balaban, with this upscale beautiful dead dog and John Sullivan got talking. Why not turn Herbies' into a show stopper gay bar? John wanted to be behind the bar with a popular bartender from Martin's (Mike Taylor) and wanted the former Bijou DJ - the legendary, darkly moody Byron Boone - to come spin at Herbies’. There was already a small dance floor and a DJ booth, and all that was needed was some TLC.

John asked Adalaide if he could hire the waiters.The female cocktail waitresses from Balaban's would add the fresh mix euro sexual feeling, and in a few weeks Adalaide had Steven Tomlinson working for her, a stunningly beautiful young man with a body that made men, women, and children cry. Steven had some friends from the Chicago bar scene. Tommy Tedesco came to work too, a sexy Italian kid with an accent like the Bronx, who was fun and his long ponytail was fresh and hot.

Vera Vogue, aka Vernon Davis, a “is it a He or She” black drag queen waited tables. The early dinner crowd would say "Oh Miss" and Vera wouldn't miss a beat. A great looking blond kid from Marissa, Illinois named Larry soon became Miss Marissa. Everybody was a superstar!Sullivan went around town to the bars letting everyone know what was up and within a month the crowds outside were like it was Studio 54. 

Soon you could hear, “Yes you can come in”, “sorry not tonight sweetheart, you acted very badly last weekend”. Herbies’ member I.D. cards were issued and were a must have accessory along with your knee warmers or whatever the superstars were wearing. Steven sported a man bun 30 years before anyone had heard the term. Vera had parachute pants, Larry had those jelly sandals, Sullivan at 6'5" wore the biggest platform "Corkease sandals" ordered from Tootsies, a hot new shoe shop on Maryland Plaza.

The crowds kept coming. The women from the shops around there; Vickie, a 6ft plus blonde from the Inner Circle, along with her adorable sidekick Maggie, a petite little blonde who went with a behemoth of a biker named Animal.

The much beloved Billy Oberbeck and the chic Mary Wool with her Phyllis Diller laugh. Paula Wills was reed thin tall with loopy curls, green leather pants, and scarf turned into a top model. Lady Charles, the chef from Balaban's with his three inch nails and spider tattoos. Diane Grant a shop keeper from across the street looked like she blew in from the Hamptons. Real stars like Iggy Pop, Bill Blass, Carolyn Roehm, Rudolph Nureyev, Andy Warhol, and his Muse Lulu De Faulaise were all here. Poor Michael Edlin and his cousin Jamie Edlin, a chanteuse from Al Baker's, were trying to get a seat by Warhol and the entire staff was on a mission to keep them separated.

Adalaide drank her coffee from a wine glass prompting all to think she lived on red wine. Her vintage clothing wardrobe was legendary. She had the most fun of all. Herbie called Adalaide from Balaban's one evening to tell her that the Principesa de Padua was dining at Balaban’s and he wanted to introduce her. She flew up the street on her Vespa. When they were introduced, the Princess said to Adalaide "We hear you run a poufster bar up the street, I just despise poufs (gays)”. Without missing a beat Adalaide said to the grand Dame "well, my dear, you are going to be one lonely old lady someday.” She couldn't get back to Herbies' fast enough.

Herbies’ was a supernova! Dozens of bottles of champagne were served nightly. A true phenomenon written up in Town and Country and W., but like all supernovas it burned bright and quick and by spring of 1979 it was over.

But, Herbies' legacy lives on. The Central West End's famous Halloweens are a product of Herbies’, and thanks to this bar, members of the LGBT family had never had to hide in a dingey bar again.

Remembrances of Herbies’:

Steven Snyder: Herbies’ was the most fun chapter in my life. I came in as a waiter in 1978 and while not gay, played up my appearance wearing a little makeup and tight jeans. I had no idea at the time that I'd come out later in life as a trans female. When i started Michael Taylor was the bar manager and Jim, (can't remember his last name) was the food manager.

Lee Redel was either a bartender or cocktail waiter. Irin was also a bartender and Helen ran the kitchen. Every night was like a party. I met so many wonderful people and became part of a late night group who would always hang out on Euclid after the bars closed. My dear friend and busboy Jerry Blase died of AIDS several years after Herbies' closed.

One night some of the the performers from the Ice Capades who were in town came to Herbies and Jerry hooked up with one of the guys, and me with one of the women, and we followed them to Kansas City the next weekend. Such was life at Herbies’. Jimmy Gerber, longtime friend who was my busboy, and I stayed on at the new Cajun restaurant that went into Herbies after it closed. I later moved onto Bobby’s Creole in the Delmar loop as bartender/manager. And spent my last years in the restaurant business there.

Greg Alexander: One Saturday night, Byron announced that the Potpourri was being raided. He said " If you are underage, please leave the bar NOW!” There was a bit of a panic, and about half of the bar cleared out.

My friends and I made the decision not to leave. We were ALL underage, but had been using fake ID's to get in. And of course, Herbies' was not raided that night, but Adelaide and the doorman did pay attention to the people who had left.

The next weekend, everyone was carded, even us "regulars", and I know a lot of people who could never come back in after that. And my favorite thing about Adelaide was she loved her regulars, and would tell people in line out front, " step back, these are members" as we went waltzing in past them.

Adalaide Cash Balaban: Thinking of the first days at Herbies’, I did not want another restaurant. Well, Herbie did and he had a partner in Herbie Glazer that wanted to open one in the old Tea Room. I said okay, as long as I would not ever need to be there. The space was renovated by Herbie, It was beautiful. I didn't even want to go to the opening. I wore the dreariest brown dress I owned. 

It started well enough but soon trouble started. Glazer was well meaning but he was not the man for a new style bar restaurant. He was more of the pub owner type. Things rumbled on. Not bad - but not great. We had an awful experience with a waiter who suffered with hepatitis and died. Things then went from bad to awful. Glazer had had enough.

I ended up at the wheel. It was Johnny, John Sullivan, that had the vision that saved the business and paved the way for an amazing evolution in the acceptance of the gay community as customers and members of the prevailing community. I will always be greatful to the early customers and regulars, but I will never forget the man that made it possible. Thanks Johnny.

Source: Friends of Herbies' Facebook group. 

Copyright Steven L. Brawley, 2007-2015. All Rights Reserved.