The Cooper Do-nuts Uprising

Cooper Do-nuts sign

Cooper Do-nuts sign (image source: Stephen Seemayer and Pamela Wilson’s film, Young Turks (1982)

May 1959: Seven years before Silver Lake‘s Black Cat Riot and ten before New York‘s Stonewall riots, a group of drag queens and hustlers clashed with LAPD officers at Cooper Do-nuts (also often referred to as Cooper’s Doughnuts or Cooper’s Donuts) usually considered to be the first gay uprising in modern history.

Before nearby Broadway arose as Los Angeles’s premier theater district (around the 1920s), most of the nickelodeons and theaters were along Main Street — two blocks east. In the 1930s and ’40s, Downtown declined when Jews — shunned from the downtown protestant establishment, moved their residences, businesses and investments to Hollywood, Midtown, and the Westside. Other “not-quite-whites” moved east and to the Valley when the exclusionary definition of all important “whiteness” grew slightly broader.

In the 1950s, the mainstream view was that Downtown was dead. The reality was rather different. Bunker Hill continued to bustle with life. Thousands of the city’s poor continued to sleep on the streets and in residential hotels around Skid Row and the Historic Core. Latinos turned Broadway into a busy shopping street and foreign cinema scene. Gays and other “subversives” found a degree of refuge in “seedy” city center.

Main Street Los Angeles in the 1950s

Some of Main’s theaters continued to operate, such as the Optic Theatre (533 S. Main). Main and the surrounding area was also home to several clubs and bars popular with gays like the Biltmore, the Brass Rail, the Cellar (521 S. Main), the Crown Jewel (754 S. Olive), Harold’s 555 Club (555 S. Main), Jolie’sMaxwell’s, the Numbers, the 326 (326 S. Spring), the Waldorf, and the Burbank (548 S. Main), which featured Jazz, and burlesque, &c. There were also numerous small eateries, one of which wasCooper’s Doughnuts, a 24 hour coffee and donut spot popular with a clientele comprised in part of multiracial trans and hustlers. The network of gay hangouts came to be known as “The Run.”

Not just shunned by straight society, transgendered people were often further marginalized by the larger gay community as well, in part because their higher profile attracted unwanted police attention. To “protect and serve,” LAPD police chief William H. Parker (known as “Wild Bill Parker” by the queer community) had made arresting criminals guilty of “sex perversion” his department’s priority number one. According to Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, 2006), when Parker became chief in 1950, arrests for the crime of being gay increased 86.5%.

left to right: Nancy Valverde (arrested in 1952 for masquerading), Glen or Glenda, and Ray Bourbon (arrested in 1955)

Transgendered people made obvious targets and were imprisoned in large numbers for the crime of “masquerading” (despite the fact that courts had declared such behavior not criminal in 1950 — at least for women). On the night of the riot, as they did on many nights, LAPD officers entered the donut shop and demanded to see the patrons’ IDs. If the sex on their ID didn’t match their gender, it was department policy to throw them in jail — usually a wing of the Lincoln Heights Jail nicknamed “The Fruit Tank.”

On the night of the Cooper Do-nuts uprising, five (or three, depending on accounts) patrons were arrested but when the cops tried to shove them into the back of a single cruiser, a struggle ensued and all of the arrested “sex perverts” escaped.
The rest of the patrons (including author John Francis Rechy, who chronicled the happenings in the Main Street “gay ghetto” in his 1963 novel, City of Night) hurled coffee, donuts and paper plates, and more at the officers, forcing them to retreat and later return with larger numbers. When the police returned, a full blown riot ensued and as a result a section of Main was closed for a day. The riots may’ve been quelled but a spark would seem to have been ignited.

In 1966, seven years after Los Angeles’s uprising, a similar incident took place at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. In 1996, on the 40th anniversary theCompton’s Cafeteria Riot, a commemorative historical marker was installed at the corner of Taylor and Turk. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the former home of Cooper’s (apparently located on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Building at 315 5th Street), there is no indication of the site’s historic importance.

Cooper Do-Nuts in Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles

Cooper Do-Nuts in (image source: Kent MacKenzie‘s film The Exiles (1961)

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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