The Cooper Do-nuts Uprising

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, trans women, and hustlers clashed with LAPD officers at a location of the local Cooper Do-nuts (also known as Cooper’s Donut DepotCooper’s Doughnuts or Cooper’s Donuts) chain, usually considered to be the first queer 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’s sheen faded when Jews — shunned by the city’s ruling Protestant establishment, abandoned the city center and moved their residences, businesses, and investments to Hollywood, Midtown, and the Westside. Other “not-quite-whites” like the Italians who’d made Little Italy moved east and and into the San Fernando Valley as the exclusionary definition of “whiteness” was broadened to include them.

By the the 1950s, the mainstream view was that Downtown was dead or at least somewhere respectable people avoided (aside from the Civic Center, of course). In reality, Downtown was undergoing a multi-racial renaissance. Bunker Hill continued to bustle with life, though. Many Japanese returned to the Little Tokyo from which they’d been torn and which turned into Bronzeville whilst they were interred in concentration camps. 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 commercial corridor with a vibrant foreign cinema scene. Gays and other marginalized “subversives” found a degree of refuge in the city’s “hopelessly heterogeneous” center.

The Waldorf Cellar and 519 Cafe

Some of Main’s theaters continued to operate, such as the Optic Theatre (533 S. Main), and Main Street along with the surrounding area was home to several clubs and bars popular with queer Angelenos nicknamed “the Run” that included the Biltmore Hotel bar (506 South Grand), the Brass Rail (336 South Hill), Waldorf Cellar (aka “The Cellar” — 521 South Main), the Crown Jewel (754 South Olive), the Gayaway Café (aka “the Gay Way” — 514 South Main), Harold’s 555 Club (also known as Harry’s) (555 South Main), Maxwell’s Cocktail Lounge (212 West 3rd), the 326 (326 South Spring), and the Burbank Theatre (548 South Main), which featured jazz, and burlesque, and other wholesome entertainment.

There were also numerous small eateries, one of which was Cooper Do-nuts, part of a family-owned chain of 24-hour coffee and donut shops. The one at 547 South Main Street was particularly popular with a clientele comprised in part of multiracial trans people and hustlers. The fact that Cooper Do-nuts was a chain has given more than a few historians a bit of confusion. There was also a Cooper at 441 South Hill Street, another at 316 East 5th Street, and perhaps others. If one is in doubt about which of the Cooper locations the riots took place at, consider the writing of John Francis Rechy, who was a participant, and who wrote in his 1963 novel, City of Night:

“…at Cooper’s Donuts on Main Street, a favorite after-hours hangout in Los Angeles’ downtown, two cops ostensibly checking I.D., a routine harassment, arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out. As the cops packed the back of the squad car, one of the men objected, shouting that the car was illegally crowded. While the two cops switched around to force him in, the others scattered out of the car. From the donut shop, everyone poured out. The police faced a barrage of coffee cups, spoons, trash. They fled into their car, called backups, and soon the street was bustling with disobedience. Gay people danced about the cars.”

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). If patrons gender appearence didn’t conform to the sex as listed on their ID, they could be arrested and thrown in jail — usually, a wing of the Lincoln Heights Jail nicknamed “The Fruit Tank.”

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 (derided 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)

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 the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, a commemorative historical marker was installed at the corner of Taylor and Turk. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, at the former location of Cooper, there is no indication of the site’s historic importance, a surface parking lot created in 1991.

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

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider 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?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

6 thoughts on “The Cooper Do-nuts Uprising

  1. Thank you for the specific details in your writing. I was looking for the location of the former Cooper Donuts and every article simply said “on Main St…” I also did not realize the image shown in almost every article is from The Exiles! Great info, very helpful. Thank you!

    Like

    1. Thanks for the appreciation! Finding the exact location was a bit of work. I can’t remember exactly but I think I uncovered about five different addresses. Many historians had assumed, it seems, that there was just one location (or spelling) of the donut chain and I found several credited as the location of the uprising. One source mentioned the intersection of 5th and Main. Looking through old newspapers online, I found a Cooper’s at that address surrounded by gay bars and figured it had to be that one.

      I couldn’t find any pictures of Coopers or the uprising online anywhere and so I took a screenshot of Exiles on my laptop. I’ve since seen the exact picture used in a lot of pieces about the uprising without any ever crediting me (for my research, not for the image) — but hey, that’s how internet journalism goes! So it’s nice to get a comment like yours.

      In the interest of bucking the trend and celebrating others… check out Chris Cruse’s’ “Queer Maps,” — which also includes Cooper’s.

      https://queermaps.org/

      Like

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