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 a location of the local Cooper Do-nuts (also known as Cooper’s Donut Depot, Cooper’s Doughnuts or Cooper’s Donuts) chain, 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.
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 (nicknamed “the Run”) which included the Biltmore Hotel bar (506 S Grand), the Brass Rail, Waldorf Cellar (aka “The Cellar”) (521 S. Main), the Crown Jewel (754 S. Olive), the Gay Way (514 S. Main), Harold’s 555 Club (also known as Harry’s?) (555 S. Main), Maxwell’s Cocktail Lounge (212 W. 3rd), the Numbers, the 326 (326 S. Spring), and the Burbank (548 S. Main), which featured Jazz, and burlesque, &c. There were also numerous small eateries, one of which was Cooper’s 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.
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 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, 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.