CO-WRITTEN BY SCOTTIE CAMPBELL
Orlando was a boomtown in the 1960s. All-American brand, Tupperware, chose it as the home base for its world headquarters from which it sold its products to over 100 countries around the world, Lake Eola amphitheater was about to open in Lake Eola Park, Colonial Plaza had just become one of the state’s first indoor shopping malls, and I-4 had just been finished. Enter stage left, Parliament House, the fanciest hotel project Central Florida had ever seen which would one day become a hotbed for sex workers, drag queens, and people (mostly men) on the hunt for a good time.
Mid-century Orlando was a strange mish-mash of local military bases, cattle farms, and citrus groves; a stepping stone to the flashier cities to the south of Miami and Key West. Before Disney World, the top three tourist attractions in Central Florida were Cypress Gardens, Bok Tower, and Silver Springs. Downtown Orlando was anchored by the Angebilt Hotel, the Beacham Theater, and some family-run retail shops. The City Beautiful was quiet, quaint and, if the vintage postcards on display at the Orange County Regional History Center are to be believed, full of flowers and fruit trees.
Originally named the “Town House,” a new 120-room hotel development attracted a lot of attention when it was first being built in 1961, on a 10-acre tract of land on the shores of Rock Lake on Orange Blossom Trail, on the far edge of Robinson Street heading west out of downtown Orlando. New York real estate investor, Jack P. Schleifer, who also purchased the historic Metcalf Building downtown in 1958 for half a million dollars, purchased the motel property from local banker and orange grove farmer, John N. Huttig, for an unknown amount, but at the time, chins were wagging that it was an exorbitant amount, and all eyes were on OBT to see what he would be building.
The million-dollar Parliament House motor inn was designed by architect Alan Berman and Hodes and Cummin and, at the time, was seen as a major win for Orlando and the surrounding neighborhoods. At the time, it was the only motel within city limits to have a swimming pool, a cabana club and putting greens, a lakefront beach, an onsite restaurant, and a cocktail lounge and when it opened on January 15, 1962, there were hundreds of people lining up to tour the property, according to reports by Orlando Evening Star.
Parliament House was the first in what was expected to be a national chain of hotels along the lines of Holiday Inn but hit a mouse-shaped roadblock in 1971 when Walt Disney opened his theme parks outside of city limits. The parks completely shifted tourists out of downtown Orlando and over to Lake Buena Vista, where hundreds of new hotels were popping up faster than greedy seagulls at a beachside picnic.
The mayor at the time, Mayor Carl Langford, is quoted as saying, “There’s not a mayor in the world who wouldn’t be delighted to have Disney World next to his city, even if it does bring a few problems.” The problems he was talking about included everything from massive increases in traffic to spiking real estate costs, and crime rates.
In the shadow of The Mouse, Orange Blossom Trail fast became an out-of-the-way periphery of the family-friendly tourist corridor, where more illicit activities could thrive. With the tourists gone, hookers and streetwalkers took over the strip, the smell of orange blossoms was replaced by the smell of car exhaust and cheap cologne, and Parliament House slumped into disrepair, like a fat old man asleep in his recliner, covered in crumbs and regret. Yet, miraculously, the hotel was purchased by Michael Hodge and Bill Miller in 1975, wealthy queer investors who saw potential in transforming the sad hotel property into a fabulous new gay-geared venue.
The property purchase occurred a few years after an uprising at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, which is widely considered to be the birth of the modern gay rights movement. Hodge and Miller, who had opened Orlando’s first gay bar, The Palace Club, in the same year as the riot, had already established themselves as figureheads in the local gay community, along with three other local bar operators: Jan Koren, Wally Wood, and Sue Hannah – who were affectionately (and probably unaffectionately depending on what dinner table you were at) referred to as “The Gay and Lesbian Gang.” Their second venture was a bar called Diamond Head, which opened in 1972 on the second floor of the Opera House on Court Avenue, and the success of their ventures helped them move on to their largest project yet, turning the defunct Parliament House gay.
Under their stewardship, Parliament House went from a bankrupt hotel to a thriving gay resort and entertainment hub, with multiple bars onsite and a disco room. The hotel rooms went from hosting vacationing families in the ‘70s to closeted businessmen and people looking for a good, albeit quick, time. Regulars played a game called “Balcony Bingo” where you could peek from room to room looking for tricks to suit your taste in every age, color, and salary range.
There was nothing like it in the region and you’d be forced to drive all the way to Miami to find a gay-owned hotel with live entertainment and multiple entertainment venues on site. People were flocking to the Parliament House to get away from the pressures of heteronormativity and engage in some hot consensual sex without the fear of being found out by a relative or coworker. It was like a Gay Narnia, made all the more entertaining due to its proximity to the Happiest Place in the World only 30 minutes away.
Disco was completely shifting how Americans danced socially. At the time, most venues would require guests to enter with someone of the opposite sex, and music forced most people to dance as a couple. Disco let people dance as individuals and skirt around local ordinances that would have prohibited two men or two women from getting too close on the dance floor. Which, as you can imagine, made Parliament House all the more popular with its gay patrons.
During its time, the resort drew talent and visitors from around the world with big-name acts like Eartha Kitt, Charo, Cyndi Lauper, and Lil’ Kim, all gracing its stages alongside local and visiting drag queens. When Parliament House celebrated its fortieth year, local filmmaker David Bain of the GLBT History Museum of Central Florida, released a short film documentary about the property, sharing behind-the-scenes stories from patrons, former staff, and local queer icons about the impact of the space on the local scene, including a story about Michael Hodge having to get bailed out of jail for spanking someone on the bottom in the restroom.
“I remember the first drag show I saw at the Parliament House was, Rusty Fawcet, doing ‘Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue.’ In one of those big rattan fan-back chairs…It was the ‘70s. I mean, people in silky shirts and pocketless pants. And big bell bottoms. Lots of polyester. Lots of fun.”– DOUG BAASER, 40 YEARS OF PARLIAMENT HOUSE
Local bon vivant, longtime Parliament House visitor, and sometimes employee, Doug Baaser, shared with us in a separate interview that there was a community of people who lived, partied, ate, and slept on the property and never left. In part, because they weren’t considered “passable” or “CIS-assumed” so they felt more comfortable staying on property where they wouldn’t stick out or get hassled.
The documentary exposes more than just the good times that were had at Parliament House, such as how the club helped to connect the gay community in Orlando in the ‘80s, and how integral the establishment was to keeping that community together during the AIDS crisis, hurricanes, and changes in ownership.
Miller died in 1987 at the age of 53 due to complications from AIDS and Hodge followed suit five years later at the age of 42. While Hodge died due to liver failure, he made no secret of being HIV+ himself in the time leading up to his death.
A portion of his memorial, published in the gay monthly newspaper of the time, Triangle, read as follows:
“Mike was one of the greatest supporters of gay and lesbian life that Orlando has ever had. His aid to groups like Hope and Help, CENTAUR, Act-Out Theatre, and all of the other institutions is legendary. And, he gave hope and encouragement constantly to individuals who needed help, as well as to the groups that we all turn to for socializing, entertainment, and most importantly, for medical assistance. He was always reaching into his deep pockets to help people, whether it be to pay overdue rent or electrical bills or whatever.'”
Baaser shared how both Miller and Hodge would help longtime bar patrons and community members with their medical bills right up until they passed away.
“The turnaround was like four weeks between diagnosis and death and those bills could be overwhelming,” said Baaser. “There was a cloud over the building at that time. A cloud over everything. The music changed. People you were used to seeing at the bar would disappear and you’d ask where they were and you’d find out they’d just died. But for the most part, it was always a place to gather and dance and be with your friends and not think about AIDS or the people you’d lost.”
Straight Canadian couple Don Granatstein and Susan Unger entered the picture in 1999 from Las Vegas, where they had been involved with the short-lived hotel and timeshare project led by Debbie Reynolds. They purchased the property from the estate of Michael Hodge while it was perched on the brink of closing, with aspirations of adding a neighboring timeshare development and the nation’s first gay retirement community, neither of which came to fruition.
For a time, Parliament House flourished under the couple until 2010 when they faced foreclosure and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 2014, when its stakeholders approved a $14 million debt relief plan.
Miami-based Lion Financial, LLC. purchased the property from the couple in February 2020, for just $300,100 in a semi-closed auction, as part of an elaborate strategy to keep outside investors from swooping in and kicking Granatstein and Unger to the curb when they found themselves in debt again, this time for over $4 million.
Granatstein had previously tried to sell the property for $16.5 million but failed to seduce any buyers and was forced into foreclosure at the end of 2019, which is when Lion Financial showed up with a deal he couldn’t refuse, namely to help with the debt and to lease the space back to him. At that time, Granatstein told Orlando Sentinel that Lion Financial would serve solely as a landlord and that Parliament House “… wouldn’t be going anywhere.” But that plan hit a snag.
Parliament House staff were informed of its pending closure at a surprise meeting held on the morning of Tuesday, October 28, 2020, when Granatstein shared that he was looking at new venues in and around Church Street to move the nightlife portion of the business to, effective immediately.
Lion Financial is now moving forward with a plan to redevelop the property to house a collection of three new four-story, 306-unit apartment complexes adjacent to Rock Lake, with a 2,000 SF ground-level retail or small cafe use, under the banner of “Lion Gardens Apartments.” Parliament House was demolished in November of 2020 to make way for the project. There has been no mention of any nod to its storied queer past.
Granatstein has since announced that he is building out a new venue in downtown Orlando under the same Parliament House name and branding, but the jury is still out if the new space will have the same impact as the original. To some, it’s like tearing down a building as legendary as the Alamo and thinking you can recreate it elsewhere with the same name. Another concern is safety. The spot for the new venue is on the corner of Orange Avenue and Pine Street where nightlife tends to be a tad virulent and unruly; a far cry from the seclusion Miller and Hodge’s resort offered on Rock Lake.
“I’ve worked with all of the bars downtown for years. When you look at Orange Avenue, it’s a completely different beast in terms of access and safety,” said former club owner Blue Star. “Safety is an issue on Orange Avenue, and that’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. The City of Orlando is doing what they can…but we’re in a real transition with larger venues like Independent Bar moving out of downtown.”
Star, the former operator of Haos on Church, an “LGBTQIA+ forward venue” located in the historic Church Street District in downtown Orlando, shared that while her venue is located in the heart of the city, she’s benefitted from being located off of Orange Avenue, the main thoroughfare of downtown. She says establishing Haos as a safe space was at the core of our business and it should always be considered when opening a queer space.
“You won’t be seeing anyone playing Balcony Bingo downtown,” asserts Star. “You can’t have the expectations that it’s going to be the same thing. They’ll have to reinvent themselves and adapt.”
Haos’ nearby neighbor Hamburger Mary’s is an example of such adaptation. The LGBTQ+ restaurant has been in operation for roughly 13 years on Church Street and made a name for itself by being family-friendly, even curating its drag performers and weekly game nights so it could catch traffic from fans walking to the Amway Center just up the street on their way to hockey matches and Orlando Magic games.
The demand for queer spaces has dropped dramatically over the years since Stonewall as the LGBTQ+ community is greeted with greater acceptance across the country. Bars and clubs used to serve as incubators for radical protests that were the building blocks for political action for equal rights. When police raided gay bars in the 1950s and 1960s, they forced individual patrons into a unified resistance. While queer people still find themselves battling against political opportunists and homophobic policies, bars and clubs play less of a role in the struggle. The ’90s found LGBTQ+ venues like Parliament House which once served as harbors during the thick of the AIDS crisis become the casual place to watch the latest innocuous episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race or a whacky spot to host a bridal shower.
These venues have slowly become obsolete as hookup spots as well. Gay clubs have been closing in increasing numbers in the past decade and social apps like Grindr and Scruff allow queer – and closeted – people to interact with each other at all times of the day whether at home or in the middle of a board meeting.
In order for queer-focused venues to continue into the future, even those with international renown like Parliament House, they still need to secure a space where their guests can feel safe to gather, be themselves, and express themselves. And traditionally, that hasn’t been something that takes place in the heart of a business district. But here’s hoping we’re wrong.