My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

Shining a light on our cultural history
and other curiosities for auction
at Waddington's

"They hung in our home," says Jessica Phillips of the three "Mid 20th Century Art Deco Style Brass and Etched Glass Chandeliers" up for auction. "They were on the top level above the stairwell, the long spiral staircase that led to the Niagara Falls collection. They gave such great lighting, they make me look good," she laughs.

"They are quite extravagant, we only had three, but three was enough to have a great party underneath. We hosted so many parties. For the Explorers Club, for Halloween . . ." Phillips pauses, "I guess that's apropos for chandeliers that used to hang in the St Charles Tavern."

Sean Quinn, Decorative Arts Specialist at Waddington's Auction House, who brought the chandeliers to our attention chimes in, "We didn't realize the provenance, the history, until we started cataloguing. I mean I was dancing there." He laughs, "I would have been only three but I was there."

The St Charles Tavern - which only the clock tower and these chandeliers survive - was the most prominent gay bar of the 1970s. With its slogan, "Meet Me Under the Clock," and its notoriety for the Halloween drag pageants (and egging of the arriving drag queens by straight mobs), the St Charles was out before being out was accepted.

The St Charles opened in 1951 and closed in 1987. "The waitress would come around with a huge tray of draft and you would say, 'Drop five, or drop six,'" remembers Quinn, who apparently has been drinking since the age of three

I was never in the St Charles Tavern but I remember artist Rob Flack rhapsodizing about the theatrics of entering the doors into a dark, dim interior - the chandeliers must always have been set on low - and making a circuit through the tables to see if there was anyone worth cruising or, even better, who would buy him a drink. Mostly, according to Flack, it was a case of going in, doing a lap, and then fleeing. I only knew the St Charles as a bar for older men - not as severe as "Troll Alley" at The Quest, but still not a flattering designation - and I hate to admit that the very visibility that is its legacy, prevented me from being a patron in those semi-closeted days.

As well as being beautiful examples of art deco, the chandeliers are a part of Toronto's gay history. Quinn is convinced he has severely low balled his estimate in the catalogue - $300-500 - but that was calculated before the St Charles Tavern link came to the fore. There were originally 12 chandeliers and, at the time of the tavern's demise, eight of them were, according to Quinn, purchased by "the cinematographer who shot Alien," three were purchased by Billy Jamieson, and one has, for the moment, vanished.

In Waddington's showroom the lights stand out and gleam over the rest of the curiosities and art works to be auctioned. Any gay man who remembers the St Charles Tavern, or anyone who has a strong desire to reclaim and honour our cultural past, would be overjoyed to have these gorgeous pieces dangling overhead. George Pratt has expressed a potential interest in bidding on the chandeliers and it would be wonderful to have them in a gay space where their history can illuminate. And there is no question that they would look stunning, poetically apt and historically accurate, hanging above the strippers at Flash. And Phillips insists the chandeliers provide an exceptionally flattering light. Even better would be to have them in the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives but that august institution has little or no money for bidding.

All that is certain is that, wherever the chandeliers wind up, they will certainly glow a bit brighter every Halloween.

The chandeliers will be on view from Sat, April 25 - Mon, April 28 at Waddington's, 275 King St E, 2nd Floor.  

The auction begins at 7pm on Tues, April 29 at Waddington's, 275 King St E, 2nd Floor.

The St Charles Tavern chandeliers are only a small portion of the wonders from the collection of Billy Jamieson that are to be auctioned off. Jamieson was a collector of a vast variety of beautiful and bizarre objects. His partner, Jessica Phillips, can hardly bear, after Jamieson's untimely death in 2011, to part with the objects they acquired over their years together. "I lived in a museum, a gallery, a home," says Phillips. "It was our livelihood, our passion. Billy collected with his eyes, he loved what he loved. Everything from carnival to contemporary to curiosities. Tribal art to weapons to serial killer memorabilia."

At the entrance to the showroom is a Polychromed Fiberglass Figure of a Tattooed Woman. "It used to be in our bedroom," muses Phillips who herself flaunts an impressive collection of tattoos. "It was created by Jonathan Shaw, the son of Artie Shaw. All the classic old school tattoos were hand drawn with a Sharpie. There's only two in the world. Johnny Depp has the other one."

The collection was housed in a 5,000 square foot, two story loft. "We gave tours once a month for 40 guests. Had visits from touring rock stars. Children really took to it, they could get close to the mummies and shrunken heads, even touch them. As a caretaker it is time for other people to enjoy the collection and, as a collector, I have to get back on the hunt. When things are meant to go, they go. I won't auction off the human remains, they're family. A lot of the heads went to a private collector in Montreal so that they can still be accessible to children."

Phillips guides us through the items on display and each one has a story. The catalogue reads like a magnificent picture book/novel but Phillips has further tantalizing tidbits. What appears to be a mummy resting peacefully resting on a couch is actually a "Sideshow Gaff of a Corpse Bride."

"It's a memento mori," explains Phillips. "We found it in a Paris flea market. She's French. And dead. You test the authenticity by burning one of the hairs. If it smells like hair, it's a mummy' plastic, it's a gaff. It's very functional. She'd look perfect in a glass case to make a table. Enjoy your brunch."

Duncan McLean, the president of Waddington's, was a close personal friend of Jamieson's. McLean understates when he notes that this is "not your average collection." He points out a necklace of teeth made from cannibal leftovers. It is framed similarly to a 19th Century Dental Collage sign from the times when "tooth pullers" were sideshow attractions. The shadow box depicts New Orleans' Mr F Roper FIDS in a top hat and tails adorned with human teeth. The frame is decorated with numerous human and animal teeth that Mr Roper extracted. It is eerily beautiful and deserving of close scrutiny but McLean has already moved on to a "Fiji Islands Large Ceremonial Cannibal Fork" from the 19th century. "These were individually carved with rat teeth," explains McLean. "It pre-dates metal tools. Not only was it used for eating human flesh but it is structurally beautiful, a work of art."

One of the most disturbing, or the most beautiful, works of art is a tiny "Victorian Taxidermy Diorama of Two Chihuahua Puppies in a Landscape Setting," also from the 19th century. Quinn notes that, "The Victorians were obsessed with death. And with dogs."

McLean points out an electric chair that survived a prison riot and fire in 1929. It is apparently still functional. "It comes with a switch and a telephone," says McLean. "Billy called it 'Sparky' and guests could sit in it at parties."

There is a large sampling of medical instruction models from many eras. 

The skulls, skeletons and looming anatomical figures cannot compete with the anatomy contained in a deceptively simple black case. Opening the case, McLean reveals a not-quite-lifelike posterior with an open pucker. It is a Medical School Model by Medical Products Corporation, Spokie Illinois from the mid-20th century: a latex model for students of proctology. 

It may not be totally practical for contemporary medical students but would make a hell of a conversation piece. Or, considering its portability and discreet packaging, there could be other uses best not to speculated upon.

Jamieson also collected contemporary art including pieces by the controversial and censorship-busting artist Mark Prent. Prent's works are visceral and terrifyingly lifelike in their tactility. Among the works up for auction is "Thawing Out" a full size fridge that opens to reveal a nude man encased in what appears to be ice. "The pubic hair is Prent's own," notes McLean. "Billy used to love to put a sign saying 'Free Beer' on the fridge and then watch peoples' reactions when they opened it for a cold one."

We are admiring a commemorative slice of carved ivory taken from the tusk of Jumbo the elephant who was killed in 1885 in a collision with a train near St Thomas, Ontario, when Phillips whispers, "This is a hard one to part with." Though the death of Jumbo was an accident, ivory of any kind is a difficult object to own. Phillips supports five orphaned elephants and has a bond with the beleaguered species. "I once refused to buy a whip made from an elephant penis," says Phillips. "I just couldn't own it. I can't even watch Dumbo, it is an embarrassment to the species." A lot of collectors, including the museum in St Thomas, have expressed interest in the ornate piece. "Waddington's has been great in helping me disperse the collection. Really sensitive to my feelings. I'm very conflicted about ivory but now everyone has a fair chance to buy it."  

The William (Billy) Jamieson Collecton will be on view from Sat, April 25 - Mon, April 28 at Waddington's, 275 King St E, 2nd Floor.  

The auction begins at 7pm on Tues, April 29 at Waddington's, 275 King St E, 2nd Floor.