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Volume 33
Issue 34

 
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SEATTLE GAY HISTORY: Snakes 'R' us
SEATTLE GAY HISTORY: Snakes 'R' us
by Don Paulson

Eastern origins of snake dancers and snake worship are ancient, but leave it to the naughty West to transform the snake into an object of sex. Local Burlesque queen Hotcha Hinton said, "Snakes are wonderfully exotic and theatrical and enormously phallic. Twelve feet of that between your legs will certainly keep you inspired!" Hotcha was a sensational snake dancer on the Carnival and at Seattle`s 1940s Garden of Allah Cabaret. She would scream, "One of my snakes is missing!" which sent the other Female Impersonators scrambling to the top of the dressing tables. One night a snake did disappear and the Cabaret owners were afraid it would reappear and crawl out into the audience and cause pandemonium. The snake was found in the office curled up inside and old sofa. No Female Impersonator ever sat on that sofa again.

Patron Bob Carter remembers: "Hotcha had this huge, fat snake wrapped around her body while dressed in a grass skirt. She would twirl around and kiss the snake and their tongues would meet which sent chills up my spine."

George Brooks, who looked much older than his years, was taken to the Garden of Allah when he was only 14. He remembers seeing a Drag Queen do a bizarre snake dance, but she was the snake in her costume that resembled a snake skin.

Jan Del Rio was another talented Drag who danced with snakes and was famous for her "Whirling Dervish" routine. One night at the Double Header Tavern in 1960 she did not wait long enough for her Boa to poop and as she spun around sprayed a horrified first row with stinky digested rabbit. From then on Jan taped the anal opening and the snakes mouth so the snake wouldn`t bite her or release poop. Releasing poop is also a defensive mechanism, to spray an aggressor with it or to release it to become lighter in order to escape more easily. Jan didn`t take good care of her snakes who died on her. Snakes have to be well fed and kept warm. Instead of admitting they died she'd make up some story about leaving her snake in the car and a thief breaking in, discovering the snake and killing it. Another story was her snake got loose and vanished somewhere in Pioneer Square`s basements. Of course the story spread, became exaggerated and the Merchants were afraid to go into their basements. An Underground Tour guide took up the story and advised his tourists to stay close as there was a twenty foot snake on the loose who ate rats and stragglers on the tour. Kids loved the story. In reality a snake would soon die of pneumonia from the dampness and cold. It was not uncommon to see Drags dance on the line at Seattle`s historic Rivoli Burlesque Theater and no one knew. Jan auditioned with her snake but the stage manager said it was an elegant act but not the sort of thing customers were looking for. Jan had the reputation of having the largest penis in Seattle. The local joke in 1960 was; If Jan was walking from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill, by the time she reached Capitol Hill half of you no what was still in Pioneer Square.

Jim Gerlach took care of Jan's snake on occasion. "I fed it by jamming a wad of hamburger down its throat. One time the snake crawled into the bedsprings and we couldn't get it out. We would get it uncoiled in one place but it would tighten up in another. Eventually we got it out in time for the show. Another time I visited a Drag snake dancer at the old Savoy Hotel. God she was an ugly Drag, poor dear. The Snake was better looking. She had one snake in a suitcase and another hanging in the shower. She smuggled a chicken past the desk clerk and prayed it would not squawk. She threw the chicken into the bathroom and closed the door. It let out a terrible squawk and then silence. She was discovered and the management threw her out. The residents on her floor were outraged but the snake would do no harm unless it was starving and a small dog or cat came near."

Another Garden of Allah Drag snake dancer - Randi LaTay - was doing a show in Portland, Oregon, when her snake got loose and crawled up into a hole in the wall to get warm. "Well I couldn't get 'Rangoon' out of that damn wall to save my life. Its tail was sticking out so every time the maid came to clean the room I had to hold a match to its tail so it would crawl further up into the wall and the maid wouldn't see it and have a heart attack. I had to stay in that hotel another two weeks before I got Rangoon out of the wall."

La Vonne Bain remembers this club which featured a Sophia Tucker style Lesbian singer whose act included two Python snakes. "One night she was drunk on stage and the two snakes crawled out into the audience and everyone panicked. The few that remained were the pianist, the base player and the drummer on top of the piano."

There was a story in 1950 where a Drag snake dancer at the Double Header Tavern threw her snake into the audience and a couple people got hurt as everyone made a mad scramble for the door. This has to be a Gay urban myth as no person would treat a snake that way unless the snake and dancer lost their grip.

Gene Neville, who billed himself as "Prince Hassein," danced with snakes at the 614 Tavern in the 1960s. One night he dropped his snake. "It scared the snake and when I reached for him he wrapped himself around me so firmly it took three people to loosen his grip on me. My whole arm was completely numb by the time we got the snake off. If it were around my neck I'd be dead now. Before I got into dancing with snakes I was nervous about them. When I was young I was bitten by a Rattlesnake that was under my school desk in this country school. But I got used to snakes when I was on the Carnival. That`s where I met Billy Tipdon`s wife who also worked with snakes in her act. She knew Billy was a woman. I owned two eight foot Boa Constrictor snakes that I bought for $50 each at Brainards Pet Store on first avenue in 1963. I worked with one while the other was digesting to avoid Jan's fiasco. I basically had no names for my snakes although I did call one 'Diablo' and the other 'Jezabel.' I never had any psychic thing for my snakes, they are not like a dog or a cat, they just stare at you. All my snakes liked me. I treated them well but I did not feed them. It was just too gruesome. I took them to a friend of mine who worked at Woodland Park Zoo who fed them two or three live Rabbits a month. One time I picked up one of my snakes at the Zoo and my friend said, 'You're going to have trouble with it because its shedding its skin. They can only see shadows at this time so they are defensive and may strike you."

My friend suggested I take it home and put it in lukewarm water in the bathtub for awhile. Later the snake started rubbing its head on the side of the bathtub until the skin broke. At that point I began to peel off the skin, like tearing off nylon hose. It came off in chunks and pieces and there was skin all over the bathroom.

Then I dried off the snake and oiled it down with baby oil. All the while my dog and cat watched.

During shedding they can strike but they can strike anyway if the situation is right. Exotic dancer "Yvonne" on the Carnival had been bitten a number of times. She was changing the water dish one day and her husband was waving a live rabbit at the snake that made a dive for it, missed and bit Yvonne around the eye and had to be medicated. She had an Anaconda for awhile and it bit her every time she used it.

Snakes have tiny needle teeth and when they bite you, you don't always feel it until you see the blood.

You have to be careful because the teeth can break off and cause an infection. The teeth on snakes are the hold the animal until it can wrap around it and squeeze it to death.

No Hotel in Seattle would rent a room to my friend. "Jasmine and her Deadly Snakes" so she stayed with Louise, another friend of mine. One night they got into a fight and Jasmine bit Louise on the thumb. The next day her thumb became infected and she had to be treated. I never had any snake die on me. When I got rid of them I either sold them or gave them to the Zoo. I no longer believe in exotic pets and especially the exploitation of them."

Even the lowly snake is a miracle of creation but people are nervous and brainwashed about them. No wonder, beginning with the Garden of Eden nonsense, gruesome religious snake worship, theater props and fear, snakes remind us of ourselves. We are all part snake as we still carry the most obvious remnant of our genetic past, our reptilian brain that regulates survival, aggression and often ridiculous ritual. That "Snake in the Grass" R US.



Don Paulson is an artist, writer and Seattle Gay historian. He is the author of the much-praised chronicle of The Emerald City's Gay heyday in Pioneer Square, An Evening at the Garden of Allah: A Gay Cabaret in Seattle (Columbia University Press, 1996).
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