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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 30, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 13
Don Paulson, 1933-2012
Section One
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Don Paulson, 1933-2012

Courtesy of the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project

Don Paulson, author, artist, and chronicler of Seattle's drag culture, died February 6 from injuries caused by a fall. He was 78.

Don Paulson was born May 17, 1933, in the area that later became Seatac, and grew up in Auburn and Enumclaw. His artistic talent emerged in his public school years, leading him to study art with Olive Malstrom Carl and Elizabeth Barlow. By the time he reached his teens, he was already aware of his Gayness. In an interview recorded by the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project in 2002, Paulson recounted how his status as 'the class artist' and 'the regimental artist' got him through what might otherwise have been difficult periods in high school and military service. Later he studied with Robert Irwin in California.

In the early 1950s, he became intrigued with the Abstract Expressionist movement and submitted a Jackson Pollock-inspired painting in the Puyallup Fair art show. In later years, he took great delight in recalling the stir in caused: 'Everything there was typical 'calendar art,' you might say, and here was this Abstract Expressionist thing and it just caused this sensation. & The people who worked at the Fair exhibit were inundated with people saying, 'Why is that in there?' They were just outraged. So I was very proud of that & in '52 this was outrageous. That was a lot of fun.'

Drafted into the army at age 19, just as the Korean War was ending, he spent most of his stint at Fort Lewis where he was drawn to jazz music through acquaintanceships with black soldiers in his unit. At 21 he took a Greyhound bus to New York to pursue an art career while soaking up the jazz and bohemian culture of Greenwich Village. A year later Don moved with the partner he'd met in New York (at the YMCA!) to Los Angeles.

He returned to New York in the 1960s and immersed himself in the Pop Art movement, meeting the luminaries of that world at events held at Andy Warhol's Factory. During that time Don also became intrigued with light shows. When he moved back to Seattle he began incorporating his paintings into that medium and under the name 'Lux Sit' operated psychedelic light shows at rock concerts and festivals. 'I had hair down to my butt, but I was never a hippie, actually. I was too old. I was already 30.'

His lasting legacy for us in Seattle was the research and materials he compiled when tracing the history of Gay venues like Garden of Allah and, in particular, the female impersonators who headlined in them.

With Roger Simpson, Paulson wrote An Evening at the Garden of Allah: A Gay Cabaret in Seattle, published in 1996 by the Columbia University Press. In it, Paulson and Simpson chronicled a brief and surprising venue that was one of the earliest scenes in the city. Located in the basement of the Arlington Hotel at the corner of First Ave. and University Streets, The Garden of Allah was noteworthy because it was Seattle's first Gay-owned Gay bar. It was open only from 1946-1956, but it was extremely popular - with both Gays and straights - because of its female impersonators and vaudeville entertainment. It was part of a broader national circuit of such venues across the country.

Paulson meticulously researched and catalogued information, ranging from photos to newspaper articles to personal interviews and oral histories for the book. The book features numerous Gay and Lesbian performers such as Paris DeLair, Jackie Starr, and Hotcha Hinton. The book also featured reflections and retrospectives from both Lesbians and Gay men who regularly went to or worked at the Garden. The book captures just how special this entertainment venue was for everyday folks in an otherwise homophobic society.

Paulson also worked closely with the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Project through the years. His archive of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera has been invaluable to the organization's mission of preserving and disseminating information about Queer local history and geography. His expertise in local Gay history was especially crucial in the organization's 'Claiming Space' historical map of Lesbian and Gay Seattle, published in 2004.

He also wrote numerous commentaries on Gay history for SGN. History Project members remember him as a talented and kind spirit who was always ready to help with numerous projects. He had a quiet radicalism in his worldview, and his work to preserve LGBT histories was indefatigable.

In 2002, in a piece he wrote for The Stranger, 'What I Know About Aging,' Don said: 'Death comes after we have made our life count for something on this incredibly beautiful planet. I see the Earth as one big compost heap, with everything feeding off of everything else. The question is, did you make good compost?'

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