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Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge and the Balcony

Carmen Rupe (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Hauā, Ngāti Heke-a-Wai, 1936-2011) was a flamboyant transgender woman, performer, business owner, and anti-discrimination activist who became a cultural icon in New Zealand and Australia.

In 2006 and 2011, Carmen gifted Te Papa a range of costumes, photographs and ephemera relating to her extraordinary life, including material relating to her years as the proprietor of Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge and the Balcony nightclub in Wellington.

Wooden framed photo of Carmen, wearing a red sequin dress and red high heels, standing against a patio chair

Caption

Victor Morey, Carmen, 1963, Sydney. Te Papa (GH011920)

In 1967, Carmen returned to Wellington from Sydney. Deciding that she needed her ‘own stage’, she opened a coffee bar with money inherited from her grandfather. She was, however, to sell more than just coffee. In the lead up to her 70th birthday, Carmen recalled:

I was allowed 100 customers a day in those days. I painted the whole place red, with purple carpets and black leather furniture and all the staff were drag queens, female impersonators and also gay guys…

 

… I dressed up as a madam, you know, a classy madam, tits hanging out and split dresses. And all the drag queens I had working for me were very, very stunning and beautiful. They used to wear a lot of wigs, a lot of makeup and lovely miniskirts or split dresses and low-top dresses. Because a lot of my girls had to have their busts done in Cairo, Egypt.[1]

Exterior of Carmen’s Coffee Lounge, showing its decorative Turkish-esque façade

Caption

Carmen’s coffee lounge, photographer unknown, 1970s, Wellington. Te Papa (GH011916)

Chris Brickell continues the story:

Carmen’s patrons share the space with avant-garde European art, mirrors, tropical fish, peacock feathers, and Spanish shawls, while a red and lime-green parrot squawked in the corner. Carmen livened up her regulars’ coffee with a dash of brandy, and all her guests had ready access to sex. They signalled their interest by arranging their coffee cups in particular ways: a cup upside down for heterosexual sex, on its side for a transsexual or drag queen, and underneath the saucer if the customer sought a gay liaison.

Carmen sits with a bowl while several men stand around with coffee cups and bowls in front of what appears to be self-serve breakfast

Caption

Ans Westra, Maoritanga – Scenes from Maori Life, Carmen, 1970s, Wellington. Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (O.016233)

An elaborate system of doors and stairways allowed visitors to rendezvous with their erotic destiny, and provided a getaway for staff during the occasional police raid.[2]

The Balcony and Johnny & Frankie

Carmen’s Balcony nightclub opened on the corner of Victoria and Harris Streets at the end of the 1960s, and its décor was scarcely less fantastic than that of its coffee-shop cousin (‘the walls were decorated with huge mural-like paintings of Egyptian scenes’, Carmen remembers).[3]

Print red print featuring black linocut-style Medieval drawing of two people sitting on a balcony

Caption

This folder held the menu for The Balcony – also known as Le Balcon – on Victoria Street, Wellington.

The Balcony menu folder, maker unknown, 1970s. Gift of Peter Kooiman, 2016. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse, 2019. Te Papa (GH024825)

The Balcony was a sizeable operation, and it accommodated some 400 – mostly straight – guests who packed in to see the strip shows, comic acts, fire dancers, belly dancing, and drag performances.[4]

Johnny and Carmen in costume pose for a photo together

Caption

Johnny Croskery and Carmen Rupe, from Johnny Croskery’s photograph album 1960 – 1980, photographer unknown, 1960–1980, New Zealand. Te Papa (O.044432)

Johnny Croskery and his friend Frankie worked in the drag act on Friday nights. Their costumes were elaborate: two foot-high ‘Antoinette-type wigs’ made from curled paper, and sequinned frocks with plunging necklines. Each of Johnny and Frankie’s dresses was sewn onto a papier-mâché bust form, so it was ‘a frock with a plunging neckline with tits built in!’ Sometimes ‘a few over-enthusiastic men at The Balcony made a lunge for them, and were taken aback, rather aghast when they grabbed hold!’[5]

Black sleeveless dress with cape and pearls hanging off the shoulder strap and a corsage and multiple decorative pieces

Caption

Frank Lund, who performed as a drag artist under the names Frankie and Toni Rogét, wore this dress in the cabaret act ‘Frankie and Johnny’. Lund, who made many of his own costumes, regularly headlined at The Balcony.

Costume – dress with cape effect, maker unknown, 1970s, Wellington. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH014530/1)

Two men dressed in drag. One wears a top hat and suit with large frilly cravat with a flower on their chest. The other is in a dress with pearls and ostrich feathers in their hair. They are touching the other person's bosom.

Caption

Johnny Croskery and Frank Lund, from Johnny Croskery’s photograph album 1960 – 1980, photographer unknown, 1960–1980, New Zealand. Te Papa (O.044326)

 

More on Wellington nightlife 1960–2000

Endnotes

1. Leigh Haines, ‘Carmen recalls Coffee Lounge glory days’, New Zealand Herald, 23 April 2006.
2. Carmen, My Life, pp. 121-30.
3. Ibid, p. 68.
4. Ibid, pp. 167-74.
5. Johnny Croskery, interview with Gary Bedgood, 1992, OHC, ATL.


Excerpt originally published in Chris Brickell, Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand (Random House, 2008).

Chris Brickell is Professor in Gender Studies at University of Otago. His most recent book, co-edited with Judith Collard, is Queer Objects (OUP, 2019).