Cedar Gardens

in Bars, Clubs, and Discos

Cedar Gardens was a popular restaurant and nightclub located at 9706 Cedar Avenue. In addition to being listed in the Green Book guides for African American travelers, Cedar Gardens was particularly important to Cleveland’s drag scene at a time when drag performers were called “female impersonators.” Cedar Gardens hosted multiple drag performers, primarily throughout the 1940s. Cedar Gardens’ history with drag performers provides an early view of what would eventually evolve into modern drag culture as the location provided an early place of acceptance and even praise for drag artists.

Cedar Gardens was opened in 1934 by Mr. J. Hecht. It was previously a nightclub called the Charm House. Cedar Gardens offered Chinese and American food at affordable prices. Cedar Gardens was also equipped to host parties and families. In 1935, Cedar Gardens began hosting drag performers. One of the earliest performers, Sam Fouche, went by the stage name Mae West. The name “Mae West” was likely a nod to the famous 1920 – 1930s actress of the same name. The actress Mae West was actually a great inspiration to drag culture, so it is not surprising that a drag performer in the 1930s would name herself after her. Cleveland’s Mae West came to Cedar Gardens from New York and was only supposed to perform for one week at Cedar Gardens, but her act was so popular that the manager convinced her to stay for longer. West was an incredibly beloved performer at Cedar, gaining many admirers for her beauty and very convincing drag performance. A Call and Post article about her stated that “well I know a few fellows who tried to date her… or him. During the past week the Cedar Gardens Lounge turned away eager fun lovers every night.” 

Cedar Gardens was not alone in this regard. At various times, other locations like the Baby Grand Lounge and the Circle Ballroom hosted drag artists. In fact, a Call and Post’s On the Avenue column, which was a review of local entertainment options, described one drag artist at another location as “undoubtedly the worst female impersonator I’ve ever seen…” Though harsh, this review indicates that drag performers were common enough that the reviewer had seen enough of them to designate this unfortunate performer one as lacking. Drag performances were accepted at these entertainment venues and treated as an artform by the local newspaper, this was especially unique considering that the Call and Post was a more conservative leaning Black newspaper.

The drag scene at Cedar Gardens flourished in the 1940s. Rayna Hutton was another well received performer who amazed audiences with her shake-dance, which she did scantily clad and covered in oil. Al Roman of the Call and Post described her as a must see in a 1944 article. Hutton would eventually leave for Columbus and be replaced by another drag artist by the name Marva Williams. Another frequently written about performer was Billie McAllister. McAllister’s act would consist of cycling through stunning costumes. In her act, she would also sing a song with the lyric “if I were a little girl.” McAllister was described as the most beautiful female impersonator to ever perform at Cedar Gardens.

However, Hutton would not stay away from Cedar Gardens for long. Hutton returned, out of drag this time, under the name Vickey Murray and became the master of ceremonies at Cedar Gardens. Murray actually revised his drag role for a special performance that year. In the span of one year Murray went from a highly praised drag performer at the club to the M.C. of Cedar Gardens. Though she was not a traditional drag performer, it would be remiss not to mention the performer Mickey Barnett. Barnett was a tap dancer who was a “sensational smooth master of taps and masculine dance.” Barnett was a female artist who would perform dressed in male clothing and dance in a masculine fashion. While Barnett was not called a male impersonator, she was doing a similar style of gender subversion and performance that artists like Murray, McAllister and West were doing.

Cedar Gardens closed in 1969 after a fire destroyed the building. It is deeply tragic that a location important to Cleveland’s and Black and LGBTQ+ history was lost. Cedar Gardens provided a place for what we would now call drag artists to perform their acts for an appreciative audience. At Cedar Gardens drag was seen as a worthy form of entertainment and artistry, with its performers gaining high praise for their skills.


  • “Bobbing Along with Bob Williams.” Call and Post. May 20, 1944.
  • “Cedar Gardens.” Call and Post. January 27, 1934. 
  • “Cedar Gardens’ Stock is Best of Pre-War Brands of Fine Wines, Liquors: Good Order for Funsters is Also Feature in Comfort, Convenience.” Call and Post. August 5, 1944. 
  • “Female Impersonator Held Over for Second Week at Cedar Gardens.” Call and Post. August 22, 1935. 
  • “Female Impersonator.” Call and Post. August 15, 1935. 
  • “Fire Loss 1 — no Title.” Call and Post. March 29, 1969. 
  • Minor, Valena. “Patrons Laugh at “Night in Nut House” Given for Landscaping Crile Hospital.” Cleveland Call and Post, Aug 26, 1944. 
  • Mosbrook, Joe. “Cedar Gardens.” In Cleveland Jazz History. Cleveland: Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, 2013. Pages 120-21.
  • “On the Avenue with T.D.S.” Call and Post. January 2, 1936. 
  • Roman, Al. “Garden Reduces Price on Liquor: Stage Bigger Floor shows.” Call and Post. June 3, 1944.
  • Roman, Al. “Mabel Hunter Star New Garden’s show.” Call and Post. April 29, 1944.
  • Roman, Al. “Will Bring Better shows to Offset New 30%. Amusement Tax at Gardens.” Call and Post. Mar 25, 1944. 
  • Souther, Mark. “Cedar Gardens.” Green Book Cleveland.
  • Taylor, Deveen. “Four Ways Hollywood Legend Mae West Inspired Drag Queen Culture.” PBS. June 12, 2020.
  • T. D. S. “On the Avenue.” Call and Post. September 17, 1936. 
  • Williams, Bob. “Cedar Gardens Evening Dates Open to All Clubs Wishing Treasury Funds.” Call and Post. August 12, 1944.  
9706 Cedar Ave, Cleveland, OH 44106