The Legendary Baton Lounge: Just a Few Steps Away

posted by Madame Bubby

Jim Flint in the Baton Show Lounge

A friend of mine sent me a link to a news item: the legendary Baton Lounge, long a fixture of the LGBTQ community in Chicago, has moved after 50 years in the same location. The entertainment venue, which has featured over the years so many famous drag queens (Chili Pepper, see below, was one of my favorites), had been located in what is now called the River North area. But, according to the news source, rents escalated, and Jim Flint decided to make the move north. And even north of the established Boystown, in the growing gayborhood of Uptown (and walking distance from my abode).
 

Family cast
Chili Pepper

Baton Lounge performers
Baton Lounge performers

Jim Flint
Jim Flint

What is significant here is Flint did not decide to just close up shop. Apparently the venue is still thriving; the entertainment he provides has not gone by the wayside like the great gay adult theaters (Bijou at the top of the list) or the bathhouses (only one is left in Chicago with the closing of Man’s Country).
 

Bijou Theater sign

It’s obvious Flint is not providing a venue of public sex or pornography in the stricter sense; he’s putting on live theater which does not focus on a naked porn star jacking off. Yet, remember, the Bijou used to do and was doing again broader forms of entertainment, rethinking the purpose and audience of the space, before its closure in 2015.

And drag is of course in the global spotlight. Hello, RuPaul (who actually appeared at the Baton). And whether one thinks this fact is unfortunate or not, a drag show is straight-friendly. It has been for some time. Think Victor/Victoria, which of course makes the illusion even more complicated. And that illusion was the basis of theatre for so many years. Women could not appear on the stage respectably in the West until the eighteenth century. The Greek tragedies and the plays of Shakespeare relied on men playing the women’s parts.

(I can’t imagine the Baton putting on a performance of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, though. It doesn’t lend itself well to parody or even camp, though one line in the play, “The queen is falling,” might get a laugh.)

And speaking of straight-friendly, I know someone whose date took her there on the first date. Now, both of us had met her date at a wine-tasting event, and we could not tell who he was attracted to. Still, it seems an odd, or rather, ambiguous, place for an ostensibly straight guy to take a straight woman on a first date, however original and exciting the venue. There was no second date. Que sera.

I was taken to the place on my birthday. I was not sure if that was a straight person’s “safe” idea of gay entertainment (the person who planned the event), but several persons from the office went (not all gay). I did enjoy receiving some attention from Chili Pepper, who was dressed up in some fabulous 1960s retro outfit (kind of a dress with a jacket with white buttons and trim). The host did not believe I was 28 (I wasn’t that young; so much for illusion).

Flint’s new location is in a beautiful building with a deco feel, perhaps an architectural landmark. Much of the area around it is either abandoned, waiting for or in the process of bland gentrification, perhaps diluting some of the illusion or edginess that feeds into that illusion.
 

Baton old and new locations
Baton old and new locations

Still, it’s not far from the legendary Green Mill cocktail lounge, and the Uptown Theater is in the process of renovation, or, more accurately, retrovation. That’s the paradox: idealizing and revisioning the past in a time when daylight too often intrudes upon magic and everyone thinks they are a star shining on the screen of a smartphone.

May the magical stars of the Baton reign for another 50 years.

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Who Could Be the Emperor in Centurians of Rome: His Name Is Elagabalus

Michael Flent as the Emperor in Centurians
Michael Flent as the Emperor in Centurians of Rome

When the gay porn epic Centurians of Rome came out in 1981, the publicity proclaimed that the kinky, fisting-loving emperor played to the hilt by Michael Flent was Caligula. At one level, it makes sense, given the overall reputation of Caligula as the ultimate monstre sacree, but after a close viewing, I came up with another theory. Admittedly, the work is fiction, and I highly doubt the creators were specifically trying to place the action and characters in specific historical circumstances, but there are third century A.C.E. parallels.
 

Original poster for Centurians of Rome
Original Original Centurians poster

The emperor Elagabulus, born in 203 A.C.E, was the scion of a dynasty dominated by Syrian women. It's a bit complicated, but let's just say by that time diverse persons in the Empire were able to rise, primarily through the army, to powerful political positions. His father was Sextus Varius Marcellus and his mother was Julia Soemias. His grandmother, the formidable Julia Maesa, was the sister of Julia Domna, and thus the sister-in-law of Septimius Severus, the Roman founder of the dynasty.
 

Bust of Julia Maesa
Julia Maesa

I mention all these women specifically, because, at one point in Centurians of Rome, the Emperor mentions his mother sends him women he is not interested in. This dynasty was run by powerful women on so many levels, and I find this detail telling, and there's more in what we know about Elagabalus that makes this detail, and many others in the movie, even more telling.

Now, Julia Soemias was a cousin of the emperor Caracalla. When Caracalla was assassinated in 217 A.C.E, Macrinus ascended the throne, and he exiled the whole Syrian tribe. But Maesa plotted to regain power, and Soemias made a claim that Elagabalus was the son of Caracalla. After some battles and further plotting, he was proclaimed emperor, as the Senate accepted the claim of parentage.
 

Alma, Tadema, and Heliogabalus

Elagabalus' religious beliefs presented a problem, as he was the hereditary priest (through his mother) of the ancient Syrian mountain god Ilāh hag-Gaba, who was later assimilated into the worship of the sun God Helios and Sol Invictus (the victorious Sun; thus Elagabalus is sometimes referred to as Heliogabalus). The worship of this god apparently required him to circumcise himself (not a Roman custom), but even more significantly, he installed Elagabal as the chief deity.

But, more relevant to this discussion of Centurians of Rome, and I must admit that some of the ancient sources are not exactly reliable (Augustan History contains some Hollywood Babylon-like elements!), Elagabalus' sexual orientation was confusing. He married five women (and divorced them all), including a Vestal Virgin (a huge taboo). But marriage was more of a fluid financial transaction at that time in Rome, and of course one could assume Grandma and Mama were hoping he could produce an heir. He didn't.
 

Elagabalus' entry into Rome

But he supposedly married an athlete called Zoticus (though his prime male companion was a blond chariot driver and bond slave named Hierocles) in a public ceremony in Syria. The historian Cassius Dio claimed he made himself up and whored around in public and in the imperial palace. Some historians have claimed that Elagabalus may have been transgender, as, according to one source, he wanted to somehow equip himself female genitalia and called himself the queen or wife of his main male lover, Hierocles. Note that at the end of Centurians, guess who the Emperor ends up with sexually as he makes him his slave: the blond stud Eric Ryan.
 

Eric Ryan and Michael Flent
Eric Ryan and Michael Flent in Centurians

I see much more parallels, or really resemblances, with the character played by Michael Flent, whose sexual kinks were certainly not “vanilla,” and his almost feminine submission to the hot top George Payne in the fisting scene evokes some of the details mentioned in this admittedly biased account of life in the palace by Cassius Dio:

“Finally, he set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by. There were, of course, men who had been specially instructed to play their part. For, as in other matters, so in this business, too, he had numerous agents who sought out those who could best please him by their foulness. He would collect money from his patrons and give himself airs over his gains; he would also dispute with his associates in this shameful occupation, claiming that he had more lovers than they and took in more money.”
 

Michael Flent and George Payne
Michael Flent and George Payne in Centurians

Yes, life in the palace became one decadent orgy which turned a profit. Maybe that's why the government needed that tax money from Octavius and Demetrius (Scorpio and George Payne), and the character of Argus (Eric Ryan) certainly fits in with being one of those agents looking for sex slaves.
 

George Payne and Scorpo
George Payne and Scorpio in Centurians of Rome

Grandma Maesa finally had enough, and she, after some machinations, managed to get Elagabalus and his mother replaced, and the two were eventually assassinated in 222 A.C.E.. His replacement: the indisputably heterosexual Alexander Severus, Elagabalus' cousin, the son of her other daughter, Maemea. Think: backlash, but in this case, the women were still in charge, and Alexander, though he got rid of the Elagabal cult, was religiously tolerant.

I must admit I am an ancient history geek (in the department I teach at, I hold that unofficial title), and hence my attraction to this movie, and I also admit when I was watching it, I thought of the unfortunate and much-maligned Elagabalus. Overall, Elagablaus resembles the Emperor in Centurians more than the wildly cruel and bizarre but ultimately heterosexual Caligula.

Sources: some Wikipedia, and also Will Durant's series The Story of Civilization (Durant was a homophobe, but the series contains everything you need to know about everything, as far as I am concerned, and that's how I first found out about Elagabalus).

We just remastered Centurians of Rome, and the newly restored version is available on DVD and streaming on our Video on Demand site. For more information on the strange backstory of this classic gay porn blockbuster (it was funded by a bank robbery!), read this fascinating blog at The Rialto Report.
 

Centurians cover image
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