Scandals in Church Hill by Eric S. Huffstutler
Disclaimer: The subject and facts expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of either the CHPN nor its staff members. All facts presented have been previously publicized in newspapers and other printed souces.
People often talk about the nostalgia of how things used to be. They definitely have their charms, especially in the pre-computer age. Families were closer, life was simpler and slower, and people interacted face-to-face… except for one sector of society who could not openly interact and were forced into seclusion – the closet if you will. The LGBTQ community in Virginia won a landmark battle on October 6, 2014, when same-sex couples could marry. But this is a bittersweet victory since it brought to light that community and church continue to be divided, if not more so. And archaic laws still remain on the books with attempts to create new ones. More recently, the 2015 Virginia House Bill 1414 or the “conscience clause” bill, would have allowed state licensed and accredited business owners to deny entry or service to someone based on their religious beliefs. The subcommittee voted against this discriminatory and destructive bill. While “Doe v. Commonwealth’s Attorney of the City of Richmond” (1975) challenged sodomy laws in the state, this still remains on the books, although not enforced after the US Supreme Court deemed these laws unconstitutional in 1993. A recent “RVA Magazine” article reminds us: “Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means that cities must govern according to statewide rules, unless explicitly given permission to do otherwise. As our Commonwealth’s Human Rights Act does not include protections for sexual orientation or gender identity, most lawyers agree that local-level protections are meaningless. “
In 1969, the Vietnam War was at a fever pitch while man landed on the moon. Hippies shared “free love” at Woodstock and hallucinogens like LSD was the drug of choice. In NYC the Stonewall Inn riots began the gay rights movement and the Sanctuary became the first openly gay nightclub. That same year a regulation was passed by the Virginia ABC Board (Section 4-37) that prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages to “homosexuals” and if caught, the business owner could lose their license citing the support of this behavior which in itself, was grounds for arrest. Closures were happening long before this law took effect as in the case of Eton’s, a popular underground hot spot in 1967. Police would often entrap anyone seen in public associating with gays and arrest them under suspicion. These regulations were maintained until 1991 when a US District Judge declared the anti-gay ABC law unconstitutional and signed an order preventing Virginia ABC agents from enforcing them.
Early meeting places were restricted to private homes, cruising the streets or “the block“, rendezvous in dark places, or sectioned off areas in the YMCA or YWCA. One of the first public gathering places available to the Richmond LGBTQ community was Marroni’s Restaurant. Opened in 1947, it was located inside the Capitol Hotel on the corner of 8th and Grace. Originally built in 1907 as an annex of the Murphy’s Hotel, the name was changed to the Capitol in 1934. Marroni’s closed in 1962 and replaced with Renee’s which became a victim of the new ABC law. The dilapidated hotel was demolished in 1991 to make way for a parking lot that is now the site of the US Federal Court building.
Although the early 1990s was a watershed time concerning anti-discrimination of gays in Virginia, it came too late for conservative Richmond to make an impact with nightclub life that had its heyday in more openly accepting cities 10 to 15 years earlier. This was due, in part, by a man named Leo Joseph Koury (1934-1991). Koury was an early proponent of the nightclub scene opening Leo’s, 409, J. Danhill, and the Dial Tone. But once he saw that gays would pay top dollar to feel secure during a time that law officials were making regular busts, he set out to create a monopoly by bribing police while buying up other bars and restaurants. Those he couldn’t felt his wrath.
This happened in March 1975, when a co-conspirator assaulted a rival co-owner and manager of the member’s only club Cha-Cha Palace (Richmond’s equivalent to Studio 54), Richard Wayne Cash. One month later in a gangland-style murder, Charles Record Kernaghan (1938-1975), the bouncer at Cha-Cha Palace, was reported to have been shot, weighted down, and thrown into a river. That same year a plot to kidnap the president of A.H. Robins pharmaceuticals was aborted. In 1977, he planned to kill James Lachlan Hillier, Jr. (Lachlan’s Tavern) but instead, sent a co-conspirator to the Male Box restaurant who fired a shotgun into the crowd killing Albert Burt Thomas, Jr. (1940-1977) and injuring others. These acts were not known at the time to be desperate attempts by a racketeer but thought to be someone homophobic and so fearful patrons stayed away. Then the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s isolated many others while lifesaving drugs had not been invented yet. Suspect of being tipped off by someone within the police force, Koury went on the run in 1978 with $1-million in cash and was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list longer than anyone else up to that time. He was never captured until after his death in San Diego from natural causes under an assumed name.
During these liberating times, a new gay-oriented local public access cable television talk show program debuts in Richmond. First aired on May 24, 1990, it was called “Out and About in Richmond” and hosted by Kenneth Gibson. But with this newfound freedom came other fears of “outing” people, especially for those who remembered the days of McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare witch-hunts. This in part also caused the demise of Church Hill’s own “Scandals International” nightclub which stood at 2001 E. Franklin Street – in the 27,000 square foot, 1946 addition of the old Ideal Fishing Float factory – now the site of the Old Stone Row Apartments. It was the largest nightclub of any kind in the state. The owner, Steve Edward Proffitt (1950-2000), opened the doors of this gray colored building with a broad red stripe on May 28, 1983, with big ambitions. This included a 650 seat cabaret and 750 seat disco with plans for a world-class restaurant, women’s bar, health spa, and adult clothing store. A 13,000 watt sound system filled the dance floor with music played by deejay Ross Russell. He booked disco era acts past their prime but still known in gay circles, such as Nona Hendrix, Melba Moore, Bonnie Pointer, Sylvester, and Grace Jones. They also hosted stage plays like “Bent” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” as well as comedians including LaWanda Page “Aunt Esther” from television’s “Sanford and Son”. The second floor housed one of the longest runways for drag shows. But Scandals would eventually live up to its name.
Proffitt’s company SEP Enterprises Inc., also included partners: attorney Francis Townley Eck (1944-2011) and state insurance commissioner James McIlhany Thomson (1924-2001). The building was acquired for $325k but another $60k was invested for renovations while several contractors were left unpaid which resulted in mechanic liens of $30k against the property in 1985. This was countered by Proffitt as being “double billed”. A felony level bad check transaction soon followed. Also in 1985, business partner and former Virginia House of Delegates member Thomson, was involved with a federal investigation involving Atlas Underwriters, who were indicted for not reporting taxes paid on policies under his watch. And that Thomson was using the probe to boost his candidacy for the SCC. During the investigation, his financial interest in Scandals was brought up in what he called a “smear campaign”. Thomson resigned his post as Insurance Commissioner a few months later and I am sure his interest in the club following this outing and the club going up for sale that summer with no takers.
Even with so much being offered, the numbers were just not there to support business nor pay for entertainment. Stage plays were costing upwards to $15k each to produce and the disco era dance club parade had long passed by. Drag shows alone were not enough and so the restaurant equipment was being sold off in December 1986. Entertainment Plus Inc, had been formed by former Proffitt love interest and Scandals manager Neil E. Hodge (president) with John C. Whitehead (vice-president). They leased the property from a real estate entity that Proffitt had been a partner but liquidated his assets when his health was failing and to also distance himself from the political issues. A private nightclub to be named “Rumors” was slated to open December 18, 1986, and had jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald booked for New Years but never materialized. They downsized instead and by March 1991, struggling Scandals closed its doors for good. Former SEP partner Eck, took over and regrouped dividing off the space for lease to smaller businesses. He opened “Rose Alley” restaurant and nightclub in place of Scandals but unfortunately, this smaller sized venture was short-lived. Steve Proffitt had moved on and while in Charleston, West Virginia became involved with Entertainment Plus before moving to Hilo, Hawaii where he settled and working with Internet services before he died.
The space that Scandals once occupied went through several transitions including being vacant for many years. The last tenant at this location was “Secrets in the City”, a straight adult techno club next to George’s Club (George Trikoulis) and The Acropolis. His son Sotirios “Sam” Trikoulis, the Hopewell Fire Battalion Chief, managed the restaurant, banquet facility and nightclub from 2000-2004. Damaged by Hurricane Gaston, the empty building was demolished in 2009, to make way for the 5-story apartment complex which stands there today.