VILLAS, N.J.—Vince Grimm had just left the U.S. Army Security Agency after a two-year deployment in Korea when he returned to the Reading, Pa., gay bar scene in 1961. A 20-year-old farm boy quickly caught his eye at the Big Apple Bar.
“We saw each other on and off at the bar,” said Grimm. “He was cute, blonde and kind of flamboyant — just my type.”
More than five decades later, Will Kratz pointed out with a hearty chuckle during an interview at their home that overlooks Delaware Bay a few miles north of New Jersey’s southernmost point that they consummated their relationship in the back of a 1957 Cadillac. “There was plenty of room,” added Grimm.
Kratz, who joked he was 13 when asked his age (he turns 73 later this year,) noted that Reading crime boss Abe Minker essentially allowed the gay bars to flourish because they provided a steady stream of revenue to what Grimm described as the “most corrupt city on the East Coast.” He said this pre-Stonewall scenario was a far cry from nearby Philadelphia where undercover officers regularly shook down the city’s gay bars.
“That didn’t really happen in Reading because there was income coming in from everywhere,” said Grimm. “There was a price to pay for people that had businesses and everything like that, but he kind of controlled everything. The bars were basically a safe place to go.”
“So were the streets,” added Kratz. “Nothing bad ever happened on the streets.”
The couple, who celebrated their 51st anniversary the day before the Blade interviewed them on Aug. 9, stressed that they never experienced any sort of harassment or discrimination outside of Kratz’s much older brother who never accepted his homosexuality. Their sexual orientation was never a secret to their parents and classmates. “Everybody knew us,” said Grimm, 75. “We were sexually active in school; never had any problems.”
“We had no idea we were setting a precedent”
Kratz began to perform in drag on stage in the backroom of the Zanzibar, another downtown Reading gay bar, in 1959. Grimm quickly noted that Kratz was underage at the time, but management overlooked this fact.
“They didn’t give a shit at the bar, as long as you behaved, as long as you weren’t too small to get over the bar,” added Kratz.
Kratz decided a couple of years later that he wanted to make the shows bigger. He approached the owner of the Big Apple Bar whose relatives owned a picnic grove outside Reading with buildings and a pavilion. They agreed to rent the space to him.
“Then we decided, well we’ve got to have money for these drag shows and where are we going to get it? Well let’s have barbecue chicken parties, so we had three a summer at that location,” said Kratz.
Nearly 300 people paid $5 to attend the first party that took place in 1961, but they quickly grew in popularity. Up to 1,500 revelers who came from as far away as northern New Jersey, Baltimore and even D.C. on themed buses that included those dressed as Vatican officials and the Pope attended the parties. A lesbian once arrived on an elephant with two tigers she borrowed from a local circus.
Grimm noted that they were the Reading Brewery’s largest single customer — the company delivered beer to the parties in tractor trailer trucks. Organizers also hired local firefighters, police officers and justices of the peace to work in the parking lot to thwart underage people who wanted to sneak into the gatherings.
“There was no other place for them to go, so that was like our first line of defense,” said Grimm. “Plus it made us kind of look legitimate.”
They soon, however, began to draw the attention of the Pennsylvania State Police because they created traffic jams on the local roads. Grimm noted that some of the troopers who investigated them were homophobic.
“We had some stand offs when they would come in and just kind of sit there in a car and try to intimate people,” said Grimm, who was the president of the group that organized the party. Kratz was its treasurer. “One time I think I must have stood out — stood there just staring at ‘em for like an hour, not making a move: well, when you’re ready to ask me questions I’ll be happy to answer.”
Grimm recalled one incident in which the state police claimed that underage people had attended the party. Troopers called the state Liquor Control Board that subsequently confiscated the tractor trailer that had delivered beer.
“We got on the phone with the Reading Brewery and said we have a problem,” recalled Grimm. “They said you don’t have any problem. We’re going to be there with another tractor-trailer of beer within the hour. Don’t worry about the Liquor Control Board; we’ll take care of them. Another tractor-trailer full of kegs of beer showed up within the hour.”
The only other incident that the couple said they had was a rumored police raid. The couple sought advice from another local District Justice about what to do if authorities arrested them, but she was initially confused about the entire situation.
“‘Oh my God you’re having these huge parties and all you guys are queer,’” said the judge, according to Grimm. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Well … the law is the law and I’ll abide by the law. If you’ve not done anything, if everything is in place you don’t have anything to worry about.’”
Grimm then reached out to a Reading lawyer who worked for the American Civil Liberties Union to “cover my bases.” He also didn’t understand the potential problem that the couple faced.
“I tried to explain everything to him and he said the ACLU doesn’t have anything to do with a group like yours,” said Grimm. “They haven’t even gotten involved yet in gay groups. This was something totally new.”
In addition to the three parties they organized each year, Grimm and Kratz also staged drag shows that featured choreographers and up to 10 performers on stage at any given time. Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand proved popular muses, but some participants wrote entire operettas and made their costumes.
“The fire police people and the local JPs kind of found out that we were having these shows and they said, well how come you never ask us to come to these shows. We said you can come,” said Grimm. “They started to come to the Sunday matinees; they would come in suits. Their wives would come in their furs. It was totally unbelievable. This was their theater. We were their theater and they were actually the best audience that we had. We got standing ovations. They would go crazy. They couldn’t wait for us.”
A combination of Philadelphia’s burgeoning drag scene and a lack of interest among younger people prompted the couple to end their parties in 1979.
“It sounds like we were doing great things only in retrospect now because back then, we knew what we were doing, but we had no idea what we were doing,” said Kratz, who designed displays for the Strawbridge and Clothier department store at the time. “We knew our drag. We knew how to sew costume. We had no idea we were setting a precedent, for anybody. We just wanted to provide a safe place for the 1,500 or so people who ended up coming and the 500-600 who came to our shows in four weekends. We had no idea we were pre-anything else like Stonewall. We weren’t out on the streets looking for freedom. We already had it.”
Couple’s activism, generosity expands beyond Pa.
Grimm, a former engineer, joined a Bucks County group that supported people with AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic in the early 1980s that became the template for Pennsylvania’s statewide service organization for those with the virus. He also volunteered for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance and became a board member after he and Kratz retired to Cape May in 1996.
They also joined GABLES Cape May, an LGBT community and support group with more than 200 members from across the county that formed in the mid-1990s in response to homophobic commentaries about the area’s growing gay population that began to appear in the local newspaper. The organization has raised nearly $150,000 for the local Red Cross chapter and other community organizations. Both Grimm and Kratz are also on the Lower Cape May Regional High School’s advisory board.
“We know that the gays that are going to the high school over here are being harassed and are being harassed by their classmates,” said Grimm, who said this bullying does not occur at a nearby technical school where the students are more accepting of their LGBT classmates. “The kids are basically walking around hand-in-hand and nobody cares.”
The group also played a role in efforts to secure passage of both New Jersey’s domestic partnership registry and civil unions law — the couple entered into one two days after the state’s civil unions law took effect in 2007. Grimm, who is also a minister, continues to officiate these ceremonies throughout the Cape May area.
“The biggest reason for us to do it immediately was death things,” said Kratz. “When you die, the tax rate is astronomical. Now that’s going to be somewhat less. Domestic partnership is not marriage, but it’s close. We’ve heard stories and meet people that one lover died and they had to sell the house and the business to pay the tax.”
He added that he does not think that he and Grimm will live to see the day when gays and lesbians can legally tie the knot in New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie in February vetoed a same-sex marriage bill, but Kratz stressed he expects gay weddings will eventually happen in the Garden State.
“I thought if marriage passes, am I going to have yet another dress because we had to do two ceremonies,” he joked.
When asked about the most romantic thing the couple had done for each other, Kratz immediately said travel. He and Grimm went to India and Egypt in the 1970s and have traveled around the world twice. They established the Nguyen Zian Quynh-Vince Will Education Foundation to help fatherless Vietnamese children attend school after they visited the Southeast Asian country in 2006 and befriended a guide after whom they named it.
“That’s probably one of the best, rewarding things we do,” said Grimm.
Both men stressed they remain in love with each other after 51 years.
“I’ve never had a day in my life that I wanted to kill him,” said Kratz, although he joked he came close last month after Grimm left his passport in his suitcase when they boarded a cruise ship in Copenhagen. “Never, never have I had a moment where I said I didn’t want to be here.”
Grimm added that Kratz has “backed me all of the way.”
“If I had one wish it would be that everyone could have a supporting partner like he is,” he said.